Noelle Stevenson Interviewed by Tim Manley

I’d heard about Noelle Stevenson from a former student who knows the best corners of the internet. “She’s big on Tumblr,” she said. A quick search revealed a rabid fan following who had created an extensive collection of art, cosplay portraits, and photos of Nimona opened up next to their mugs of tea. When I finished the book, I immediately realized I was among those fans.

Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona opens with the titular narrator applying for the position of sidekick to Ballister Blackheart, your standard supervillain with a mechanical arm. When he brushes Nimona aside, she transforms into a shark, because, you know, she is a shape-shifter with infinite powers. Together, they cause trouble for Sir Ambrosias Goldenloin and the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. What begins as a silly fantasy story slowly unveils many deeper secrets, including the nature of Ballister and Ambrosias’ relationship, the mystery of Nimona’s past life, and the true intentions of the Institution. The end result is a complex depiction of loyalty and friendship.

Stevenson is the co-writer of Lumberjanes, a comic about five teen girls who fight monsters at summer camp. Stevenson is just 23-years-old, making her the youngest National Book Award finalist in history.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson book cover, 2015Tim Manley: Nimona and the other characters seem to exist without any concern for today’s gender norms. This is similar to your work with Lumberjanes, where for a while, there is an absence of male characters altogether. In what ways does the book Nimona exist entirely outside of gender expectations?

Noelle Stevenson: My approach to both Nimona and Lumberjanes was to explore and deconstruct gendered tropes by ultimately disregarding them. Like you said, in Lumberjanes, no male characters are introduced until the 4th book. Women are the heroes and the villains and most of the faces in the crowd. What does that free you up to do with your female cast?

With Nimona it’s a little different. Obviously, Nimona is reckless and destructive and amoral – which is unusual for a female character, much less the central female character – but also, the main romance plot goes to the two male leads, and they’re both drawn with very similar ‘handsome’ designs while the women take on all kinds of shapes and sizes. The real conflict is between Nimona and the Director, with Ballister and Goldenloin almost being casualties of that. The characters are essentially gender-swapped from what you’d expect from traditional gendered roles in stories like this, but there’s also nothing that is inherently gendered about any of them. I think the characters could be any gender and the story would unfold the same way. That’s only one way to play with gendered expectations in a story and it’s not more legitimate than stories that ARE gendered, but it was what I wanted to do with it here.

TM: You published Nimona online while you were completing it. Along the way, HarperCollins signed on to publish the physical book. How do you imagine the reading experience is different for readers who followed in pieces online, and those who pick up the 266-page graphic novel? 

NS: Serialized webcomics supply a constant stream of content, which is cool, but they can also unfold excruciatingly slowly! I’ve heard from a lot of people who told me they started reading Nimona online and then had to stop and wait for it to be completed to finish it, which I totally get. It’s an interesting challenge!

I had to make sure the pacing would be right when it was read in a collected volume, but I also had to make sure that each page contained something fun or interesting for devoted webcomic readers who tuned in every update day. I definitely got some crap from people who were mad a fight scene would go for six pages. You can read six comic pages in probably 1 minute, but that’s also three weeks of waiting. Three weeks!!! One of the benefits of following it page-by-page like that was probably the community – people would read and re-read each page carefully, so there were jokes about background characters and really tiny details that everyone picked up and ran with. I’d be in on the joke sometimes, so there are extras who you can spot through all the crowd scenes, and readers gave them names and had ideas about their backstories. One of them is a couple who flees the bank scene together and later you can see them on a date and then they’re together after that.

When you’re reading a collected volume, you miss a lot of those details, at least on the first read. A comic is supposed to immerse you and have a good flow so it’s really hard to stop and look for tiny details and still get the full impact of the story, but with webcomics you can.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Noelle Stevenson” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Nimona is reckless and destructive and amoral—which is unusual for a female character.[/pullquote]

TM: When Blackheart tries to calm Nimona by saying she isn’t a monster, the dragon form of Nimona shouts back at him, “You don’t know anything about me!“ How much do you think we are able to see our true selves, and how much must we rely on others’ perspective of us?

NS: Well, what’s your “true self”, anyway? Nimona is in a unique position of being able to literally shape her physical form into whatever she feels like, but does that mean it’s her true form? Is she a monster, or a little girl? You can see Ballister trying to figure out which one to talk to, but the truth is she’s both, and neither. We all are. People see parts of us and might assume that’s the whole story, and they might be mistaken in thinking they know who you are just from that, but it doesn’t make them entirely wrong either. That IS you – it’s just not all of you. This becomes much more literal for Nimona. If she feels like being a monster, she’s a monster. Ballister really doesn’t know much about her, but he knows there’s more to her than that, even if in that moment that’s her reality. He’s seen other sides of her, and the thing is, he doesn’t even know if she was telling the truth about those other sides, but he hopes she is.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Noelle Stevenson” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Science and magic don’t actually have to contradict each other (this is a real-life fascination of mine!).[/pullquote]

TM: You’ve spoken previously about how online communities, and Tumblr specifically, have allowed female readers easier access to their identities as comics lovers. What benefits has Tumblr offered to you as a creator of comics? 

NS: My love of comics came from a lot of different directions at around the same time. I’d always liked comics, but I hadn’t read many and never came close to engaging with any kind of community about it. I didn’t see it as a place that would want me there or want to talk about the stuff that I wanted to talk about, but it turned out I just wasn’t looking in the right places! Then I got into webcomics, and around the same time I took my first comics class at school and I went to my first indie comics convention. So this fascinating world of comics was unfolding for me, and I was reading more and more comics, and then shortly after that the new wave of Marvel movies started coming out. I’ve always loved superheroes, but also felt alienated by them, so this was an exciting development at the time. I found the kind of comics community I’d been looking for on Tumblr – I posted goofy fanart, and I checked the tags and found other blogs to follow. There were a lot of newish fans like me, and a lot of really enthusiastic fans who’d been reading comics for years and were happy to share their passion and help the newbies find an entry point. All of these things happened at around the same time, so my newfound love of comics really developed and took shape on Tumblr. It made sense that that’s where Nimona was posted for the first time. And having this Tumblr community who was interested in similar things that I was, it was easier to channel my existing audience towards my original work. A lot of them were just there for Avengers fanart, but some of them did start reading early on and I was able to grow my audience from there!

TM: Dr. Meredith Blitzmeyer mentions her theory that all magic is drawn from an invisible source of renewable power that is everywhere at all times. Can you tell us a bit more about it, and, if possible, how to tap into it?

NS: The setting of Nimona is a world where magic used to be everywhere, but it’s fallen out of favor. People find science and invention much more reliable, and they’re uncomfortable around magic. The two coexist to some extent, but never mingle. Dr. Blitzmeyer is the only character who exists solidly in both worlds. She’s devoted her life to reconciling science and magic and proving that they DO follow the same rules somehow, and she actually has something to show for it! Magic appears to make something out of nothing (just like Nimona can destroy and recreate herself with very little effort) but Blitzmeyer’s research shows that magic DOES come from a source, it’s just one that’s never been observed or named before. So science and magic don’t actually have to contradict each other (this is a real-life fascination of mine!).

But as we’ve seen, it can be really dangerous to mix science and magic. Like Nimona, magic is temperamental and unpredictable, and if you don’t know what you’re doing you end up with a big mess on your hands.

 

Tim Manley is the writer and illustrator of Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, and the co-writer of The 10 Letters Project. His one-person show,Feelings, debuted this year at the New York International Fringe Festival. He is online at timmanleytimmanley.com.

Steve Sheinkin Interviewed by Tim Manley

For weeks after reading Most Dangerous, I found myself at casual lunches with friends, bringing up the Vietnam War. “Don’t you know how it really started?” I whisper over my salad. My friend look at me with a worried brow as I go on to recount the whole story as though it’s the latest and juiciest gossip.

