Things I Didn’t Do With This Body
Copper Canyon Press
This thing I wear that looks like grace or reserve
or taste but sits on my skin like a stain or a sin,
this thing I bear but cannot name, it may be
this—a borrowed shame.
How it began: I’ve been reading and writing poetry since I was a young teenager, but the earliest poems in Things I Didn’t Do With This Body go back about thirteen years, before I got my MFA and I was working as a medical copy editor. For most of those years I wasn’t really conscious of the poetry as a project with a theme or an arc. These days I think we’re seeing a lot of first books being written in a shorter time span and with more structure and intention from the outset; earlier career poets now are much more advanced in terms of professionalization than I was. When I was working full time and writing poetry on the side, I didn’t know a single other poet. The communities I was a part of had nothing to do with being writers or artists. I didn’t know about any prizes or how to submit to literary journals. Years later, forming the book became an act of looking back, seeing what my obsessions had been, and curating a collection of poems that dealt with those obsessions best, with the most depth and complexity. A lot of the poems I had written, even some that I placed in magazines, turned out to be not much more than useful studies and didn’t end up in the book. What coalesced in the manuscript was quite clear: a story of what it means to inhabit a terrifyingly fragile body that is nonetheless capable of love and violence and creation and pleasure.
Inspiration: The people I love. Partners, family—chosen and not. History. Poetry can be so distilled and suggestive, which for me is held in tension (productively) with my strong desire to tell a story. I’m not always certain I have the right to tell these stories, but I try to make up for my presumption with as much gentleness and curiosity and honesty as I can. In the last few years, I’ve written about food and nourishment quite a bit, and those topics also feel bound to family and history and Blackness. During the first year of the pandemic, when my housemate and I couldn’t go many places, couldn’t see our families, and our days seemed packed end-to-end with Zoom calls, I taught myself how to cook, and it became a real source of solace and happy ritual in a time of estrangement and worry. During that time, too, I took up an old project of documenting my family’s generational wisdom around food. All of that found its way, inevitably, into the poetry.
Influences: Because I wrote this book over so many years, the poets whose work feels especially present in the collection influenced me over very different stages of my development. Some that come to mind are Judy Grahn, Natasha Trethewey, and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers.
When I stumbled across Judy Grahn’s The Work of a Common Woman (Crossing Press, 1984), I was fourteen and just starting to be aware of my queerness. Here was a book of poems dealing so overtly and bravely with the lives and labors of women, especially queer and masculine-of-center folks. Until I found this collection of selected works by Grahn, I didn’t know you could write a book like that, much less with a beautiful hot-pink-arm-tattooed, mulleted person on the cover and the words “Edward the Dyke” in bold letters. Formally, I was instructed by Grahn’s ambitious sequences. I’d never before seen poems written with such stamina and commitment and with images whose meanings accrued and transformed with each repetition. I was still young as a poet, but I immediately started writing imitative poetic sequences that centered storytelling and queer femme self-making.
I read Natasha Trethewey much later, at the suggestion of a good friend in my MFA program. He knew her work would speak to me, and I instantly admired her surefootedness, her patient pacing, her deep research. Reading her work taught me so many essential elements of craft, like how to break a line and, therefore, how to manipulate the breath, and how to balance research with that incisive, even brutal, poetic thinking, how to get to the poem’s core. Every one of her poems asks (and answers) the questions: What makes the poem imperative? How do we understand cruelty beyond merely pointing at it in outrage? When I forget how to be a poet, I go back to her work and something fundamental clicks into place for me.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s work has a historical rigor I admire, and a lyric power that gives the poems liftoff. I saw her perform some poems from The Age of Phillis (Wesleyan University Press, 2020) at her Witter Bynner Fellowship reading in 2014. She’s an astonishing reader; it’s as if she’s singing the poems, and the way she reads them amplifies Phillis Wheatley’s voice clear across the centuries and into the present. I left that reading asking myself how on earth she had accomplished this. How had she given herself permission to take on that voice? How had she managed it with such grace and an absence of judgment? I woke up the very next day and started writing a sequence about Harriet Tubman. It was an ecstatic process of research and writing that resulted in seventeen poems in five weeks. I revised them radically and they ultimately became a tight, columnar quartet of poems that are featured in my book. They possess a whole new music, no doubt influenced by Jeffers’s vocal performance.
