“Poetry is trying, it seems to me, to conceive of how our universe works. ”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
Do you want to talk about how long Reliquaria was in the pipes? Was it your NYU thesis?
Yeah, it grew out of a thesis that was originally titled, This Skeleton Coast. When I started at NYU I really hadn’t written very much. Which is to say, everything in that application was everything that felt finished up to then. Many of my friends and peers arrived with what seemed like accomplished bodies of work already. But I was just starting. And so the MFA was supposed to be a generative time, a figuring out, a crucible of sorts. I was hoping for something alchemical because, ultimately, after those two years there had to be a thesis.
The Skeleton Coast?
The first word gets the stress: This Skeleton Coast. I’m still so attached to it—I pledge allegiance to that title and I think it’s one of those things where you go through the revision process and begin realizing what you need to let go of, what you keep. In that time between 2008 and 2013, I pulled the whole manuscript apart in all sorts of micro- and macro- ways so that Reliquaria is, of course, beholden to the engines of the thesis, but isn’t a clone of it. Maybe the only thing that’s kept true is its general framework: it was always going to be three sections and a calibrating poem outside of those sections. But I guess years of worrying and adjusting, altering, culling and self-questioning do a lot to change a required assignment, the thesis, into a manuscript worth owning up to.
There's an upstairs room at the NYU Writers House where all our final projects are kept in glass cabinets with archived anthologies and back issues of literary magazines. I remember how, during workshops and meetings, I’d stare at those files knowing that Tyehimba Jess, Ada Limón, Aracelis Girmay, Joseph O. Legaspi, and many others had the thesis-beginnings of their first books in there.
I had no sense of what was really supposed to happen in an MFA except I was told there’d be space to write and I knew I had deep, visceral admiration for people who had gone there. I only applied to one program; I always thought, "Oh, if I don’t get in—"
Oh really? You were at Rutgers, right?
At the time, I was teaching at a public high school in New Jersey. And that was just up Route 18 and Route 1 from Rutgers, where I finished with a graduate degree in education a few years before.
I was overworked and hyper-protective of my students. And happy. I told myself that if I wasn’t accepted to NYU, I’d be more than fine where I was.
I don’t think we ever talked about that, but my first degree was in secondary education, English education, too. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.
No, it’s not an interruption at all. It’s amazing to think about how teaching at the secondary level and spending 180+ days with 150+ teenagers might change us. And I often wonder how it’s changed how we write. You know what I mean? It’s not to say that high school teaching necessarily compels a writing toward or for high school audiences, but I can’t help but feel that choosing to be a part of how young people engage with—or disengage from—definitions of capital-L Literature has to have had some gravitational pull on our beliefs and approaches. There’s an intersection between your own experiences as a practicing artist and your life at school and some valorized, often state-sanctioned, canon you and your students are supposed to reach for. To study education and then to work with readers and writers that young asks you to see your values transmuted in and by the classroom.
Oh, totally, totally.
And also there’s this other kind of prism that you start to see through, which is: Okay, when I’m writing, when—if ever—do I consider such things? Or: Do I think enough about readers like those in my classes? About readers my students’ age and what stories they might need to see in the world? Am I even equipped to tell such stories in my work? I don’t know. I never know. In any case, I was teaching for a long while.
Six or seven years.
Yeah, that’s for sure long enough to—
I loved that job. I loved those students. It was a really important time in my life and I think that when I first started at NYU, many of the poems I had written were dealing with some of the lingering worries I had, my anxieties about teaching and understanding the gravity of being a teacher. Watching them struggle with their own personas and the pressures of becoming a person. So a lot of what I was writing was just trying to come to terms with being an outsider, and a witness, and a participant in the evolution of these lives, and feeling simultaneously both responsible for, and inconsequential to, their presents and futures.
Yeah, totally, totally. That’s a great way to say it. I taught middle school for a while, not as long as you were teaching high school. Long enough to get that sense that they are mine to mold completely, but also that I have nothing to do with how they are going to turn out. You know what I mean?
Absolutely, yeah. I just think about them so much all the time. I still take a kind of attendance in my head. Names and faces. And I try to visualize what kinds of people they’ve become. I wonder about how much our conversations about poetry matter to them still, or if those formative foundational experiences in the classroom became absorbed, or metabolized, into how they see the world. I mean, I bet they can’t recall exact lesson plans, or exact poems, or anything, but they had to have felt something, kept something, right? Those cramped classrooms, all that searching teenage awkwardness, and me at the blackboard making it up as we went along. It’s a bizarre picture and I think about it more than I ever imagined I would.
