I don’t usually talk about myself in book reviews, but this topic is close to my heart. I’m white and a citizen of the U.S. I have always had shelter. I have always had food (except for one December when I was 19 and chose to buy gifts instead of groceries). I want for very little. I work hard, but I’ve never done physical labor. I have a college education. I also love Spanish, teach Latinx American children, and abhor the xenophobic, racist immigration policies the U.S. has toward Latinx immigrants.
I cried reading this collection, something that I don’t normally do from page poetry alone. Javier’s starkness, his honesty about the struggles and strain of being of two places, being torn between family and opportunity, is heartbreaking. The poems are powerful; “If I step / out this door, I want to know nothing will take me…” he writes in “How I Learned to Walk”. It’s so fucking unfair how the U.S. knowingly discriminates against people from Mexico and Central America. It’s wrong. And yet, is it possible to right it?
One of the important parts of changing our immigration policies is to educate people about the conditions of other countries, the why behind families’ decisions to leave. People in the U.S. are so privileged that we take our lifestyles and our relative safety (relative, not absolute) for granted. While far too many millions are low income and food insecure, we still have plenty (particularly the upper and middle classes). We have jobs, even if those jobs don’t pay high enough wages. We have food banks, social services, and community organizations that support pregnancies. We have schools. We have freedom of speech and the freedom to assembly. Many U.S. citizens enjoy living in this country; is it so wrong for other people to want to do the same?
In a love / anti-love poem to Salvador, Javier writes, “Every day cops and gangsters pick at you / with their metallic beaks, and presidents, guilty… // Tonight, how I wish // you made it easier to love you, Salvador. Make it easier / to never have to risk our lives.” Javier also describes border-crossing scenes, how, when caught and released, one family “would try again / and again, / like everyone does.” Another poem, called “Disappeared”, lists people and organizations to hold responsible for missing immigrants. Javier also discusses the conditions – and fear – with which undocumented immigrants live after settling in the U.S.: “everyone’s working / Mom Dad Tía Lupe Tía Mali / working under different names…” Far from the lazy “mooching” stereotype that persists in the imaginations of too many Americans, Javier shows readers that his family doesn’t take their new opportunities for granted.
There is also longing in these pages, a disconnect between worlds, as being undocumented means being unable to return to one’s home country, therefore being forever unable to see family. “When I call abuelos… / always they ask when I’ll visit, // soon, Abuelos, soon. What I mean is / I can never go back.” In another poem, the speaker says, “…if I don’t brush Abuelita’s hair, / wash her pots and pans, I cry.” How to cope with such ongoing loss? “The most beautiful part of my barrio was the stillness…” he writes in “Pump Water from the Well”.
This collection gives me hope; Javier gives me hope. His humility and advocacy are impressive; he brings humanity to an issue so many Americans selfishly dismiss as nonexistent and unimportant.
If you’re able, I encourage you to two copies of this book (available from Copper Canyon Press for $16 plus shipping) and read it with someone in your life who doesn’t understand immigration. I’ve purchased one copy for a student so far; this collection is one of my top 5 I’ve read in the past year, and I plan to purchase more. Change must happen with each of us calmly, lovingly correcting our friends and family members who don’t understand why their views and opinions are harmful. It takes effort, and time, and so much patience. But we are the only hope we have for a better future. As Javier quotes, “[T]oday for you, tomorrow for me.”
I’ve read quite a few books that discuss or explore sexual assault, trauma, domestic violence, wartime sexual crimes, and other similar topics (most notably, Sierra Demulder’s masterful We Slept Here); Landscape with Sex and Violencemeanders through oft-unspoken-of facets of sexual trauma, including the tenderness that abusers can win survivors back over with.
I read this book at a very important time in my life, only a month before I was coerced by a woman I’d been dating; this book became a refuge, a friend who I didn’t need to explain anything to. Melnick’s poems understand the multifacetedness of emotional trauma that experiences like mine result in. These poems take every side, from the moments of self-blame and downward spiraling to moments of clarity and strength.
I interviewed Lynn earlier this year about the poems and content in this collection.
When was the seed for this collection planted?
This is the book I’ve always wanted to write but just wasn’t ready to write yet, for a lot of reasons, until I finished my first collection. I’ve always wanted to tell my story which, I think, is also a larger story about rape culture and sexual violence and patriarchy and America. Now that I’ve finished writing this book, I’m finding my new poems (what will hopefully be a third book) push even further, so maybe that’s just how it goes.