One last influence that’s surprising for me—during those years when I wasn’t able to write I spent a lot of time reading 1980s and 1990s paperback romance novels—is my favorite historical romance author, Mary Jo Putney. Often when I sit down to write a poem, the first idea I have is something that feels like a terrible, unfixable problem to me, and I am not certain if, when, or how I can resolve it, even with all my powers of poetic argument and access to form. What made Putney’s books so moving for me is that she would start her (very round) characters as individuals, each in truly impossible emotional turmoil, often having undergone and even inflicted trauma that seemed out of place in a romance novel. Then she would spend the next 300 to 400 pages painstakingly walking them through the trauma towards a real sense of self-knowledge. The romantic relationship itself, and the inevitable reconciliation and wedding at the end, seemed secondary. Historical romances of that earlier time had fairly rigid narrative constraints, and the gender politics can be more than a bit shocking now. A Mary Jo Putney novel—especially of that era—feels like a lush, deeply psychological realist novel of the nineteenth century dressed in the starched uniform of a twentieth-century harlequin. What I admire most about her work is that sometimes Putney writes herself such difficult conflict that she doesn’t actually succeed at reaching a plausible resolution. But it’s the challenge and the striving that feels so gutsy; picking the hard material and moving forward. May I be so gutsy in every poem and keep trying to walk it through.
Writer’s block remedy: I’ve been lucky enough to experience a lot of formal breakthroughs over the past seven years or so. Usually I keep writing in one mode until it starts to feel static. At that point I always feel like I’ve forgotten how to be a poet. But what I really need is to be reminded that there are infinite ways to solve a poetic problem. Reading helps. I often go back to my favorite poets to be reminded of why we do this. And sometimes I just have to let the work go dormant and cleanse my palate. Bake a pie, work at perfecting my grandmother’s caramel cake or my mother’s greens. Pretty soon I’m documenting the recipes in long and painstaking lines. Sometimes the sumptuous language of recipes and food will lead me back to the poetry, feeling renewed.
Advice: I think for getting individual poems and books published, it helps to spend time as a reader early in your career—for a magazine, a contest, wherever you can get your foot in the door. That allows you to understand what the rest of the field looks like and how decisions get made among reading committees. You start to understand how totally subjective and capricious the process is and just how much excellent work gets rejected. Ultimately, I think it makes your own rejections feel less painful and less personal. Maybe more importantly, do the service you have the energy for.
During my MFA my friends and I spent a lot of time in coffee shops “applying for rejections” as we called it. I know this is much easier said than done, but I think it’s crucial to have a very firm (and maybe slightly unreasonable) belief in the fundamental worth of your own writing. Do the reading, yes. Write your guts out, yes. Talk to other poets as much as possible, yes. If you have a tight circle of first readers, or even one first reader, or maybe a mentor you really trust, then theirs are the opinions that should take up space in your writing process. But once the poem or the manuscript is done, let it be done—at least for a good long while. Belief in your own work makes it possible for you to continue to send it out even after many, many inevitable rejections—and it holds you back from reactively editing your poems into oblivion. Editors, judges, and the folks who screen slush piles are gatekeepers, and most of the time they have an enormous number of options in front of them besides your manuscript. You have to protect yourself and your well-being and not allow them to have a place in your emotional life or in your assessment of your own self-worth.
Finding time to write: This is a big question and I think it’s actually asking two things at once, namely: How do you develop discipline around your writing practice, and how do you find a poetry-work-life balance?
