“What is the boundary between human and animal?”
Memory of a Girl (Backbone Press, 2016)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
Why did you choose this poem?
I chose “Butchering” because it throws the reader into the central question and tension of the chapbook: do we lose our “selves” when we lose our memories? This question swirls around me throughout the autobiographical, narrative book, while I struggle to come to terms with the reality of my Japanese grandmother’s memory loss, and the terrifying possibility of losing my own mind. In describing the killing of a hen, and linking it to our own eventual powerlessness over our bodies and minds, “Butchering” hints at a deeper question, too, that resurfaces in the poems that follow: what is the boundary between human and animal? This question, in particular, digs deep into our understandings of morality and empathy. Often our justification for killing animals is to think of them as closer to “meat” (an object), than to thinking and feeling, human-like living things. And this convenient “forgetting” of the lives animals live before we eat them makes it easier for us to think of certain human beings as lower on the social hierarchy than ourselves. We pride ourselves on our ability to think, to make choices, and philosophize, and historically, the slaughtering and use of certain “races” of people were justified by the argument that they had “inferior” minds and that they resembled animals. Racism, sexism, and classism, I think, are all inextricably linked to the constructed boundary between human and animal, and in Memory of a Girl, I explore these ideas while also telling the story of my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
I was taking an English course called “Medieval Humans and Beasts” while writing these poems, so my obsessions with the animal-human continuum/divide heavily influenced the chapbook. I also had the pleasure of taking many Asian American Studies classes in college, and the knowledge I gained through those courses impacted my identity and my poetry. One of the poems in the chapbook, “An Essay on Tolerance,” for instance, couldn’t have been written without my exposure to Asian American history and activism. And finally, I was reading a lot of feminist poetry through another amazing English class I was taking while writing the manuscript, and devoured the poetry of Audre Lorde, Joy Harjo, and Erica Jong, among others. So a number of academic-themed obsessions influenced the chapbook! My main obsession, however, that gave fuel to the fire was my undying love for my family’s organic vegetable farm, and my nostalgia for my joyful childhood of exploring the streams and woods and dirt with my brothers and cousins, and getting lost in the meditative quiet of the fields. Moving away from home and into the city was heart-wrenching for me, and my longing for the farm grew and grew during my four years at Northwestern University. I was so attached to my childhood that growing out of my girlhood sent a stab of fear into my heart, and in this chapbook, the terror of losing memories is tied specifically to my fear of never being able to return to my childhood joy. That obsession with my girlhood kept me writing and thinking, and eventually took the form of this chapbook.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest poem in Memory of a Girl is the long poem “Memory,” and it is the first poem in the collection. In order to describe how it came into being, I need to give a little bit of a back story. The manuscript that became this chapbook was written for a Creative Writing honors thesis project during my senior year at Northwestern under the mentorship of Professor Rachel Jamison Webster. I spent the summer before my senior year in Japan, conducting anthropological research on Korean-Japanese bi-ethnics and their identities and politics, but also spent a little over a month living with my mother’s family in Nagoya. My original plan was to focus on the research and interviewing, and spend my off time with my grandmother, who I hadn’t seen in six years. But I hadn’t realized how severe my grandmother’s dementia was. So what ended up happening was that once I arrived at my family’s home, I did all that I could to help look after her: I slept next to her, and cared for her day and night. When she left for daycare in the morning, I’d get a few winks in before writing, reading, and researching. Rachel had encouraged me to “freewrite” every day during the summer, and those freewrites helped me to express the intense emotions that overwhelmed me: confusion, sadness, love, and fear. When I arrived back in America and began my senior year, those writings became the fodder for my manuscript, and the poem “Memory” begins with a scene taken straight from one of my freewrites. Originally, “Memory” was a prose poem, but upon Rachel’s suggestion, I inserted line breaks. I loved how the breaks gave breath and space to a difficult emotional experience. Once I wrote “Memory,” other poems freely came forth, as the long poem set up the narrative and themes for the chapbook.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
