“Having a reflection is a very strange thing. Being embodied in general is very odd.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How long have the oldest poems in Take This Stallion been incubating?
I was just thinking about this the other day because of how weird it is that all of these poems are in one book together. Some of them are separated by many years. I would say the oldest one is maybe five years old, which doesn’t seem too old for a poem to be, but it feels like I only started thinking about writing poems and saying the word “poem” five years ago. I think that’s why, in my little baby poetry life, it feels like five years ago is a long time.
Wow, you only started thinking about poems five years ago?
At the time I was doing my undergrad at Bennington College. I was at a different college before that and I had dropped out. It was a turbulent time. I took a year off and when I was at Bennington, my head was everywhere. I ended up in a poetry class on a whim. It was funny because there was a requirement to get into the class—you had to submit some poems in advance and I was like, "I don’t even have poems"! So I went home and I was searching my computer for some shit basically. I took all that and was like, "Okay this can be a poem." I put it all on a page and thought, "Here goes nothing." I handed it in and, to my surprise, I got in.
I was like, holy shit poetry is easy.
Haha! You figured it out early.
This class was taught by Michael Dumanis.
Oh, I love him.
You know Michael? I love him, too. He’s great. And he’s a great teacher so that was inspirational in and of itself. We'd have these meetings in his office where he would kind of grill me. “What are you reading? Why do you sound like this? This is really weird, what have you been reading?” I was like, I don’t know—the German Romantics? Towards the end of the class he told me to apply to the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. I was like, "You are a crazy person. I’m not a poet, why would I?" He’s a very persuasive guy. So I applied and then I got into that. I was like, what the heck?
When I was in art school—I went to Rhode Island School of Design first—I was going to be an architecture major because it was the only way I could convince my doctor parents that going to art school wasn’t going to ruin my life. "I’ll be an architect, it’ll be okay." And I really did want to. Ever since I was very young, I wanted to do architecture, but then I got to art school. I was a sculpture major for a bit. I was getting into fights with all of my studio professors, and I was very distressed, and I was gaining weight, and everything was going very badly. I just got so depressed that I dropped out. I think part of that crisis was that visual art never felt like something that I absolutely had to do. I found an old notebook of mine from that time and I had written over and over in it, “Why am I doing this, why am I doing this, why am I doing this?”
Aw, that’s so sad.
It was just torment. But then when I started writing poems, there was something really intuitive about it and very satisfying. I started feeling like, “Oh, this is the thing I have to do.”
That sort of clarity is such a blessing when it happens. I've heard a lot of poets talk about that experience of discovering poetry and just that sensation of “Oh, this is what I’m meant to be doing.” To be blessed with that sort of clarity of purpose or clarity of medium is a real gift.
Sometimes I find it a little bit overwhelming in the sense that nothing else really gives me that feeling.
And I have a lot of other projects. I love my projects. I love what I do, but writing a poem is not like anything else.
I think I resent it. Why can’t I derive pleasure from other things?
I’m totally there with you. To me, there’s nothing more narcotic in the world than having written. It’s a high that I chase every day and then once I’ve gotten it, the rest of the day kind of bumbles along.
Yeah, you feel a little bit depressed.
That’s wild. You don’t ever hear it talked about as a source of resentment for everything else’s inability to compare. There is so much of that kind of joy or exuberance or bliss or whatever you want to call it in your poems. I know they cover a lot of ground and they speak openly about depression and loss and these kinds of things, but there is also this load-bearing joy, and the language and the rhetorical movements of the language, that sort of undergirds the entire book. Does that make sense?
I’m smiling so bright right now. I’m really glad to hear that. I feel sometimes I have to—I scan back through my poems to see whether I'm too idiotically joyful in them, you know?
Yeah. I totally get that.
That’s really exciting to me.
A line that I always remember is from "The Flying Phalangers": “You and I are filthy but it is / our filth.” Even in these moments of degradation and even in these moments of filth, there is a turning towards joy and a channeling of that into joy and community. Everything is always pivoting back towards the sun.
