“In spite of it all, we are still here living.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How long have you been in New York?
I’ve been in Brooklyn for three months now. I’m teaching two undergraduate courses at NYU and one graduate course at Columbia.
It was a real honor to be offered both positions and so we just decided, well, why not, you know? And my partner, boyfriend, I always call him my partner, you know when you’ve been together with someone for almost five years it’s like boyfriend but—
Boyfriend doesn’t exactly fit after a while.
Exactly, yeah. So I always call him my partner but then everyone assumes he’s a female. He has to work a lot of the spring in Florida so it was easy to do this. The flights from here to Florida are cheap so we just decided to take six months and live back in Brooklyn for a little while. It’s been strange and exciting and hard and shattering and great, too.
Is he a writer?
He’s a horseracing reporter. And he also owns his own business called ThoroStride that does conformation videos and photographs of thoroughbred horses prior to auctions. So before those million dollar horses sell at auctions to become famous racehorses (or not), he films walking videos of them so that the trainers and buyers can take a look at the horses and see how they run or see how they walk and sound and breathe prior to plunking down hundreds of thousands of dollars on them (you know, amounts of money us poets can’t even fathom).
I didn’t realize your partner was a person in the world of horses but that makes a lot of sense, given how many horses show up in your poems. Where does that come from, your fascination with them?
My mother is a ranch manager on a forty-acre horse ranch in California. And so I kind of grew up with horses in my life and have always been in awe of them. But, unlike some people, I don’t think I have that connection to them like I would with a pet. I never feel like I want to go up and pet them and snuggle with them or whatever. I think I’m more sort of in overwhelming awe of them, and a little scared of them, which makes me more intrigued by their strength. To me they are very dangerous and fascinating and beautiful, but they’re not necessarily an animal I feel safe with or even want to ride—I really don’t ride. I think I envy them, the power of them.
The first poem in the new collection, “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” is built around horses.
Yeah, definitely. That poem is about the Kentucky Oaks race, the race on the day before the Kentucky Derby. It’s the sister race of the Derby, a Grade 1 stakes race for three-year-old thoroughbred fillies. You know, girl horses.
And it’s my favorite day. Going to the Derby is fun but going on Oaks day is more of the local day. All of the men and women dress up in pink and drink a pink drink called The Lily and cheer on the best lady horses. It’s just such a fun day and it’s not as crowded or swamped or as boozy and brash as Derby day, you know what I mean?
I didn’t even know that was something that happened, but it sounds great.
It’s always the day right before the Derby and it’s a real blast. You can easily get a ticket and walk around the paddock area. There’s actually room for you to move around.
So yeah, throughout all the books there is this preoccupation with animal life—sharks, fish, horses, birds. Do you spend a lot of time in the natural world or is it just a psychic preoccupation?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I was raised in a really rural area and I was outside most days for long periods of time and kind of spent the days, as Mary Oliver would have us all do, staring at a grasshopper in my hand. I grew up with this little creek across from my house, the Calabazas Creek. I spent most of my time in the shaded area of this stream that had a road, Arnold Drive, right over it, so you’d hear this constant car traffic above and while still protected in this beautiful little creek area. Hiding in this wild area underneath it all. That to me is where all my poems come from, that spot. When I start to write a poem, that’s where my mind goes. That’s where the watery fish, minnows, and all of that comes from.
But also, I have always been fascinated by the fact that human beings don’t associate themselves with the animal world as much. That we don’t think of ourselves as animals. That’s so interesting—it seems very strange that we don’t think of our instincts and our problems and our stress and all of these things we build our lives around as animal issues at all. And so I think that dichotomy has always played a role in my work, bringing myself back to the animal realm. I don’t know if that makes sense?
It makes a lot of sense. I think a lot has been written about how much of modern anxiety is borne of the fact that we have these brains that have evolved for tens of thousands of years to live these animal hunter-gather-y lives and just in the past couple thousand years so, an evolutionarily negligible number of years, we’ve been situated in one place and living lives that are not really what our brains have been designed for.
Right and that’s one of the things we feel—that’s why you see so much struggle with why can’t I be happy or why am I not happy? Well, your brain is really not evolutionarily wired to be happy. It’s wired for survival. And it’s wired to think the worst and it’s wired to constantly protect the body, so suddenly we’re asking for an impossible feat, to try to choose happiness again and again. And I guess that festers. I like to blend those worlds for myself as an exercise. Hopefully that connects to other people. A lot of the animal poems are wishes to reconnect myself to that world.
