On Queer Poetics, Writing Courageously, and Becoming Otherwise: An Interview with Nomi Stone by Amanda Newell

On Queer Poetics, Writing Courageously, and Becoming Otherwise: An Interview with Nomi Stone by Amanda Newell
October 29, 2020 Newell Amanda

Last month, I had the pleasure of talking to Nomi Stone, who has been living for the last several months with her wife, the fiction writer Rose Skelton, and their dog Honeybear, on the Isle of Mull, just off Scotland’s West Coast. We covered everything from queer poetics to anthropology and her newest manuscript in progress, Fieldworkers of the Sublime, but what became most clear to me in the course of our conversation was just how personal her latest work is—and how she has learned, and is learning, “to write courageously, to ‘get dirt under [her] fingernails.'”
–Amanda Newell

 

AN: I’m interested in the ways in which your poetry contemplates the relationship between the self and the community and the ways in which community shapes identity. Your first two poetry collections, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly 2008) and Kill Class (Tupelo Press, 201), both involve a speaker who is welcomed, to some degree, into an “other” community—and in the case of Kill Class, she is observing a military community, but always aware of her difference. This requires a sort of double vision, no?

 

NS: I love this question of double vision, Amanda. My first two collections of poetry were yes driven by the charge of the insider-outsider position and also questions of identity: in Stranger’s Notebook, although I am Jewish and the daughter of a reform Rabbi, I spent time in a more traditional Jewish community in North Africa to press on the valves of something that I wanted to understand: what is faith, what is ritual, what is belonging, what is relationship to homeland, and why did these questions produce such friction for me? In Kill Class, I was doing my anthropological fieldwork for my dissertation, and I observed some US military pre-deployment training exercises in mock Middle Eastern villages around America to write about war.

 

Anthropology’s key method for fieldwork is so-called “participant-observation”—and the poems in Kill Class are poems of witness, poems of uneasy participation, and poems of complicity. I am not in the American military (observer) and I write to critique the military (critique); however, I am an American citizen. As such I am entangled (participant). This brings me to your question of  double vision, which paradoxically creates both twofoldness but also sometimes halfness. The so-called “field” was always elsewhere, and I was at its edge, working through self/other, here/there, field/life, work-self/ private-self, where one is perhaps often engaging with both, but sometimes only one at a time, and potentially occluding or sidelining the other.

 

My new collection of poems in progress, Fieldworkers of the Sublime tries to explode “fieldwork” beyond anthropology, pushing against the binary between Field and Life, and letting being-alive overflow in every direction. It is a book about awe, about fear, and also the ways we are each observers and participants in the sublime (through nature, science, the social world, and intimate life). It is a manuscript about love and my new marriage and queerness and desire and my attempts to overcome my own limits, as well as the thinkers (mostly anthropologists and philosophers) who shape my imagination.

 

The poems are also populated with marine biologists and octopus dissections, botanists and chanterelle-foragers— and my encounters with scientists and others I’ve become friends with on the island of Mull off the West Coast of Scotland, my wife’s beloved home. But this book is not trying to understand a particular community or a problem the way my other two were: it is instead a bid for an embodied poetics with fewer partitions and more encounters. My poems have become more capacious, letting everything in: the ocean and gooseberries of the island, but also the shopping malls and playgrounds of my suburban childhood—each spangling open through  conversations and memory and dreaming and feeling and loving and reading.

 

AN:  Nomi, when you say that your poems have become more “capacious” in terms of “letting everything in,” I wonder—have you found the shape of your poems has changed at all as your subject matter has changed? Or maybe it’s more a matter of approach in terms of writing them? You are already someone who is at home inhabiting the space of the page; it’s not uncommon for you to juxtapose, say, a compact little lyric, with a sequence poem that unfolds across the whole page, where you are very intentionally utilizing the space within and between lines and stanzas.

