Interview: John Sibley Williams

John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, and various anthologies.


Daniel Lassell corresponded with Williams last year, near the release of Skin Memory.


Daniel Lassell for The Florida Review:

Your newest book, Skin Memory, has a lot of subjects and themes that emerge throughout the reader’s journey. I found many poems touching upon topics of family, parenting, loss, home, violence, privilege, and societal and ecological concerns—all of which seem to buoy, contrast, and converse with each other. Which was the subject/theme that compelled your poetry most when writing, versus which emerged most clearly when editing the collection for publication?


John Sibley Williams:

What an interesting question. It’s certainly true that during the editing process, while sifting through a hundred or more poems in search of common themes and structures, unexpected threads emerge that weave seemingly disparate explorations together into a single tapestry. Of course, each poem tends to incorporate more than one theme, using the overt to subtly imply a more foundational concern. For example, when discussing parenting, societal gender expectations or our destruction of natural landscapes may be seething beneath all that talk of cradles and lullabies. When I mention the freedom of youthful play, say swinging from a tire trying to toe the clouds, that same tree will likely be shown in an ugly historical context. No poem can be boiled down to a singular theme. So, in this regard, editing isn’t so much trying to force pieces together as it is recognizing the varied themes in each poem and seeing which, both overt and implied, belong together. A collection should read like a river, not a puzzle. In a way, it’s an act of witness. And, at least for me, this isn’t dissimilar to my writing process. I never set out to write a particular kind of poem or to explore a specific theme. They emerge naturally, as if the connections were already there waiting for me to see them. All we can do is write about what haunts us and to do so as authentically and with as much vulnerability as possible. Every theme you mention was equally important, was equally a driving force, behind both my writing and editing.



“A collection should read like a river, not a puzzle”—I love that. And Skin Memory certainly does read like a river too, easing readers between poems as if on a raft, encountering rapids and wet clothing along the way. Poetry acting as witness is a beautiful thought as well. It makes me think more specifically of your poem, “Death Is a Work in Progress”—a heart-wrenching portrayal of a mother, the decline of the human body. It harkens back to your earlier collection, Disinheritance, which explores this subject of mortality in great detail. Can you speak a little more to this relationship between parent and child, life and death, in your poems? It seems to be a theme in your work that you return to often.



I’m thrilled that you recognized these overarching themes across multiple books. In the end, we write about what haunts us, what keeps us up at night, what stalks our mind’s periphery, just out of sight, emerging from the darkness to remind us how fragile we really are. A bit like wolves, perhaps. And what better way to explore fragility than through discussions of the body and our intimate relationships? I’m terrified of no longer existing. Like everyone else, I’ve lost and know that the more I love, the more I have to lose. There’s this double-edged sword, this balancing act, between wanting to open my heart to the world and fearing such an act’s consequences. And I fear my own body, how it will naturally react to age and disease. But it’s exactly this impermanence that makes each breath, each embrace, each poem meaningful. So, I suppose, most of my poems to varying degrees try to walk that tightrope. Skin Memory includes poems about my children, specifically the traits I may be passing down to them, that were passed down to me. It speaks of my father, whose father was a rough man, and how all that tumbles down to my own young son. And, with “Death is a World in Progress” and many of the poems in Disinheritance, I witness the steady mental and physical deterioration of my mother. These are simply different lenses through which I consider the same central question. I just can’t tell if I’m not loving enough, or loving too much, and what the full consequences to either are.



Indeed, Skin Memory does resonate in all of these areas. As a father myself, I am increasingly drawn to poems that hold the subject of parenthood in conversation. Having spent time with your earlier books and reading up to your most recent collection, it seems that since becoming a parent, you might have undergone a personal shift. Of course, any artist should evolve in their art; but I also recognize a palpable difference between Disinheritance and As One Fire Consumes Another, which published in Spring 2019. Not to digress too much, but was Disinheritance written before or after you became a parent? As One Fire Consumes Another seems to drive more of a political message than your earlier work does (at least more overtly). No doubt it has much to do with our political moment, but Skin Memory also seems to act as a continuation in this focus. How would you characterize your poetic growth over time?



