Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Natalie Eilbert

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about?

Lo Kwa Mei-en Cover Bees Make Honey In Lions

I only want the world to know about emerging writers. There is an obnoxious trend in lit-based communities where the same names are put on the same lists. It’s enervating, frustrating still that a majority of folks don’t read the names on these lists. I’ve been reading and rereading Lo Kwa Mei-en’s The Bees Make Money in the Lion, and Lo is a poet whose strength is so crisply lyric it rents the entire house of power in one zap of a line. I don’t consider Lo emerging (she came out with two books a year apart), but I will say she is severely under-read.

Recently I had the privilege of hearing Crystal Valentine and, to memory, it was one of the most significant performances I’ve witnessed in a long while. Crystal is a young, brilliant black woman who is in the business of sonic rupture—utterly clear and bruising words that snag and stun listeners. She is saving lives. Just watch this. 

Tafisha Edwards and I met a few summers ago after Morgan Parker, in classic Morgan Parker fashion, said we’d have a lot to say to one another. We did. She writes about trauma and violence through a lens you can’t look away from. Her chapbook is coming out with Phantom Books soon, and I just can’t wait to read it. She’s fire and light, an important voice for survivors.  

Morgan Parker Cover

What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you?

This is a great question, because I didn’t start to write my truth until a few years ago. I’ve spent a majority of my life interrogating my own pain, asking myself if what I believed happened really did happen. It’s hard for me to form a proper chronology of events, and such inexactness would not hold up in a court of law. Was I six? Was I eight? In which basement did it occur? When I was thirteen, did it count because I was too afraid to speak against it? What about when I was twenty-three and giving my body to whoever wanted it? I started writing poems to reconcile the fog of trauma, but I quickly learned a thing about redemption—that without a clear picture, it is hard to grasp its shapes enough to hold it still. How can you work under those conditions? Such is the paradox of trauma, that to look into its scenes is to see only shadows of the wounds. There exists no promenade. Just a ledge in a series of ledges. For years I would bring in poems to workshop, but they were fixed in metaphor. 

“The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen.”
-Louise Glück

I remember still the first poem I wrote on the matter, when I was nineteen. It was called “The Rattlesnake Robber.” I don’t know why. I had never seen a rattlesnake. But in the poem, a child sleeps with a rattlesnake, then a figure steals it away; only then does the child realize they’ve been stung. I describe the figure as having brontosaurus skin. I understand why. Still, it is not a good poem. But in this period, I was reading a lot of Louise Glück, so lol. She was a significant poet to me, but when I read her essay on the unsaid, I extrapolated my whole history of pain and decided the best thing to do was to tuck it away, let metaphors do the trick.

Big Electric Chair 1967

Objective correlative instructed me to say the felled wood absorbed the rain instead of saying I was suicidal and starving myself. I spent much of this period miserable and mad at the world. But I wrote the requisite poems about Demeter, Persephone, Atlas, Prometheus, Eurydice, Orpheus, Pygmalion, Io…They were sad poems to me, but holy shit, my juvenilia was complete gobbledygook.

Then, the shift. An abuser invited me to his wedding. Another abuser had found my poems and then my phone number and then my address. Another became a firefighter. Tory Dent’s HIV, Mon Amour was about the trauma of disease and the rising failure of health systems and she wrote with so much potent clarity, it woke me from my seven-year-long psychic daze. Then, more smelling salts. Roxane Gay wrote an essay called “What We Hunger For” about her history of sexual violence in the face of racists outraged that a Hunger Games character could be simultaneous a black girl and pure. That essay changed my life. That woman deserves everything. Everything. Then Patricia Lockwood’s poem “Rape Joke” went viral, and it was important. I started writing work stripped of artifice. I talked to other folks who had been silenced by abuse. Then I started to add artifice back in. What I had taken away from years of schooling was music, the important rush of language to awaken the ineffable, perhaps therein the unsaid. But I rejected the rejection of the I. I wish my nineteen-year-old self could have read that essay by Roxane Gay or listened to the podcast The Heart’s miniseries on abuse called “Silent Evidence.” Because when I allowed myself to write about issues that mattered, I became a much better person to others and myself.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

I walk aimlessly. I run and do yoga. I listen to podcasts. I bake pie. I tell myself that if I can forgive some parts of the world, I can also forgive myself.

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

This has always made me ultra self-conscious, actually. I know this is supposed to be a question in which I demonstrate my own-it faculties, but to me it’s like taking pride in an emetic. Not so bearable but a purge nonetheless. I do think that the word “intense” is a useless word that people ascribe to a literature they aren’t willing to engage beyond clickbaity exclamation. To me, it suggests a base level of reading, sort of the way in which powerful women in comics are described, inevitably, as “badass.” But what is her strength, her pain, against whom is she vaulting her energy and why is it necessary she continue to break herself before her enemies? Simply reversing the dichotomy, as Daniel José Older writes in “Beyond Badass: Toward A Feminist, Antiracist Literature,” is not enough (from The Feminist Utopia Project, the Feminist Press, 2015—highly recommended). These same reversals are true in “intense” literature—they demand a counter-narrative that transcends buzzworthy applause.