Steve Sheinkin’s Most Dangerous is true history that reads like the best suspense novels. Daniel Ellsberg works as a government analyst in the Pentagon and abroad during the Vietnam War. The documents he has access to include what became known as The Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page collection which details the horrifying secrets behind the US’s involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Ellsberg’s choice to expose these secrets, the US government’s subsequent cover-up attempt, and the media’s reaction to all of it, converge in a thrilling exploration of the imperfect decisions that lead to war, and the cost and value of telling the truth.

Sheinkin has made a name for himself as a writer of fast-paced histories for young readers. Contrary to textbooks and tests which depict history as a series of names and dates to be memorized, Sheinkin shows how history is actually a story that we are very much playing out the consequences of today.


Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin book cover, 2015Tim Manley: When he still worked at the Pentagon, Ellsberg was tasked with finding narratives of vicious assaults by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam in order to help convince the president to begin the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. But the American people were not made aware of this or many of those stories. What are your responsibilities as a historical writer for young readers?

Steve Sheinkin: Thanks for beginning with a simple question! But really, you’re right, stories are incredibly powerful, and I definitely thought about that while figuring about how to put this book together. I would say the main responsibility is accuracy. Everyone has a point of view, and I don’t try to hide mine, but I try to present the story accurately, and in such a way that readers can take different views on who is right and wrong.

TM: Along those lines, you used to be a textbook writer. What is Most Dangerous capable of that a textbook is not, and what can it not achieve?

SS: What narrative nonfiction like Most Dangerous can do is really dive into a story and spend a lot of time exploring it. Textbooks may be better at presenting a lot of information—stuff we want young people to know – but (as someone who has written a few) I think they’re terrible at getting that information from the page into readers’ heads. It goes back to the power of story. When you can turn something into a story, it’s more fun to read, easier to remember, and, hopefully, will do a better job of sparking curiosity and discussion.


TM: As part of your research, you spoke with Daniel Ellsberg several times. What impact did this have on your writing of the book? 

SS: I really enjoyed talking with Daniel Ellsberg, as well as with his wife Patricia Ellsberg, who is also a major figure in the story. The conversations didn’t change my views, but did provide some great material for enriching the story. Just one example: I wanted to set the scene of Ellsberg’s first day at the Pentagon by describing him walking from his car to the building. I love the image of one man, totally unimportant, walking into this massive center of power—what could he possibly do to get noticed, let alone to change the course of history? But of course, details of what it was like to walk into a building on a particular day are not the kinds of things history books tend to record. So I called and asked Ellsberg where he parked, which entrance he used, stuff like that. He thought it was a ridiculous line of questioning. But when I explained my thinking, he got it, and remembered some really useful details.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Steve Sheinkin” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]When you can turn something into a story, it’s more fun to read, easier to remember, and, hopefully, will do a better job of sparking curiosity and discussion.[/pullquote]

TM: In your epilogue, frighteningly subtitled “History Repeats,” you briefly discuss Edward Snowden’s leak of classified NSA documents. Daniel Ellsberg wrote inThe Washington Post that Snowden’s service to the democracy “can’t be overestimated.” How would you compare the reaction of the American public to Ellsberg’s choices with those of Snowden, and what reasons might you give for any difference?

SS: Yeah, I find Ellsberg’s reaction to Snowden taking refuge in Russia very interesting, and one I don’t totally agree with. But I think the public reactions to Ellsberg and Snowden were pretty similar. Actually, the reaction to Ellsberg was probably a bit more hostile, maybe because of how divisive the Vietnam War was. Many think of Ellsberg’s actions as courageous and even heroic today, but back then he got death threats and was called a second Benedict Arnold. What fascinates me about the Snowden story—which hadn’t broken yet when I started this book—is that we don’t know the ending. There are definitely a few more twists and turns still to come.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Steve Sheinkin” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]There’s no end to the potential material, the stranger-than-fiction true stories.[/pullquote]

TM: This is your fourth critically-acclaimed history for young readers. There must be many untold histories you hope to explore. What history do you dream of finding a way to capture in story? Anything you’re fascinated by that might seem too unwieldy?

SS: There’s no end to the potential material, the stranger-than-fiction true stories. I’d love to do a really rich and realistic portrait of life on a pirate ship in the “Golden Age” of piracy—early 1700s in the Caribbean—but those guys just didn’t keep a lot of diaries. (“Dear diary: today I sacked another Spanish ship…”) And from back in my college days, when I spent time in Nicaragua at the tail end of the Contra war, I’ve been fascinated by the history of U.S. policy in Central America, and, specifically, the Iran-Contra affair. That might fall under the “too unwieldy” heading… but it has all the making of that complex international thriller feel I go for. We’ll see, I guess. And I’m always taking suggestions!

 

Tim Manley is the writer and illustrator of Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, and the co-writer of The 10 Letters Project. His one-person show,Feelings, debuted this year at the New York International Fringe Festival. He is online attimmanleytimmanley.com.

Laura Ruby Interviewed by Tim Manley

I read Bone Gap in a single night. I didn’t intend to, I just couldn’t put it down. I maneuvered between four different positions on my couch, refusing to stop reading just because my neck hurt, or I had to “wake up in four hours.” When it was over, my eyes scanned the chairs and shelves of my living room trying to figure out what had moved, because I knew something was changed.

Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap opens on a Midwestern town where a girl — Roza — has been kidnapped, and a boy — Finn — is the only witness. Finn cannot successfully describe the kidnapper, so he places the blame of Roza’s disappearance on himself. We follow each of their perspectives, the mystery unfolding with a much larger cast of characters in the town. What seems to be a story of a kidnapping turns into something far more unusual, and ultimately becomes a moving meditation on seeing others and being seen.

Laura Ruby’s previous work includes novels for adults, teens, and children, running the spectrum of realism to fantasy. Bone Gap falls somewhere in the middle, reading the way a folk song sounds: timeless, mythical, and strange.

 

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby book cover, 2015Tim Manley: Bees and the organization of their community figure prominently in Bone Gap. What do you find most compelling about bee life?

Laura Ruby: Since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with all sorts of insects—praying mantises, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies—but bees are particularly fascinating to me, not least since bee colonies are primarily made up of sisters (okay, half-sisters) that cooperate in the care of the young, in cleaning the hive, in foraging for food, and the defense of the nest.  But I’m mostly fascinated with bees because bees dance to communicate where their sister bees might find the best flowers. The dance tells other foragers the distance and direction to the food source.  No matter how many times I’ve read about the science behind the dance, there’s something profoundly magical about it.  

TM: Bone Gap draws on the Greek myth of Persephone, but also creates its own mythology. Corn whispers and rivers are more than just rivers. Can you tell us about any songs, books, or memory-moments that helped you uncover the mythology of the Midwest?

LR: I moved from the East Coast to the Midwest a long time ago and it was a much more difficult adjustment than I ever thought it would be. (I didn’t realize I was actually from somewhere until I left.) In some ways, I’ve been trying to figure out the Midwest ever since I arrived. Why do people wear so much flannel? Why is everyone so nice? What is with this Cubs obsession?

I remember doing a lot of school visits in downstate Illinois, which meant I spent hours driving by myself through the cornfields. I was almost hypnotized by those cornfields, by the sound of the wind rustling through the stalks, the sight of those walls of green rising up on either side of the car. A great number of the kids I met on those visits were from farming families; one absurdly polite sixth grade boy had plans to study agriculture at the University of Illinois and take the knowledge back to his family’s business. He was so sweet and so young, so fine and upstanding, and so certain of his own future. I was confounded by this kid, but also fascinated. What was it like to grow up in the middle of those cornfields with the corn whispering at you all the time? What was it like to be so absolutely certain of your own future? So sure of the world and your place in it? How would a boy like that handle himself when he finds out that the world isn’t what it seems to be? That he, himself, isn’t?

