Sarah, I suspect you’re probably ready to move on to new questions about new work, but I feel compelled to talk about Mr. West a little bit. As some of our readers may know, your first full-length poetry collection has been described as an unauthorized biography of Kanye West through poetry. Of course, that’s misleading as it’s really about so much more: yourself, motherhood, popular culture, the cult of celebrity, race, etc. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, one of your teachers told you that the book was “worthless.” You’re not the first writer to have been told such a thing by a teacher or editor, but did that cause you to be more resolute in what you were doing, did it cause you to reconsider the project? How did you deal with the pronouncement? In an interview with Emilia Phillips in 32 Poems, you say, “Every time I sent the manuscript out, I reread the first ten pages to make sure I still believed in the book. Sometimes I read the whole thing.” There must have been a lot of soul-searching and insecurity about all of this.
Luckily, that teacher told me when I was very close to finishing my first draft of the book and I had other teachers in my corner whose opinions I trusted more. Plus I was hugely pregnant and his words seemed small when I was growing a human, which still seems otherworldly to me. As I left the safety of school, and dealt with raising an infant, which included hardly sleeping and becoming a very effective milk machine—yes, I had more and more insecurity about the book. But it was always slightly outweighed by my love for the book.
Kanye West is known, among other things, for ego. Did the process of creating this book cause you to think about your own ego? That is, the ego all poets who write about themselves possess and the ego it may have required to think a book of poems about a celebrity is valid as the stuff of art, is a thing readers may need?
I have a pretty large ego. I’ve known that for a long time, and I don’t know how I would’ve gotten to where I am without it. It is how I overcome. Writing about Kanye West, discovering the role his ego has played, helped me feel better about the role I let ego play in my own life as an artist.
For legal reasons, you were forced to redact song lyrics that occurred in poems throughout the book. In your 32 Poems interview, responding to a question about the role of silence in the book, you say, “Certainly when I first included the lyrics in my poems, when they didn’t need to be redacted, the poems had a different kind of sound. This version of the book, with redactions, still feels new to me.” This interests me a lot. I realize it’s only been a matter of months since that interview appeared, but have you thought more about how the forced redactions have made Mr. West a different book? Is it, ironically, a better book because of it, or would you still wish the lyrics to be a presence that is tangible rather than a presence that is ghost?
I think it is ironically a better book! I think it gives the reader the option of becoming the researcher alongside me and the poems. I think that’s an interaction pretty rare to find in books. We often think, and I certainly started out thinking, it’s our job as author to provide the reader with everything they need to enjoy the work, to understand the work, to see the work. But at no class visit has a student/reader ever expressed frustration with the redactions. It’s only ever offered another way in. I think the book offers a lot of ways in. It’s something I’m trying to carry into my new poems—how can “normal” poems also offer interaction and entry and exit points? Will it ever be at the poem level from here for my work, or will it only be something open to me at the book level? These are questions I like thinking about.
Have you heard from Kanye yet? I find it remarkable that he can resist responding in some personal way!
I haven’t! I’m not sure he’s even seen it. I just know his lawyers have seen it (though it appears he has new copyright lawyers now), and they haven’t sued me yet. I’ve still got my fingers crossed that I’ll hear from him one day, in a positive way.
Okay, let’s talk about some new work, the poems represented here. As soon as I read “Watching TV, Seeing the Shot Woman,” I knew I wanted to publish it. It’s, of course a fine and revealing poem about motherhood, but it seems also a poem about what a good poem is: the fiction of “an act of containment.” A great poem, like a life, cannot be contained except, sometimes, in a physical sense. As you claim in a divedapper interview, “There are a ton of pregnancy poems in there, motherhood poems. The poetry world has this weird thing where they’re like, no one gives a shit about your pregnancy poems.” But is this Victorian sphere thing still valid, or are those editors who feel this way the last few dinosaurs? I’m finding that more male poets are writing poems that exist, at least in part, within the domestic sphere, and I think, as well, that I’ve been reading a lot of very fine poems written by woman that address children, motherhood, and pregnancy. I think I first started noticing it with some of Laura Kasischke’s books that have these wonderful, irreverent, dark and funny poems about motherhood. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it’s true, and if it is, I wonder if it has to do with the fact that so many more smart and talented writers who happen to be women are now in positions where they can dispel old notions. The sort of work VIDA might do, the great women poets who are coming out of collectives like Cave Canem and Kundiman. The growing number of women who are editors and agents, or publishers.
I don’t think those editors are the last few dinosaurs. I think this question of the value of motherhood poems will persist. I think it partly has to do with actual value of the work and avoidance of cliché, etc. But I think it mostly has to do with a societal representation of parenthood and gender roles and their portrayal not just in poetry but across many forms of art and media. If poetry is very much about defamiliarization (whether you think it be to make beautiful or to make strange or to slow down or to do whatever you might think!), then the men who have been writing so beautifully into the domestic sphere lately (Kevin Young, Geffrey Davis, Craig Morgan Teicher) are a great example of how their perspective is perceived as unfamiliar, unique, novel, and so, of value. I’m not sure if I’m being clear. Their poems are of value. But because of how men are portrayed all around us, they benefit from an assumed inherent defamiliarized gaze. Because of how women are portrayed all around us, specifically mothers, the poems that come out of that gaze have to fight and subvert the gaze in order to win over that same feeling of “newness.” And that’s what editors are looking for, or so we’re told. So it can’t die with a few old editors, it has to change with a continually changing society that has less gender norms and further embraces our multiplicities, in movies, television, advertisements, books, etc., etc. We have a lot of work to do. And, yes, thankfully, we have a lot of women who are not waiting for the change, but are taking up the fight and making the best damn art we can so that motherhood and the perspective of a mother is valued and seen as the very strange thing it is.
