“Sometimes a poem can do what a play or essay can’t and vice versa. It becomes a matter of digging for the truest word for the moment.”
Teaches of Peaches (TAR Chapbook Series, 2017)
Could you share with us a poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
On a silent afternoon
when my sister and I
completed the slow crawl
from the bed to the couches,
playing with dolls,
listening to the radio,
my feet crept
past the desk in the foyer
and stopped at the bedroom door,
My left eye peeked in
catching a glimpse of his naked backside,
like his face and hands.
He searched the second drawer for underwear
as the faucet in the tub dripped.
I’ve always been drawn
to slits at sites, broken grounds
where pictures of what
I’m not supposed to see
are built, censored by eggshell doors,
except for the cracks.
I always want to behold a body
when I shouldn’t be looking:
just out of the shower,
rummaging for white briefs
to rest radiant against dark skin.
What do people look like?
What are people?
What kinds of creatures are we?
just as skinny
at fifty pounds—
I thought I would weigh ten times my age
for the rest of my life.
I wanted to know how I was his daughter.
They kept saying I looked exactly like his wife,
but it was just her face trapped in that frame
hanging on the living room wall
and black and white
Why did you choose this poem (or excerpt)?
“Male Body” is a poem about what happens when no one is looking. As a child, I constantly tried to do things invisibly, in large part so that I would not be seen seeing. To this day I love looking at old family photographs or documents in private so that I can piece together a history that feels like it’s on the brink of erasure. That poem starts with a childhood memory of a pretty uneventful moment at home with my father when I was five or six. I was only nine-years-old when he passed away, so I don’t have the strongest recollection of him. But this memory of peeking in on him getting dressed after a shower persists more than ever because this person equally felt like such a part of me and a total stranger in so many ways. If you think of your parents or adult figures in your life, you usually imagine them fully clothed, wearing what becomes a kind of costume that conveys the essence of how you relate to them. But knowing this man was my father while knowing so little about him as a person was just always something that flummoxed me. When I was younger, I think it was just the fascination kids have with how adults can possibly be adults. But as I get older, the dichotomy of my father as parent and person baffles me more and more because the man he was quite literally kept him from being the father he could have been since his life was cut short. And while I can make peace with that and put it to rest in some ways, how that informs how I see myself in relation to other people is something that is very much alive.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
In general, I have a few writerly obsessions—love, loss, legacy, and land—but for this chapbook the greatest obsession I had was grief. It’s so wholly what the book is about. And it’s what I was writing through. It sounds ridiculous, but it wasn’t until my cat died that I realized how totally unprepared I was to grieve and how much there’s really no space to do that in this country. Culturally, I get mourning. I come from a family of people who could mourn professionally. We know how to arrange funerals and wail at wakes, but I can’t recall anyone ever allowing themselves to be sad or depressed or angry or even just quiet. I became totally obsessed with this feeling I simultaneously had no and too many words for and how that phenomenon was connected to personal, social, and political histories.
What’s your chapbook about?
On one hand, my chapbook is about my dead cat (#restinpeaches). On the other, it’s about the impossibility and necessity of love after colonialism. Between those hands, the book meditates on family, gender, race, and art.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“After 1492” doesn’t have the most meaningful back story of all the poems in Teaches of Peaches, but as the production process went on, it secretly turned into the poem that feels most exemplary of both my current position and biggest frustration with attempts at love. And I don’t mean romance. I mean love as in a kind of life-saving mutual relation and recognition. I mean love as in a breeding ground for creation. That kind of love takes a form of submission that is really difficult to practice in a world so irrevocably obsessed with power. Where there is power, there must be submission and so we have this really messed up way of looking at intimate relationships in patterns of discovery followed by conquering. And I just can’t ever get over how much that reeks of colonialism and how, especially in this country, our notions of romance, partnership, and family are so tied to behaviors of acquisition and domination because, historically speaking, a daily practice of subjugation should ensure you some kind of happiness: whether that’s immediate fulfillment of your desires or eternal life. The whole thing is so stinky, like bad cologne. What is the alternative? How do we shift and make choices that bind us to love instead of asking for permission to move farther and farther away from love and having the nerve to call that “freedom?”
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“Edit Update (Living Record)” isn’t the “misfit” in Teaches of Peaches, but the interesting thing about that poem is that it’s the only one in the collection that was edited to reflect real time. The book is broken up into sections that look at the past, present, and future. Nestled in what feels like the very middle, the poem keeps count in a way that archives, but also prophesizes. As I was working on revisions over the course of the year, people just kept dying. And the reason why I even wrote the poem in the first place is that so many people have died. The numbers are impossible to keep up with. It feels like the only thing one can do is be present, which calls for a constant attempt at balancing what was and what can possibly be.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The TAR Chapbook Series is an amazing team of people who offer such an incredible kind of care with the editing and production process. Teaches of Peaches was the first time I worked with an editor, the fierce and incomparable Natalie Eilbert (who also designed the interior). I so appreciated that the editorial process was a conversation about what the words were doing, not just making corrections. I feel like I learned so much more about the book because of how it was being read by people who were really listening. Emily Raw designed the book’s gorgeously haunting cover after coupling her initial inspirations with photos of my family’s mausoleum in Haiti. She also created an illustration of Peaches for the back cover that is so perfect it breaks my heart every time I look at it.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a new play called End to Avoid Damage, which, like most plays I write, is about the end of the world. In this case, it’s about what a few people plan to do knowing that the country is coming to an end. Family reunions, plans to blast off in rocket ships, and final government takeovers are all on the table. I keep describing it as a “bad play” because it doesn’t work the way most well-constructed plays do. It’s being mounted at Westmont College in Santa Barbara and what’s been really amazing about this process are the conversations the play has sparked in the rehearsal room about a climate of anti-blackness through explorations of the play’s language. Even though I’m on the other side of the country I hope that my bizarre turns of phrase haven’t led them in too far a direction!
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Be honest. Writing is clearly not the most lucrative endeavor and it’s definitely not going to make you the coolest kid at the party. So if you’re not being honest with your word, I can’t imagine the point of picking up a pen. But it costs a lot to be honest. And I know personally that there are structures I’ve set in place to support my honesty. It’s part of why I teach as my main source of financial income: so that I’m not pitting my ability to be honest against my wallet. It’s why I collaborate creatively with people I would trust with my life: because they will always keep me honest. It’s also why I write in different genres. Sometimes a poem can do what a play or essay can’t and vice versa. It becomes a matter of digging for the truest word for the moment.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Something that I can’t stop thinking about that I really want to ask other writers is: What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect how you are and are trying to be as a person?
Diane Exavier writes, makes, thinks a lot, and laughs even more. As a writer, theater artist, and educator, she creates performance events, public programs, and games that challenge the traditional role of the audience. Her work has been presented at Westmont College, California State University, Northridge, West Chicago City Museum, and in New York: Bowery Poetry Club, Dixon Place, The Invisible Dog, and more. Her fiction, poems, prose, and dreams appear in The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, The Atlas Review, Cunjuh Magazine, and Daughter Literary Magazine.