What reactions are you hoping to inspire in readers? What response does our society need to have to the issue of sex and violence?
I’m hoping to build awareness in some readers and to make other readers feel less alone. I’d love to offer solace and education, depending. I also hope I’ve written something that stands as poetry, as a hopefully beautiful and interesting work of art. As far as what response society as a whole needs to the issues of sex and violence, well that’s a very long list of things, but I’ll say society needs to believe women about both. We need to believe women that have been abused and we need to believe women who state their needs. Women should get to have enjoyable sex lives without stigma or danger. And boys and men need to be better educated about both!
“Turn on the television and all you hear / is the new way of speaking…” holds a personal meaning for me, implying that the way politicians “answer” a question without saying anything of real substance is the new norm. Could you talk about your political views and / or your hopes for women’s rights to become more central and important in our administration’s goals?
To be honest, I have no hope that women’s rights will become more central to our administration’s goals. I think our best hope is that they are distracted by other things and don’t set things further back for us. I mean, our president is an admitted – and proud! – sexual predator.
Until we have more women not only in politics, but across the board in positions of power, little will change. I wish I knew how to make this a reality except to support women running for office with my dollars when I have them.
I also think that it’s important to talk to girls about what the world is actually like, rather than just hyping them on “girl power” in a world that is so dominated by patriarchy. They’re gonna know pretty quick that that’s bullshit, so why not teach them from the beginning that, although the deck is seriously stacked against them, there are ways to fight, and running for office is one of those ways. That’s what I’m trying to do with my two daughters, anyway.
Oh gosh, I wish I knew the answer to these questions. If you find out, please tell me! I do think knowing you’re not alone, that the violence experienced wasn’t you’re fault, and that you’re believed helps. Believe women!! Also, as far as healing goes, please seek therapy. Mental health needs to be taken as seriously as physical health. There are many therapies and treatments that can help with PTSD and other trauma-related issues. From what I can tell, finding empowerment and healing is a lifelong process.
For sure. I know I’ve found cognitive behavioral therapy personally helpful. I retrained my negative self-talk and anxious habits thanks to two amazing therapists.
How does poetry offer therapy? How does poetry educate?
Well, I don’t want to say poetry offers therapy, because I really think therapy should be where people seek therapy. But poetry definitely offers comfort and understanding, and poetry definitely teaches us more about ourselves and others. Something about the music and syntax and form of poetry really expands our hearts and minds, I think, and helps us see things in a new and more intimate way. Every day, I’m grateful for poetry.
Landscape with Sex and Violence ($18, on sale right now for $16.20) is available from YesYes Books or your local bookstore!
I read Marlena Chertock’s second collection, crumb-sized, in one sitting on a Sunday morning. I teared up, furiously took notes, and underlined entire stanzas. Then, I waited impatiently for my husband to wake up so I could show him a few particularly gorgeous science poems – we’re big fans of Neil deGrasse Tyson and all things astronomical.
Several poems mention Marlena’s strength, how she endures chronic pain and the issues that result from her curved spine, and strong is the perfect adjective to describe her voice and message. This collection exhales each line confidently. Each poem belongs, creating a diagram of how science is in fact our every day, how we only exist because of the universe’s great mysteries, its black holes and ever-expansion and iron.
I love the cosmopoetry at work in this collection, using an outward and space-ward theme to look inward, to cast yourself (or your persona) into a different realm. Can you talk about the research process involved in writing these poems, as well as your advice for blending the cosmos with the personal? What can be gained from using the universe to evaluate and speak to our identities?
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going for! I’ve always been very inspired by nature, space, and the unknown. When I walk home at night, I always look up to the stars and the moon. I’m a stereotype. But looking up reminds me not to think so big of myself, brings me rightfully down to size in the immensity of the universe.
I’m constantly thinking of these scales — of how much self-love I give to myself, and then of how small and insignificant I really am on a floating rock in the vastness of the Milky Way in the unending universe. It helps make pain seem more insignificant, even when it’s all I can think about. I try to share this through both of my poetry collections.