I agree with you that, as writers, we should try to push ourselves into new, often uncomfortable themes. Growth is probably inherent to writing for a long period of time, but I still worry about stagnation, by which I mean writing about the same themes in the same tone using the same structures. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing what about what we’re already comfortable with. As One Fire Consumes Another was an attempt to break out of my comfort zone by focusing, to a degree, on our current cultural and political climate. But, more importantly, I meant to explore my own place in that culture, which includes culpability, guilt, privilege, and family history. Skin Memory continues on those themes, though less directly, incorporating my my children and mother, with a greater degree of intimacy.  I feel Skin Memory exists somewhere between Fire and Disinheritance. Structurally also, as my earlier work was predominantly free verse, Fire… was newspaper column-like prose poems, and Skin Memory incorporates both, with the addition of more standard prose poem structures. So, in terms of growth, I feel experimentation is key. Sure, plenty of poems end up on the cutting room floor. Not all structures I’ve played with ended up feeling authentic to my voice. But we have to keep pushing, testing, and rethinking our preconceptions about our own work.


As it pertains to parenting, I’m not really sure how my work has changed. I write less, sleep less, can concentrate less. Raising twin toddlers is even more exhausting than I could have imagined. But within the stress and anxiety, I have expanded my definition of love to such a degree that I can no longer say I’d experienced it before my kids. My heart is more troubled but fuller.



I think “more troubled but fuller” is a profound way of describing the interconnectedness of parenthood and love. And I hadn’t considered Skin Memory as a balance between Fire and Disinheritance until just now, but it sort of is. It’s the wave that settles after the body enters a bathtub. If we can, I’d like to explore your thoughts on the prose poem, since you mentioned form. My first poetry teacher was David Shumate, known for his prose poems, so my introduction to poetry is inextricably tied to this form—I’ve come to feel at home in it. But for others, the prose poem might represent or conjure apprehension, confusion, distain, etc. In Skin Memory, there are several poetic forms other than the prose poem, but I’m interested in why—when selecting the right vehicle to meaning—the prose poem felt like the best fit.



Well, apart from the poems in Fire and Disinheritance, which were a set structure, I don’t begin a poem knowing in advance what it will look like on the page. I often experiment with various arrangements before, for whatever intuitive reason, something clicks and the poem screams, “This is my form; this has always been my form!” So, the simplest answer to your question about knowing when a prose poem is the best vehicle for a particular piece is, well, intuition. But, to be more precise, a lot of it, for me, has to do with three things: flow, the tension created by line breaks, and the sound of the poem when real aloud. Poems that are more fragmented or dense with metaphorical imagery may require more white space to allow a reader to digest each line, place it in its larger context, then move on to the next line. Other poems, especially narrative ones rich with connected imagery that doesn’t take as many huge leaps in logic, may thrive more with longer lines. But even this simple answer isn’t really accurate. Sometimes abstractions can be squeezed together, running one into the next with no room to breathe, to create the desired flow. Sometimes a straightforward narrative can be shattered and reassembled into something visually unrecognizable. Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is that: flow. How do I want the poem to read? Should it drive, propel? Should it strike with short staccato knives? Should it slowly, steadily paint a massive portrait out of smaller components? All this leads me back to intuition. Our ears know how a poem should be read. Our eyes know what the poem wants to look like. Listening closely and equally to both seems to strike the right balance, at least for me.



You certainly do seem to have an intuition for what works on the page. This attention to flow, or cadence, seems to drive a lot of the poems of Skin Memory. Is there ever a disagreement between these two realms of the page and the tongue? In developing your intuition, does this mean finding a comfortable balance between your voice and poetic style? How does one develop their intuition?



I think creative intuition simply comes from writing and studying others’ writing for so long that that various elements (and organs) learn to listen to each other. Over the years and decades, you learn to step away from yourself and trust the page. The poem begins to speak to you before it’s even written. Of course, all of this is an internal process, but it begins to feel as if your poetic decisions are born of an outside force. I wonder if that’s what some people call “the muse.” But it’s really just muscle memory. It’s having failed and failed and occasionally succeeded for long enough to unconsciously recognize when a poem is working and when it’s not. It’s the ear and eye thriving in a symbiotic relationship. Less and less of our creative decisions become conscious ones. We just know. And, sure, given the subjectivity of any artistic work, we still fail plenty. But I have found most of my newer poems that don’t quite work fail because I inserted myself into them; I didn’t shut up and listen to what the poem wanted to say.


Perhaps because of this “trained intuition,” I rarely find discord between the appearance and sound of poem. They both come pretty naturally, without me having to force it much. Admittedly, in trying to push myself, I do experiment with structures I end up abandoning because they don’t look or flow right, but I usually recognize this incongruity early on and find a more fitting structure before poem’s end. For sound, part of my composition process involves reading aloud every line over and over to ensure the lines that follow match the auditory tone and rhythm. Our ears know what sounds awkward.