I wrote that line when I was working at this ceramics studio. I would just read poetry books and write poetry on the tables instead of working.
But that day I had read Wendy Xu’s book You Are Not Dead.
Yeah, the Cleveland State one.
It got inside my head in some kind of way. Something about interiority in her work always really excites me.
Like it’s this really felt interior space.
I think there’re definitely connections to be made between your work and her work. I think a lot of it does have to do with the sort of lushness of your psychic eco-systems.
Just how they are replete and developed and fully filled. There is a full ecology there. I think that’s common to both of you, especially her first book.
I think her first book pushed on my brain in really important ways. It’s funny you mention ecology because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I don’t know if you know about the Center for Afrofuturist Studies?
I read a little bit about it, but I wanted to ask you more about it.
So it’s an artist residency program and it started this year. I’ll tell you more about it later, but the reason I’m bringing it up is because we were thinking about a theme for next year. The idea of ecologies came up and as I was writing this curatorial prompt about it—I hadn't realized that the root of ecology was oikos, which means house. I hadn’t had that association in my mind before but it made so much sense. I started thinking about the house as a system, or interiority as a system.
Totally. So what sort of things do people do with that theme?
This year we invited artists to come out for either a week or a month at a time. In May, we had three people come out, for one week each. Those were Tiona Mcclodden, a filmmaker from Philadelphia, Louis Chude-Sokei, and then Kameelah Janan Rasheed, who is totally blowing up right now all over the world, so I’m really happy we got her to come out to Iowa City. Over the course of this week they had access to this awesome arts space here called Public Space One. Then it’s this rapid-fire residency. You are kind of building this thing from scratch. We put you up in Iowa City and then allow you to take it over for a little while.
That’s awesome, that’s really cool.
If somebody says, “I want a theater and I want 30 people in the theater with balloons,” we’re like, “Okay, we’ll figure it out.”
What a dream.
People come through and they don't have a lot of time, so they just produce and have a brain seismic moment. Next year we’re going to try to do something between 4-8 weeks. We’re hoping to have people out here for just a little bit longer. Give them enough time to really meet people. I was walking around downtown just the other day and I overheard this woman talking to someone and she said, “I was trying to meet the new artist-in-residence, but I don’t know how to meet her.” I stopped in my tracks because I didn’t know this lady. I said, “You mean Krista Franklin?” We had this great conversation and I realized it’s a thing that’s happening, it’s here.
And people know about it and people want to be involved with it.
Yeah, and there’s excitement about it. I think I’m still getting used to the fact, for example, that you have my book and that you have read it. It's very terrifying and bizarre to me.
It’s always seemed like such a strangeness. There are few acts more solitary than the writing of poetry. There’s no real way to involve an other. There are collaborative books and stuff like that, but by and large it’s a pretty inherently, in its nature, solitary activity. But then the consumption of it is necessarily a public experience. To pivot from the very solitary act of writing to the very public act of being read, that has to be dizzying.
I have been thinking a lot about live poetry readings and how they relate to, as you say, this very solitary act. But also just to poetry in general or to the poem more specifically. Sometimes I’m at a poetry reading and I have before me this spread of my life and it’s like I don’t always—I don’t know what it is, it can be sometimes hard to deliver something that is a coherent performance when what you have before you is so varied.
Yeah, and disparate and from different times. I think it’s true that the poems are always true to you when you write them. If you felt secure in having written a poem and you’ve felt like it did the work that you needed it to do in that moment, then you should be able to access in the future, right? You’re an interesting person to talk to about this because you’re a poet, but you’re also involved in other kinds of performance. I’m interested in how performance of work that has already been written relates to those other avenues for creative expression—dance and bodily creative expression. You know what I mean?
Where with poetry, the instrument is the breath instead of the motion of a body.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I like that. I like that.
You could say it’s the throat or you could say it’s the tongue, but it’s ultimately the breath of air itself that is being pushed out of one person and into another person.