I read about space, science, technology, and more in my free time and at work, where I interview young and established scientists. The research is fun for me. I’ve grown up researching my bone disorder, down to the very arm on a specific chromosome that causes it. The fact that one letter switched, one amino acid swapped, and I could be a completely different person both captivates and terrifies me. In a way, my poetry is always working through these thoughts and emotions.
Mixing terrestrial and space elements, and exploring these senses of scale, is powerful. A lot of writers use space, mysticism, astrology and more to try to explain things or describe themselves. I think science is really useful in poetry because it’s just a way of trying to understand the world, and at its heart that’s poetry — poets distill images in the best possible way.
The chronic pain and discussion of strength and weakness in your collection is compelling and inspiring. I’m sure other readers will agree that your poems create empathy and challenge thinking and stereotypes about health and disability. Chronic pain seems to be a largely invisible challenge, one that others don’t notice or know about unless they ask.
Could you talk about the intimacy of writing poems that impart such personal knowledge to a general audience? Have you found community and acceptance in other writers or poets, perhaps in The Deaf Poets Society?
So many of us experience invisible illnesses or chronic pain. We hide it, hide from it, or it goes ignored. Our pain isn’t well understood by our doctors, our loved ones, ourselves. So it’s important for me to try to get as close to accurate as I can in my work. Whenever I’m trying to describe an experience, I find that I often come back to natural or tree-related figurative language. Even though pain seems so removed from me, like an invader in my body, it’s a very natural process. And comparing chronic pain to nature just makes sense. Sharing my experiences is important to me because chronic pain can be isolating. I want others to know they’re not alone.
Like “How to feel beautiful” attempts to voice, I really do believe that my body is strong, even with all of its pain and limitations. Bodies and people are resilient. We have incredible strength.
I’ve found a really vibrant, diverse community of disabled writers and artists online, at literary festivals and conferences, and in Washington, D.C. Literary magazines like The Deaf Poets Society are incredible — not only do they publish beautiful work by disabled artists and writers, but they have superb accessibility. Each piece has text, an audio version, each photo has image captions. Many of the publications that have published me have a focus on disabled writers, or explicitly state that they accept/are open to work by disabled/diverse writers.
“GiftGas!” is a shocking poem that explains and questions the brutality of gas chambers during Hitler’s regime. I, for one, did not know that the gas used was actually a pesticide, nor did I know the physical effects it had on victims. I don’t have words for this horror. When and perhaps why is it important for poets to reteach history accurately? What can we gain from relearning past events via poetry?
There’s a quote from Ezra Pound that I appreciate: “Poetry is news that stays news.” After the news articles have been written and TV news moves onto its next 24-hour spot, the poets will write lasting verse. Many poets respond or interact with the news in some way. What comes to mind is Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, written in the voice of Hurricane Katrina, poetry anthologies against war, and many more. Some of this can be seen in Rattle’s Poets Respond series.
All of this to say, yes, history is terrifying. And I’m constantly learning more about my own personal history and the wider history of humanity, the Earth, and the universe. My dad has a black and white photo of his family from Poland. When he covers half of the photo with his hand, those are the ones who died in the Holocaust. Half of his family, half of my family. This is history, but it’s still current — it still impacts our family and the millions of other Jews, gypsies, disabled people, and more that the Nazis murdered.
This is why it’s so important for poets to, like you said, reteach history accurately. So many either don’t know about or believe horrors like these happened in the past — but this is what really happened. The fact that neo-Nazism and alt-right ideologies are regaining followers is even more important for me and others to tell their stories, to retell and unearth history. To write about it in no uneven terms, with the most accurate, searing, vivid, devastating, disturbing words.
“Jello” is a really lovely, albeit tragic, poem about your grandmother. Personally, I have a hard time writing about my family without the poem becoming a cheesy, unshareable mushwich. What’s your advice for honoring family members and other loved ones without slipping into Hallmark gushland?
It’s incredibly difficult to honor family, friends, or pets in a way that doesn’t become too mushy-gushy. I don’t know that I achieved it in this piece, which is autobiographical about my grandmother, Bubbie. I just try to remain true to whoever I’m writing about.
I studied journalism in college, and grew up writing on my high school and college newspapers. This style of writing and adherence to the facts influenced my poetry. Things like Alzheimer’s, a disease/illness, or aging are inherently tragic. I dig into that tragedy in my writing, trying to strike at its gut, since my own is being gutted in reality.