I didn’t know that. I didn’t realize that you had taught for so long. I think it makes total sense. You were talking about how your teachery-ness seeps into the poems, and I think one of the interesting ways that happened—this is something I kind of love about the book—is how there’s a lot of interplay between childhood and the sacred. I think that it’s common to sort of profane the sacred by talking about shitting in church, or having a crush on the minister’s daughter, or something like that. But you set two purities, the sacred innocence of childhood and the sacred innocence of the saints, against each other, and then you show us how neither is really sacred, neither is really innocent. I forget which poem this is, but the children breaking off every finger of the statues—
Yeah, it’s sinister, but it’s sinister in its innocence. You’re profaning the sacred with another form of innocence, which I think is really really unique to the ecosystem you’ve created in this text.
That poem sneaks up on me. It’s one of those that when you write it, you don’t know exactly where it’s coming from. The writing happens upon you quickly. And I think the other thing about it, going back to your word, "sacred," is that it speaks to different versions of "sacredness"—the sanctity of the "real" events that inspired, or triggered, the poem, and the sacred realities of the poem itself, which might be very different. So much gets modified in the making of poems—if that makes sense—and those lies against what we hold in the memory, even if in service of deeper truths, can be another kind of sacrilege.
I still go to that church when I’m home with my parents, and that statue of Jesus is still there with His fingers missing. Jesus is right there beside the flagpole, in front of my middle school gymnasium, and contrary to what happens in the poem, the real me would never have been the one to dare anyone to do anything because I’m too meek, too goody-goody. There’s a need in that poem to intensify those kinds of contradictions or clashes between duty and responsibility, being dutiful and wanting to rebel. It lures you into falsehood, which then creates a different kind of truth, a kind of rival truth.
I love that idea of a rival truth.
I stole that from someone; that’s not me.
That’s fine, it’s yours now because you quoted it.
Yeah, right? But I love that phrasing and its implications because it’s not really mutually exclusive or a binary, exactly. There’s a rivalry. They coexist in the same space, but there’s beef. There’s a bit of knuckle-sandwiching at each other.
Totally. They can still sit down and eat at the same table, but they’ll be side-eyeing each other.
That’s great, I love that. When you’re writing about stories and mythologies and people that have been written about millions of times already, you kind of have to invent your own rival truths to sit by the established narratives. The individual has to figure out a way to enter into the stories, and then to make them their own. Which sort of mirrors the process of coming to a spiritual orientation within an organized religion.
It’s very cool the way that your poems take up that work of creating mythologies within the established mythologies. You have this kind of encyclopedic understanding of the things you are talking about. There is such a lushness of specific details that couldn’t be commanded easily from memory. In “Drifting toward the bottom, Jacques Piccard recalls the sky,” you have “mercury bulbs” and “lime hydroxide,” you know? If I’m thinking of Jacques Piccard’s voyages, I’m not thinking about lime hydroxide.
Also, who'd be thinking about a Jacques Piccard voyage in general?
I suppose there are a couple of things at play: one is that I’ve always worried about my tendency to want for completeness, or for the work to close a circuit. There’s a part of me that wants the cerebral to take over and to finesse the whole thing. But to do that is to turn the poem into an object that’s just a monument to itself. Such an arrogance in that. In returning again and again to something, what I’m trying to do is revisit and subvert my own inclinations to disappear into saying it all at once. To open up the question as opposed to closing it, you know?
The second thing is tied up in “encyclopedic,” I think. All that strange and rare language. Does that come from research? Yes, but also a reveling in the words. Just getting punch-drunk in the names of things, places, phenomena.
You get to a certain point in the drafting where you’ve exhausted yourself: you’re telling the story and stuck in list-thick reporting and you have to learn to turn to the odd eyewitness account, archival notes, or, in this instance, testimony from Jacques Piccard and Lt. Don Walsh. They’re just talking to each other, or getting interviewed, or describing things they saw, and the language they use is so damn mystical.
The language of science and biology and chemistry is straight up sorcery. And the beauty of it is that trying to welcome those conjurings in often shakes up the stuck-familiar of early versions. All of a sudden, because you don’t want to lose track of lime hydroxide, the echo of Jacques Piccard’s father floating heavenward in a balloon, and the image of Piccard years later dropping six miles deep, you need to reorganize the poem’s initial certainties and make room. All of a sudden, you start watching the pieces move and that, for me, is such a thrilling and surprising and unhinged part of my own process. Sometimes you strike a new main, and the words themselves provoke or Jedi-mind-trick you into doing something else, and you have to account for the surprise.
The obsessions with language and the mythology-making feeds—and is fed by—curiosity. But at the same time, as I said when I first started to answer your question, I’m always nervous about how or when or where that love of language can obscure the primal questions that inspired the poem. Right now, I think that, for me, is the negotiation.