Right, yeah, and breath has to be moved. I was a soprano for a while.
Not in any professional capacity, but I was.
I feel like you’ve worn so many creative hats. Sculptor, singer, dancer. That’s so interesting.
Speaking of wearing many hats—at Bennington we didn’t have majors, so you just sort of declared your intentions to your “plan committee.” So you have this one last meeting before graduating, which is supposed to be very nerve-wracking. My plan committee was assembled there and like, "You’ve done math, you’ve done dance, you’ve done poetry, you’ve done social sciences—what are you up to?"
I was excited to hear you say that you had that sort of clarity of vision regarding poetry being the medium for you because I know you are involved with so many of these things. I guess I’m just excited to have you on our team.
Hah! I think that speaks to the resentment that I was talking about. There are so many things that I really love. I love dance, I love singing, I love all of these things, but I just know in my heart of hearts that if I had to choose any one those over poetry, I wouldn’t be happy.
That’s it. That’s the clarity.
Before I went on that digression, you asked me a question.
We were talking about the breath and the performance with the breath.
Oh yeah, right. Well I mentioned singing because I think a lot about—there was a lot of training in singing focused on your diaphragm and the way you control your breath. This is present to me now in everything. Present to me in yoga practice, contracting certain muscles in your abdomen. I think about it a lot when I read a poem because someone asked me after a poetry reading if I think about performing my poems. I was like, “No, what are you talking about? I’m just reading them.” But I realized that maybe what’s happening is that when I’m reading the poem, it’s requiring a certain amount of work in my physical body just to do it.
To do it right, you know? So I think that’s what it is and I’m in denial a little bit about my relationship to performance. I tend to say I’m not a performer, but I do have a relationship to my body that would suggest performance.
Yeah or predilection towards performativity. I think that my experience of writing poems, of the actual act of the composition of the poem, is so mired in these hoity-toity ideas of ecstatic experience and the sort of fugue you get into as a writer.
Go ahead, don’t be afraid. I have this whole side.
Every writer, no matter how grounded on earth they are, talks about hours flying by, or something like that. It’s hard to speak about the writing process without leaning on the language of mysticism or spirituality. And my composition process is so wrapped up in that process that when I read something I wrote during a kind of ecstatic experience, I can still access some kernel of that, you know? There’s still some element of revisiting that material that creates a portal back into that ecstatic state. I think that permeability allows that to come back into the reading. That plays a big part in how I think of the recitation or performance of things that I’ve written.
Yeah, totally, yeah.
And my favorite readings that I have been to all have that incantatory feel you know?
Mmhmm, yeah I totally feel that. I've never thought about it in those terms but it made a lot of sense to me. It clicked. When I read it’s like I’m ascending to another body or I become four times bigger than my body. I become like a Hulk.
I just bounced a little in my chair thinking about that! That’s exactly it. Keep talking, I love this.
I think you should say something!
I love that idea, because you literally are larger than life. You are standing on a podium or you are elevated above people and there’s this sort of like inherent supernatural awe that you give anyone that is standing in front of a microphone when there’s one person up there and fifty people looking at them. There’s this sort of supernatural element of wonder already built in, and you kind of have to live up to that.
Right, and if you do get up there, then it feels very natural.
Yeah. Oh, that’s really exciting to me. I think about how I’m a very small person. It took me a while to accept that because people say, “oh, you are so small,” and I’m like, “I’m not small, I’m huge!” But I am, I’m very small and I’m also black and I’m also a woman. My body is always in these weird relationships and so I think it can feel very peaceful for me to get the opportunity to get to be four times my size. And to feel visible for the right reasons. Lots of times I feel visible for reasons that I don’t want to be visible for.
That totally makes sense. This will pivot back to the poems a little bit but there’s an attention to metamorphosis in the book and the way that you can have agency over metamorphoses. Like “I become at night / the hunter,” “I become my mother and father.” “I am the animal’s mouth in your mouth,” and there are all these first-person spoken things. It’s not a passive transformation where the moon turned you into a wolf. It’s like, “I am becoming these things.” I think that’s one of the striking characteristic flourishes of the book. This sort of obsession with these bodily transformations as an aesthetic device. Does that make sense?