Many of your poems take something that’s either a neutral or negative experience in the animal world and turn them into an occasion for hope. I’m thinking poems like the one where you discuss killing a dying opossum on the road that ends with “there is so much life all over the place.” I find that sort of move very powerful.
Thank you, yes. It’s that aspect we were talking about of survival and what our brains are wired for and that idea of tragic moments, of these painful experiences that we all go through. I mean, it’s hard to talk about death without realizing that’s our end too, right? I am constantly aware of death. It’s not that I want to be, but it’s a fascination of the mind and it plays a role in why I want to live my life a certain way. The more I am aware of my mortality the better person I am and the better I am at choosing a life that is aware of its beauty.
And so I do think my poems—and I hope not naïvely—go into the hopeful moments in the end and partly because of I’m trying to tell myself that, you know? It’s a way of saying it’s all going to be okay but there is that aspect of I’m here, right? That’s the gift of all of this pain and suffering that we go through in our lives. We lose people and go through tragic events in spite of it all we are still here living, alive, right for this moment.
It reminds me of your line, “Dear Today, / I have said that too much, yet give me this— / I want to be a physical doll, just for now, / a stupid, splendid thing / tumbled into the touchable day.” It’s the idea of just being the stupid splendid thing and trying to grapple with the improbability of being anything at all, the sort of miraculous joy of that.
Yeah, I think that’s what it is—and the pain of that. Also that idea of how painful it is to experience all of this beauty and know you are going to leave it too, you know? So it’s those sorts of things that work against each other. You know, love and death.
One of my favorite poems of yours is “The Crossing” from Sharks in the Rivers. You’re talking to a family member—
My stepmother, Cynthia.
Right. And she is battling cancer in the poem. There’s this moment where the fact of having to leave becomes almost too much and the poem ends with “’Maybe,’ I say to you, / ‘maybe we do come back, / maybe we do get more time.’”
It’s interesting because I don’t read that poem very much. It’s hard for me to recover from. You go through a reading and people are so nice and say, “oh will you read this?” And it’s like, “okay, but what could I do after that?” You want people to feel but they forget that you’re feeling up there as well.
That poem is very much a true story and based on a real conversation with my stepmom, who I was very close with, and that real awareness of death and not just in a metaphorical way and not even in a far off way but, you know, within months. It was so powerful and so authentic and that sense that, oh we don’t have to have this conversation yet. People must have it all the time but we don’t talk about it much. And I felt almost betrayed by the world, that we don’t talk about it much or that I had never read a lot about it. So we were having this conversation and I felt like I was sort of at a loss for words. I remember staring at this one leaf that was left on this giant maple tree and thinking, “by the time that’s gone, she’ll be gone.”
And I think that having that conversation and the things that we tell ourselves, that maybe we come back and maybe you can watch your son grow up and maybe you—I don’t know if I even believe in reincarnation or if I believe that we return on some level—but I do know that we have to tell ourselves some things in order to temper that terrible grief of leaving with something that might give you a hope that you’ll return to your people. As the living people around a person who is dying, we often forget they’re doing the hardest work. We think that we’re doing it, right? Because we are losing them, but they’re losing all of us, and themselves, and I think that was that notion of the poem, the things you have to say or have to feel to get through that moment, you know?
Yeah, that’s a powerful notion, this idea that we’re losing them but they’re losing everyone. That’s not something that you hear talked about very often at all.
Right, right. We think, “Oh, I’m doing this end of life care, I’m suffering.” It’s very interesting, because we’re not really suffering anywhere near the person who is actually leaving the earth.
Can we talk about “Miracle Fish” for a second? It seems relevant, and also strikes me as maybe a sort of Rosetta Stone to understanding your writing. You are sitting outside this old church and you say, “There is a sign and it said, / “This earth is blessed, do not play in it,” / but I swear I will play on this blessed earth until I die.” And that strikes me as a sort of viewfinder into your poetry. I will play on this blessed earth until I die, in spite of those factors that would conspire against that play, you know?
