A Conversation Between Collier Nogues and Sarah Blake

Sarah Blake: I’ll start by asking about one of my favorite lines in your book: “I didn’t die, / but was invited to” (3). And then a few lines later, soldiers and their ghosts pass “through the sharp-eyed hills / to the interior” (3). I thought of old school vampire stories where they’re not allowed in unless they’re invited. I loved this power that the interior had — a home, and one’s power over their own home. I think I especially loved it because I was very paranoid about intruders when I was a child.

Collier Nogues: I was too! I lived down a dirt road off a county lane off a two-lane highway to nowhere, and I went to sleep every night worried about “robbers.” Is that something common to children, or girl children? It seems to me that it might be — the culturally-encouraged fear of the perimeter being breached, whether of a building or of one’s own body. And then I ended up living on a fenced military base with five carefully guarded entry gates. My paranoia was echoed on a meta scale by military security protocol.

What’s in the interior, anyway? Safety? But immediately I think of Western fantasies of non-Western places (see: Heart of Darkness; see, especially, Apocalypse Now): the “interior” is where things get really dangerous for their (white, male) protagonists because there all sense of division between ‘self’ and ‘other’ is lost. And that interior is usually not only raced as “other” but also feminized, as opposed to the masculinist discoverer setting off into it.

Sarah your book flips that model on its head, in a way: it has a female discoverer approaching not so much an interior as an exterior: you, a white woman and soon-to-be mother, approaching the public persona(e) of Kanye West, a black man and son. His fans and critics alike imagine his interior is theirs, an object to opine about, which is something your book is critical of and interested in. And your speaker (you, more or less) is alert to the risks and failures of her imagining … so that what the book explores, in addition to your own relationship to Kanye West, is the terrain of celebrity, and of public memory, and of race in 21st-century America. I’m particularly interested in how you negotiate interiority and exteriority throughout. For one thing, you’ve got multiple speaking voices, one of which feels much more interior to me than the main voice, and which is distinguished typographically by italics and by right-justification on the page. That italicized voice seems less controlled, more informal, less artful than the main voice. What kind of interiority is represented there? It’s part of why I love those poems especially, with their fact-checking doubling-back, their awareness of the vulnerability of memory even of super-public events, like 9/11 and Katrina.

SB: So many of my concerns about writing the book were shaped by my feelings as voyeur and possible exploiter. And you spotted so many of those concerns — the risks of imagining, the vulnerability (near corruptibility) of memory. I hadn’t thought about how there’s something fundamentally feminist just by taking up the role of explorer at all. But yes, of course there is. And hopefully that’s more felt by the italicized voice, which is the voice that I let confess things, that I let be emotional. I didn’t want to always be the buttoned-up lyric-I that sometimes feels like she is there only to move the reader instead of being moved herself. And so often I was moved by what I was reading in order to write the book. I wanted both speakers present — the one trying to crush the reader and the one already crushed.

CN: I think “only there to move the reader instead of being moved herself” is such a sharp way of describing that possible failure in a poem. I mean, that’s what’s wrong with lots of poems which use language well but which aren’t good poems. I like that you solved it with a more interior voice alongside the voice in charge — so that the “in charge” voice isn’t in charge, and the internal power dynamics of the poem become interestingly unstable. Which feels really important. Threaded through the whole project, in its very form, there’s the sense that the poems know they’re not defining or speaking authoritatively, not determining what Kanye may or may not be. Any declarations the poems make can be undercut, and they’re keyed to a highly individual, and vulnerably flawed, organizing intelligence. It’s what makes the book work so beautifully.

SB: That you can see that in the book means so much to me.

CN: One of my favorites in the book is “So Kanye Transformed Himself” (34). I love its mode of wondering about faith, about transformation, how it looks to other models for how to do it and Kanye becomes one of them, a person who has figured out how to be saved. I like the conversation the italicized and the main voice have with each other, the uncertainty the “already-crushed” speaker in its italics gets the last word. Can you talk more about what’s going on with those voices, in this poem and others? It’s a really useful poetic device — how’d it come about?