That makes sense. Somewhat relatedly, what are your thoughts on the accessibility of poetry?



That’s a great question, and one on which opinions vary greatly. I suppose the subjectivity of “accessible” can be cause for this divide. For example, many have argued that down-to-earth poetry that paint personal narratives with clear, everyday language is the cornerstone of “accessible” work. By that definition, I suppose I prefer more challenging literature. That’s not to cast judgment, as such work is indeed valuable and is many people’s introduction to poetry. It’s all a matter of personal resonance. But I feel this common description limits the definition of the word. There’s also emotional accessibility. Even if a poem is fairly abstract, surreal, or bursting with what Robert Bly called “leaps” in logic, that emotional core that unites the disparate elements can be accessible. That heartache, grief, turmoil, doubt, celebration. That bit of light that filters through and puts into perspective darkest night. Even without a followable narrative or commonplace language. To me, that is the kind of accessibility I enjoy reading and tend to write toward. It’s that honest, vulnerable, universal core question, around which the other poetic elements whirl, that makes all poetry, regardless of its structures and rhythms and themes, inherently accessible.



I like that way of looking at it, and indeed there are several opinions out there. For me, I tend to go back and forth. I agree that challenging literature can be fun, and doesn’t have to be the first form of poetry someone encounters. On the other hand, word choice is one of the things that separates poetry from other written art forms, and therefore, word choice is what makes and closes off meaning. In this vein, when a poet intentionally closes off meaning, it becomes a question of whom is getting closed off from that meaning and why. In this realm, I guess a discussion of accessibility can’t go without acknowledging privilege too, as we are both white males. In this modern age, how should a white, male writer compose poetry? It seems like there’s a duty to explore and dismantle our own privilege in art—and in living in this world more generally. The poems of Skin Memory do their part to confront difficult realities, privilege being one of them. For example, “On Being Told: White Is a Color Without Hue,” “We Can Make a Home of It Still,” “On Being Told: You Must Learn to Love the Violence,” and “Inviting Fire in Northern Michigan in December” all seem to interrogate privilege in some form. Even the book’s title encourages an exploration of racial and societal disparities. How and when does it make sense for a poet to rail against their own privilege in writing?



This could not be a more crucial question. Privilege comes in so many forms, most invisible until you shine a light on them and see their hazy edges. Gender, sexuality, race, religion, socio-economic status, family status, and even these have gradations. They all combine to give us a cultural advantage or disadvantage, and exploring my own advantages and how they contrast against those born or raised without them is a central theme of my work. Even when it’s not overtly discussed, as it is in the poems you referenced, that recognition of privilege and what it means as an individual and a member of a larger community hums beneath all my poems. In the end, it all comes down to a mixture of self-awareness and empathy. It’s a balancing act between witness and action. All of us whose privilege allows us the space to write freely, who aren’t judged by superficial qualities, who needn’t fear police or politicians or bosses who could withhold that one paycheck that makes our children go hungry, we need to investigate how we got where we are and what we can do to expose such inequities. The question is how. How does one explore privilege from the inside out? Often met by controversy, some privileged poets have chosen to adopt another’s voice, to attempt the persona poem. I feel confident that these attempts are well-intentioned. However, I don’t feel that’s my place. If I have not suffered as so many others have, who am I to speak in their voice? Instead, I write about privilege in two ways, by discussing my own safe white lineage and by writing about others (instead of writing from another’s point of view). And when writing about others, I don’t hide the fact that my perspective is inherently tinged by privilege. That’s what I mean by combining self-awareness and empathy. So, in short, I passionately agree with you about the necessity for poets to consider their own privileged status in their work. However, all this said, I don’t believe in shoulds. Who am I to demand every poet write about these themes? If a privileged poet writes exlusively about gardens and alders or the grief of a loved one’s passing, that is their choice. We write what we need to write. And not all of us need to write about our privilege. But I do. It’s one of the ghosts that haunts me. The only way I’ve found to deal with it is by looking it square in the eye and admitting my role in its creation.



Thank you for your thoughts in this area. “A balancing between self-awareness and empathy” describes well, I think, what poets of privilege can do in their work. And I know the topic of privilege can be a difficult one to broach, since it’s one that touches every aspect of people’s lives (and indeed, we as white males do bear a shitload of culpability for the wrongs of this world). For this reason, I do think it’s a conversation worth having. As more underrepresented voices continue to enter the literary firmament, how best could writers of privilege welcome them? What new voices have you read recently that you’re super excited about?



