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.