When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
It began early. In my journals, I often wrote in poemspeak. A few poems were published in high school in the school paper. But the genesis of poetry, being the path that would one day find me, was something else.
One of the first presents, wrapped and ribboned, I remember my mother giving me, that was a real present, from her (self) to my (self) was a book: Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. I was 8 years old. Gibran imprinted me. I felt I walked into that book at 8 years old, more like a mirror I fell through, and entered into a secret kingdom of poetry that was the subtext of all my interior ground. Probably, the genesis of painting … which was already underway at an earlier age. It’s one thing to do something, like read, and to love reading, and another thing altogether for a book or a voice to enter you as a seed of germination. That wakes up something in you. As a clue to your dharma.
I didn’t think of The Prophet as “poetry.” But rather as a speaking book … it was alive. I carried this book around with me, slept with it, and read it over and over. Some of it quite disturbing. But I loved the feeling of the beauty and the wisdom there. I listened and felt the words until meaning eventually reached my understanding. I can still hear the voice of the book and feel the presence of its author.
Earlier, and always, influences were the furrows and cadences of Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer and Anglican hymns. Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, nursery rhymes and original fairy tales. These books nourished my imagination.
Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
When I was working in LA, I traveled to Mexico on a research trip for a project. I returned with malaria and began a long and cyclical journey toward healing. In my darkest hour, an auspicious invitation arrived in the mail. It was for a tutorial with the poet and social activist James Ragan at Charles University, Prague. He knew about my nonfiction project, and had heard about my father’s death, and thought I needed poetry. Prague turned out to be the front gate into the world of poem and writing poetry. Ragan’s history with the Velvet Underground, the Communist occupation, and his friendship with Václav Havel, made me see poetry as a radical act. It was more immediate than film. And I soon realized, poetry, uniquely, carries the poet, as well as the reader, as well as the weight of the poem.
Two years after returning from Prague, I was diagnosed with Lyme. I don’t usually talk about my healing but taking on the craft of poetry and the healing seem to be linked. I remember thinking that if I only had one year to live or one year to be able to write, there was one particular poem I wanted to get right. It was a poem draft that haunted me. I felt I could write one poem, this is the one, and maybe from there, one more poem. It was more of a personal challenge. Somehow, I found The Poetry Society in London. And their 1-to-1 scheme. I emailed the poet, Heidi Williamson, and asked her if she could help me with this one poem. Heidi became the one who opened the window to this whole world of living poetry and the living poets. I walked through the gate and into the garden.
Somehow the working of reality into these seemingly harmless lines of poetry had taken me into my deepest reservoir of not knowing and all the unsayable experiences of our lineage and gender. I know that sounds outrageous. It was like that. My mother was from another century, reared by a mother further back, also born to a much older mother, and in that way, from another country, another time. Places and people that no longer exist. And not remembered. Kept unremembered on purpose. Also, the poetry was at work digging out my repressed voice. The other side of this translation process was the process of unlearning everything I knew about language and writing. It was a whittling, a carving down to beginner’s mind. Writing poetry was like painting with oils. Layer by layer and waiting for each layer to dry. And the light and the perspective constantly changing.
After years of this I felt maybe I was in the wrong medium. I screwed up my courage to quit and say to Heidi, “This is really, really hard. And it’s awful. The work is not good enough. It’s not even poetry. I don’t think I’m cut out for this. I am not a poet. What was I thinking. And what am I doing alone in this room?” (Some of this was Covid quarantine talking.) And Heidi would say, “Yeah, it is hard. Nothing is wrong. This is what it is.” I think that was when I was moving from unconsciously incompetent to consciously incompetent.
By then, the only way out was through. There nowhere else to go. I kept going and somehow one day, looking back, there was a long trail of poems and a body of work, that has become a book.
What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
When Kay Hadden contacted me with the news on behalf of Mslexia, I was so moved with heartfelt gratitude that I cried. I’m so thrilled to be honoured in this way. In all this time, even when I have received awards in the past, I don’t think I thought of myself as a poet. It was more about the poem … like “I just work here” for the muse of the poem … until today, when I was shortlisted for this prize. The Forward Prize means I am a poet.
Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?
‘Oh Do You Know The Flower Man’ is part of what will be my first collection. I am finishing up now. The collection is heavily informed by the Greek myth of Demeter’s loss and search for her daughter, Persephone, who has been abducted into the underworld. The Flower Man is Persephone’s abductor, Hades.
I have always been unsatisfied with the story of Hades “getting away with” taking Persephone. Changing the course of her life, her mother’s life and all of Eleusis, a great spiritual and matriarchal Greek empire. This inquiry has driven the unfolding of the book and this poem.
When the poem first came through, it was all about the flowers: markets of flowers like the ones in Guadalajara, Mexico, like the baskets of flowers women cart on their backs in Diego Rivera paintings. I was intrigued with Grasse, France sitting in the hills of flowers.My childhood sat in the gardens of my mother’s flowers, the names of flowers, the tending of flowers, the butterflies. But even in my childhood garden, there was a slight feeling of a daily need to watch over the flowers and trees, to protect them from intrusion, like whitefly or tent worms, rabbits, and deer. Or teenaged boys or the cat burglar (who was a teenaged boy) robbing the houses in the neighbourhood.
And the flowers are also about language. In this case, a false language. I was interested in the murder of the essence of a girl. That left a girl alive, but dead inside, and how that happens … trancelike … the poem and the flowers had to sway, trance-like. And the whole thing begins to morph into being more than one thing at once. The flowers, for example. Are flowers, and they are also girls.
Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
I went from first love, Yeats to stark love, Sharon Olds. I moved from The Wasteland to Rachel Long’s Red Hoover. From Leda and The Swan to Fiona Benson’s Zeus. Brave and fearless. From Hope is the thing with feathers to Liz Berry’s Motherhood of The Republic. I have to mention Surge by Jay Bernard. When I get lost, I go to Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums. I go to Byung-Chul Han for his deep well of thought, a poet’s philosopher. Virgil: the glory of the beehives, Japanese Death Poems: written by Zen Monks, The Poetic Edda, Dante, Kathleen Raine, Laura (Riding) Jackson, Robin Robertson – On Roane Head, master storyteller, Emily Berry – Unexhausted Time, the element of surprise, and Kaveh Akbar – his invisible life made visible, the spiritual references, his elegance with words.
What is next for you as a poet?
Finishing up the last details of my book and submitting the manuscript for publication.