The literary establishment has been making great strides but still has much more to do before underrepresented voices become as mainstream as those voices that have dominated our landscape. I don’t work within that establishment so cannot speak to the steps they are taking. I have read articles critical of how major journals and organizations still approach underrepresented poets, and I continue to hear such stories from peers who have attended national poetry conferences and felt tokenized. Luckily, it seems many presses and organizations are opening their doors wider than ever before in terms of offering awards, open reading periods, specific book series and issues, and other avenues open exclusively to underrepresented poets. In terms of what you and I can do, I have spent the past few years reading almost exclusively books by contemporary poets who do not fit the traditional white, male, CIS, able-bodied model. And these are the authors I teach in workshops and classes in hopes of opening students’ eyes and hearts to new perspectives on culture, identity, and politics.


I don’t even know where to begin a list of my favorites, but here are a few I feel everyone should become intimately familiar with: Ada Limon, Tracy K. Smith, Jericho Brown, Fatimah Asghar, Tarfia Faizullah, Jenny Xie, Ocean Vuong, Craig Santos Perez, Safia Elhillo, Joan Kane, Abby Chabitnoy, and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, whose book Cenzontle (BOA Editions, 2018) is one of my all-time favorite collections.



I agree that expanding one’s knowledge of the world through reading is a great place for anyone to start—and for those in teaching roles, assigning a wide array of literature that both includes diverse populations and challenges traditional norms is an equally important approach. And what an amazing list of poets you’ve shared, too. We truly are living in a golden age of poetry right now, Skin Memory included. Before we close, are there a few lines from Skin Memory that you’d like to share for readers new to your work?



Well, in keeping with the themes of our conversation, I’d like to choose two selections that deal with privilege, history, and my responses to them.


The first is from the collection’s titular poem, “Skin Memory,” in which I address the incredible Inupiaq poet Joan Kane and wonder about the effects of my race’s privilege as compared to how her culture has been treated.


Because you are what song breaks open your throat and because

the same century burns a different mark into me. For now I can just

listen. To how choreographed our forgetting. To the dark little

narratives of this is mine / yours, in that order. Can you sing this

country its name?


The second is from “There is Still,” in which I investigate Mark Strand’s celebrated closing lines from “Keeping Things Whole”:


We all have reasons

for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.


In response, my poem explores time and privilege in recognizing how, while swaying in a tire swing, the speaker realizes that same tree may have been used for different kinds of…rope. And it changes the way he approaches the tree…and himself. The final lines of “There is Still” read:


We / all have reasons, Mark. I hope I am / swinging to remember.




Then there was no more singing.

All the lights in their throats cut:


the protest of evening wolves & black

bears nuzzling a parched creek for any-


thing that might sustain them another

white-skinned winter, those foreign


birds we never learned the names for.

Invasive, my grandfather called them.


Like the silver carp haunting our

local river. Bullfrogs & possums.


He called us natives after living

three generations on the same


hard land it took so much blood

to own. At the end of the path


the bullet takes to meet the right

body, the right body drops like


nothing worth losing sleep over.

It’ll cost two men three hours


to drag it home in one piece.

That wilder silence lasts but


a brief eternity. Before the unseen

choir shakes the forest. Again,


the same damn wolves & starlings. Men

still dragging. The season closing.


Its wiry legs kick & quiver in our hands.

Like strings. Song. Our song now to sing.



The Florida Review and Aquifer Author Publications: July 2020

Small literary magazines are integral parts of our writing community, allowing emerging and experienced writers to push their work forward with new experiments in self-expression and creative freedom. Our writers make up that essential part of literary magazines, and we welcome their work and help build writers’ opportunities. Here at The Florida Review, we love to celebrate the successes of our published authors. We encourage you to support the new books of these writers, who have been previously published in our print magazine and/or our online magazine, Aquifer.


Dilruba Ahmed (“’With Affirmative Action and All’” and “View-Master Virtual Reality Starter Pack: Mortality Reel,” Aquifer July 4th, 2017 and Editors’ Award for “Fever,” “Mojlishpur,” and “Clear Water,” TFR 31.2) has a new book of poems, Bring Now the Angels, from the Pitt Poetry Series.