Yeah, totally. I’ve been thinking a lot, and talking in therapy a lot, about how I feel that having a reflection is a very strange thing. Being embodied in general is very odd. You are just a consciousness and you are aware of being “inside” a body. It’s not as if, before you were born, you went to the body store and you chose, “Oh, that’s me.” You are just in the one that you are in. I love my body, but it turns out that when you are in a certain kind of body, there are things which other people might assume about you, and it doesn’t really have to do with your body. It has a great number of things to do with human history all throughout and perception and geography. And we talked about ecology, right?
I’ve talked to so many people who were born outside of this country, including myself, about—I mean people who, in their countries, were not colored. You were just whatever the fuck you are.
It’s odd because you don’t really have the luxury to decide if you have a relationship to things for them to affect you.
Yeah, yeah. That’s fascinating. It’s one of the inherent griefs of an immigrant, that you’ve lost this sense of normalcy. I left Tehran when I was two and a half, so I never really knew what it was like to be in a room where everyone looked like me, and where I wasn’t standing out in some way that I have no control over. I don’t even know what that experience would be like. I’ve been sort of inculcated into this idea that Americans are the default normal human, you know what I mean?
Yeah, totally. I’m going to respond at like ninety degrees here, but at my university you're required to do this sexual harassment training before you teach. And that’s great, I’m happy to do it, but the training itself was so weird. It was like, “Bob walks into the office and says, ‘Linda that’s a really nice blouse you’ve got on.’”
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
They kept using the phrase “reasonable person.” Sexual harassment was defined as behavior that a reasonable person would find inappropriate. Then this example comes up, one of these scenarios, where there is a woman in the office and the boss comes in and puts his hand on her shoulder. Then later she was talking to one of her colleagues and saying, “I'm upset that he put his hands on my shoulder because my religion doesn’t condone that kind of contact.” And then the question was, “Is this sexual harassment?” I was pondering this thing for a long time, and it came up that the answer was "No, not sexual harassment." The reason for this being that it’s not behavior that a “reasonable person” would find offensive.
That's what “reasonable” means—white. It's wrapped up with “normalcy,” “reasonable,” all those things.
There are so many veils of coded language. There's a conscious and unconscious hierarchy of people and a hierarchy of whose comfort is valued over others.
Yeah, on the level of language. That’s the part that scares me. I don’t think we really talk about that because it’s kind of tricky, and people don’t really want to worry about it on the level of their words. People take stock of their actions. They do their service and they feel like better people, but on the level of the words, I don’t know.
I’m totally fascinated by that idea and the way that you’d be hard-pressed to find many interactions in a day that aren’t in some way informed by that sort of relationship with the historical crush and weight of language in various degrees. I want to talk about this more, but we’re already over time!
I know—it flies by. Do you want to talk about what you're working on now? Are you still writing?
Am I still writing?!
A lot of people take breaks when their books come out.
That’s true. That’s true. I didn’t write all summer and then the other day I wrote 35 pages.
So I feel like I made up for it.
Yeah, that’s a summer’s worth. That’s a productive summer’s worth.
Yeah, definitely. I am writing. I’m working on a billion things at the same time. It seems like every day somebody asks me if I want to do some really cool project, and I say yeah!
That’s awesome though. I find myself getting excited and saying yes to a lot, and just assuming I'll figure out a way to make it work when the time comes.
Definitely, yeah. I like to say yes to things that I don’t quite know how to do yet.
Yeah! Then you get to learn new skills that you’ll get to use when you say yes to the next thing.
I’m making a film right now and I have no idea how to do that.
That’s awesome. That’s brilliant. That’s another hat to put in your closet.
Yes! Another hat, always another hat.
Interview Posted: October 10, 2016
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