I like that word for it, "negotiation." And I like the introduction of the word “curiosity” into the conversation too because I feel like it's another dominant theme in these poems. Inside the poems is a deeply curious mind trying to find architectures to house that curiosity, you know?
I wonder where that comes from. I think it’s a scientific sort of thing for me. I’ve always loved science, whether it’s paleontology or anatomy. There’s something about those fields’ immediate and incandescent impulse to uncover, unearth, bring to light. It’s lived there before you, so you hope to figure out: how did its body work? How did it get here? How did this function? Why does this need to be here? What’s a vestige? What’s a mutation? What I’ve discovered about my own draw to poetry is that there’s something very scientific about it.
Oh, absolutely. I think so, too.
And it bears out in the same way that a mathematical equation is lyrical. These disciplines theoretical and applied. Poetry is trying, it seems to me, to conceive of how our universe works. A universe of the most intimate and particulate ways that we encounter each other and endanger it all.
Totally, and I think that even down to the poems' forms. I know you're someone who is very interested in form and how form influences the way that a poem works and the way that observation happens. So when you think about a poem like "Sacramental," it’s almost like you have to lay out the book on its side the way that the body in the poem gets laid out, you know what I mean?
Wow. I must confess I never actually thought of it that way, but yes.
I’m jumping ahead in Reliquaria, but there’s a sonnet sequence near the end where the final sonnet is missing line fourteen and closes, “We will translate before they / say they cannot make sense of it” and I was somehow trusting that absence’s break with form to carry emotional weight. Throughout the book, I’m messing with ways that the forms of poems mirrors and refracts the poems’ obsessions.
I have to say, what you’ve noticed about “Sacramental” really means a lot. And, to shift metaphors, I guess it means a lot because it makes me feel the way I imagine a composer feels when a respected musician says something really careful and generous about the anatomy of a sonata or symphony and then adds, "You know what I really loved? The way you varied tempo in the fifth movement." Or something microscopic like that. I’m grateful for the way you’re listening to the poems and looking at their dynamics and design. Form on the page is also a kind of performance, yeah?
I’ve been really bothered by this dichotomy that people are so fond of: how a text looks on the page versus how that text is read at the mic. It’s a convenient and fraught separating-out that people do when they ask, "Oh, are you a performance poet, or are you a published poet?" It’s frustrating. And reductive.
If everything in the book has been read vertically so far and then there’s one poem that asks you to twist the book on its side, what might that be beyond typography or the limits of the page dimensions? What’s at stake if it’s conscious and not arbitrary?
We’re all performing on some level, and sometimes we’re performing on numerous levels at the same time. You brought up “Sacramental,” which is a really interesting poem. I think it goes back to what we were talking about earlier—the way that we can experience "sacredness" as a multiplicity. The thing about “Sacramental” that’s never mentioned anywhere in the book is that in my heart and in my head it has a different title.
What’s the title?
I don’t even want to say it because—well, part of our course requirements at NYU entailed taking craft of poetry classes each term. In my first year, Kimiko Hahn ended the semester with us inventing new forms and presenting them.
I came up with an array of constraints powered by something inevitable that you wanted to deny or avoid, but couldn’t. That was the title—something you knew was going to happen, but didn’t want to hear, see, acknowledge.
From there, every line was supposed to open with a subordinating conjunction—because, if, so, after, when, although, etc.— and the effect was that the poem would be entirely populated by subordinate clauses that, in a grammatical sense, couldn’t stand alone as a complete sentence without the title.
So the poem was going to both summon up and confront. And as with most of the poems in what would become Reliquaria, the nervewracking thing is mortality—it’s the certainty that the people you love are going to leave you one day as we’re all going to leave each other one day.
In “Sacramental,” for example, there’s so much that’s happening in the body of the poem that is going to happen to the body. And so it’s almost an incantation, this memento mori, saying, "Here are all the things you know are going to happen, and you have to face them." I don’t want to face them. There's this pull and push happening at the same time. And I think the only way I could convince myself to include the poem in the book was to take the actual title off because when it went to print, all of a sudden you would have people reading that title out loud. They would complete the spell.
I feel like that poem is enacting this thing that’s an indelible part of me as a writer, which is complete and total faith in what litany can do, what prayer can do. And at the same time a faith that it won’t. Do you know what I mean? Somehow the poem will both bring into being, but also cannot bring into being. They are subordinate to reality, but also dependent on it.
That’s fascinating. It makes me think of how, in Elizabethan times, when Marlowe wrote Dr. Faustus, the actors were afraid to read the spells out loud on stage because they thought they might really summon Mephistopheles.