 

NS: Thank you for asking about shape! Ever since I read Brenda Hillman when I was 19, I’ve thought hard about how to occupy the page in surprising ways; she has these poems in the usual spot, justified left on the page but then there are these couple of words at the bottom of the page on the right, like burning jewels. In Fieldworkers, the poems take space in different ways: there are some ambling, meandering poems with very long lines, and poems that extend and then contract, and many tiny tercets, and then a series of prose poems that constitute the field-note section of the book, and then there is a long, fat single stanza poem (I never write these!) that feels like it almost buckles under the sensuous and emotional abundance it tries to hold.

 

I’ve also been thinking a lot about form to render modes of being and becoming in the world, and also the peril of not being safe in your body in America at this moment. To this end, I want to both inhabit and play with form and also queer it. For me, a queer life is one that has possibly been hidden and refused, and must sometimes spiral through the world rather than take the already-made road.  In this sense, a queer poetics is in some way anti-capitalist, if capitalism is about a mechanism that grids lives and bodies into a known and acceptable categories, such as man, woman, child. It’s about being on the outside, but finding new ways to speak. Complicating form is I think one way of pressing towards the unsayable, or saying through another means.

 

I’m teaching a class on queer poetics in the spring to explore some of these questions.  In my poem, “On World-Making,” I reshuffle a Petrarchan sonnet and make mirroring sections by splitting the sestet and embedding the octave inside—to consider the self after loss, and what survives. I’m beginning some new poems that queer form in other ways: using syntactic deferral, denaturing and estranging language, and using stutter rhyme.

 

I think that to write a book is to become otherwise—and to this end, I want to extend and push myself into that becoming: on the level of braver subject matter, different shapes for my poems, and a shifting relationship to form.

 

AN:  You are making me think about all the ways in which we as poets bring who we are to the page, and how queer poetics is maybe not so much about the content of any one particular poem as it is about approach—how one encounters or embraces the making of poetry. For example, “Visiting Omaha, In-Between Times,” is not, at least in terms of its content, a queer poem per se, but I do see you using the ghazal to “complicate form” in just the ways you describe::

 

Years later, when I was a child, my father wrote a letter in the paper
protesting Reagan’s visit to Germany, his stop at a Nazi cemetery. Mama,

 

remember? Men wearing black clothes came in our house, glass breaking, rummaging.
I was tucked inside your closet, hemmed within the dark, among your

 

leather boots. Eyes bright in there, waiting to be born back. In quantum time
it’s not only that then gives now a love-bite, but it’s the way now mothers

 

over, holding her, holding her.

 

I broke out Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary to see what it had to say about the ghazal—and what I didn’t know was that in addition to being a kind of love poem (I know, I’m oversimplifying), ghazal “is the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt and knows it must die.” The disruption of the “mother” refrain with “Mama” and “your” comes precisely at the point in the poem where the speaker is most threatened, hiding in the closet and “hemmed within the dark.” This disruption, to me, reads as one way in which the speaker is pressing towards that “unsayable.” And also, perhaps, of undermining some of the dominant, and surely patriarchal, power structures at play.

 

What was the process of writing this poem like? I’m curious to know if you tried other forms before the poem found its voice in the ghazal?

 

NS: Yes! The ghazal as the form of love and separation: the cry of the cornered ghazal, the cry of our mortality and the mortality of those most beloved to us. The poem’s structure tethers us to mother, as its end-word, but as you say, then bucks us away. As you say, in the moment in the poem when the speaker is most a child and most afraid, she breaks with the form (“mother”) and replaces it with a direct address (“mama” and then “your”); for me, this is an attempt to slow time and hold the mother closer, to stop the rippling of the pattern’s forward movement and its ultimate finitude. The end of the ghazal thereafter distorts into a dream of quantum time: as the past and present and future criss-crossing between plenitude and loss. In the final three verses, mother is used in different ways than it had been: first, now mothers over, an anticipation of loss. Then the speaker at last speaks her great fear: “of a life without my mother.” And then, in the final couplet, the word “mother” is at the beginning of the second line, rather than at the end of it, in the typical suturing, closing gesture of repetition of the ghazal.