SB: I started writing the poems the way I’d always written them before, left-justified, mostly lyric, narrative threads. But when research and memory were involved, I found there were a lot of things that were flat-out wrong. Like my misremembering of when Bush read the book upside down and that picture went viral. So the fact-checker voice came out first. I didn’t want to deny the lyric speaker from any moments she wanted to have and I didn’t want to pretend like the lyric speaker had a perfect memory. The only thing that made sense to me was to let another speaker come in and correct the lyric I. But the lyric I mostly ignored her. And then the two of them together seemed especially cold. And no one was admitting that I was growing to love Kanye in a super defensive way (that many of his fans share, I found out later). I think the first time the right-justified voice came out was to speak about Donda West. And once I finally let her out, she had a lot to say. A lot of moments that I had acted like I could play it cool, like in “Kanye’s Skeletal System,” which started out much shorter, I realized she was who the poem needed to find the rest of itself (26). I don’t think of them as different personae. I think of them all as me, in a very honest way. Three seems like such a bare minimum in order to capture a person’s perspective. But it was the poet-me that I’d developed for years, the researcher me that was very active all through the writing process, and the emotional-me which might be the closest to the real-me because I’d never let her onto the page. Or maybe I used to let her on the page in high school. Ha!

I’ve found that once research isn’t involved, I’ve slipped right back into my old ways. Almost entirely left-justified lyric-I action. I miss the voices and how they got to talk to each other to bring out things that usually don’t break that surface and that relationship between writer and reader. But instead I’ve recently gotten excited about persona poems, which I never allowed myself for Mr. West because I couldn’t ever bring myself to speak for a real person. The persona poems I’m writing are from myths and fairy tales and other fictional sources. They feel wild.

When I first read your book, the appearance of an I seemed almost rare. Then in an interview I read, you said you felt most of the poems were first person narratives, persona poems, and so then that interests me, like how easily I misread it. Overall, I wonder what you think about the first person speaker, and its position in poetry, in history, in truth. I think too of the line you have “and the universe assembled without me” (49).

CN: This really interests me, that these don’t feel like first person narratives! I was thinking about that so much — who’s talking here, it’s not me so who is it, who am I making up, is it false or fake or appropriative to speak in this voice? This makes me want to go back and track what I think first person even is. I think of how in “Ha Ha Hum” you say “The mouths we speak with are hidden by other mouths” (6). I picture my own mouth hiding behind these other mouths speaking these poems I wrote. And also I think of the mouths of the original texts’ authors, which have become hidden — erased — by invented mouths I’ve made.

In another interview, you’ve said, “I didn’t want to tell anything that wasn’t true in this book.” I feel the same way. I guess I could say I don’t think “truth” is possible without the “I,” or without the acknowledgement of first person perspective. I mean, objectivity is clearly nonexistent, there is no singular objective description of a war, or of pregnancy, or of music, or of racism, or anything we understand there are truths about, or write poetry about. One way to represent plural truths is to make plural speakers, which I think is a major appeal of persona poems, at least for me — I’m not very interested in a whole book with just one persona speaker; it’s the multiplicity that’s appealing, both to read and to write. In The Ground, no single voice was dominant; it felt like a chorus.

SB: A chorus of mostly men! I would imagine this book led you to think a lot about masculinity. I love the moments women come up in the book, but for me it called even more attention to how primarily the book is about men because that particular history is so driven by men. Do you want to speak about that at all?

CN: While I was working on this book I was hearing the term “toxic masculinity” for the first times, I think. That simple description of a kind of inherited, cultivated, genderedness was helpful to me. It can be easy for me to forget that men are people. I mean, I sometimes think of them as a mass of MEN who are made up of MASCULINITY which is a PLAGUE. I did want, in this book, to imagine the interiors of men who were failing to be men in the way soldiers are expected to be, men who were facing those expectations and frightened by them, and men who were interested in observing themselves doing that. The speaker of “A Book of Patriotic Movements” feels like that to me, as does the speaker of “The Americans in Japan” and “Across the Plains” (9, 2, 19). In many cases, what was most interesting to me was a speaker in a situation we’re all familiar with from the outside — the Soldier, the Censor, the Traitor — experiencing the trappings of that role from an intelligent, curious, and observant insider view. A lot of those speakers are necessarily male, because that’s who filled those roles in the Pacific War. That genderedness surfaces directly in one poem, in the lines: “I should have liked to enter / unannounced / not a woman / or a person, even, / an open ear to listen carefully / to hear” (6). That “not a woman” was important—it wasn’t a line I could get rid of in revision.