Yeah, I think that’s very true, and that was that aspect of being—as someone who is not religious and someone who finds a constriction in religion designed to prevent joy—I find an odd thing, to have a belief system that somehow prevents people from living their fullest and loving their fullest. I think that comes up in my work a lot. I know when people want to talk to an atheist poet, I’m somehow always on that list. But it’s not so much—I don’t believe in atheism, or rather, I don’t believe in preaching it—but I do believe that I will play on this blessed earth until I die. And I want to be only a proponent of that, the idea of joy and acceptance and life. And so I think that sort of—it does seem like a Rosetta Stone in some ways, and hopefully something I can commit to doing in my life.
I think that’s a worthy aspiration for anyone.
Yes. I’m going to keep trying.
Me too! Alright, can we talk about the chronology of the books? Lucky Wreck was selected by Jean Valentine—that was about ten years ago. Then This Big Fake World came out just nine months after that, so you sort of went from this void of just publishing in magazines to all of a sudden having two books really quickly.
Yeah, it was totally bizarre. I was working as the events manager for Martha Stewart in Midtown Manhattan, doing events for Martha.
Oh, for her personally, not the magazine?
For the magazine, but she personally ran the company so I did work with her. I did an event at her house in the Hamptons and she was amazing. I got the phone call about Lucky Wreck when I was there and I really couldn’t believe it. It was Michael Simms from Autumn House; he asked if the manuscript had been taken anywhere else and it hadn’t been. It had been a finalist elsewhere, but I was just sort of flabbergasted because I hadn’t really been sending it out for that long. It was probably just my first year sending it out in its completed form. I was so floored and just beyond words. I couldn’t believe it, and then the process was very quick with them. They were very efficient and wonderful and it was in my hands so quickly after I found out, I want to say within six months, which never happens. And my mother did the cover! I remember having this phenomenal feeling about it and it being my first book. My first book, wow.
And then before it was even out, before it was even in my hands, I got the call about This Big Fake World. When they, Pearl Editions, called, I thought that they were talking about Lucky Wreck and my heart sunk. I thought oh—I thought I’d notified everyone! I’m going to have to tell her that it’s already been published and it’ll be out soon! And so as she was talking I was sort of zoned out because I felt like I was I was such a horrible person, I hadn’t told them. I’m going through this whole messy drama in my own head about what a sloppy poet I am and what an irresponsible person to have not notified them then she’s like, “so you know, if all that sounds good to you we would love to publish This Big Fake World.” And I was like “wait, did you say This Big Fake World?”
Haha. That’s great.
They were so wonderful to work with. Both experiences were great. It was a very strange experience, being a poet that had been working for a while, but you know, not that long. I graduated in 2001 in May from NYU with my MFA, and then I went to the Provincetown Fine Arts Center directly from there which was a real gift. But it was a little difficult because it was right after September 11th, so I think I was out in Provincetown working and writing with a brain and a heart that was totally wrecked.
It was like, “here, experience this incredibly horrible tragedy and then go write.” I was just sitting there like, “can I just have a beer and stare into space and cry?” But the majority of Lucky Wreck was written there. So for me, it happened really fast. I’m not sure how other poets feel but to have it out within five years of an MFA, that seemed really quick to me. It still does.
I think it’s fair to say that’s pretty quick.
I know with MFA students now, they think their thesis is their first book. No, it’s not. It’s a start for sure. So it was very intense, and I also felt like a I had to—I don’t know what, this is a weird phrase but—I felt like I had to work harder and I felt like the responsibility and accountability I had to readers now just multiplied far beyond what I had been working with. People were actually reading every poem.
You went from sort of not being known at all and writing for yourself to all of a sudden having a real substantial—by poetry standards anyways—audience.
Yeah, yeah. And it still terrifies me. There are times where people will say something and I’m like, “oh right, we experienced that intimate moment together but I don’t know you.” And I think those years of writing without anyone reading were a real gift. People should not throw those away. But I was always interested in talking to people in my work, which I think is probably clear from the poems I write. They do tend to speak to a reader, but that accountability and that sort of deep breath—oh my gosh, people are going to read all of these pages—that was tough. It felt like an insurmountable hill at first.
I can imagine. And now you are working on a novel and book of essays too, right?