But I’d have to say that I wasn’t thinking about the mythology of the Midwest in general as much as the mythology of one particular town in the Midwest. Bone Gap is a love letter to and a fairy tale about this single fictional town nestled in the corn.

Bone Gap is a love letter to and a fairy tale about this single fictional town nestled in the corn.

TM: The novel is written in the third person, and we begin closely tied to the perspectives of Finn and Roza. As we go on, we’re given chapters focusing on other characters. Was this always the organization of the book? Why decide to bring those perspectives in when you did?

LR: The organization of the book changed a lot over time. First of all, there were originally many more points-of-view, including the POV of Roza’s grandmother, Babcia; the Scarecrow; Calamity Jane (Finn’s cat); and one of Petey’s beehives.  I cut some of these chapters and others to streamline the narrative and then arranged and rearranged the rest many times over. Roza’s chapters in particular got a lot of attention because her storyline is shaped more like a corkscrew, with the inciting incident occurring two-thirds of the way through. I wanted to make sure that this storyline was as clear and tense as I could make it, while still preserving a lot of the mystery surrounding her character up front.

I also wanted to surprise the reader at key moments in the plot. For example, just when you think Sean is another stoic, beefy, hero-type – strong and silent, the kind of guy who might swoop in and save the day because that’s his job – you get his POV, and see how damaged and heartbroken he is, and realize that this is not necessarily the person you can rely on to save anyone, least of all himself.

But the bottom line: I’m simply not as interested in writing from one point-of-view, or in a linear fashion. Most of my books are multi-vocal in some way, and have flashbacks and, sometimes impossible, flash-forwards. That’s because I don’t feel like I live in any one particular moment. I’m writing the answers to these questions right now, but I’m also thinking about other questions I’ve answered, past interviews I’ve given last week and ten years ago, the new book I’ve just finished, other books I want to write, etc. My brain hops all over the place and I’ve learned to let it. Revision, for me, is a matter of wrestling my narrative into some semblance of emotional, if not temporal, sense.

All my main characters come to subvert the expectations forced upon them by a sexist culture.

TM: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that an earlier draft of the novel had less magic. How do you successfully build a world that succeeds in being both believably real and magical?

LR: I would say that I didn’t layer magic on top of the narrative as much as uncover the magic already inherent in the story; the more I dug into the setting and into the characters, the more magic I found.

As for how one builds a world that is both believably real and magical, well, I wonder if you have to believe at some level that magic is real, like the dance of the bees.

TM: How is Bone Gap dismantling the patriarchy?

LR: Hmmm. I’d say that Bone Gap explores the damage done to both boys and girls under a patriarchal system. The O’Sullivan brothers, Finn and Sean, are both held to ridiculous, hyperbolic standards of masculinity, and ultimately, both of them find it impossible to conform to them. (Finn because of his general dreaminess and prettiness and his passion for an extremely unconventional looking girl, Sean because he simply can’t be everyone’s hero the way he’s expected to be).

And because beauty is the only real worth a girl has in this world and in the world of Bone Gap, my female characters, Roza and Petey, are judged by appearances alone. But Roza refuses to overvalue her own preternatural beauty in the way that the men around her seem to; what she loves most about herself isn’t her face, it’s her own competence. Petey, a girl who has been deemed ‘ugly’ by her community, has the temerity to see herself as interesting and unique, even beautiful, despite what she’s been told over and over again.

So, all my main characters come to subvert the expectations forced upon them by a sexist culture. Had I set out to do this up front, however, said to myself, “I will now commence to write characters that subvert sexist expectations and/or dismantle the patriarchy” I would have ended up with something clunky and obvious. (Which is not to say that works of art aren’t/can’t be inherently political, just that I don’t begin with these ideas; they are simply part of my worldview and permeate the stories I tell). In any case, I set out to write a book about love and bees, kittens and monsters. Worked out better for everyone.

 

Tim Manley is the writer and illustrator of Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, and the co-writer of The 10 Letters Project. His one-person show,Feelings, debuted this year at the New York International Fringe Festival. He is online attimmanleytimmanley.com.

Ali Benjamin Interviewed by Tim Manley

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I’d like to say I read The Thing About Jellyfish in an aquarium, but I read it on my couch. Still, along the way I loaded up YouTube videos of jellyfish and scientists referenced in the book. I watched the same clips our protagonist watched. I felt the same fascination and fear — What are these things?

Suzy Swanson of Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish hasn’t spoken since the death of her one-time best friend, Franny Jackson. Suzy is dually haunted by the mystery of Franny’s death — drowning in the ocean while on vacation — and by the things that were left unsaid before she died. This grief becomes energized by Suzy’s newfound obsession with jellyfish, otherworldly and sometimes deadly creatures that may hold a secret behind Franny’s death as well as the future of the planet. Suzy’s investigation into jellyfish is nothing less than an investigation into how we make sense of the incomprehensible.

This is Ali Benjamin’s first novel, and first book for young readers. She mixes the painful reality of middle school social life with the true magic of nature to allow for a story that is both deep and buoyant. It’s a thing of beauty, much like the organisms from which it draws inspiration.

 

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin book cover, 2015Tim Manley: Like our protagonist, you became interested in jellyfish after a trip to the New England Aquarium. What about them initially fascinated you?

Ali Benjamin: It was a weekday; the aquarium was jam-packed with school groups. It was chaotic and loud. I wandered into the Jellies exhibit for the same reason that Suzy, my main character does at the start of The Thing About Jellyfish, I was hoping for some peace and quiet, a break from the noise.

Something happened when I was down there. I’d been aware of jellies my whole life, of course — I remember panicking at the beach when I was young after noticing some in the water — but I’d never really seen them. I’d never watched them move, or looked at their colors, or bothered to wonder about them. Now, staring into the tanks, I realized that they’re gorgeous. That’s the first thing that caught my attention: their beauty. But they weren’t just beautiful, they were also alien and menacing and creepy as heck.

I realized that there were people in the world who spend their whole adult lives researching jellies. That’s when a thought popped into my head, almost like a cartoon thought bubble appearing over me: Ali, you’ve done everything wrong. At that instant, those jellyfish researchers seemed like the luckiest humans on Earth.

I’ve had a few experiences like this; it reminds me of that Jonathan Safran Foer line from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, “Sometimes I feel my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.” I think this book [The Thing About Jellyfish] was a way of straining a little less, of living another life for a while.

 

TM: Suzy has not spoken since the death of her former best friend, Franny. At one point, Suzy says there is “a gulf between what was inside me and what I was putting out.” At another, Suzy speaks of a positive silence she shared with Justin, the “best kind of silence, the not-talking kind of silence.” What is the value of staying quiet, and when is it correct to speak?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Ali Benjamin” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]There are things we can’t hear, important things about ourselves and our connection to the world, when words are in the way.[/pullquote]

AB: I used to be terrible at small talk, and I marveled at people who did it well, and seemingly effortlessly. I’ve gotten more skilled at small talk as I’ve gotten older, but I’ve also had experiences that changed my perspective on it altogether. My husband and I lived in West Africa after we got married. There, neighbors often stopped by our house for evening visits. While there were always customary greetings — how’s the health, how’s the family? — our West African friends didn’t feel the need to fill up every silence. Often, they were content to sit quietly with us for long spells — five minutes of silence, ten minutes, maybe more.

After a while, the silences began to feel less awkward. Then, after quite a bit of time, I learned to relax into them. There was something so comforting, so intimate, about being together without words. If one of us felt compelled to say something, we could…but we weren’t required to.