I don’t think every poem I write about my dead dogs or such will or should be published. Only the really strong pieces that can resonate and connect with a wider audience are worthy of my time revising and submitting, and then maybe some people reading them. I guess my advice is to just write. Be honest or truthful. We’re people, and people crave understanding or recognition of their situations and emotions.
I love your poem “Things that don’t suck” after Andrea Gibson. How often do you use others’ poems to influence or shape your own? What ways does responding to poems with poems deepen the conversation?
Thank you! I’ve been attending Split This Rock’s community writing workshop for over two years now, and we’re often given prompts to write a poem based on or inspired by another writer. Months ago, we read Andrea Gibson’s “Things that don’t suck” and then wrote our own version of things that we think don’t suck. I really enjoyed the way her piece allowed me to appreciate the mundane things. I’m constantly inspired by other writers and artists, so when I use their methods, or a line, or title, I do my best to attribute it back to them. Responding to other artwork with your own art becomes a sort of collaborative project. Poetry is one great ongoing collective.
“Harriet Tubman was disabled” is Crumb-sized’s mic drop poem. I am teaching this poem in every classroom I possibly can for the rest of my life. I love that it revels in its own “taboo” topic, rejoices in the very thing that so many Americans avoid talking about, even find shameful or embarrassing.
Thank you for kicking conventions, and for re-educating readers about such an important historical figure. Where else has disability been silenced, avoided, and ignored? What’s your advice for writers who want to right injustice in their work?
Wow, thank you for saying that. I think it’s so important for young people to learn the real history.
This was a really important poem for me to write. I only learned that Harriet Tubman was disabled after graduating from college, after reading more history of incredible, powerful women. The stories of women in history, people of color, Native and indigenous people, LGBT people, and disabled people often are hidden or unknown. We should be unearthing them and sharing their histories, sharing the truth. I also think reimagining histories and futures are important. Poems like “Harriet Tubman is a Lesbian” by Saida Agostini and “A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay question what we’re told, what we think we know.
Disabled voices and bodies have been silenced from most of society for a long time. Only recently through the ADA did disabled people gain some access to public life, jobs, and transportation. But often the ADA requirements aren’t nearly accessible enough, and many institutions don’t comply. There’s still a lot of work to do.
That’s why it’s so important for us to be sharing our and others’ voices. We need to hear more about the disabled experience. We need to support diverse literature and art.
For me, it’s been really inspiring to see what’s already being done, especially by writers/readers of color, indigenous and Native writers, queer writers, disabled writers, and more. Something I’ve seen a lot of are anthologies specifically themed around and by disabled writers. These are powerful, important bodies of work. But I’m hoping that more and more in the future, our voices won’t be relegated to anthologies or special disability issues only.
If you’re in a gatekeeper position as an editor of a literary magazine, be aware of your position of power and privilege. I wrote about ways to make your magazine more inclusive in AWP’s The Writer’s Notebook. Lift marginalized writers up with you. We have to support each other.
crumb-sized[Unnamed Press] is available in softcover for $11.99 plus applicable shipping or request it from your favorite local bookseller!
This collection is truly “so sweet [it] must be sacred.” My copy is covered in sticky notes, and one reason it took me so long to write this article is I loaned it out twice to poet and reader friends. Set in a southern landscape, this collection delves into family, guilt, death, and tradition. Part eulogy, part praise, part meditation on place, these poems curl their knuckles around your heart, squeezing you in the feels while also inspiring, healing, mesmerizing, and offering sanctuary, a place where, should you also be grieving, you feel understood.
Many of these pieces feel applicable to many generations of Americans but are particularly hard-hitting in our current era of police brutality and gun violence. Take this line from “When My Mother Had the World on Her Mind, Crickets in Her Ear”, for example: “They’re shooting boys who look like you. You know my number, / use it, keep all your blood… Stay… alive.”
I was left gaping after reading “Rock-a-bye”, particularly the final lines: “how can I tell [my mother] I love you / in a way she hasn’t heard my father say before”, as well as one of the final poems, “What Is God but Rain Spilling Me Over?”, which is an homage to lost loved ones.
