“Whenever I let my ambition get in the way of gratitude, I remember my earlier self and let her revel in the win.”
We and She, You and Then, You Again (Finishing Line Press, 2017)
What motivated you to split your work into these specific sections: “We,” “She,” “You,” “Then,” “You Again”? What do each of these sections refer to?
I found myself writing a lot in the second person, either plural or singular, and at the same time I found myself writing in the third person about a mysterious She. The book’s progression (from a plural togetherness to a mysterious other; from the self to an effacement of self; to a final arrival at the self again) traces the overall complications of self and other, how we constantly come together and grow apart, and how we are changed in the process.
“Cedar” is my favorite of the collection, because it evokes nostalgia through raw imagery: “Our questions unwind us like sweaters.” Does the poem suggest we seek answers in people and interpret life like it’s language?
I’m very happy to hear that “Cedar” spoke to you. The poem, like many in this collection, is concerned with the ineffable and impossible nature of interpersonal connection. In “Cedar,” that connection is fleeting and riddled with entropy, with moths and dust, with lost commas and devastating questions. If “Cedar” suggests that we interpret life like it’s language, then the poem also suggests that language is simultaneously the best and worst tool for interpreting life.
In the section, “She,” there are many instances of women eating things that normally would not be consumed. The lines in the appropriately-named poem “Eat” that say, “She watches you watching her / so she picks them up / and eats them / orders more…” indicate that this woman might be repressing things due to pressure from others. Does this theme of eating reflect the suppression of women in light of society’s watchful eye?
In a way, yes. A lot of the poems in this section address desire and the repression of desire (both from the self and from others). I think in the case of “Eat,” the She persona swallows her most intrinsic desires, partially to keep them private from watchful eyes, but also to make a performance of doing so. I think the action stands as a metaphor for the many ways in which feminine desire is both reviled and objectified (and the ways in which that revulsion and objectification are so often concurrent).
Throughout your chapbook you reference Marfa or the Marfa Lights, specifically in the poems “American Grandchild” and “Planet Marfa.” In my understanding, Marfa is a small town in West Texas, known for the mysterious and unexplained lights that appear in the desert on the outskirts of town. When did you first hear of this phenomenon and decide to write about it?
I first saw the Marfa Lights in 2010, and I saw them a second time in 2015. They eventually made their way into my work because there’s no definitive explanation for their existence. It’s sort of the same fascination I have with the unexplored depths of the ocean. I’m interested in how little we understand about our planet the same way I’m interested in how little we understand about ourselves.
Through the chapbook you reference culturally specific details, like crawdads and banjos, which led me to wonder if you grew up in the South. I read that you currently live in Texas, but did you grow up there as well? Did your childhood impact the setting of these poems?
I’ve lived in Texas for over a decade, but I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. You might find faint whispers of my childhood in “Gulf” and “I-30, I-20, Farm to Market Road,” but this book is very much about the Texas landscape. My adopted home is a chimera of disparate climates and cultures, and California is a chimera of the same. In that way, Texas and California are in conversation with one another, but they are also entirely different creatures. I think I’m trying to say that place is as mutable as the self, and I hope that comes through in the collection.
You seem to use different structures throughout the chapbook, such as couplets or blocks of text without line breaks. Were you experimenting with structure? How do you decide on the structure of a poem?
I’m always experimenting with structure. While there’s a very loose pseudo-sonnet in “American Grandchild,” I write almost exclusively in free verse; for me, each poem moves toward or away from existing forms on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes I write in lines as they arrive, other times I’ll write without stopping and break the lines later. Either way, I tend to try out different structures as I revise. I don’t stop until I’m happy with the interplay between content and form.
Is there an author that made you believe (directly or indirectly) that you could become a writer?
This is really silly to admit, but I had an illustrated book of nursery rhymes organized by author, and a lot of the rhymes were credited to Anonymous. I was maybe five years old at the time, so I thought Anonymous was a single person, maybe someone from ancient Greece. I thought if Anonymous could write so many poems in so many voices and styles, that I could probably write a few myself. By the time I knew better, I was already a writer.
If you could give your future self something to remember about your current writing goals, what would it be?
Compassion. By which I mean: sometimes my present self doesn’t celebrate reaching a goal because I’ve worked so long and hard for it, but my earlier self—the self who couldn’t imagine reaching that goal—she would have been thrilled. Whenever I let my ambition get in the way of gratitude, I remember my earlier self and let her revel in the win. It’s an approach that applies to a lot more than writing.
What is your dream literary publication that you hope to be included in?
I just had a poem accepted in Pleiades, and that was definitely a dream come true. I’d really love to have a poem in Gulf Coast or Los Angeles Review someday.
Do you have a set amount of time each day that you devote to writing? Is it difficult for you to stick with your writing goals?
I don’t set time-based writing goals because I tend to beat myself when I don’t meet them, which makes me avoid writing altogether. Sometimes I write a lot and sometimes I don’t, but I tend to get antsy or blocked if I don’t sit down at my desk at least once a week. As long as I make sure that happens, the rest works itself out.
How many writing projects do you currently have in the works?
I tend to write on the fly in notebooks and make sense of the mess afterward, so I think there’s probably a few collections in the mix. That said, the main thread I’m focused on traces the interplay between power and perception, and those poems are part of my first full-length manuscript. Right now I’m calling it Forced Perspective.
Who is a poet you aspire to learn from?
Maybe it’s cheesy, but I aspire to learn from every single poet I encounter. I just got back from the Texas Book Festival, where I got to hear Chen Chen, Morgan Parker, and Sam Sax read from their new books. I’m reading collections by Erin Adair-Hodges, Bruce Weigl, and Gabrielle Calvocoressci at the moment, and I’m almost always reading poems by Audre Lord, Muriel Rukeyser, and Adrienne Rich.
Leah Tieger is the poetry contest editor for American Literary Review, as well as cofounder and host of WordSpace’s Looped readings in Dallas. She was a finalist for the 2016 Raynes Poetry Prize and (thanks to Menacing Hedge!) a 2017 Pushcart prize nominee. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Entropy, Rattle, and Heavy Feather Review.