I actually finished a novel. I’m just putting it away for a little while. I think it’s good but I don’t think it’s great. And I’m recovering from working on something for three years and then packing it away, which is something we don’t do as poets, right? We tend to unleash some little bit out of a manuscript. To work on something that hard and go through so many revisions and then tuck it away, I had to grieve it and in the process of grieving it I started another novel, which I’m almost done with. I did it just for fun! I thought I’d just write something fun to occupy my time. It’s a YA book that turned out to be sort of magical. I laugh that it’s a cross between Alice in Wonderland and "Flatliners."
That’s a great pitch!
So I’m probably thirty pages away from being done with that one. I really like writing in different formats. This book of essays right now is all individual essays and they are all sort of all coming together. It’s just a matter of how I can make it work. How they can all talk to each other. And those are sort of more like early Brooklyn drunk-and-broke-and-hungry, you know, in the late 90s, early 2000s.
That’s interesting too, because in describing your work to friends and recommending your books to friends I’ve sometimes compared—
Thank you—thank you for doing that.
Oh, of course. I’m really the most obnoxious person to be friends with because all I ever want to do is talk about what I think people should be reading.
Oh good, well you’ll have to give me some suggestions.
Haha, sure! This whole project is sort of an extension of that—it’s just finding an outlet for my aggressive evangelism that will hopefully be seen as a little bit less obnoxious. But, anyway, a lot of the times I’ve sort of compared your work to Naomi Shihab Nye’s. She’s another poet who thinks about the natural world and often lands on the side of joy, of these ecstatic experiences. She’s also someone who has sort of turned to the YA market and found a sort of second life there too. I didn’t know you were interested in YA writing but that’s another interesting parallel.
Yeah, I didn’t know either! It was really was sort of an exercise in just recovering from writing that giant literary novel. How could I get myself out of it? So I decided to write something fun, then pretty soon it was much longer and larger than I’d expected.
That’s great. I look forward to both.
Thanks, yeah. Hopefully something will happen with it, one never knows.
Can we talk about your background a little? Your grandparents were Mexican?
Right, my father’s father.
But you don’t speak Spanish?
Basically, right. A little.
In my case, my dad is Persian, my mom’s American, and I was actually born in Iran but I speak about as much Farsi as a two-year-old would speak. It’s weird what it does to identity when you can relate to those parts of yourself culturally, physically, historically, but then you can’t actually speak the language. And you deal with that—you say “I don’t even know how to get to Alaska, / or how to talk about race / when the original tongue is gone.” That’s a line that communicates directly with my experience of being and feeling very Persian in some ways, but then not being able to speak the language. There’s a partition between that world and myself. Can you talk about that in your own life and how people perceive that?
Yeah, I think it’s an interesting thing. If you’re from certain cultures, everyone expects you to know the language, but if someone was of German heritage, we wouldn’t say, “oh, so how’s your German?” It’s an interesting factor. And partly because Spanish is such a popular language in the world and because it’s such a necessary language—I’m actually taking lessons or I’m giving myself lessons and getting there— I think it’s interesting when one has to straddle a line of some sort. To feel a part of one community on some levels and part of another on another level. And also to feel like you’re aware of it all the time.
I know that when it comes to the arts and it comes to our lives as poets, there are times where I’ll feel like I’ll be invited somewhere or that I’m being asked to speak because I am of Latino background or because I’m a Latina poet. And then there are times I am with a lot of Latino poet brothers and sisters and I feel like the whitest girl in the room. So there’s this interesting struggle of what world you fit in, but I think I’m done feeling guilty on either side now. I think it’s actually this in-between space that intrigues me the most. More and more people are going to feel this way and you know as we become a country where the percentage of people with Latino heritage and the people who are from Mexico increases, increases, increases—we’re all going to be a beautiful mix.
And in the Latino world?
In the Latino world, I feel like where you stand often depends on whether or not you crossed the border—this is an interesting subject for me. I’m both fascinated by it and very aware of it when I’m asked to represent or I feel like I’m being asked to represent a people. I feel like I really have to watch for that, because I don’t think I’m the best representation of anyone. I want to make sure that if I am being asked to be a voice for Latino poets, I am sure they connect to the right people, the right writers—the people that do have a border experience.
It’s something that takes a long time to navigate. You say you’re on the other side of that sense of guilt, which I think is great. It’s not my fault I was unable to learn the language as a child, but there’s still a sense being somehow lesser than, or that I’m not as much a part of a group that I still identify very strongly with in some ways.