Another piece that has stuck with me is “Is it Love”, which is about a landlord and the power he has over his tenants; I carry so much resentment toward my own slumlord rental company and have never considered using poetry to ease my anger. It becomes deeply personal to remember that so many renters are being exploited and mistreated by those who should be caring for them, whose very job is to maintain healthy, livable housing.
Our landlord white and old
comes over smiling.
I wonder where he lives.
Why my mother cusses him…
I asked Tyree a couple questions after finishing River Hymns.
The details in your pieces bring each scene to life and center the reader squarely in the poem. What is the importance of place in your poetry?
Place is very important to the world of River Hymns. The people become the land and vise versa. Place also acts as a container for the magic in River Hymns. Rivers, tobacco, and birds are also spells.
What does “I hear mercy / in the leaves breaking under my feet.” mean? It strikes me as gorgeous and profound – I just can’t grasp the extent of its beauty.
The land also having duende responds to the negative and positive things it has seen. The land, just like the people, asks for mercy.
RiverHymns, which won first place in the 2017 American Poetry Review / Honickman First Book Prize,is available on Amazon and at booksellers, including Barnes & Noble and I think even Target. I recommend this collection for those who love poems that burn long after the book is put down.
So our current political climate makes poetry a crucial method for voicing the things that our admin & its supporters want to silence: identity, ethnicity, immigration rights, beauty, consent. How do you use poetry to respond to our environment?
I think one of the many uses poetry has is to illuminate the experience of others & in that way build bridges & cultivate empathy. As incremental as that progress is, I really believe that in sharing our experiences with others we can perhaps connect with other people & make the world a less lonely place. In thinking about the current political climate & poetry, I’ve thought a lot about this Osip Mandelstrom quote: “Only in Russia poetry is respected – it gets people killed.” Poetry isn’t thought of like that in the U.S., but I do think it speaks to the how powerful & galvanizing poetry can be. Poetry can be a threat because it encourages imagining. It also reminds me of the kind of danger poets at different times face(d) just to write. It reminds that I am here, this is my world, & I cannot be silent.
How do you use poetry to talk about personal matters? Many writers describe poetry as a way to understand what they think about something. What ways does poetry interact with your emotional and mental journey?
I think sometimes the poems articulate certain emotions before I’m totally aware of it. This is one of the things I love most about creating something, the act of discovery that can occur if you manage to get out of the way. I think poetry has at times given me a lens form which to view & sort out my emotions on the page. & to see it existing in some form outside of myself can maybe help me understand those emotions better.
When did you begin writing poetry? Why?
I began writing poetry about four years ago. Writing poems came about because I frequented this open mic, Glassless Minds, where I saw people reading & performing poetry. When I first saw it I thought it was incredible, but I never thought of it as something I wanted to do because at the time I was writing & signing songs on guitar. But when I burnt out on writing songs, I began thinking in the kinds of rhythms I heard at Glassless. I wrote down what was in my head, shared it, & that whole community of poets were super supportive & spurred me to keep writing.
Who are you as a poet? How does writing poetry influence your identity (and vice versa)?
I definitely think of myself as poet whose entry point into poetry was song. I believe I fell in love with language through music & I think a lot about the music in poems. I’m not entirely sure how writing poetry influences how my identity. I know I am not my poems & that this hold true for other poets as well, which I always think is a good reminder. I also know that when you’re described as a “poet” people will sometimes project whatever ideas they have about what a poet is or should be.
As for identity influencing my poetry, I really can’t separate who I am when I sit down to write. & it definitely shapes how & what I write about. My poems will always be brown kid poems. But there is a range of emotions & experiences that come with that & it’s more than just how people perceive my otherness.
Tell me about the publishing process. I stumble across your poems in obscure journals and also in widely-read journals. How frequently do you submit your poems? Where have you felt honored to be published?
I tend to write for a few months, assemble packets, & see if any of the journals that I enjoy reading would be a good fit for my work. I submit maybe every couple months or so. Honestly, any place that has been kind & generous enough in their reading to be say “Yes, we’d love to publish your work” feels like an honor. It still kind of leaves me in awe when people believe in my work.
What do you like about culture? What don’t you like about culture / society?
One thing I love, as it relates to poetry, is the community of people I’ve found through poetry. I have met so many close friends that I would never have met had it not been for writing poems… Through this art, I’ve found my tribe. & to me it’s so wild that all of this happened because I wrote down my thoughts & shared my words.