(Here’s a test: take a poem by a mother about motherhood, and switch the gender. See if you find the poem, without changing anything else, speaks to you a little differently, in thinking it was written by a father about fatherhood. Pretty quickly you can feel the ways we’ve been subconsciously taught to feel about mothers and fathers and what observations they might make about their children.)
I love how your poems often transform the quotidian to a stage upon which ordinary life is seen as the thrum of metaphor. In “I Thought it was a Good Idea to Walk to CVS with My Son on a Ninety Degree Day,” an ordinary walk to the drugstore becomes a contemporary odyssey of sorts. How much of architecture, what a poem might do on the level of design, is inherent in your composition process?
I usually let the first few lines come out fast, and whatever shape they take, I try to maintain that for the rest of the poem. It’s very rare for me that the first few lines were wrong. Is that what you mean? This results in a lot of different shapes, a lot of long lines, which I really enjoy writing into.
Okay, weird question: is “Dear Gun” somehow a play on Brian Turner’s poem “Here, Bullet”? I immediately thought of Brian’s poem when I read yours. I think of how lines in his poem like, “And I dare you to finish / what you’ve started.” The last lines of your poem are, “I don’t want to shoot a gun now, / not at a range. But I’d lie down / again with a rifle in the woods. / I’d imagine a little threat this time. / One I was always meant to hit.” There’s a sense in both poems that the act of feeling a gun’s power and potential cause a sort of human inevitability that can end only in the squeezing of that trigger. It’s a poem that speaks to the world in which we find ourselves, the world in which we birth our children.
Oh, they are similar! I hadn’t thought of that. I think I read that poem many years ago. I was, as you very finely put it, thinking about “the world in which we birth our children,” and thinking about guns and all my feelings about guns and how I’d never held a gun, until I realized, I had, many, many times that one summer, as a child myself. I think I should probably reread that whole book.
Watching TV, Seeing the Shot Woman
When I see the shot woman, a mother, with her child nearby or in her arms,
I want to hold my son. I want to pick him up from school and hold him until
my heart stops hurting such that my brain tells me it's being flattened, folded,
when I know better. It's beating along as usual. Same fist-like shape as ever.
But not the sound I think, used to think of, lub dub, thudding, steady, muffled.
Since the cardiogram I know the sound is wet, bubbling, popping, and
every time I think of it, I feel sick. I'm uncertain about my body again for
the first time since my mother dissected a frog in front of me and I saw how
beautifully colored the organs can be. But then I was filled with excitement
at the body's potential and not nauseated by the secrets the body keeps.
If I go to pick up my son, I'll forget how badly I want to hold him in the car.
Through our evening of errands, dinner, bath time, I might not get to hold him
until bed. I will be tired. I will think of my own bed. Even as I hold him, I will
think of how to place his head back on the pillow, how to bring my arm back
along my own body. My elbow slips into the curve under my ribs. My whole
body is the infinite, the dips, the pivots—placeholders for the rest of my body.
An act of containment.
Mostly I forget I’ve shot a gun,
but I took riflery at summer camp.
The first shot I took was so close
to the center of the target that
the counselor asked if I was sure
I hadn’t shot a gun before. Yes,
I was sure. I blushed. I never
shot well again, and not because
I didn’t want to. I liked lying there
with the rifle. I liked the target.
I liked competing with the boys
while most girls were in dance.
Dance class I could take at home.
Not riflery. Not the measured
distance in the woods. Not the
little turf laid out for us, our
stomachs. I didn’t think anything
bad could happen. I worried more
about bathing in the lake than
the bullets or even how my arm
might ache, shoulder bruise.
But I don’t think it did. I think my
body resisted it least. My mind,
second least. I don’t think I ever
even imagined the target as any
wild thing—just the paper it was.
I don’t want to shoot a gun now,
not at a range. But I’d lie down
again with a rifle in the woods.
I’d imagine a little threat this time.
One I was always meant to hit.
I Thought it Was a Good Idea to Walk to CVS with My Son on a Ninety Degree Day
First we go to the Rita’s next door. The plastic spoon slices that flesh inside my lips—
because you wouldn’t call that skin, right? For the rest of the day I run my tongue over the slices,
which remind me of the shape of the spoon, as if it’s in my mouth again.
We waited so long at CVS, I bought my son a coloring book that was on sale.
You color in a page, then you use an app on your phone to transform it. They call it 4D
as if everyone’s an idiot.
For the walk home, we take nine smaller roads. I catch sight of a ground down stump
to the right of a sidewalk. Only then do I see branches piled high to the left. And just like that
we’re walking through a body like it’s nothing.
I complain to my husband on the phone about how I can’t get the stroller
over the broken cement of someone’s driveway. Only then do I see someone sitting in the yard
within earshot. I want to apologize. I want to say, It’s like mine.
But it’s too late. All these delays. All this delayed. And I’m a bitch at the end
of a three-mile walk after my insurance almost denied coverage for my anxiety medication.
I think my anxiety isn’t mine at all. I think it’s communal.
At home, we drink water. Then we color in a dragon. With the app, he flies above the page,
the color my son gave his skin, his head turning like he heard my son’s voice,
until he does it over and over, predictable little dragon head. Whole predictable body.
We’ll all be sleeping tonight, at some point. At some point,
we’ll all be sleeping tonight. Unless we die in these last hours of the day.
But if we make it through, my head will look like yours, asleep. Just like it. Just like that.