Mary Pauline Lowry (“Texas Teeth,” TFR 42.2) has a new book out as of April 2020. The Roxy Letters (Simon & Shuster) is Lowry’s second novel.

Michael Hettich (“Shark Valley” and “Love Poem,” Aquifer July 12, 2018; “The Light of Ancient Stars,” TFR 40.2; and “Crows,” TFR 31.2) has a new collection of poems, To Start an Orchard, out from Press 53.

Ariel Francisco’s (“On the Eve of the Largest Hurricane Ever Recorded My Ex Tells Me She Hopes I Don’t Die and, I Mean, Whatever,” TFR 42.2) collection of poetry, A Sinking Ship Is Still a Ship, is out in spring 2020 from Burrow Press.

Paige Lewis (Editors’ Award 2016 with “Angel, Overworked” in TFR 41.1) has her first collection of poetry, Space Struck, out from Sarabande Books.

John Sibley Williams (“Hekla (Revised),” TFR 42.1) won the Orison Poetry Prize, and his collection of poetry, As One Fire Consumes Another, was published by Orison Books in 2019. We have an interview with him and another poem forthcoming in Aquifer later this month.

Miriam Cohen (“Recess Brides,” TFR 40.1) recently released her first collection of stories, Adults and Other Children, from Ig Publishing, including a reprint of “Recess Brides.”


Interview: Abigail Chabitnoy



Abigail Chabitnoy is a mixed-race (German-Aleutian) poet raised in Pennsylvania and currently living in Colorado. Her first collection of poetry, How to Dress a Fish, was released in 2019 by Wesleyan University Press and is described as a “historical reclamation” in which “the speaker … works her way back, both chronologically and spatially toward a place that once was home” (see Weston Morrow’s review in Blackbird).


Chabitnoy has been previously published in Pleides, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. She was a Crow-Tremblay Fellow at and received the John Clark Pratt Citizenship Award from Colorado State University, and she was a 2016 inaugural Peripheral Poets Fellow.


Former Florida Review contributor John Sibley Williams interviewed her for us in the fall of 2019.



John Sibley Williams for The Florida Review:

“Everyone wants to see ghosts, in theory.” This line resonates across your entire collection. In a way, it defines your approach to storytelling. Tell me what this line means to you.


Abigail Chabitnoy:

It’s interesting that you’ve honed in on this line, as this was a later addition—and also one that does continue to haunt or inform much of my current thinking as well. At the most fundamental level, I’ve always been a bit of a wimp when it comes to horror. I’m fascinated by the idea of ghosts and the paranormal, but for an example, this past February I was a resident at Caldera in eastern Oregon. Midway through the residency one of the other artists asked the Programs Manager if any of our cabins were haunted, and I would not let her answer. I would not have been able to sleep in my cabin by myself, or leave that cabin after dark, if I knew there were ghosts on the premises—and to be honest, I don’t even know if I believe in ghosts. I was never allowed to play with Ouija boards or anything that could be considered occult growing up, which means I’m deeply uncomfortable with forces beyond my control and also that I’ve never properly unpacked my relationship with such forces. I don’t know if the other artists ever got to hear the answer when I wasn’t present, and in this context the example and line are quite benign. But consider the ramifications of such an unwillingness to face real horrors in this world, or real atrocities in history, or inconvenient truths that don’t prop up the narrative we want. See no evil, right no evil. The well-meaning narrative that we are a country founded by immigrants, for example, on the one hand encourages xenophobes to revisit the ghosts of their own past and their own relationship to this country, but further fails to face the violent genocide that cleared way for the first colonizers and earliest immigrants.


In terms narrower to the work, it’s a reminder of my own culpability in putting forth some stories and not others, and my responsibility to be faithful to my family’s narrative even when it doesn’t support the kind of rage or righteous anger one might desire for effect. My great-grandfather was removed impossibly far from his home, and it would have been incredibly hard for him to return. But the truth is: we simply don’t know if he even wanted to. Relationships were severed, but who’s to say they would have survived either way?



I’ve found indigenous poetry often dually emphasizes place and placelessness, cultures thriving yet irrevocably changed by outside influences. Do you feel this is an accurate statement? Is it emotionally demanding to write from such a place?