One thing I don’t really like & that I think about often is the ways in which capitalism shapes certain pressures around creating poems. In particular, the pressures to always produce or publish. Feeling that you’re always falling behind or aren’t doing enough. I think this holds especially true for younger writers. I think these pressures can be incredibly detrimental, & I try to find ways to push back against those pressures in my own practice of writing.
I really appreciate that perspective; I know I’m indifferent to being rejected now, after years of having my poems rejected, but many other people our age haven’t built up their submitting skins yet, and rejections can cripple the creative soul. Keep on pushing back on that expectation (although if you do keep publishing, I won’t complain). 🙂
What are your goals for the future?
I’m going to try & trick myself into writing a first book. I’m also working on being a better friend, brother, & son.
I can’t wait to read more from you and wish you the best in your debut collection journey.
Every word that you put together to form a sentence can be used to incite violence, provoke thought, or give comfort. It is our duty as artists to be cautious with our words. Poetry has the power to change the world, but we must be careful what we say. I believe that violent words have the potential to do more damage than any sword.
How has writing impacted you?
There is an infinite liberty when I pick up my pen and turn on an instrumental or start playing my djembe. I can sing or write about anything on my heart. One could say it’s therapeutic to be able to get all of my one million scattered thoughts on paper.
Who or what inspires you?
My mother inspires me. She taught us to respect each other and to treat others the way we wanted to be treated. We never wanted for anything. Granted, we didn’t have all the fancy material things, [but] we were happy. It’s all about love. My mother definitely had a major impact on me.
You write a lot about family and friends; where do you gather support and connection from?
Again, my mother and my grandmother were the first people to really invest in my music. I tell the story all the time, but my mom bought me my first keyboard. My grandmother makes a point of telling me the story [of] how when I was two, I came up to her and told her that Jesus told me to preach. To this day, I am still preaching; it’s just a different message.
What is important to you?
Love is important. Love is the energy we transfer through art, our lives, and the experiences we share on this giant space marble. We cannot advance as a people until we come together in love. Only when we put down our weapons and learn to love can we truly understand what unity is. In short, we are all [we] have here.
Unless we come together, unless we have love others more than we love ourselves, this world and our communities will continue to be at war. It is time to lay down our arms and open up our minds. Our planet is dying; cultures are disappearing. Listen, it’s easy; we just have to be nice. Stop treating your neighbor like dirt.
Be good to yourself and every living thing on this planet, from the smallest human to the oldest redwood.
Harryette Mullen calls Witch Wife(Sarabande Books) a “binding spell”, and many of the poems feel exactly as though they are exposing the magic in the world: stitching together frayed edges, weaving new connections, folding ideas into themselves to strengthen them. This collection builds on natural medicine and turns into a diary of recipes and promises.
“Doubloon Oath” is a poem that blesses the page with language. “Nursery” weaves a different kind of magic, exploring the fantasy of fairies and being shrunk into and subsequently stuck in their world. “Ought” feels like tumbling down a rabbit hole, but actually seems to be commentary on climate change (or any other current societal issue).
Hi, Kiki! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
“Sermon” focuses on this discussion of the body: the body as vile, the body as glorious. How can a body be both these things at once? How has your own self-esteem impacted your poetry about the body (if at all)?
The image of the “vile” and “glorious” body comes from Philippians 3:21, and is phrased in the King James Bible as a question: “Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself?” Other translations of this same line juxtapose an earthly “body of humiliation” against a divine “body of glory.” So the original quotation is about subduing the earthly self–with its hungers and its greed–to the divine order, which is all loving, all giving.
I have struggled with body image and self-esteem all my life. I have hated my body and longed for transformation. Of course, the transformation I desired was a physical one, fully tethered to the earthly plain and to my society’s ideals of female beauty. With “Sermon,” I was able to crystallize that moment of prayer and critique it somewhat. I hope the poem asks, “What if the body that needs transformation is actually the spiritual one, the self, maybe even the soul?”
“Europe” feels extremely relatable in its break-up angst vibes, although no romantic partner is mentioned, so it could easily be about a different kind of loss and mourning. I especially love the line “I stood in my smithereens.” What is your relationship advice? (This could be friendship, romantic, familial, etc.)
