POETRY AROUND US – An Interview with Ariana Nadia Nash

Poetry Around Us

I Ask The Night: An Interview with Ariana Nadia Nash

ARIANA NADIA NASH is the winner of the Philip Levine Prize in Poetry for her collection, Instructions for Preparing Your Skin (Anhinga Press, 2013). She is also the author of the chapbook Our Blood Is Singing (Damask Press, 2012), and is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony residency, a Helene Wurlitzer fellowship, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and an Edes Finalist Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Rock & SlingThe Southeast Review, Poet LorePainted Bride Quarterly,Cimarron Review, and The Literary Bohemian, among other journals. She has taught at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and at the University of Chicago, and currently at the State University of New York at Buffalo. www.ariananadianash.com.



Fifth Wednesday Journal: Within the perceptual and figurative power of your poems, buoying them up, making them more real, speech is trusted to find and discover new rhythms and an individual idiom. It can be quick, but it isn’t fashionable fast-talk poetry, there’s nothing glib about it. Who are some of your models?

Ariana Nadia Nash: That’s good to hear. I often worry that my voice isn’t particularly individual, or rather can be so eclectic as to be unrecognizable — though I’m also equally suspicious of the idea of a single “voice” for any person.

Particularly in this work and also in my earlier work, I was influenced by the poets James Wright and Charles Simic, by the distilled, intense, luminous quality of their writing, and also by the poet Nathalie Anderson, a teacher of mine, and the poet Ai, who both have a steely quality to their work. There’s a brutality to it. It’s sharp, it’s finely, cleanly formed, like with a scalpel. Some of the confessional poets have that same steeliness. Especially in the contemporary moment, poets like Kim Addonizio and Denise Duhamel have a kind of grandiosity and gregariousness in their language that I think shaped what you’re noticing. But my influences are wide. I believe a person is a collection of so much language, what you read, the speech patterns of your parents, everything floating around in culture. Most recently, poets like Bernadette Mayer and Lisa Robertson have really blown me away. I’m fascinated by the way they seem to offer a feminist critique of Lacan. At least, that’s what I’ve been thinking about in recent work.


FWJ: Much has been made of the anxiety of influence but Harold Bloom’s model is resoundingly male in its psychology. How do you experience poetic influence? Has the way influence works for you changed any?

ANN: Yeah, this is a hugely important point. I find Bloom’s formulation bizarre in the extreme, honestly. There are so many other, better models for what it is to learn from others and to be beholden to them for who you are. I see no reason not be deeply comfortable with that, deeply comfortable with the degree to which we are shaped by what comes before us. I think often about how we are so very little ourselves, and we are so much other people, a kind of conglomeration of others. I remember writing a really terrible poem about this idea in high school — even then I felt this way — that I was a piece of all these people that I knew. My parents were especially formative for me in thinking about this, because I’m so much them. I’m so much this combination, sort of half and half and pretty evenly, and they’re such different people, that it makes me this sort of strange creature. But they gave me that feeling, early on, that each person is made up of the people who shape them, parents, friends and lovers, and who we read, and who we listen to. So in that way an anxiety of influence is really foreign to me, and I love the fact that all these people are writing through me. I talk to my friends about my poetry, and then five years later, who knows, some little thing that was said, it influences the way I write a line, and the idea of ever untangling that, it seems impossible. I mean, to be fair, Bloom’s not really talking about that. He’s interested in the question of genius, and how one moves from imitation to invention, but there’s this underlying idea that influence and self-making are necessarily opposed, and I clearly don’t see it that way.

FWJ: Evan Boland says somewhere that feminism provided her adequate politics but that it didn’t, for her, make for an adequate aesthetics. I sense, rather than persuasion, revolution of perception in your work. How do you keep your poetry so free from doctrine and yet so wholly answerable to feminine experiences?

ANN: I believe that there is an aesthetic world, an aesthetic layer to the world, and it is different from a moral layer or a political layer, and we do lose sight of that. Lose sight of the aesthetic nature of our bodily lives, our instincts, our pleasures, our revulsions. And I do worry about that, particularly in times like these, when politics is, and should be, dominating our thoughts. But then I also see that these things are inseparable — our aesthetic values are shaped by our political beliefs — and they become impossible to tear apart, and they shouldn’t be, because to pull them apart is to divest art of its potentially radical position.