There’s so little silence in our culture. Maybe that’s always been true, but it’s especially true today. Even when we’re alone, we’re never really alone with our thoughts — there’s always a text, or Instagram, or Facebook, or Netflix, or something — to fill up the empty space.

I can’t say with any certainty when it’s right to speak, or to be silent. I can’t even say specifically what one gets from not-speaking. But I do feel certain that most of us could use more silence than we have access to — that there are things we can’t hear, important things about ourselves and our connection to the world, when words are in the way.

TM: The Thing About Jellyfish portrays not only the pain of receiving cruelty from others, but the more complicated pain of employing cruelty on others. What do you see as the motivation behind these choices? Why do you think we all contribute to making middle school so awful?

AB: It was important to me to blur the line between hero and villain, between victim and bully. Some readers have reacted strongly to that, observing that Suzy is a poor role model for kids. I suppose in some ways, that’s true. For all her strengths, Suzy does some thoughtless things, and even a couple of cruel things. But I’ve never been particularly interested in stories where one character, or set of characters, is all good while others are all bad. Nor do I think that kind of dichotomy is useful —especially to kids. Most of us aren’t all good, or all bad; we’re a big, chaotic jumble. We have moments of kindness, but we also rack up our fair share of regrets. Sometimes we get so wrapped up tending to our own hurts that we cannot see the hurt we inflict on others.

To me, that’s where the juice is; that’s the stuff that’s worth exploring. And ultimately, I think it means much more to see a complex character choose hope, or move toward some deeper humanity.

I recently read through my middle school diary; I was so eager when I opened it after all these years but was promptly disappointed by my middle school self. I had always thought of myself as a generally nice kid, even in the throes of adolescence. But throughout my diary, I was snarky about other kids, and sometimes I was downright nasty. Practically all I talked about was boys and the pursuit of popularity and boys. Reading this diary is the strangest experience; I recognize the handwriting as my own, and I recognize the events I described.  But the words on the page are inconsistent with how I imagined  myself at the time. I remember feeling like a misfit. I remember feeling like other kids were rude, or mean, or dismissive. I remember feeling like I was outside looking in. It turns out that I was just as awful as anyone else.

I’m fairly certain that I was being defensive; by excluding others, I was somehow reassuring myself that my place was on the inside, not the outside. But I suspect there’s also this: in some essential way, I didn’t believe that what I did mattered.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Ali Benjamin” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Sometimes we get so wrapped up tending to our own hurts that we cannot see the hurt we inflict on others.[/pullquote]

TM: In addition to being organized into sections according to the scientific method — Hypothesis, Methods, etc. — the novel also features a great number of facts and allusions to specific science books and videos. Were most of these already waiting in your head, or did you have to research for scientific facts that felt relevant? 

AB: The only facts I remember actively seeking were from the earliest flashbacks — like the fact that rabbits’ teeth never stop growing. In those chapters, I wanted some facts and ideas that a very young child would have had at her disposal.

All of the other scientific facts had been banging around the back of my brain for a while, waiting for some outlet. That said, I have a terrible mind for details, and my grasp on precise facts and figures can get hazy — I remember the gist, but not the specifics. So I did have to look them each again, just to make sure the facts were accurate (and even then, we hired a terrific fact-checker before the book went to copyediting).

TM: Your first two books were nonfiction narratives. You’ve spoken of the challenges of writing fiction, where there are an endless number of plot moves to choose from. What can fiction do that a true story cannot?

AB: This is such a good question, and it’s one I’ve been thinking about quite a bit. It’s tempting to say that when done right, non-fiction can do everything fiction can do. But then why, with so many great true stories to be told, do these fictional stories keep bubbling up inside of us? Why are we compelled to write them, to tell them, to read and re-read them? I think it’s got something to do with the unconscious, with the way our brains take all kinds of different input — images and memories and ideas and longings and fears — then combine them in new ways.

Nonfiction feels to me a little like that driving test where you must maneuver the car through a series of orange cones. The cones are the facts of the situation — the truth, or as close to it as one person can get. You’d better not knock them down. So those cones are always in your mind, you’re always navigating around them. Fiction is the opposite — for it to work well, you’ve got to forget about all those external things and let the unconscious part of your brain take over. For me, that’s really hard. But when it works, it’s fascinating.

When I started writing this book, I actually thought I was writing nonfiction, but then something else took over. Suddenly I wasn’t just talking about jellyfish, I was talking about guilt, and regret, and middle school, and friendships, and zombie ants, and the scale of the universe, and Diana Nyad, and heroes, and parenting, and so on. I don’t think the conscious part of my brain could have woven those things together, no matter how much time I’d been given. They were strung together in some dark, murky part of my brain. I don’t know what that alchemy is, or where it comes from. And I certainly don’t know how to control it (I wish I did). But when it works, it feels like magic.

 

Tim Manley is the writer and illustrator of Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, and the co-writer of The 10 Letters Project. His one-person show,Feelings, debuted this year at the New York International Fringe Festival. He is online attimmanleytimmanley.com.

Patrick Phillips Interviewed by Nicole Sealey

 

What most excites me about Patrick Phillips’ work is its universality—the intersection of experience between Phillips and his reader; that we be transported to places both recognized and unrecognizable. This connection between writer and reader reminds me that poetry is part of an ongoing conversation, a complicated inquiry into what it means to be human. The poems in Elegy for a Broken Machine are no exception. In each, Phillips articulates the terror and beauty of which we are all made.

Patrick Phillips is the author of three books of poetry: Boy, Chattahoochee and, most recently, Elegy for a Broken Machine.  His non-fiction book Blood at the Root: A Lynching, A Racial Cleansing, and the Hidden History of Home is forthcoming from W. W. Norton. Phillips lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Drew University.


Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips book cover, 2015Nicole Sealey: Of the three collections, which are you most proud of? How are they different one from the other? How are they similar?

Patrick Phillips: This is one of those questions to which the wise man answers, “I love all my children equally!”

I think the books have a lot in common, in that I continue to be fascinated by families and the blessing and burden of being kin. But I have also gone from being a very self-consciously southern writer to embracing my life in Brooklyn, and looking at that world with the same fascination and love I feel for the north Georgia mountains.

I’ve also tried, at least, to broaden my reach, and let a wider spectrum of experience and language into the poems. I’ve tried to go to school on poets like Shapiro, Clifton, and Levis … on just how much of the messy, mixed, glorious and mundane world comes flooding into their poems, and just how defiantly they reject the “poetic.”

NS: Who do you imagine Elegy for a Broken Machine in conversation with?

PP: I think about who might be on the other end of the line, if a poem is lucky enough to make some kind of connection out in the world.  To me, the book is mostly in conversation with ordinary people—with anyone who has lost someone beloved. I think a few of the poems are also, at the same time, in conversation with poets of the past, like the poem overtly “after” Donald Justice, and the poem to one of my own beloveds, the poet Deborah Digges. But of course they were someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, so I don’t think of the tribe of poets as separate from the tribe of all us poor mortals trying to hold onto what we love, and to endure its loss. That’s all just to say that I hope the book is in conversation with whoever is kind enough to pick it up and, at least for a little while, pay attention to poems that started out as me talking to myself. That others sometimes pause to listen, in the great blur and rush of their own lives, still seems kind of miraculous to me.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Patrick Phillips” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I think about who might be on the other end of the line, if a poem is lucky enough to make some kind of connection out in the world.[/pullquote]

NS: Which poem was the most difficult to write?