I can only say that this statement feels particularly accurate for my own work, and that’s because of how place and the removal from a specific place have shaped my family’s and my own experience of indigeneity. I’ve been fortunate that in tandem with my own searching for ways to reconnect meaningfully with my Unangan and Sugpiaq heritage, there have been various localized efforts by those communities to also revitalize the culture, to promote language acquisition and recover traditional art practices, and to take control of their own narrative, which has provided me with rich resources I can access remotely and has put me in touch with wonderful and enthusiastic people to patiently answer my questions, as the cost of going home is prohibitive (in more ways than one). I grew up with so many of the pieces missing that each one remains significant—including absence. And yet despite this absence, I do carry this visceral memory of home with me. I’ve always lived landlocked (first in Pennsylvania, now in Colorado) and yet as an anxious individual, there is a calm that takes hold when I am by the water that I am unable to find anywhere else. I find it extremely demanding to write from such a place personally, and the complexities I’ve just scratched the surface of here almost stopped me from sending the work out into the world more than once. It demands almost a constant othering of the self, a repeated rupturing, but then also a turning back toward a personal reparations of sort, some kind of healing.



Your poems slide so organically between the tangible and ephemeral, body and legend, past and present. These elements all exist in the same sphere. For you, where does mythology end and contemporary human life begin? Is there a demarcation line? How do they inform each other?



The boundaries of myth are still something I question and push against daily. I loved reading myths and folktales as a kid. In fact, it’s one of the few things I distinctly remember reading. It inspired me to get my BA in anthropology. (I was a latecomer to poetry, and it was in fact Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, itself building on the Greek myth of Geryon, that won me over.) I’ve been thinking a lot lately of what the purpose of myth is, what it is stories do, and why we keep telling them, and the closest thing to a working answer I’ve come to so far is that stories are necessary to help us survive. They teach us, they connect us, they present possibilities we at once might never have considered and that are timeless at their roots. There’s so much crossover in the motifs across time and culture, which I find fascinating. But it’s also interesting to me that they’re always perceived in the past tense, similarly to how society still often expects Native cultures to continue in a vacuum, forever frozen as they were first encountered by [white] settlers. But to be timeless means to look both ways, forward and back. I think I see this blurring of the demarcation as a way of extending beyond the self and beyond the present moment to tap into something bigger, something more fluid.



Is there empowerment in (finally) being able to tell your own story, in your own words, from your own cultural and personal perspective?



I think I have found empowerment in the process of writing this book, but I’m not sure if in this way. Which is to say, I think the experience has made me truly recognize the breadth of stories and perspectives, to recognize the microaggressions that potentially—and sometimes actually—prevent those narratives from being told, and to push past those aggressions even as I recognize and sympathize with where they are coming from. But I also think the work has taught me to accept that there aren’t always answers, and to allow me to continue in the space of that uncertainty. Poetry isn’t necessarily about finding the answers—it’s about learning to ask the right questions, the hard questions. And it’s okay to dwell in that space of uncertainty.



How to Dress a Fish paints a multifaceted portrait of betweenness. As a child of mixed heritage, you seem to question your prescribed place in both communities. Yet you celebrate them. How does communal and familial belonging (or their lack) impact your poetic vision?



Despite my family and my mom’s family being somewhat large, it didn’t feel like I grew up in a large family. Our extended family seldom came together, and my family doesn’t really tell stories. I think perhaps that’s why I cling so tightly to my great-grandfather’s story, fragmented as it is. I think much of my poetic vision is driven by a desire for community, and I don’t think this is particular to one side so much as a reflection of the isolation frequently experienced in today’s society. I think that particular desire drives much of the thematic elements and motivations within the poems, but for me there is personally also a pressure on the work to generate a greater sense of community outside of the book as well. In 2018, I finally made it to Kodiak, and as beautiful as the island was, and as moving as it was to stand on the beach of Woody Island, to be on that water, to feel home, my favorite experience was visits I had with cousins whom I’d never met nor even been aware of (and still couldn’t articulate clearly the direct lines of our relation), and how easy and grounding it was to spend hours talking to these women, hearing their stories, what they knew of our family. It was a wonderfully peaceful experience of belonging, as natural as a fish in the water, and the forging of these relationships in turn puts further pressure on my work to be sincere and rigorous in its research and its motives.



Tell me what you mean by “legacy as a blank space. A space that unlike a slate cannot be written.”