FWJ: Louis Glück in her essay on courage says that poetry is a “revenge on circumstances.” Your poem “Confidence” has these lines, “But I want revenge — that many-armed / wild dancer of my dreams — to force herself / on him.” This poem re-thinks revenge. (The poem “Kali” seems to reject revenge altogether). Your poems are on tough personal matters, yet if the poems take no prisoners, it is partly because they refuse to wage war. How does a poetry of longing and generosity find redress?

ANN: Oh, this is a particularly great question because of what’s happening right now, the conversation we’re having about gender and about sexual violence, which is deeply related to this question and to this poem and to other poems in my first collection. When I experienced sexual violence, I honestly just didn’t know what to think about it. The experience involved, essentially, an initially positive though very drunk encounter, and then saying “no” to sex clearly and multiple times and those statements being ignored. I remember feeling humiliation and isolation and a loss of self, a loss of control, though it was also important to me to take responsibility for choosing to be drunk past the point of self-control. For me, the physical act of it was not, at the time, traumatic, but later on, when I thought about it, it became something that I wrote about as trauma. When I think about it now, on my own terms, for myself, I’m not sure. Sexual assault and rape don’t feel very descriptive of the experience I had — those terms feel reductive. This is something we need to figure out — we need more nuanced language for these experiences. But I may have paid too much attention to how others expected me to feel and less attention to how I was really feeling, which ironically, created a secondary loss of self.

I don’t see men and women in a dichotomy of aggressor and victim, or powerful and powerless, I see gender relations in our country as being mutually damaging. I think of it as incredibly damaging that we bring up men who don’t seem to have a sense of intimacy or desire for real intimacy. Men are so often cut off from values of intimacy and emotion, while women often have the privilege of being deeply in touch with these values. The man that I didn’t want to have sex with and who, despite that fact, still chose to have sex with me, is likely to be a victim of his own violences and repressions for many years. On the other hand, my experience led, over many years, to an even clearer sense of self and a commitment to communicative, intimate sex. So to come back to the question, in part, that’s just an aspect of who I am and what I truly believe — that violence does as much harm to the person who is being violent. I feel such deep pity about the dehumanizing effect of violence, and what it would mean to be a human who doesn’t know how else to relate to other humans except through violence. I’ve always felt that way, I think, and when I had my own experience of violence, as much as that term fits my particular story, I continued to feel that way, and so my poetry reflects that.


FWJ: In a poem like “Organ of the World’s Heart,” in much ofInstructions for Preparing Your Skin there’s at times a blurring of male and female culpability: any finalizing unity in erotics is discarded, and even at their most polarized, the male and female seem to share one heart, seem inextricable if only in their shared separation. That’s nothing I’ve seen in poetry before. Talk a little about how such division and such indivisibility can co-exist in your poetry.

ANN: I don’t want to suggest a normative value to the dynamic, but I’m interested in the cultural relationship between men and women, and the “he” and “she” are attempts to think through how we talk to one another, how we fail to see the other. And gender is a convenient and, also for me, a particularly compelling other. It has been in my life.

I think what you described is so beautifully true of love. Period — of any love. That any true intimacy is about connection and disconnection. Coming so close to someone and yet remaining separate is one of the most beautiful and agonizing human experiences. For me, at least. And particularly in that poem I’m speaking to what it is to come as close as two people can come in some ways and yet to find this tremendous gulf there nonetheless. When I was young, I experienced that gulf as a deeply painful failing of intimacy.

But this also goes toward gender and sexual relations and questions of sexual consent, and I feel it’s absolutely necessary that we acknowledge difference, that we don’t ask for a collapsing of difference between people. That we understand that communication between people will never be fully transparent, will always take place across difference.

Which means we have to be willing to have a conversation and to listen. I’m extremely happy that we’re hearing from women because it’s overdue that we listen to women, only I wish more women spoke from a place of pity for men. I wish we had these conversations in the context of the power that women have. That women seem to be raised with a higher capacity to understand what constitutes sexual intimacy, and what a deep loss it is to our culture, and our communities, and our families, and our children that so many men don’t know. And I think if we could see it more in those terms, then we could correct for it without casting women as weak or without agency.