PP: I am a tinkerer, and write mostly by revision, so all of the poems have been worked over for so long that I have lost track of which ones took longest. I have never overcome my sense of peril when staring at the blank page, and so I tend to compose in sudden bursts, like a kid shoplifting a candy bar or something! I find scraps of paper in my pockets, scrawled with lines I don’t remember writing. Or I rummage through old folders on my computer, and discover abandoned poems that seem to have been left there by someone else. And then I start tinkering and revising, and losing myself in the part of writing that I do love: what the poet Shahid Ali called “the rapture of revision.”

As far as difficulty and emotional weight, the poem about my father’s heart surgery, called “Elegy Outside the ICU” was hard to finish, because I felt even more nervous than usual about getting it right. It makes me think of a line in “Song of Myself” when Whitman says: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” I was in the hallway when my father came out of surgery, but I wasn’t the man whose chest was split open, and it wasn’t I who suffered. So I sweated that poem, more for familial than artistic reasons.

NS: In a way you, too, are laid out with your chest split open, your insides exposed.

PP: Yes, I suppose that’s right: publishing a book is a form of exposure, in good and bad ways. The exposure of publication is good, in that it makes visible what is, otherwise, largely invisible in our daily lives. But at the same time, I often feel like I’m drowning in talk, in texts, and emails, and Facebook posts. So I crave not sensational, wildly confessional poems, but quiet ones—poems that turn away from the chatter of the personal. That’s all just to say that I hope the book doesn’t seem mainly about me!

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Patrick Phillips” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I have never overcome my sense of peril when staring at the blank page, and so I tend to compose in sudden bursts, like a kid shoplifting a candy bar or something![/pullquote]

NS: You’ve said that the elegy is comprised of both lament and praise. Some of the poems in Elegy, however, are either more lament than praise or more praise than lament. Yet, the book is completely balanced. Why do you think Elegy achieves such equilibrium?

PP: I can only hope that your generous reading is right. One of the books that has influenced me most over the past decade is Alan Shapiro’s Song & Dance, which is full of poems about Shapiro’s brother, a Broadway “song & dance man” who died of a brain tumor. And yet, despite that dreary description, the poems Shapiro wrote about his brother are heartbreaking and hilarious—not because Shapiro is going for aesthetic balance, but because the beloved brother Shapiro lost was also, in life, riotously funny. I can only hope that my book achieves some of that kind of balance, because it feels most true. After reading Shapiro’s book, I consciously set myself that task: to stop filtering what was “poetic” enough to be in the poems, and start writing about the whole messy, mutt reality of being alive.

NS: “Spell Against Gods,” one of my favorite poems in the collection, is also one of the only poems that does not speak directly to the helplessness one feels when it comes to death and dying.

PP: I wrote that poem after my father-in-law died, and it ended up as a kind of curse. It is full of rage at all the consolations one is offered, all the supposed balms for grief, like the idea that someone is up there in the heavens looking down on us. Given the suffering his cancer caused, and the arbitrariness of my father-in-law’s death, I felt angry at the suggestion that he died as part of someone’s plan, or because of anything but horrid, meaningless luck. And so, ever rebellious, I wanted to wish that same awful luck on the whole idea of “the gods”—that it be they who gaze up at us, begging for mercy. I admit, it’s a mean poem! But that was another part of grief I didn’t know about: how much anger and resentment is laced in with all the rest.

NS: “Spell” is such a sharp poem. Were there lines in early drafts that did not make the cut? If so, would you mind sharing one? (Note: I may steal it!)

PP: I’m so glad you like that one, and can only hope that the finished poem is indeed sharp. As to the cast-offs, there is always a towering scrapheap of lines and drafts, false-starts and wrong-turns. But I’m afraid that I keep all my old drafts on a secret hard drive, in a broken laptop, locked in a safe, buried at the bottom of the sea!

NS: Word at the bottom of the sea is that you’re a huge fan of The Wire. In the same vein as which Sex and the City character are you, which Wire character are you?

PP: In my dreams, I’m Jimmy McNulty, and in my nightmares Roland Pryzbylewski. But if I could choose, I’d be Bubbles. He is like the Greek chorus of the show, and comes in not to explain things, but to help us recover after the bleakest, most crushing moments. The Wire is a tragedy and very hard to watch sometimes, but I think Bubbles saves us from despair. He is there to remind the audience that while nobody will be spared, and nobody can win the game, even in that doomed world, there is still kindness, still the small miracle of human love.

 

Nicole Sealey is the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.

Ada Limón Interviewed by Nicole Sealey

I’ve always believed that reading a collection of poetry is like entering into a conversation. Qualities of a good conversation are curiosity, humor and impudence. Bright Dead Things exemplifies all three. Each page reads as if it was either in response to or in light of an agreed upon talking point between friends, between family. I never felt alone—not once. Limón’s is a voice that surprises as much as it delights, questions as much as it resolves. Hers is a voice among voices.

Ada Limón is the author of four books of poetry: Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, Sharks in the Rivers and, most recently, Bright Dead Things. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program and the 24Pearl Street Online Program for the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.

 

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón book cover, 2015Nicole Sealey: How’d you come to name the collection Bright Dead Things?

Ada Limón: I struggled with the title at first, but when I landed on that phrase, in the poem “I Remember the Carrots,” I knew it was what I wanted. I wanted the title to point to both the living and the dying we’re all doing. The struggle between what destroys us and what keeps us going is something very real to me and real to my work. Additionally, I loved the idea that the poems in the book could be seen as bright dead things themselves—things that are the remnants of the original burst.

NS: What role does place play in your poems?

AL: I’m obsessed with landscapes and location. My first three books of poetry were almost all entirely written in New York City, but they have references to Sonoma, California, Stanwood, Washington and Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Bright Dead Things is the first book that I wrote while living in the country, and while not having a fulltime job. I freelance write for a living and teach as well, but I said goodbye to my wonderful job atTravel + Leisure in 2010. I wanted to allow myself more time to write, even if that meant less (a lot less) money. I also needed space around me. I lived in New York for 12 years and, by the time I left, I desperately needed to stare into the wild green spaces and just let myself breathe. Turns out I’ve been doing that for five years now. And I just want to keep staring.

Because of that location shift (from New York to Kentucky and California) the poems in Bright Dead Things are connected to nature in a new way. What I mean is, they are written from a place where nature is not just the all knowing “good” in opposition to the city, but rather it’s just like any other part of this life—complicated, and hard, and gorgeous, and something constantly worth surrendering to.

NS: You’ve said elsewhere, as you were writing these poems, that you’d go for walks and drives, and ask yourself, “What are you scared of?” If I may, what are you scared of?

AL: That’s true. I was interested in making sure I was pushing myself constantly and not staying in my poetic safe zones for too long. I also wanted to make sure that the new work I was producing was meaningful to me and served my life. I wanted to write the poems I needed to write. Oh, and yes, I’m scared of so many things, aren’t you? I am reminded of that wonderful quote from Georgia O’Keefe: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” That basically defines my life. I keep moving forward despite the sharks, the bears, the violence, the accidents, the wind, the sinkholes, the crocodiles, the rattlesnakes, the silence, the rage, the big empty, all of that. I keep moving forward because someday we won’t be here and I don’t want miss anything.

NS: Is it safe to say that you’re scared you’ll miss something?

AL: I think that’s somewhat true, yes. But, it’s also more that I’m scared to not appreciate this moment and the people around me. This might sound simple, but I want to be a good person and I want to live to the fullest while I’m here. I’m all right with missing things (I can be a bit of a recluse), but I want to be grateful for what I have and show gratitude to those around me. I think my biggest fear is not living up to this life I’ve been given.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if the world would just sort of pat you on the head like a dog and say, “Good job, you’ve tried really hard.” There is so much to love and wrestle with in this world and I know I’ll keep making mistakes and falling down and getting back up, but I suppose if I can do right by people and keep my head above water during the biggest tidal waves, I’ll be one extremely lucky girl.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Ada Limón” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]The struggle between what destroys us and what keeps us going is something very real to me and real to my work.[/pullquote]

NS: Bright Dead Things opens with “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” a poem that speaks to hope, and closes with “The Conditional,” a poem that speaks to, I think, luck. That these poems open and close the collection, respectively, is not a coincidence.

