ALL the Way Open
1. What was your last bite?
The girl who made me fried chicken and waffles for breakfast.
2. Provide us with a 300-word lecture that is titled “Experience as Form, Grammar as Instinct.”
I’ll take 20: There exists an infinity of sense for every expectation of syntax or sequence. Find your limit and lean in. Hard.
3. Share with us an image that surprised you from a recent piece of writing. What was the surprise; how did it wake you from a dull sleep?
I’ll share an image that erupted in my life before it erupted in my writing: I recently left home for a day, and when I got home, the front door was wide open. ALL the way open. It had been a really windy day and I guess I’d just forgotten to lock it. TO my total disbelief, I had been out for at least eight hours, but absolutely nothing had come of it.
My instinct for the overwhelming feeling of shaken-up-ness I experienced was, of course, to work that door in the body of a poem. I had to give it a location that was accurate to the sense disruption I experienced standing before that wide-openness in order to find the moment after.
What I can tell you about waking is that when I saw that door, and processed the absence of events, I felt fine. Not in the sense that I believe the world is fine, or is going to be fine. It was the deepest of surprises, the fine. Who knows how long the poem will take to come all the way through that door, but.
4. Why do you believe in no genres, just writing?
I would never use the phrase ‘just’ writing. But I do believe that the creative and/or transformative powers we harness and work as writers are best thought of as forces rather than as forms whose territories are defined from the outside, and as a general rule I wish we invested less attention around classification. Poets tell stories. Essayists go lyric. Fiction writers embed manifestoes. Plenty of poems contain no poetry at all. Some essays risk no failure whatsoever. Some stories do more to empty narrative than to add to it. We are all working from our individual and communal wells of imagination—tuning to the messages, the windows, the tensions, the passages that call for our attention, juggling our questions and myths and criticisms and felt music. To me, genre (like gender) only really feels meaningful—or I should say magical— when it dives into its own cracks.
5. The _________ imaginary. And where do we limit ourselves?
The RADICAL, ESSENTIAL, INCALCULABLE, UNCONTAINABLE, INSEPARABLE, EMPATHY-AWAKENING, MOTHERFUCKING HOT, DIVINE imaginary.
We think the imagination is about making things up. It is about making, and things, and up-ness, but engaging the imagination often means leaning harder into what’s real, into what is, instead of into what’s ‘not’ or what ‘could be.’
That’s part of why the imagination of form excites me: forms give shape to what is already present, just lacking a recognizable body. I think forms, in their multiplicity, in their plurality, are the most immediate vocabulary and project of sense. Moreso than language.
6. What does it mean for you to be a (contest) judge and (workshop) leader? Share with us an example of how you re-imagine, and therefore revitalize, the workshop.
I’ve judged for the Publishing Triangle’s annual awards (on the poetry side) for the last three years. What that means logistically is that I read like mad, and hard, and I think a lot about the difference between convenient poetry and poetry that risks something to get more impossible sense onto the page and in the air around the poem and its reader. It means I care about what happens with books that I think are complete, all-in projects, and that I read books to find what’s live and living in them. It means I would rather read work that is still open on one end, that is going after its vision for itself so hard that it’s possibly gotten a little smudged in the making. I would rather read pages by an author who is still en route somewhere any day.
And that’s true in my workshops as well. I design all my workshops around the principle that process is circular, not linear, and that the single most important thing I can do for my students (aside from getting them to engage their imaginations more consciously) is to drive their attention into process issues at every interval—to get them woken up to the circularity of it all that lives inside, and that can be worked with and FOR. Beginners often have more courage and honesty with their questions than those who have had long enough to forget what there is for the learning or the remembering. Masters know they are beginning all over again every time they show up. It’s our relationships to the questions that requires work, not the state of asking.
I make my own workshops outside of institutions and work with some people for years while they’re becoming authors, so the workshop is a fundamentally different space for me than it is for most folks. Workshop is one of my favorite words. The way that word conjures the big table and the people coming to it because it matches the impossible things that have claimed them inside. I love a big table.
7. Can the poem be without identity? Can it then function socio-politically?
I don’t know if any made thing can be without an identity—it is with the hands that we manipulate—but I only really believe in identities when there is some room for them to be bendy. Why do we express, other than to express our bending?
That word FUNCTION. Poems are not here to serve. There are here to invoke. Poetry is performative language—language that claims some equivalence with action, language that challenges and is challenged by our quotidian and transactional social performance. I have been motivated to think about all of this harder over the last six months or so watching #blackpoetsspeakout unfold over social media—I think I have learned more from witnessing that wielding of poetry than I have from most of the poetry I have come to as a ‘reader.’
8. Whose writing excites you right now?
Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Lidia Yuknavitch—none of whom are new obsessions, but all of their most recent books have just undone me.
Joanna Klink, Sina Queyras, and Alice Fulton, whose newest collections are all favorites of mine this spring—they’re all such maximalists in verse, in such stunningly different ways.
I cannot wait for francine j harris’ next collection to come out.
9. Kore Biters Womanifesto: Please add two-three tenets for transgressive and transformative behavior that you believe every woman writer should abide by or incorporate into their lives or writing practice.
Don’t give up your share of the space, even if it means someone slams right into you on the sidewalk because they decided you would take the gutter.
Look for necks sticking out. Consider risk as an available currency.
Leave the conversation if it’s not the necessary one to go make the one that is.
10. Come up with a writing prompt that makes the invisible visible.
Take two or more things that aren’t ‘working’ and one pair of satisfying, heavy scissors. Make pieces. Put in a bag. Shake for as long as it takes an obliging empty table to look right back at you, then let it all fly. Anything that falls off the table goes. Anything that lands text side up goes. Engaging the pleasures afforded your fingertips by the stuff of those scraps, arrange the remainders in some kind of shape that pleases your sense of balance for the moment—maybe you’d even like to write some words on them about what they suggest, as nice and blank as they still are—then turn them over to examine their guarded undersides. Your first glimpse of what it is that wants your attention won’t come in focus. Look away from the table, the words, everything that is as soon as you see the first corner of it.
Contributed by Rae Gouirand