You’re correct that “Europe” is a kind of break-up poem, albeit one that looks back on a past relationship from many years’ distance. I do not, in general, consider myself an expert when it comes to romantic relationships! But I would advise readers to cherish and learn from the “big loves” of youth, particularly the first heartbreak. The pain of breaking up is real pain, and yes, it feels awful. Yet it is in these moments of extremity that we are actually most alive and awake to beauty. Big love, big loss, big joy: live for these.
There’s a line in “Political Poem” I am so glad you wrote – “So let my body move towards justice / & away from countries.” My husband and I frequently talk about how nationalism, patriotism, and national borders harm our world; we see ourselves as “Americans” and others as “foreigners.” We don’t feel empathy for others because they “don’t have anything in common with us.” We feel separate; we assert that we’re “the best.” It’s toxic thinking, and it has created a toxic ideology attached to imperialism, Christianity, and capitalism. Could you talk about this sentiment and what ways you propose we work to dismantle the injustice caused by industrialized nations?
No matter what nation we come from, and no matter our color or creed, we all must be willing to have honest conversations with one another and recognize the ways that our own ideologies (i.e., our systems of self-representation) may blind us to the sufferings of others who are “not like us.” I don’t believe that acknowledging one’s implicit biases or learning about the legacies of oppression and privilege requires anyone to feel guilty or individually accountable for the past. We are all acting within huge systems that we didn’t personally build. At the same time, intersectionality teaches us that we all benefit from a complex arrangement of advantage and disadvantage, and we are individually responsible for:
1) learning about those systems and our place within them;
2) treating others the way we’d like to be treated; and
3) amplifying the voices of those whose experiences may be overlooked or neglected.
Some of these poems talk about motherhood and the emotions associated with bearing children or not bearing them. Are these poems autobiographical at all? If so, how has your identity been shaped by the desire and/or societal expectation of having children? What are your hopes regarding this topic?
These are some of the most personal poems I have ever written. I wrote Witch Wife to work “through” some of the ambivalence and fear I have experienced around the question of whether to have children. And though I have not settled on an “answer,” I do have lots of hopes. I hope to live a life of joy. I hope to maintain my family relationships and all the friendships that have sustained me since becoming an adult. I hope to do good work in my profession and to make my community a place of support and inspiration. Mostly, I hope to be at peace in my own life, no matter what happens (or does not).
Stephen S. Mills has received many awards and accolades for his poetry and art, and rightfully so. His poetry is powerful and honest; it explores multiple sides of identity, politics, and relationships and left me feeling and thinking a lot of new emotions and thoughts. A History of the Unmarriedand He Do the Gay Man in Different Voicesare available for purchase from Sibling Rivalry Press, and he has a forthcoming collection scheduled for publication from SRP next year. And, he’s been such a joy to interview!
What’s been on your mind lately? What are you currently writing and thinking about?
The simple answer is Shirley Jackson. I’ve been working on a poetry collection about her since January. Jackson’s work is fascinating to explore and has some interesting parallels to our current world. She was writing during a period of unrest (the 1940s-1960s) and she often examined the personal anxieties of living in that changing world. Those are things I’m thinking a lot about in this moment in our lifetime when the country seems on the brink of disaster or great change. She’s also very drawn to the outsider within the community and how society continues to enforce norms even norms that hurt the people enforcing them. All of this feels pretty relevant to our moment in time, so this project is moving in a lot of different directions: a close look at her life and work as well as my own life in this time and place.
What’s your favorite place to write in?
I’m not overly attached to place in terms of where I write. But I mostly prefer silence. I have a hard time writing around other people, so I don’t work much in public spaces unless I’m just editing or jotting down ideas. I mostly work at home when I’m alone with my two dogs. I also really like to read work aloud, so it’s best to be in a private space for that.
How did you begin writing and reading poetry? What is the impact poetry has since had on you?
I wanted to be a writer from the time I can remember and began writing at a very young age. I mostly wrote fiction as a kid and then slowly found my way toward poetry by high school. In college, it really solidified for me that I was a poet (though I have written some fiction and creative non-fiction). It helped a lot to have encouraging professors who helped me discover my voice as a poet and also taught me how to better read and explore poetry by others. I love poetry because I find it to be the most freeing form of writing. You can do so much in a poem that isn’t really allowed in other forms of writing. It has impacted how I view and experience the world. I often see how things are connected by exploring them in poetry.