AL: I think those two poems function together as bookends. The first poem begins as an invitation to the reader to have a radical hope, to believe in a magical winner’s circle. While the last poem is an ode to the idea of what happens after that winning doesn’t occur, what happens when the darkness takes over and nothing you planned is as you wished. That’s when the idea of, not so much luck, but gratitude comes in. One poem is offering a hope and the other is offering a sense of thankfulness even if all wishes don’t pan out.

NS: “How to Triumph Like a Girl” is my anthem(!)–a la Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” or the Eurythmics/Aretha Franklin’s “Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves”.

AL: Ah, yes, “How to Triumph Like a Girl” is an anthem! When I started that poem, I was thinking of my favorite female horse: Zenyatta. I loved watching her race the boys. It was stunning. But then, of course, it became so much more. I think it was what I needed at the time, to join the power of the animal world. It lifted me when I needed it. If it were a song, it would most definitely have a sultry Chaka Khan rhythm behind it, something designed to make you get up and move whether you like it or not. Something that makes you feel invincible.

NS: “How to Triumph Like a Girl” and “Service” read related, like sister poems.

AL: I haven’t really thought of them as sister poems before, but you might be right. “Service” is so much a poem about being ignored or silenced and, in the end of the poem, it’s the female pit bull that guides the speaker to her own rebellion, her own act of power. There are so many women who tell me they relate to that poem. I think there’s something about standing up for yourself, even in the smallest way or in the strangest circumstances, that allows for some new possibilities of being. For me, that poem is about a permission that’s given from the dog to be not just an animal, but to be a fully considered human being.

NS: Like the dog in “Service,” the speaker in “Bellow” gives a similar permission.

AL: “Bellow” is completely a directive to myself and to other writers to get down and do the work. I feel like there are times when the world stands in our way and writing is the last thing we feel like we could do. There’s the judgment and the failure and the self-loathing and all those things that make us mum. And you know, I think “Bellow” is sort of a spell to get back to writing, to return to what matters, to love yourself enough to listen to what’s rustling inside.

NS: What’s next, what’s rustling?

AL: I’m working on some new poems now that are coming slowly, but they’re coming. Some are focused on the women who have fought against mountaintop removal mining in their communities in the Appalachian Mountains. Others are personal poems that come when they come. I’m also working on a young adult novel that I joke is sort of a cross between Alice in Wonderland and the 90’s movie Flatliners. It’s been such a joy to write young adult fiction and I hope that project will be finished by early 2016. There are also some personal essays too, and some more fiction projects. Who knows what will happen next? More writing for certain. And some long naps.

 

Nicole Sealey is the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.

Terrance Hayes Interviewed by Nicole Sealey

As we know, poetry is not a transcription of experiences, but a transformation of them. In How to Be Drawn, Terrance Hayes does us one better. He transforms transformations. And then transforms those. What results are poems at once original and daring, willful and honest. Readers will return to this collection again and again and leave its pages annealed, challenged, and often broken.

Terrance Hayes is the author of five collections of poetry: Muscular Music, Hip Logic, Wind In a BoxLighthead and, most recently How To Be Drawn. Hayes teaches writing in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of English in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.


How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes book cover, 2015Nicole Sealey: From one book to the next, it seems as though you’re conducting collection-specific experiments with form and content. Is this something you set out to do or is it realized in hindsight?

Terrance Hayes: I’m mostly just thinking about the last poem and the next poem on any given day. So my experiments are really poem-to-poem challenges. Sometimes a challenge merits a few different attempts. I think in How To Be Drawn the experiment with the “long poem” form required multiple tries. Each section has some variety of extended poem: “Who Are The Tribes,” “Instructions for a Seance for Vladimirs,” “Self Portrait as the Mind of a Camera.” In each, it was like trying to hold my breath underwater for as long as possible, like seeing how long I could hold the air inside a poem

NS: “Who Are the Tribes,” “Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report,” “Reconstructed Reconstruction” and “Some Maps to Indicate Pittsburgh” aren’t just longer. There are other experiments being undertaken, no?

TH: Yes, those poems are experiments, but in the way every new poem is some manner of experiment or challenge. The longer poems were attempts to sustain an experiment in a way that differed from repeating a set of rules. The Pecha Kucha poems from Lighthead (in How To Be Drawn, “Gentle Measures” is a Pecha Kucha), for example, are a formal experiment repeated in separate poems. The long poems in How To Be Drawn are extended experiments inside each poem.

NS: Do you worry when you’re not writing or do you think whatever you’re doing (or not doing) is contributing to poems yet to come in ways you may not know?

TH: I always feel like I’m not writing enough. Or well enough. And that I am always missing most of what’s interesting in the world. I cope with this feeling (of inadequacy) by trying to be alert to experience. But I want the experiences I capture to become more than simple records of experience. Sometimes the result is a record of fantasy. That’s the case in “Black Confederate Ghost Story”. Sometimes the result is a record of meditation. That’s how I think of “How to Draw a Perfect Circle.” Both poems originate in actual experiences, but in neither poem did I know what would result beforehand.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Terrance Hayes” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]It was like trying to hold my breath underwater for as long as possible, like seeing how long I could hold the air inside a poem.[/pullquote]

NS: I first heard you read “How to Draw a Perfect Circle” a few years ago, but it was only recently published. From first to final draft, how drastic are your revisions?

TH: I try not to track my revisions because they are so extensive. It can be daunting to realize a poem has gone through one hundred drafts—it was at least one hundred drafts with “How To Draw a Perfect Circle.” I remember there was a much longer section about the cyclops and the size of his eye socket. That’s now just a moment about an onion the size of his eyeball. When I’m not keeping count, the process feels both engaging and discouraging. Every draft is presumably the last draft. Until it’s not. So I usually will sit with a poem for quite a few months before sending it out for publication. I have to be sure I’m done with it.

NS: Per the opening poem, “What It Look Like,” the speaker “care[s] less and less about shapes of shapes because forms change and nothing is more durable than feeling.” How then should one be drawn?

TH: Variously. Every portrait is a self-portrait, I read somewhere. If applied to the “What It Look Like” quote: the form a portrait takes matters less than the feeling it elicits. Or: What it looks like is not always the same as what it feels like.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Terrance Hayes” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Every draft is presumably the last draft. Until it’s not.[/pullquote]

NS: If you were stranded on a deserted island, and could only take one medium with you, what would it be? Pen and paper? A finely tuned piano? Or, canvas and paint?

TH: That’s a hard one. If I were stranded on a monkish mountain, I’d carry painting supplies, if I was stranded in a cave, I’d want a piano. On an island, I think it would be books. Not my own. I’d write in the sand.

NS: Which books would you take?

TH: The first books that jump to mind are novels I’ve read more than a few times (Lolita, Savage Detectives, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Song of Solomon) but definitely one of the books would be the Oxford English Dictionary. I don’t think I’d take one book of poetry—unless I could take like 100. I don’t typically read one book of poetry at a time, come to think about it.

NS: From book to book, does “poetry” get any easier?

TH: Right now I fear this is the last book I’ll write. It’s the way I often feel after a book is published. That’s not to say I’m not writing new poems. It’s just that I write poems not books, mostly. At some point a book emerges, but the day-to-day work is about single poems. The challenges are found in the poems. 

 

Nicole Sealey is the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.