As I was reading your book I kept thinking about what masculinity, and femininity, and discovery, meant — in the book, you’re pregnant with a baby you know will be a son, and you’re thinking about Kanye, his public persona, the public imagination of his relationship with his own mother. I think of “The Fallible Face,” where you write, about his mother’s reaction to seeing him post-accident, “Women are familiar with how not to scare someone who’s in danger” (29). And then the last line of that poem: “Regardless of his face, Kanye is not always treated like a man” (30). That “like a man” references both what it means to be treated as a black man rather than a universal (read: white) man, and also what it means to be treated “like a man” as opposed to “like a woman.” How do you feel about masculinity in that poem, or in any of these? And femininity — “I Want a House” has the amazing line about being afraid you’ll be a terrible mother because you’re a terrible woman (46). Does that mean you are a terrible person or does failing to be a woman maybe mean you are better at being a person? Or a poet? Or a parent?

SB: I became really fascinated with masculinity when writing this book. I spend so much of my life considering femininity and the perception of it in the male gaze, which somehow has this huge sway on the experience of women in their daily lives, that I forgot to consider masculinity, maybe purposefully, maybe to protect myself, maybe in spite of men. Writing a book about a man, I could no longer ignore masculinity, especially with a man like Kanye who has to have masculinity in a public way in addition to however he has it privately. I feel like there’s not much to masculinity or femininity on an individual level. They are concepts that become interesting on a large scale, but human-to-human mean very little. Which isn’t to say it isn’t real — like the effects of socially prescribed characteristics and categorization and things like “toxic masculinity” are so very, very real. But masculine and feminine are things I don’t really understand as part of my identity. I feel very masculine but I’m always read as very feminine regardless of my behavior because of my face. And I only really understand masculinity for Kanye in moments where it’s performative, like in his “Touch the Sky” music video, and many others. But I’m so often left wondering what is masculinity/masculine at all?

CN: Well, what occurs to me immediately is that I feel like “masculinity” is more often coded as rigid, unyielding, as the gender whose range of expression is more narrowly policed. Or maybe that its policing is more linked to violence — being ‘a man’ means on some level being capable of violence that ‘a woman’ is not supposed to be as capable of, and the flaw of being insufficiently manly seems more likely to invite violent, bullying retribution than being insufficiently feminine might. I suppose I’m thinking in terms of violence because the masculinities in my book are all in a war, whose propaganda insists they are protecting femininities back home. So that’s kind of limiting, but still.

SB: Yes, masculinity is so tied to violence (and sex, but femininity is so tied to that too). And the ideas of war protecting “back home,” which also means “interiors” and “feminine spaces,” is so true, in that I still hear it today, and then sort of terrifying in how dated these ideas are, and yet they remain, they persist. I’ve never been able to understand war, even when it’s so understandable, like to stop genocide, because that’s never all it is. And then the relationship between war and technology makes everything more complicated, which is really another connection to money, isn’t it? But ideas of home have a lot to do with it too, which we’re seeing with this Brexit vote. What is our idea of home? What does that mean? What value do we place there? Does it have to do with materialism? With fear? With more things than I can name. And aren’t the obsessions of gun culture wrapped up in protecting the home as well?

At that time in my pregnancy, when I knew we had to move soon after I gave birth, and we needed to somehow find a home, I felt that impulse to have a home that was the “right” kind of home and how I’d need to protect that, and yet, I didn’t really feel like the right kind of mom, woman, American. The extension that has to guns and wars and history has driven a lot of my more recently published poems, including The Starship, where the speaker is ok with just up and leaving Earth.