Rachel was—and still is!—an incredible mentor to me, and her encouragement and belief in me and my work allowed me to flourish in productivity. I wrote poem after poem, and when I felt that I’d written all of the pieces of the narrative, Rachel and I found ourselves staring at a stack of poems. Since this was my first manuscript of poetry, I was nervous about arranging the poems into a cohesive collection—I was afraid I was going to mess it up. Feeling my anxiety, Rachel suggested an order, and then, when I read through the poems in that way, it suddenly became easier to see how all of the pieces might fit together. The title came to me in a similar way. I knew that I wanted a title that joined together my grandmother and me, and our memories, and originally thought of “Memory of Girl”. Rachel thought “Memory of a Girl” made more sense, and it fits perfectly! My grandmother is living in her girlhood, while I am desperately trying to hold onto mine. We are joined together by our memories, and somehow, we are living—and trying to live—in the same stage of our lives.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Crystal Simone Smith, the managing editor of Backbone Press, was wonderful to work with in bringing this chapbook into the world. I loved that Backbone allowed me to publish my poems “as is,” without much editing, and that I was free to choose my cover art. I felt that I had a lot of say in how my chapbook looked and read. When I was sending my manuscript out, I was afraid that my use of Japanese throughout the poems would deter some presses from publishing the work, but Backbone embraced my cultural and linguistic difference. I will be forever grateful for that! I also adore the natural way in which my beautiful cover art came about. An artist and dear family friend, Matt Erickson, has worked on our family farm for over 15 years, and his partner, the amazing artist Lisa Lofgren, helps out on our farm as well. This summer, Lisa was pregnant with a baby girl, but insisted on helping as much as she could. While harvesting chives together one summer day, I asked her if she’d like to create the cover art for my book. I was overjoyed when she said yes, because I’ve always loved her art pieces, and it was a great honor to know she’d create a piece for my book. I printed out my manuscript and gave it to her, and the poems inspired images. My poem “Roots” struck a chord with Lisa—especially the line, “You are made of the foods your mother ate.” As a mother-to-be, and a garlic-peeler extraordinaire (“Roots” describes a garlic peeling experience), she felt the poem deeply. The resulting cover art is absolutely breath-taking. Not only that, but Lisa and Matt had the idea of making a broadside with the art and poem, and made 30 one-of-a-kind multi-plate prints at their press! I am so thankful and amazed that we were able to collaborate in this way—the whole process of publishing this chapbook has been a beautiful experience for me.
What are you working on now?
First and foremost, I would like to translate Memory of a Girl into Japanese, and bring it to my mother’s family when I visit in a few months. It may be the case that my grandmother will not be able to read my poems or understand them, but I believe in the power of words, and of emotion, and I feel that in sharing my poetry, something will be communicated. The immediate goal of this translation is to share the poetry with my Japanese family, but I would also love to share the chapbook with a Japanese reading audience, and will keep my eyes out for opportunities for publishing in Japan. My other main writing project is a memoir I am writing with my father, tentatively titled, In Our Hands: Living the Cusps of Change on a Family Farm. The memoir describes life on a small-scale vegetable farm, where most of the work is done by hand, and a father and a daughter’s navigation of their life cusps. We both arrive at a time in our lives when we must decide how to move forward into the future—especially in the face of climate change. We’ve written a first draft, and are sending the manuscript to presses, and querying agents. I’d like to make a lot of progress on this book in the coming year.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Modern dance! I’ve always loved dancing since I was a child, and I think that it is through movement and music that I am able to express myself best. It is for this reason that I adore improvisational dance. When I am allowed to move just how I’d like to move, I can dance—in front of crowds—for hours. There is something magical and empowering about expressing intimate emotions through your body in front of strangers—it gives me great joy and relief to be so vulnerable, yet powerful, on a stage. But because I live in rural Illinois, it has been difficult to take a dance class or go out dancing in quite a while. I feel that an integral part of my life has been missing lately. The other day, I watched my best friend and ballerina, Rhea Keller, dance in “The Nutcracker,” and her emotion and expression dug so deeply into my heart that I left knowing I needed to dance again. I hope that, some way or another, I’ll find myself back on a stage soon.
Aozora Brockman was raised on an organic vegetable farm in Central Illinois. She is the recipient of the 2015 Jean Meyer Aloe Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and her poems have appeared in Hermeneutic Chaos, the Cortland Review, Fifth Wednesday, and other journals. She lives, works, and writes in the haven of her family’s farm.