Ross Gay Interviewed by Nicole Sealey

This past summer I asked Ross Gay about his obsession. To which he replied, “…my obsession is my garden.  It’s a wild time of year back there, and I’ve designed it, and continue to design it, both meticulously and carelessly.  Or with a kind of faith or something.” This, I imagine, also describes Gay’s writing process. Wild. Meticulous. But always with a kind of faith—or something. Gay’s most recent collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, asks, just as any good sermon worth its salt asks: What is dark be illumined and what is low, raised and supported.

Ross Gay is the author of three books of poetry:Against Which, Bringing the Shovel Down and, most recently, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. He teaches at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, where he is also a gardener and member of the food justice organization, Bloomington Community Orchard.

 

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay book cover, 2015Nicole Sealey: Is poetry and gardening related?

Ross Gay: Gardening and poetry feel very closely related.  I mean, besides both being something you work at and can be beautifying and nourishing and pleasing and all that—there’s something to the sort of metaphor work, the imaginative training that both crafts/vocations/pleasures involve or train in.  That is, in making a garden, it seems to me, we’re often training in this kind of crazy imaginative work—like the seed is this little, sometimes nearly invisible, thing that contains in it all the carrots.  It’s not only the seed for the carrot that will grow deep into the soil in the next couple months, but it’s the seed for the hundreds of seeds that carrot will make, each of which might make hundreds of carrots—so that in two generations of carrots you could have, I’m estimating here, 800 zillion carrots.  Understanding this—the little filament of seed disappearing in the crease of your paw could make carrots the equivalent in tonnage to the Empire State Building, or at least a Hummer, in just a few years—is an imaginative act, requires that metaphor part of my brain (which is in my body, my stomach and taste buds and eyes and everywhere else), which (a-ha!) is like making poems!

NS: You’ve said that you “just knew” that your book was going to be called catalog of unabashed gratitude. What else did you “just [know]”?

RG: You know, that’s just about the only thing I knew—and I came to just know that late in the making of the book.  I was about two thirds of the way done (I didn’t know that, but in retrospect I realize that I had three big poems yet to write, “Spoon,” “Opening” and “Catalog” and the book would be done), and I thought, after being at a very good reading by some younger writers, you know what, I’m going to write a big ass poem called “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”.  And then I thought, shit, that’s what I’m going to call the book. For a while I toyed with the idea of making it a book-length poem of gratitude, but it didn’t quite get there.  Then I thought (and maybe I’ll do this) I might just keep stretching it out, the way Nathaniel Mackey and Rachel DuPlessis just keep writing on the same projects forever.  You know, the life-long Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude!

NS: I can’t imagine the collection without the long poems. There are moments in all three when I’m on the verge of tears after reading one line and then smiling from ear to ear after having read the next.

RG: Smiling ear to ear on the verge of tears.

NS: Exactly. How do you know which moments warrant/are worthy of such poems?

RG: That’s a question I can’t totally answer.  When writing I don’t think I know at the outset if something is worthy.  It takes a while for the worthiness to show up, which sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.  I mean, we all have ostensible “subjects” that are worthy, but it seems like a worthy subject does not make a worthy poem.  I have something like 50,000 drafts of poems in a very large drawer that have worthy subjects but are awful poems. I don’t know until after the poem really gets moving, kind of happens, if it’s worthy.  Which is to say, maybe, that moments seem not to be inherently worthy or unworthy.  For instance, this answer—not worthy.  But I had to write it all out to know.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Ross Gay” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I think of the ode and the elegy to be always deeply entwined, whether explicitly or not. Because, you know, odes and elegies are ultimately love poems.[/pullquote]

NS: I think about influence as a kind of revision. With catalog, who were your influences and were you revising/reimagining the work of those influences?

RG: For about two months, while I was writing Catalog, I was carrying around a Mary Ruefle poem in my pocket.  And I was reading Eileen Myles quite a bit.  Gerald Stern’s long and digressive self is there.  Marie Howe too, who sometimes just talks in a poem, just says it, which I love.  Then people like Patrick Rosal and Aracelis Girmay. My collaboration with Aimee Nezhukumatahil on the chapbook, Two Gardens, made some of the poems possible. And June Jordan and Etheridge Knight and Lucille Clifton. Cornelius Eady, “Gratitude”.  And Toi Derricotte, who, to my mind, has invented a kind of poetic vulnerability, or openness, that I’ve been studying for a long time.  And Virgil!  Virgil’sGeorgics are, in fact, all over this book. Neruda’s Odes.  Thomas Lux’s long poem “Triptych: Middle Panel Burning.” Ira Sadoff’s poem “Grazing” was in my head. Brigit Pegeen Kelly.  Amiri Baraka. Komunyakaa—I’ve been trying to learn how to make an image from him for years and years. Some Levis.

You asked if I’m revising/reimagining the work of these influences?  Hmmm, I’m stealing it, that much I know for sure.  Some of the work I’m sort of explicitly talking to the influence, or revising the influence, or talking a little shit to, which might be something only I know, or the influencer and I know, or a really close reader of the given poem and the influencer and I would know.  Mostly, though, I’m learning from them—how to make something occur in a poem that previously I probably couldn’t have quite imagined.  So I’m really glad for them, and the many others I can’t think of right now.

NS: Customers who bought catolog from an on-line bookseller, also bought Larry Levis’ The Widening Spell Of Leaves.

RG: That’s weird. And sweet and great.  I love Levis’ poems, love that book, and spent years with his three last books basically always in my pockets (they’re big books, so I looked funny).  But I admire so much about his work, so much.  I love the digressions, I love the imagination, I love the merging of the political and the apparently autobiographical, I love the cinematics, I love the movement in time.  I love the humor.  The sort of sad humor.

NS: “Spoon” and “Catalog” have that sort of sad humor. Both read as much elegy as ode.

RG: I think of the ode and the elegy to be always deeply entwined, whether explicitly or not. Because, you know, odes and elegies are ultimately love poems.

NS: At a reading earlier this year, during the Q&A, someone asked how you maintained your own love of life, your own happiness? And, how were you able to write a collection of happypoems? You said something to the effect of: on the other side of happiness is death.

RG: If I agreed that I was happy all the time, I was being full of shit, because I’m not. I think I remember that exchange, and what I meant is that while these poems reflect or express or document or imagine a kind of happiness, or possibly even joy, they are, like joy, made with (and very much about) an awareness that our lives are filled with difficulty, with pain.  We age.  Our friends are killed or die.  Our family gets sick and dies.  The planet, you know.  And on and on.  So the joyful poems are occasioned by the truth that we are suffering, we are dying, it is pain.  I’m saying “joy” so much because I’ve been thinking about it, and seeking it, and think it is very much connected to the awareness of and fact of that pain. So it’s maybe a kind of cherishing—knowing that we are not together long. (Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock fully came into my head.)

NS: Will you request “Joy & Pain” at the NBA after party?

RG: Yes, the Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock version, and the Maze version.

 

Nicole Sealey is the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.

Robin Coste Lewis Interviewed by Nicole Sealey

Whether we realize it or not, we access a history much older than ourselves. We may read and write in seclusion, but the words and wit are in fellowship with the millennia behind us. In Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin Coste Lewis skillfully reminds us of this, and reminds us that all art is drawn from the collective and merely colored by the individual.

Robin Coste Lewis is the author of Voyage of the Sable Venus. Lewis has taught at Wheaton College, Hunter College, Hampshire College and the NYU Low-Residency MFA in Paris. Born in Compton, California, her family is from New Orleans.

 

Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis book cover, 2015Nicole Sealey: In the prologue to the title poem you write, “The formal rules I set for myself were simple.” Simple? [Ed. note: The title poem is a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.]