I love your ekphrastic pieces. Could you talk about what art does for you and art’s place in society?
The visual arts have often been a place of inspiration for me and a lot of my ekphrastic pieces explore our relationship to art and how we view those pieces (often in a museum setting). I was an art minor in college, so I’ve formally studied art but have also explored it on my own. I love museums and have lived in New York for the last five years, so my access to art is vast here, which I love and appreciate. A lot of my work explores the relationship between various arts forms: visual art, film, television, and written works. I like seeing the interconnections between pieces and putting them together within a poem. The arts as a whole allows people windows into other worlds and experiences they might not have had or be able to have. For that, it is extremely beneficial.
I, too, am queer and married; I’m pansexual and polyamorous and live in a low-income, racially diverse neighborhood, yet I married a straight, white, cis man. But none of that “contradicts” itself. Being attracted to women doesn’t mean I have to be in a relationship with a woman to still be queer, ya know?
We’re recently married, having just celebrated our one year anniversary this fall. I’m beginning to navigate the paths of individual identity remaining intact while being in an incredibly satisfying and healthy marriage. I’m also being sensitive to the privileges that come with passing.
Could you discuss your lines: “what does it mean to be married / yet remain queer?” What is the loveliness of marriage for you? Do you ever feel like you compromised “being queer” or is there more to being queer than pride culture acknowledges?
The goal of my second book A History of the Unmarried, which contains those lines, was to explore the notion of marriage within a queer context. The fight for marriage equality really took off right as I entered a relationship that I’m still in (we just celebrated 14 years together).
That fight was running parallel to my own experience of navigating and defining a relationship that fit me. Over the years, I became increasingly interested in what a queer or gay marriage looks like. In the end, I’m not sure marriage should have the place it does legally speaking in our country, but the fact is it does, so those protections are important to couples of all kinds.
So for me, I’m interested in how marriage can look from different angles and that being a queer person and getting married doesn’t necessarily have to mean following a heteronormative path (though many may accuse you of doing so). I write very freely about the fact that my husband and I have a sexually open relationship and I’m interested in exploring that in my work because I see so few writers doing that in significant ways. We are in a culture right now that really loves to pinpoint and label things, but I’m more interested in the gray spaces–the hard to define spots.
I agree. People are complex, and we regularly defy stereotypes, so while labels can be helpful, they can also be limiting.
“Election Night: November 2008” was a really powerful poem. I personally despise patriotism, as I think it drives mental wedges between Americans and “the rest of the world”; it convinces U.S. citizens (I should note, mainly white citizens of all three classes) of their superiority. So: how is patriotism affecting our culture currently? How can we step back from our egos and remember our humanity?
It’s funny to think of that poem now in the current situation we are in. That poem explores the hopeful election of Obama, but also an uneasiness about the idea of trusting government or feeling patriotic as a queer person. I’ve never felt the patriotism that so many around me have so freely expressed throughout my life, and I think a lot of that comes from living as a gay person and often feeling like an outsider. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and didn’t know any other out gay people until I went to college. This outsider perspective has made me more skeptical of things than other people might be. I’ve also always had a great love for travel and experiencing other places, which I think, to answer your question, is one of the best ways to step back and remember our humanity. When you never leave your bubble, you have little understanding of the reality of the world we live in.
Thanks again to Stephen for conducting this interview with me! Check out his new work in Queen Mobs and follow his new book release and other news via his website.
Also, all art pieces that are hanging up for sale are [from] local [artists]. A lot of people don’t buy art. [They] usually don’t give a shit about art, but then they like what we have [here] and start hanging it in their offices.
Tell me about your own art career.
I paint and draw on wood. Instead of doing actual woodcutting, I’ve been doing jigsaw cutting. With my daughter, Haidyn, I do a lot of collaborative painting. [She’s] almost six.
[My dream is] I want to do murals. I want to travel and do murals. Real goals are to make the roof a botanical garden for weddings and events. I also curate other venues.
Fun fact: Hannah started hiding a stick figure in all of her art pieces. Is your family supportive?
My husband, Chris, is obviously. My dad’s a small business owner and my mom just graduated from business school. I’ve always known that art’s my jam, and they’ve always been supportive of everything I’ve done.
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