Marginalized folks who write about race and discrimination and generational trauma are often received (especially by white people) with “This makes me cry,” but under what other nuances can we engage? It’s reductive to feel a feel about grave matters and then close the tab to re-enter privilege—and it sounds an awful lot like performance. Such intransigent catchall words will never be enough to move one toward a radical and decentralized arena in literature. How has it unshackled you? What can you do now in your great craggy brain to interrogate racism/misogyny/transphobia/bigotry in others and in yourself? It’s good to be upset if it gets folks out of their seats.  

If you believe material is too intense, look closer. We do a disservice to ourselves when we decide to only look at one element of a poem. Even the darkest poems celebrate the small sliver of time they’ve survived enough to speak.

Tree By Dia Lacina
Photo by Dia Lacina

I did have a job interview with a terrible old man once who insisted I print out my poems and show them to him. He called them bullshit and asked me what had me so sad that I couldn’t simply write about trees. His advice to me was literally and actually, I should write about trees. So I wrote a poem about using trees to burn his house down. Shrug. Maybe that would have made him upset.

I do understand, though, if a poem is too upsetting to read as a victim/survivor of any of the above conditions. As of now, the University of Chicago has made a statement that they will ignore trigger warnings and are not interested in facilitating safe spaces. Journals like The Atlantic have contributed to the language of TW opposition with their overtly condescending use of the word “coddling,” a word that, to wit, is endlessly applied to the next available generation’s progress. On this matter, I don’t plan on getting off this old man’s lawn any time soon. I am not sure why non-traumatized students should care about whether a warning is placed over a material prior to reading it (spoiler: they usually don’t care), but it has opened up discussions from neoliberals and conservatives alike. In classic demonstration, non-traumatized people have decided it is their prerogative to decide who gets to be upset and who gets to bear it. (Jason Fong articulates this beautifully in his response, “The University of Chicago Creates a Safe Space for Itself.”) 

I’ve been thinking about this mindset a lot. I’ve thought about all the times I’ve read my work in spaces without offering a trigger warning. That there are no safe spaces at readings, but increasingly, attempts at open communication toward such a venture. Regardless of your opinions on TWs, people with PTSD can take a lot—we have taken a lot. If you experience pain when you read something, a pain that makes you want to leave the room, leave your body, leave by way of the sky to a brighter elsewhere, be gentle with yourself. Honor the ways you have developed to protect yourself from harm. I hope you continue to do that for yourself. I think such practices will help you inevitably step into the fire of that pain if or when you’re ready.

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

This is interesting. I wrote a very explicit poem (*TW) a couple years ago called “The Rapist Joins AA that is not all the way autobiographical. That is outrageous, isn’t it? Let me explain. I conflated abusive men in my life into one abusive man and I conflated traumatic events into one traumatic event. Yes, I was assaulted by a drunk naked man in a kitchen when there were people in the next room who thought it hilarious. Yes, I drove home from this gathering so drunk I could barely see. Yes, this person joined AA but no, they didn’t actually contact me. I wanted to meditate on what that might look like, someone begging amends that I would not give, to see this withholding as a fucked up kind of power. It was the imaginative hook for me, that I might be able to talk about this by way of a pleading, a pleading of my own machinations.

This admittance doesn’t feel all the way right, because I do think that the work I do is ultra-wedded to autobiography. In literature, though, women writers are often pinned by their personal histories, where a cis white man can write from whatever perspective he damn well pleases. So that divide is toxic. But subject matter does affect what poems warrant truth, I believe. If you write a poem about trauma when you aren’t traumatized, it might come off as cavalier tourism. Anne Sexton once wrote an elegy for her brother, killed in war, called “For Johnny Pole on the Forgotten Beach”—but she had no brother, just a terrible inkling toward death. I’ve thought about the ethics of this poem for years. It doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. It doesn’t matter. It does. She flirted with death and here she could gain personal proximity / Couldn’t this poem still heal those in grief? / How dare she presume to know that grief? These lines, though, obliterate the truth/untruth debate for me:

The bodies were strung out as if they were
still reaching for each other, where they lay
to blacken, to burst through their perfect
skin. And Johnny Pole was one of them.
He gave in like a small wave, a sudden
hole in his belly and the years all gone
where the Pacific noon chipped its light out.    

I’m not sure I answered this yet though. I would like to politely walk the presumption that I am always speaking autobiographically to the door. The poem’s space is more a quarry than a court. I construct other genres within the space of the poem too—science fiction ekes its way in. Personification. Many literary devices show up to the party and sometimes I drive home drunk with all of them in the car. Life is a strange living palimpsest—and I’ve come to a point in that life that, no matter what I’m up to or how I dress up the guise, I’m grateful to finally speak my truth.

Who would you have nominated for this anthology? Is there a poem you have in mind that you could link to?

There are so many amazing folks in the anthology. Here are some poems I think about all the time that better me:

Candace William‘s “State Test
Chase Berggrun‘s “Reading Tsvetaeva on Father’s Day
Paul Tran‘s “Testimony
Kim Yideum‘s “The Guitarist on the Street
Lo Kaw Mei-en‘s “Yellow Swan Pantoum
Crystal Valentine‘s “And The News Reporter Says Jesus Is White” (linked above but god damn god damn)


Eilbert_profile(1) (1)NATALIE EILBERT is the author of the debut poetry collection, Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015). She is also the author of two chapbooks, Conversation with the Stone Wife (Bloof Books, 2014) and And I Shall Again Be Virtuous (Big Lucks Books, 2014). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, Tin House, Poem-a-Day, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is the founding editor of The Atlas Review.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.