Robin Coste Lewis: Well, I think “simple” can actually be the most difficult. Being complicated is often easier for me because it’s just a lot of smoke and mirrors. It’s easy to pretend away my ignorance.  Not always, but often when I’m being self-consciously complex, it’s usually a sign that I’m hiding. Add to this that the desire to appear clever is relentless. So I will do anything to quiet my ego.  Restricting myself formally is one of a few solid strategies I’ve found to be quite effective.

One of formalism’s great gifts is that it allows me to forget myself completely.  I get so caught up in the puzzle of a rule that I forget that there’s a “me” here doing the work.  I enjoy that kind of disappearing.  I grow so enthralled with the meter or a rhyme, that I forget completely that there’s a “Robin” at the table.  So with “Voyage” the rules were simple for me.  They were difficult to pull off, yes, but they were simple.  I think we mistake simple for dull, which it is not.

 

NS: I imagine you surrounded by thousands of pages, puzzling through it all.

RCL: Yes, exactly.  Not thousands, but hundreds single-spaced pages for sure.  I worked chronologically, not only in terms of the titles, but also in terms of the “narrative.” It wasn’t a very conscious attempt at sanity, but somehow I knew that just starting at the so-called beginning, ancient Greece and Rome, would be the best place to begin.  Actually, I wrote the invocation first, both for my own sanity—a sort of prayer for help—and also because it seemed appropriate to the project itself.

Once I began assembling it, it was all I could think about. And then when it was over, I mourned.  I was sick to my stomach for many months.  I felt as if I had been in the company of all of those historical figures, and then, quite unexpectedly, I realized there was nothing more to say. Every time I thought I should change the rules, or add something clever, or insert my own two cents, I’d ask myself, “What can one possibly say in the face of this history?”  Or “What is with this compulsion to speak at this moment?”

 

NS: What was with the compulsion?

RCL: Well, there were two reasons.

First, I supposed I doubted my own agency as a writer.  Or perhaps my trepidation was about finding my footing into the project.  At the beginning, there was this voice always in my head saying You can’t do this, Robin.  You can’t do this. Perhaps I was afraid of the power I felt. “Voyage” required me to tell the truth about my mind, about the ways I perceived the world. So the compulsion to speak was actually a more clever version of that same knee-jerk habit I have of wanting to make my subject palatable (pretty?).  It was yet more of the never ending internalized misogyny telling me good girls don’t do such things, don’t write such things, don’t think such things.

And then second, I felt as if I wasn’t the narrator, but History was.  History was writing her own confessional poem.  What I thought about it, or what anyone else thought about it, became insignificant.  Her story was far more compelling than anything I could add. Indeed, the confession was so profound, the titles were so complete, my compulsion to comment would have been a great offense.  I love that Joni Mitchell song, that begins, “Don’t interrupt the sorrow.  Darn right!”  I felt that if I inserted my own commentary, in addition to the titles, I’d be interrupting History’s sorrowful, visceral confession.

 

NS: Her confession is enchanting, like a spell being cast. By the poem’s end, if it were a spell, what would you have happen?

RCL: Well, when I first wrote the title poem, I fantasized about emailing it to every woman in the world.  I wanted to say, “Dearest Girl, here. In case you are not feeling well inside, psychologically, this might help to explain why.”  Other than that, other than knowing that most women would read this and feel some sort of mirror, I really had no true fantasy that anyone would want to read this poem.  I always wanted it to be a gift for the world, especially for women, yes, but for everyone, men too, to see and consider just how long we’ve been making pretty art about our hate.

When I first began “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” I envisioned (at most) a 2 or 3 page poem. Once I began to conduct research, however, I realized the relationship between race and Western art contained a history so consistent, so ancient, and so long, that it far exceeded my expectations by millennia.  Colonialism, for example, was an infant.  And hate, I discovered, was far more persistent and insidious than I could have ever imagined.  But the most alarming discovery was this: instead of concealing this tendency toward hatred, or attempting to overcome or integrate it, when it came to art, human beings appeared to enjoy demeaning each other.  Indeed, we seemed more interested in ornamenting and decorating hate.  When it came to race, we used art to make hate pretty.

I guess the answer would be that if my poem could cast a spell, the spell would be for us all to learn how to retract our projections, to better integrate our lives so that we can stop pretending that the hatred we feel is about anything other than our own private nightmares.

 

NS: At the book’s center is the title poem, and bookending the collection are highly personal poems. Why is the book arranged in this way?

RCL: It’s divided in this way because the Goddess gave me the best poetry editor in the universe, Deborah Garrison. Deb could see the book’s form long before I could. At first, the book was just going to be the long poem, “Voyage,” an idea we both liked. Then Deb asked me, with a tenderness that changed me a little, how I might feel about adding some poems before and after “Voyage.”

She said that “Voyage” made you want to know more about the person who wrote it. This, of course, made me horribly uncomfortable because I didn’t want to be known more. And so over the year we had discussions about representations of the self. What is a poem, after all, what work can a poem do? And, it was Deb’s brilliant idea to begin the book with “Plantation” and end it with “Félicité.” If it had been up to me, I’m not sure I would have included “Plantation” at all. Or I would have hidden it somewhere, concealed it.


NS: In “Plantation” and “Félicité,” the speaker admits that the black side of her family once owned slaves. As this admittance is recurring, how should readers read this in context of the collection as a whole?

RCL: For years, I was ashamed of my family’s history. I feel no shame now.

We’ve wasted an obscene number of centuries in this country simply attempting to have a real conversation about slavery, indigeneity, colonialism. The horrific irony that our country—the site of so many countless atrocities—remains one of the few governments that refuse to participate voluntarily, whole-heartedly, in international courts or create our own truth and reconciliation commission, says so much about how far we are unwilling to come. And so while I wrote these poems because I very much needed to, personally, I decided to publish them because I wanted to use my own private history publicly, to hopefully encourage myself and readers to think about ways we can enact our own Interior Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the absence of our nation’s guidance or participation in these processes.

I also published these poems because I did not want to hide from my reader, and I do not want to waste my reader’s time by strutting before them in a mask. If the reader is going to be generous with their attention, I mustn’t just pretend to feed them, I must give them something real to eat.

 

NS: The ghazal towards the collection’s end, “Pleasure & Understanding,” stretches the form. You obviously have no problem modifying form to suit a poem’s needs.

RCL: I first heard a ghazal in India, live, with musicians and singers, as well as an entire audience who had grown up with the whole medieval history of the musical form, from the classical Persian court all the way through Bollywood to popular radio in New Delhi. To sit in an audience with a band of musicians—with tablas and mridangs, who are in 5th gear from the gate—who can sustain aghazal with the audience hanging on every word, waiting to share the explosion that occurs at the end of every couplet, is an experience I will never forget.

They took one word or phrase and turned it upside down, inside out, setting it down again and again in the frame of each distinct stanza, showing the audience repeatedly how little we actually know about a single word, or better put: how powerful and enduring one single word can be, how one word can be a lady and then a man and then a street or a car, too. It reminded me of live jazz, or like gospel—which is to say I saw and heard the genius of improvisation. And I thought, “My lord, have brown people been taking restrictive aesthetic structures and turning them into taffy for millennia?”

One of the gorgeous restrictions about the ghazal is that the stanzas are not supposed to be related at all! I actually failed miserably at the end, when I succumb to romance and address. Love got the better of me. What can I say, I’m a poet! Form is there to see how far you can stretch it and still have it stand. In this regard, I think my aesthetic is informed deeply by several black literary and musical traditions. I grew up watching people improvise with form in every way, so asking the English ghazal to go back to its darker roots seemed very natural. We take forms and tear them to pieces for pure pleasure. Black artists pick their teeth with form.

 

Nicole Sealey is the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.