FWJ: You have an allegorical imagination yet the poems scarcely read as such: they seem more experienced and derived than applied. Are you consciously haunted by allegory?

ANN: Allegory is extremely important to my work. I’m fascinated with telling stories and where stories fail us. We tell ourselves stories on a moment-to-moment basis. We explain ourselves to ourselves all the time, without stopping, and because of that we can lose sight of so much of how the world patterns itself, because our stories are limited and human, and there’s so much in the universe that is not human. One of the things that poetry can do, especially poetry that tends to the non-narrative, is to interrupt that narrative drive in us. As it interrupts, it reminds us of our story telling activity and the potential falseness of it. It’s not by any means necessarily false. It’s really beyond true and false. But to be aware of it, and to be able to think about the world in other terms — poetry helps to make that possible.


FWJ: I trust the instabilities of identity in these poems, as well as the insistence on identity: that stress is maybe implicit throughout these. The new poems, or quite a few of them, seem to rise less out of a lyric self and more out of dialogue. Where do you see these new poems leading? Are there projects you are working on now?

ANN: Dialogue has become extremely crucial to my work. I credit the poet Russell Edson with this. His poems are absolutely delightful in their stories and dialogue and their missed connections — “Tell Me” is very influenced by him. Also the poet Sabrina Orah Mark. She wrote this tremendous poem “The Departure” — in which the characters just keep repeating “Goodbye” to one another. I absolutely love it.

I’ve been writing poems that are literally dialogue, and I’m working on this project with Kiki Johnson, which is a book entirely of poems that we write back and forth to each other. We’ve been quite close, and so the poems are about our relationship and how it’s grown and changed. So it’s a book about female friendship, and it’s also a dialogue over time in poetry. The collection is really focused on what it is to collaborate on a life, to collaborate on thinking through life, and sharing thoughts, and of course the limits of that process.

I think dialogue is so important because we can’t communicate mind to mind. That’s sort of the failed fantasy of “Organ of the World’s Heart,” to be close enough to someone else to understand their thoughts. That’s technically impossible, yet we have language, this vessel that moves from our minds to others’ minds, in which we give each other our thoughts — indirectly, in and through language. So there’s always this tremendous disconnect. And for me poetry is the attempt to acknowledge this disconnect while attempting to bridge it, to test the limits of communication. And dialogue is this perfect, beautiful form for working through that.

I also value the decentering of the lyric self in poetry made of dialogue. To have multiple voices in a poem immediately speaks to a multiple singular. It’s also a self-narrativizing interruption —there is no controlling perspective. Of course, really there is, because it’s my writing. But the narration doesn’t actually intrude on how you see the characters.


FWJ: Travel seems far-flung in and core to your book. Yet the poems often disclude markers: it is almost as if the speaker were insisting that wanderlust happen bodily and internally, as if all travel were so. Could you talk more clearly than I just have about your personal travels. How does travel figure in your writing process?

ANN: I’ve been steeped in travel. My first trip was when I was three months old, to India with my mother, who was going to see her dying father then. But the travel just never stopped in my family. We traveled usually at least once a year, often going back to India, but elsewhere as well. My parents grew up traveling. My mother’s father was an engineer on a ship, so she visited Japan and Kenya when she was young, and my father went to Germany, and East Berlin, in the 60s, and his father had polio and was paralyzed from the waist down and walked using crutches. But they still traveled. So there’s this deep drive, apparently, in my family to travel.

But maybe because I’ve traveled for so long, I have a spirit for travel, so even when I’m in one place, I tend to be a little bit of a traveler there. And I’ve just moved around so much in my life. I’ve lived for three or more years in four different cities in my adult life, and also lived two months or more in about five or six others and that doesn’t even capture the amount of moving around I do each year. I think writing comes out of intense experience, and not just self-experience. That’s what’s so wonderful about travel, it takes you out of yourself. It makes you attendant to the world, attendant to differences.