 

Time heats and freezes, heats and freezes, in and out
of mother, who consoles the future: oh my darling, you’re good on this earth.

 

And rather than the speaker invoking her own name exactly in the final line (as is typical of the form of the ghazal), she and her mother’s voice merge: “oh my darling, you’re good on this earth.” Naked on the earth, the self must console the self. Form is to me a space of dizzying possibility and constraint, and queering form is an edge against which I make myself and the poem.

 

AN: “Naked on the earth, the self must console the self.” Let me just sit with that for a minute. It’s so true, isn’t it—especially in this particular politicultural moment we’re living in? If form, for you, is a space of “dizzying possibility and constraint,” I also see so much of your work as being wholly grounded in the body.

 

In your poem, “According to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, Most of Us Will Be in a Car Crash Once Every Eighteen Years”—which title I love, by the way, and strikes me as very James Wright—the speaker writes of having dinner with her beloved following a car accident:

 

 Tonight, it’s chickpeas, cayenne, lemon.
 We roar when I fart on her leg. Oh body,
 trumpet, harp, little nothing, number

 

among numbers.

 

I love that there’s a fart in this poem! I mean, it recalls for me the delight of first reading those lines from Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale”— “This Nicholas just then let fly a fart/As loud as it had been a thunder-clap”—there is humor, but there is also this sort of celebration of the body and recognition of our simple humanity. I’m not sure what the question is here—maybe I’m asking about the relationship between body and humor, the necessity of the two? How do you see these elements working together in your poem?

 

NS: My wife and I always challenge each other to write courageously, to “get dirt under our fingernails.” To me, this means that I need to write poems that frighten me, that I need to dig into my own shame and embarrassment and longing and hope and dread. I wrote about my own complicity and shame in Kill Class, but my own body was truly not at the center of that struggle. My body was one step removed and safe. I’m asking myself to write about spaces that feel less personally safe to me now. I was really amused and pleased to be able to incorporate a fart into a poem, though I suppose in the end, it’s really a poem about my fear of death, about my own inconsequential body, and about hoping that love (and in this case, a love that is not always safe in America) will ford us in some way across our smallness every day.

 

AN: One final question: What are you reading now?

 

Today, Monday October 26th, Amy Coney Barrett is likely to be confirmed to the Supreme Court, and we are about a week away from the election. I feel such terrible dread for this country, and such shame. And such fear for the vast numbers of people in this country who are more vulnerable than ever, amidst the pandemic, amidst the murderous greed of Trumpism. But as a way to lean into hope, I’m re-reading Gaby Calvocorresi’s brilliant book, Rocket Fantastic, which I plan to teach in my spring class. In the book, the musical symbol of the segno () is used as a capacious unending pronoun, to be read as “an intake of breath when a body is unlimited in its possibilities.” Gaby’s book is no utopia: it is a space of unbelievable reckoning with power and violence and capitalism, the small, fragile body trying to live in between. Therein, she dreams up bigger vessels to hold us; and with that, I breathe.

 

Visiting Omaha, In-Between Times

Omaha means dwellers on the bluff. Like time’s cliff,
where I trespass into my mother’s time, and then her mother’s:

Mom, how she loved you: apricot and plum love, you’re good on this earth
love. When I’m small, I stack red checkers on the floor. Or am I you, mother?

Parkwood lane is a street like a song; here is my mom’s once-beautiful home.
We knock: Please, just a peek, asks my mother.

Underneath papers, cat fur, and smoke are the kitchen’s bones.
Monday is meatloaf, Tuesday fish, the ache of my mother’s mother.

Now in your house, we tap on the hollows in the closet where you hid
from the Nazis in your imagination. The closet was your mother’s.