This language was actually in response to a narrative I read about one student’s experience of the Carlisle Indian School, but also became emblematic of the larger challenges of responding to past trauma. In my own experience, there are questions I have of my ancestors that simply will never be answered. There are voices I can’t speak for, and to attempt to would be a disservice, another form of erasure. Rather than attempting to fill these blank spaces, these holes and wounds, I have attempted to leave space for them to be felt in their own right throughout the work. The slate also refers to the sociological notion of the child’s mind as a blank slate, further emphasizing the rupture and inheritance of these holes we carry with us as survivors and descendants of historical trauma.



When discussing culturally significant themes that you have such strong feelings on, how do you express your worldview subtly, avoiding didacticism? How do you make a point without preaching?



This has actually been (and continues to be) a constant subject of attention personally since I first began writing seriously. With this work in particular, I employed several techniques to avoid didacticism. One “cheat” I used was ultimately to use the problematic language of others directly in the work and let their prejudices speak for themselves. Another way I avoided this in the writing was in my approach to audience. Many of the poems were approached as conversations I imagined having, most often with Michael, or at least Michael as the character I tried to summon to the pages. But as the project unfolded, that individual became multiple, became fluid. Sometimes I imagined I was talking to the grandfathers I had never known, but that could become a bit intimidating, perhaps because I never had a grandfather figure, and because of the weight I gave these figures. So I tried to imagine a more approachable figure, a sympathetic figure. I began to think of Nikifor, I suppose as the character with the least narrative developed and thus the most space for potential, but also because it was brought to my attention that the women in the book were missing, and it was true, but—beyond an imagined address—I didn’t know how to bring them to the page. There was even less of them in the archives. I think this is where the more mythopoeic themes come into play as well, which further gave me room for more imaginative work that could create distance from more didactic trains of thought.



Now that indigenous peoples have the chance to tell their own stories, unfiltered by “white men with pipes and elbow patches who study Natives from armchairs,” do you feel a sense of responsibility to set history straight? How does one go about rewriting a disingenuous legacy?



I think poetry is a brilliant avenue for indigenous people to tell their own stories, and in their own ways and structures. But for me, I feel a personal responsibility to remain within the conversation of my own family’s story and experience, and beyond that to give as much voice as I can to the history of my ancestors in the Aleutian islands while also recognizing the limits of my own understanding given the circumstances of my dislocation. I think the attention to language inherent to poetry makes it a good medium in which to question, for example, historical and anthropological narratives written by outsiders. What some historians call a strategic military victory, for example, are otherwise experienced as genocide. But I also feel a responsibility not to extend myself beyond the honest reach of my own understanding, experience, and voice. That is, I am more aware of my responsibility not to claim to speak for others, or to speak in a generalized manner, to recognize the gaps in my own knowledge and turn instead to the voices of other indigenous writers to extend the scope of my understanding rather than purport to know more than I do.



As you employ a variety of formal and remarkably unique styles throughout How to Dress a Fish, how do you decide which structure will best serve a given poem? Is it intuition, poetic experimentation, or an intentional choice? And what motivates these structures?



I think a lot of it comes down to intuition and experimentation, which in turn generate their own sort of internal rules that develop throughout the work. A lot of it has to do with the feeling of the shape on the page. For example, the narrative is messy. It’s full of holes. It’s nonlinear. It interrupts itself. It sometimes promises order (the few that include numbered parts), but ultimately denies any order. Thus for the poems to neatly hug the left margin or exist in tidy couplets or even stanzas felt ungenuine to how the narrative is experienced. With that said, there are also elements that line up, lines that may break but continue to meet. And of course ultimately these are water poems, and so it’s right that they should—like a fleet of kayaks, an archipelago, or even wreckage that washes up on shore—drift across the white space of the page.



Speaking of structures, you often use objective “non-poetic” forms like student records, grocery lists, and footnotes to explore your themes. What draws you to poeticizing these forms? What do you feel they add to the book’s ongoing conversation?



One of the things I love about poetry is its capacity for accumulation, to hold multitudes. I was drawn to a kind of docu-poetics because of how it could potentially make this process of accumulation apparent. In some cases, I wanted to challenge the credentials of such forms and the contexts in which they are most frequently used. Footnotes, for example, are often used in scholarly texts and lend academic authority, an air of certainty, to a body of work. My family’s enrollment into the Koniag Corporation and my sister’s and my subsequent acceptance into the Tangirnak Native Village depended on Michael’s student records and birth certificates. The case for the “success” of the Carlisle Indian School rested on surveys and news clips, the release of which and survival in the record depended on their favorable reflection on the school. Such documents are given a weight of authority that other modes of record keeping—oral histories, for example—are not. I wanted to open those structures to the same kind of skepticism traditional knowledge and oral histories are frequently subject to, while also asserting that same level of respect for such narratives. The use of grocery lists meanwhile was an effort to bring the daily into the historical narrative, to highlight the confluence of the two.