CN: I love that poem. The starship itself is a she, which never gets made much of but which feels exactly right. So does the way you published it, serially, with illustrations — not a standard form for a long poem, but also exactly right.

SB: Thank you. I wanted to do something that felt like old radio programs that my grandfather told me about, or serialized fiction in the NYTimes that my mother read and told me about. (Now I guess, new radio programs are doing this too, with podcasts like Serial. But there’s so much room for it to grow and change and come into poetry!) The ways poetry can interact with form(s) seems limitless and that really excited me. Erasure is a great example of a limitless form. How do you deal with the limitlessness? I would worry I’d wake up the next day and want to write a new poem from the same text until I didn’t trust anything. And, well, I love how you did exactly that, returning to the same text over and over, for the “Dear Grace” poems (22). But still, what guided you in when to stop?

CN: I feel like erasure poems are easier than other kinds when it comes to knowing when to stop — and when it comes to making a container for what feels limitless. I mean, there are rules, obvious ones: Only Use the Words Already Here, for example. But you can start from that and push outward (Parts of Words are Okay Too; Okay Fine, Individual Letters) or you can keep it very strict. Where is that wonderful stability, that structure, when you’re writing regular poems? Yikes! I find non-erasure poems, or at least poems that don’t begin with another text, very difficult to write now.

As far as where to stop, I think the same sense governs my writing of erasures as of other poems: I stop when the poem is saying something back to what spurred it in the first place, when a sense of balancing happens, when there’s a shape made by the poem and by what in me or in the world it’s talking back to. With erasure, the poem balances with a text, with somebody else’s words.

How do you know when to stop? You mentioned that “Kanye’s Skeletal System” was originally much shorter (26). Was that poem’s development similar to others in this book, or that you’ve written?

SB: Yes, actually. These poems often started so within my frame of reference for Kanye, and then other people would read them and I realized they didn’t share the same extensive Kanye knowledge, and I had to do a lot more work to get at all the things that I thought were implicit. One of my friends, over and over, would remind me, Not everyone knows who Kanye is! My poems before this book, and after, don’t rely on my readers so heavily, but for these poems, when I heard back from readers, that hugely affected my revisions. For “Kanye’s Skeletal System,” a reader thought Donda not holding Kanye’s face was a reflection on Donda (27). They hadn’t seen the picture of Kanye after his 2002 car accident like I had. So I had to fix that. And things like that happened over and over with the poems. But I loved how the poems felt like they were being written by me and others. With that, and the quotes from the media, and from Kanye, I loved how it worked towards documentary poetics.

Speaking of documentary poetics, I really admire the ethical constraint in your book of working with historical documents to write about the history. Was that difficult during the writing process or before you began or more after the poems were written and you were putting together the book or just all the time?

CN: Can you say more about what you mean by “ethical constraint”?

SB: I feel like when you write about history you owe it to history to be truthful, especially as a creator of narrative, which is such a powerful force, and especially as an individual addressing the history of thousands. And so you owe it respect. Like, you can’t let the poems start spinning away from the history too far, even if you as a poet have a great idea for an image or a detail — there’s a very physical restraint that the history asks for. (Or at least I had feelings like this in writing about Kanye.) Did you have these feelings?

CN: Yes. I found myself making a distinction between History as the thing we collectively inherit through textbooks and advertising and movie images, and history as the complex, conflicting set of accounts of what living was like, written or spoken and recorded by people who lived individual lives during capital-H historical events. I was reading a lot, everything I could get my hands on that was in survivors’ own words, whether soldiers or civilians, alongside all the more standard historical accounts. William Manchester’s “The Bloodiest Battle of All,” the oral histories at the Himeyuri Museum on Okinawa, Haruko Taya Cook’s and Theodore Cook’s Japan at War: An Oral History. I kept noticing that when people were faced with indescribable, impossible scenes, they turned to metaphor — maggots became white flowers, a swollen corpse looked like a dumpling rolled in flour. That mode of seeing became one way I felt it was possible to do right by the history I was reading — to have the voices in my book describe what they were seeing in these transformatively beautiful and odd ways. It was important to me not to use survivors’ texts as source texts, not to erase those real people’s voices, but rather to bring similar observations out of other texts which were much more abstract, and which spoke from a place of power rather than a place of witness. I wanted to make the lofty, war-mongering, decision-making texts witness back to themselves about the pain and damage they had helped cause. So in that sense I was trying hard not to respect history, because it levels so much. I wanted to fracture it.