Years later, when I was a child, my father wrote a letter in the paper
protesting Reagan’s visit to Germany, his stop at a Nazi cemetery. Mama,

remember? Men wearing black clothes came in our house, glass breaking, rummaging.
I was tucked inside your closet, hemmed within the dark, among your

leather boots. Eyes bright in there, waiting to be born back. In quantum time
it’s not only that then gives now a love-bite, but it’s the way now mothers

over, holding her, holding her. We walk down a cold avenue in her town
but at the end of it is the future. I tell her I am afraid of a life without my mother.

Time heats and freezes, heats and freezes, in and out
of mother, who consoles the future: oh my darling, you’re good on this earth.

According to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America,
Most of Us Will Be in a Car Crash Once Every Eighteen Years

So when I return
there will be a couch
on the earth and we will sit on it together

my legs like a starfish
around hers
as we eat dinner.

When I was a child,
I learned if you add the values
of the letters of the Hebrew word

Chai (life), you’ll score eighteen; we give
children money in its multiples
as they age: Live! Live!

Live! Jews write the magic number
on each beloved
child, which is why I felt the spell

even when grown,
around my Toyota as I went under
in that long hour of glass.

Waking, I knock
on the door of my life,
which is small and sweet. Like yours. And yours.

Tonight, it’s chickpeas, cayenne, lemon.
We roar when I fart on her leg. Oh body,
trumpet, harp, little nothing, number

among numbers.

We’re Only Picking This One Kind of Mushroom, But We Know What It Is

What a summer! Our basket
isn’t big enough. We look near the roots
considering each neck, proof
that after a good rain, the sleeping

fructify, moon-pale threads
tessellating together under the soil.
My mother & father have stayed
together: they love each other

& usually are good, each to
the other, & my mother’s
mother & father both loved
the other and when young they rode

horses together, & my father’s
father harmed my father’s mother
but my father is so astonishingly
kind, to my mother and to his son

and daughters; he taught me how to give
whoever it is I love the bigger half,
to hold the thread together. After
rain, you can count on new

mushrooms, lit fruit in the moss.
I’m not afraid of anything. Ok, I am!
But, sweetie, look. All these tiny trumpets.

What They Sent into Space

Not knowing who
the capsule could encounter,
the humans sent,
on gold-plated copper,
the music of the whole spinning
earth into space:               Thunder
Footsteps
Laughter        Hellos
in 55 languages. Pictures, too,
in case the next world knew not
sound:      a pulsar map
a diagram of hydrogen       our bodies
bones like bells     weren’t they
beautiful?    But not one image
of the wars      bright oblongs
of bombs    nor the California fires
lit when the earth’s shrubs were
dry as fuel         Embers raining
as a man and a woman run
into their pool, only noses above water
trying to breathe, as flames rise
like the gold record through space
past the heliosphere where wind
gathers heat from the stars       solid
bypassing liquid, now gas.     They
try to breathe through the night,
taking turns, zinnias of fire growing
around them in the distance. Reader
are you alone? Go ahead, text
the one you love who loves you
but cannot in the end carry one ounce
of your fear.

 

 

Nomi Stone is a poet and an anthropologist, and author of two full-length poetry collections, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly 2008) and Kill Class (Tupelo 2019), a finalist for the Julie Suk Award. Winner of a Pushcart Prize and a Fulbright, Stone’s poems appear recently in POETRYAmerican Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, The Nation, and elsewhere. An Assistant Professor in Poetry at the University of Texas, Dallas, she is at work on Fieldworkers of the Sublime, her third collection of poetry, and her first anthropological monograph Pinelandia: Human Technology and American Empire/ an anthropology and field-poetics of contemporary war is forthcoming (UC Press, 2022).

Amanda Newell’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baltimore Review, The Cimarron Review, Gargoyle, Rattle, Scoundrel Time and elsewhere. The recipient of scholarships or fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Frost Place, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, she is litigation director for a Washington, D.C.-based law firm and teaches part time at Frostburg State University. She also holds an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson’s program for writers.