Yeah, or how you say “The Scottish Play” instead of “Macbeth.”
I think to grow up religious, or to grow up with a faith at all, is to grow up surrounded by superstition.
We use, “myth,” or “parable,” or whatever, but these words are essentially pointing to similar truths and fictions, promises and threats.
Totally. Alright, I’m sure we could keep things going for hours, but we have to start wrapping things up. We didn’t even get to talk about video games!
Haha. We could always do it again!
I’m sure we will. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you're writing now? I loved "Sonnet 146" in Poetry.
Oh, thank you. What am I writing now? Well, one of the things I've been doing is troubling the traditions of the sonnet a little bit—a move inspired by Teju Cole, who would, when he was still on Twitter, thread tweets as essays and create ghazals made of odd phrases and search terms strung together.
I’ve always thought they were these fantastic, irreverent, but also really piercing and insightful pieces, and so after Reliquaria was all said and done, my attraction to the ingenuity of Cole’s new work synced with my own attempts to keep working. I turned to form to let it be a seedbed, essentially.
I love that—a seedbed.
It’s always really been the sonnet. When I was teaching high school, I always began in September with Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 18" and "Sonnet 130." Writing sonnets with students who are so intimidated by them at first, and watching them finding a way, building a muscle memory—not that it was automatic or formulaic, but learning the shapes the way we learn to play instruments. The hands start to know where the chords are.
And those rhythms and cadences become second nature. I started writing sonnets with Twitter in mind, thinking about how character constraints might influence syllable counts, how a linked thread of seven couplets demands a concentration on/of images. Like, each of the couplets would need to have a fidelity and—because of the constant scroll of our timelines—burst into the stream. I was really preoccupied by that.
Yeah, I love that. That’s so cool.
So for the last two or so years, I was fixated on those feed sonnets. It feels as if I’m pulling free from it now because I’m writing a lot more about—or at least I'm trying to process—what it feels like to be a father.
There are many more rough drafts and much less sitting down to revise, manipulate, or graft things together. It’s more about getting to the page in the hopes that language is going to churn toward something fit to finish later. I’m thinking about my son, and how so much has happened in just a few months.
I’m thinking about him a lot, and I’ve only met him a couple of times.
He definitely has that power over people.
It seems that way.
It's a life-changing event, but it doesn't make the poems and it doesn’t alter my obsessions, for sure. I’m still incessantly and inescapably obsessed with ventricles and skulls and mortality and the life of the world to come, except now there’s someone who depends on me in a way that no one else has.
And you made his mortality. You wrought his mortality from nothing.
Thanks for reminding me! So you know the last two poems I wrote were ostensibly about him, but not entirely about him. I’d written a poem called “Tenebrae” that started at his sonogram.
Yeah, because at that ultrasound appointment, the doctor was trying to explain what the read out was, and she phrased it like this, "We’re looking for all the dark places. All the dark places are proof that he’s okay, that he’s healthy. That’s his blood. These are his body’s vital fluids, so we’re looking for the darkness."
I remember thinking, "Oh, that’s going to be a hell of a poem someday."
Totally, totally. I know that moment well—when someone utters something, and you are just like, "Oh, that’s going right in the next thing."
And I think if you write enough and you care enough to listen to how other people see and perceive the world and you care enough about saving those particles of language, you log those phrases and that’s what the poem can be for a while before it bursts into something else.
That conversation in the maternity wing, for instance, interacted on an atomic level with the theme of National Poetry Day here in the UK. That year, everyone was writing about light. And I thought, "They’re expecting us to write all these praise poems about sunlight, and the clarifying power of light, and whiteness, and purity, and I just want to write something that’s in praise of shadow and how we need the darkness."
And it started with me muttering, “Shame the light” over and over to myself, and trying to wander back to him.
And after that came yet another incomplete sonnet called “Mirror Test.” These days, I notice him looking in the mirror and recognizing that it’s not another person, but his face staring back.
Which, predictably, primed a jump to this test of consciousness I was reading about—an experiment where scientists drew a mark or stuck a Post-It on the forehead of animals and then put those animals in front of mirrors. If the animal touched the dot or pulled the Post-It off their forehead, it meant that it understood its reflection, that it possessed a certain kind of intelligence.
And so now that my son is one and murmuring and stumbling and seeing himself, that's what's on my mind. Moving here to London has allowed me space to be away from home, to miss home, and to take stock of what matters despite the distance. The virtue of that, in turn, is the feeling that all these new things in front of me are themselves important and vital and sacred in their own way.
Beautiful. I can’t wait to see everything that comes from that space.
You and me both.
Interview Posted: February 27, 2017
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