FWJ: The History of a Kiss” is another sourcing poem, an ultimate-feeling one. It’s remarkable. And it does new things for your poetry. It arcs through shared history, then literally comes back to the light of day, then goes back past that into the verbally unimaginable. It ends on a resonant quiet. I’d guess this may be a crucial poem for you. How did it happen?

ANN: Yeah, absolutely, these poems are some of the most important to me of all the work I’ve written. I wrote the first one first. It came about because I was asking questions about origins and about the strangeness of human physicality and how some actions seem so natural to us. And I had been wondering about whether humans have always kissed. It might seem inevitable, but when you think about it, it’s not doing a whole lot biologically, so probably at some stage of evolution it emerged. And it turns out that kissing is not entirely universal, not all cultures kiss.

So that first poem came out with the wall and the idea of sex without tenderness — I mean when you think of animals it isn’t so unlikely that human sex might have looked less gentleat a certain point. And the second poem, which I’m pretty sure I wrote third, is a little bit of a riff on Aristophanes’ story in Plato’s Symposium. That’s a story that just obsesses me. There’s a great rewriting of it in the song “Origin of Love” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I’ve reworked that story in four or five different failed poems, and this was the first time I felt I succeeded in reimagining it but retaining that sense of mythical unity and love as an attempt to return to a lost origin.

I was attempting in the first three Kissing poems, to address different forms of mythmaking, and history making, different forms of storytelling. And the poems are meant to tell stories and to expose the storytelling function, how the story changes. The whole series came out of trying to let questions open more, and the idea of there being multiple true answers to a question, and maybe no answer in language. So certainly a return to the verbally unimagined is a beautiful way to put it.


FWJ: One more timely question, to quote from “I ask the Night . . .”:  “And the tyrant did nothing and felt the deep satisfaction of power.” How does poetry undo tyranny? Yours seems to take it on as an inside job, so to speak.

ANN: I really wish I had an answer to this.  I think we are up against a cultural turn away from poetry in America. In my darkest moments as a writer, I feel really distant from the work that has to be done in this country. In my more optimistic moments, I feel that it’s critical to wield language against the onslaught of forces that rid it of meaning and invention and creativity, and that great writers keep a language alive and keep people alive to language, which makes it possible to imagine futures that are different than our own present and to see beyond the propaganda, the lies, and the often vapid language of politics.

To be human is fundamentally tied up in language and so poetry, at its best, is about language and about our nature within language. So for me poetry is the most direct examination of what it is to be human. We know the world through language and it’s impossible to tear apart who we are in the world and who we are in language, and so poetry is responsible to that above all.


FWJ: Maybe a single poem or painting can change — rewire the brain, crowbar open the heart. I heard W. S. Merwin say once “that is how it happens. Poetry changes one life at a time.” Did anything remotely like this happen when you encountered Rothko’s paintings?

ANN: Rothko’s been one of my favorite painters since the poet David Johnson explained him to me. My initial reaction to abstract painting was very generic and kneejerk, and even once I became much more interested in it, my sense of Rothko remained simplistic. But David’s enthusiasm for him was really catching, his sense of the voices, the spirits lurking behind the paint, of the nuance and movement in it. Since then, I’ve always been on the lookout for Rothkos.

This poem I wrote in Nebraska City, of all places, at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. So I wasn’t actually looking at a painting. It was based on a particular Rothko — I can see it in my head — but I’m not actually sure where the painting is. I’d been in the SFMOMA, the National Gallery, and the Art Institute in the previous six months, but I don’t think any of them have the Rothko I was remembering. So it’s a mystery.

What I love about a Rothko painting is that the solidity of the color is really a deep illusion, because there’s really so much texture and movement. So you can have a block of black, and yet there are so many layers, so much energy. And that’s really a metaphor for the entirety of The Book of Night — the solidity, the darkness of a black space and yet that space contains such movement, such mental movement of imagination.

The poem is the final poem in a series of poems about painters. The series revolves around how different people can look at a single image like the night sky, at a canvas, a counterintuitively dark space, and bring a different way of seeing to it. And that sense of perspectival truth is so important to the collection and to its processing of memory, and its sense of how memory can become a physical manifestation.


William Olsen has published six collections of poetry, most recently TechnoRage.  He makes his home in Kalamazoo.

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