Let’s talk erasure for a moment. Sometimes you cross words out, which allows us to see what you chose to expunge. Other times you blacken words out, making them unreadable. What roles do these forms of erasure play in your poems? Do you feel erasure is inherently a part of exploring a misrepresented culture?



Erasure has certainly been a large part of my experience, yes. And there are various reasons, from negligence to willful erasure to sudden deaths in the family. But also at the root of these erasures is a discrepancy in which narratives get valued, whose, what information is deemed at the moment worthy of preserving. And it’s not just the narratives that get erased. Sometimes the story is preserved but the storyteller is erased and credit given to the note-taker or “scholar.” And then sometimes there is a desire to remain anonymous, or a desire as note-taker to preserve the privacy of an individual. All of these possibilities play into what I’ve chosen to erase entirely and what I’ve chosen to leave legible even while I suggest that someone else might choose to erase that text, might deem it unworthy of recording. For me, such markings became another way of subverting traditional hierarchies of authority and knowledge and highlight the lack of transparency in the recordkeeping and writing of history. Additionally, one of the operative themes of the work is that our understanding of our history is a process, is not fixed in stone, is subject to scratch-outs and do-overs, to misspeaking and self-correction, which I somewhat approached in those words that were only crossed out as one might when drafting with paper and pen.



I know this is a broad question, but what are your thoughts on the current state of indigenous poetry? What other authors would you recommend? And where would you like to see it in, say, ten years?



I’m very excited about the current state of indigenous poetry. Of course the representation and recognition could always be greater in the various categories of accolades and outside of academic circles of discussion. But if your finger is on the pulse of indigenous writing these days, there are so many great writers to follow, and some really great new voices emerging. Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas came out in 2017 and garnered quite a bit of attention. Sherwin Bitsui just released a new book, Dissolve. And of course Heid Erdrich just released a great new anthology, New Poets of Native Nations. Craig Santos Perez, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, and Brandi Nālani McDougall also recently released an anthology of indigenous poetry by Pacific Islander women, Effigies III.  In 2018 I had the privilege of reading along with several indigenous women in Seattle to celebrate the launch of Carrie Ayagaduk Ojanen’s debut collection, Roughly for the North, and also had the pleasure of hearing Cassandra Lopez’s work for the first time. Her book Brother Bullet was just published. I went to an amazing panel on Indigenous Womanisms where I heard work by No’u Revilla and cannot wait for more of it to be available. She was stunning. She’s one of the women featured in Effigies III. This list could go on forever. And, of course, I’d still leave people out.


Ten years is such a long time. I wasn’t even seriously engaging with poetry ten years ago. I hope the field continues to grow, in terms of writers but also in the breadth of style and subject, as it is currently. But maybe also it would be nice to see wider recognition of more than just one writer per genre at a time. It seems that outside of the indigenous poetry community, in more mainstream consciousness, there is always one Native fiction writer, one Native memoirist, one Native poet that everyone knows, almost like a box to check off and then move on, when in fact there are so many writers to be excited about right now.


Two Poems


No one’s drowned in the boarded up well out back in a century. When I pry up the nails to let in some sky, the voices the moss maintained rise like a cloud of bats from the mouth of a cave. Hungry to be heard, as any static thing, I say to the dead you are lucky to be so permanent, so practiced at loneliness, so close, so goddamn close to journey’s end. Maybe they’ve had enough of this living forever. Maybe the mystery has never been the where or how, but why this need to be forgotten. There are many ways to scream so no one hears, and each sounds just like a child alone again in a night-heavy farmhouse, making monsters of his shadow and friends with his dead, running wild out into the dark with only a hammer and his silence;  a door he can’t remember opening slamming shut behind him.

The Animal

All the cruelties are different, but there’s something familiar in carrying our children safely through the world by our teeth. In pressing an empty mouth up to the only part of us that nourishes. Sometimes, with winter at its deadest, in eating our young and starting over again in spring. It’s spring, thank god, and all we have is an open pasture of half-broken foals. A rusty cage for the chronic wild. A spindle-legged wire fence wrapped in teeth separating one neighbor from the next. When it comes down to it, son, I don’t think I’ll ever eat you. But here I am, telling you things you already know about love.