Right, right. And I feel like that too. I have a large Mexican side of my family. But it is—but I also know that when I give interviews or talk to people or people will say oh your grandfather’s from Mexico but very rarely to I get asked about my other grandfather, who is still living, and he’s just a gentle cowboy from Southern California. So it’s this interesting world where I feel like I am intrigued by all of the aspects of heritage, and yet we live in a culture where everyone is supposed to be only one thing. It’s surprising. I think it’s finally starting to change. But it’s surprising to me how often it is still the case. How often someone wants to see you as this instead of that. Or that we are so fascinated by categories that sometimes we lose the beautiful collage that we all are. I’m supposed to be speaking at AWP about race and I’m scared. Why did I agree to do this? But what I’m going to talk about is embracing the in-between space. And that to me is a new category—the many-feathered thing.
Well, I’m right there with you. I read something of yours a long time ago, maybe from an old interview or something, where you talk about how all of your poems can be divided into pleases and thank-yous. I love that. I love that idea. That’s the most basic form of prayer, right? “Help me, help me, help me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Yes! There is that sense of always being aware of speaking to the universe. I don’t mean that like speaking to a global community of readers, because obviously I do write poetry.
Right, you’re not Stephen King.
Haha, right, but I do have that sense of talking to an other, to the universe as a whole. And a lot of my poems are asking for something and pleading, or they’re looking for some sort of answer. Why has this happened or what does this mean or what can you give me or how can you fix this? And if I present this problem to you, will you heal me?
Then I think on the other side of that, those “pleases” are often acts of trying to heal myself and trying to recover from an event or even just the maddening dream buzzing insanity that is our own minds. So I think there’s a lot of that, not necessarily looking for an answer but looking for a peace.
With the thank-yous, there is that part where when things have turned around or have steered in the right direction; I do feel a sense that I need to praise. That my job is to sit down and praise and if I don’t then I’ll feel like the greedy child that when given the good day never reflects or enjoys it. I want to remember to praise.
"I want to remember to praise." That’s a wonderful answer. I did want to ask maybe as the final thing—you studied at NYU with Phil Levine, right? And given that he’s recently left us I was wondering if you could share a favorite anecdote about him?
It’s so hard for me! I just adore him. I can give you sort of two funny things. When I was in workshop with him he was very kind to my poems and me and I was writing very narrative poems. I was a big fan of Phil’s so I was reading his work and writing poems that were modeled a lot after his sort of strictly narrative story-telling poems. Then one day I brought in a poem that was sort of modeled after a Kenneth Koch poem. I was discovering the New York School of Poetry and O’Hara, of course because I was in New York. I wrote this poem and it had all these long lines but none of them were really connected and it took big leaps and I could tell he really didn’t like it. And the lovely Kazim Ali was in my workshop and he was defending my poem and said, “but Phil, don’t you think there are some beautiful lines here?” And Phil said, “oh, there’re some beautiful lines, I just wish she would put them in a fucking poem.”
Hahaha. That’s perfect.
Right? I did realize the truth of that statement. You can have the most beautiful lines in the world but if you’re not working towards a greater whole, what’s the point, right? This is a really true statement. And then the other anecdote is that I just most recently saw him at the National Book Awards, and he and my partner had talked about horse racing and I was so excited. Anyway, when I walked up and saw Phil from behind, I was thrilled. You know, I was a judge in the year 2013—
When Mary Szybist won.
Yes, and so I was feeling really good that we had made a great decision and feeling really pleased and honored to be there and all the hard work and reading and long conversations had all been done. And then, oh my gosh, they sat me with Phil, they sat us with Phil, and I was just in heaven. So, I’m smiling and going to say hi and he turns around and Phil looks at me and you could tell he thought of me as still his young newbie NYU student and he said, “Ada, what are you doing here?” And it was so cute because I immediately felt like that 20-year-old girl in awe of him and sort of stared at my shoes and said, “oh, well, umm, they asked me to judge.” But he recovered really quickly of course because he was so sweet and said, “of course they did, of course they did!”
That’s hilarious! Those are two really, really wonderful stories.
Good! I’m glad. He’s one of my favorites. I miss him a ton already.
You and lots of other people.
Interview Posted: May 18, 2015
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