SB: I love all these choices you made — that you read all these sources and respected the survivor’s voices. When we start to connect to things more globally and our own histories, I find things get so complicated. Here you’re looking at this time in Japan’s history during the Pacific War, when atrocities were being committed against and by the Japanese people. Did you think about how we’re connected to all these things? Did that affect the work?

CN: Yes, definitely. The questions I had about how to conjure those connections and make them more visible, palpable, is what made me write this book, and write it via erasure. The originating question: how could my mom, just after a divorce, see a safe refuge for the two of us on a nuclear-warhead-storing American military base on a colonized island halfway across the world from our home in Texas? The reasons that the US military is there, that the base looks like a suburban family paradise, that most Americans don’t think of the US as a colonizing empire — all of those reasons begin before the war, and don’t end when I left Okinawa in 1994. So does the book — the texts range over 200 years, ending in 2014. But my questions about it all haven’t ended; they still inform the stuff I’m writing now.

How about you? Your book is global in several senses. Kanye is internationally famous, but he also did live overseas, in China. The connections you make between his life and yours are global and historical, too — you bring in the Holocaust, and Genesis — the kind of timescale which is also geographically vast. Do you think about poetry as a way to concretize connection, or to imagine it or make it visible? How?

SB: Yes. Often when I visit schools, they ask that I bring a prompt. The prompt I always bring is to look at the past week and write for two minutes about events in your own life, then write for two minutes about events in a celebrity’s life, then write for two minutes about events that happened internationally, and then pick one event from each list and tie them together in a poem. I’ve done this with so many different groups of students at so many different times. Sometimes we’re quick to think of events that happened outside of the US, but sometimes we’re not, and we bring out our phones and yell out a few to help people with their lists. And they’re allowed to have their phones out the whole time to get details about what’s happened. A few things tend to happen. One, they realize there are connections between these things and these people that are based in their selves, like they are the connectors, they can bring together anything through their voice. Two, they realize they hardly ever do this. They hardly ever look outside of themselves, especially outside of the US, to write. And it’s important. There could be so many more prompts if there wasn’t the time limit of the past week, if there were all of history. But I think it’s a good way to start thinking about ways we’re connected and how that connection is obvious and common but also uniquely made by our individual perspectives.

CN: I love this prompt! It’s such a good way to teach poetry as a way of connecting the self to the world, and of paying more careful attention to the world. Not just the world outside our own window. Which brings me back to The Starship, whose windows never show Earth once the ship takes off — they only show space and stars. I think everybody should read that poem. Are any of your myth/fairytale/etc. persona poems someplace we can read now?

SB: No, those are so new I probably shouldn’t even be talking about them! I have a few poems coming out in the next few months about some of my anxieties that led to writing The Starship — a few health scares, some rats in the basement, being a mom, being part of a world often driven by fear. What about you?

CN: I know what you mean about jinxing. I’ve got several projects in the works, but they’re all at the stage where I revisit one and go, “hey this is almost done!” and five minutes later I’m like “no, I need to start over.” So I don’t know when those will see the light of day, but I’m excited. In the meantime, I’ve been collaborating on a digital, bilingual English/Chinese project designed for a 360° immersive theater. The idea is to write for a space in which you have both languages projected, not directly translating each other, but both able to move and animate and change while people stand surrounded by them. Some of it you wear 3D glasses to watch! It’s amazing, and I’m hoping we can figure out a way to make it accessible to people not in the one place on earth designed for it, which is at City University’s School of Creative Media here in Hong Kong. A long way to travel for poetry!

SB: That sounds amazing! Our next interview can be about that!

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