For me, discipline in writing is less about setting aside a certain number of hours to write in a week and more about an attitude of attention, or in other words trying to maintain the mindset that I’m writing poetry all the time. I keep a notebook with phrases, images, and interesting words (my oldest friend is a mathematician and I have a running list of the most astonishing math words I’ve overheard from her and her collaborators over the years). This practice makes work as a poet feel less like discombobulating starts and stops. The blank computer screen therefore becomes less frightening and aversive, and more a site of pleasure and possibility.
What I lack entirely is balance around my writing. I’ve spent a lot of years thinking, within my poetry and outside of it, about chronic illness and especially chronic mental illness. After decades of fantasizing about a life lived in balance, where my work, my home life, and my health all get equal attention and care, I’ve concluded that it’s just not possible for me. Some weeks or months I spend a lot of time feeling unwell and need to hibernate. Some weeks I cook elaborate meals every day. Some weeks there’s nothing but work. When I write a poem, it takes me about half a day to establish a first draft: something with a structure, a tone that makes sense, and an argument that feels complete. Once I have the draft, I spend the next five to seven days working on it almost constantly, often waking up in the middle of the night to do so. It’s a completely dysregulating process, but once I’m in the grip of the poem, I neglect virtually everything in my life except feeding the cat.
Putting the book together: Ordering a manuscript is such an art! I ordered Things I Didn’t Do With This Body at least three or four times along the way, enlisting the help of friends and mentors who had more clarity than I did on my work as a whole. One piece of good advice I came away with was to look at the book as a long chain. How are the poems matching up end to end, last lines against first lines? Does something get excited by those adjacencies? Does each poem complicate the one that precedes it or follows it? Another piece of good advice I received was to place what I felt was the best or most important poem at the exact center of the book, and then spend the collection working my way into, then out of, that moment.
I will say that ordering the book for publication versus for submission did look slightly different—something like the difference between constructing an album and dropping the first few singles. For submitting, I put the best poems first because I was anxious to grab those initial readers, anxious not to be passed over immediately. In the final book, I wanted more of a slow build, something that made sense and didn’t feel top-heavy, so I changed the arrangement a bit.
What’s next: I have the sense that I’m in a transitional place with my writing. I included quite a few elegies in Things I Didn’t Do With This Body, poems for my former partner that felt very open-hearted and clean somehow. But grief has a way of enduring and also changing and turning you into a person you don’t quite recognize. These new poems are freighted with guilt and confusion. I’m not sure these poems will end up in a book, but I feel like I need to write them. They’re less a project than a process. In Things I Didn’t Do With This Body, I also wrote a lot about the question of motherhood, about childlessness. I’ve felt a shift there too, into a kind of life-making and meaning-making beyond that question. I guess some grief gets heavier and some gets lighter.
Residence: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Job: I’m a PhD candidate and teaching fellow in English at Harvard University, working on a dissertation about Gwendolyn Brooks’s formal experimentation.
Time spent writing the book: Thirteen years, all told. After college I worked for about a dozen years as a medical copy editor, and for most of that time I didn’t have the mental energy for writing poetry that I had when I was a teenager. I found ways of being creative that felt more restful, more rooted in the body (I got very serious about home-baking, for instance). Eventually, I started taking online poetry workshops and then looking into MFA programs. Even during my MFA experience, I didn’t think of myself as producing a book. My program, like a lot of programs around ten years ago, had a real aversion to the notion of professionalizing us. Knowledge of how to write applications and submit to journals was largely passed down peer-to-peer, through the cohorts. Otherwise, we wrote week-to-week and poem-to-poem. It wasn’t until later, during my PhD, that I had a mentor who encouraged me to look beyond the individual poems and start recognizing them as a body of work, to consider its contours and obsessions.
Time spent finding a home for it: I submitted to first-book contests and publishers’ open calls for about a year and a half. Before the book was accepted, I was shortlisted for one prize—which was encouraging since by-and-large offering feedback is out of the question for screeners—but other than that I count about twenty outright rejections.
Recommendations for recent debut poetry collections: I really admire Karisma Price’s I’m Always So Serious (Sarabande Books). It’s such an exciting collection; there’s so much formal daring in this book, and so much emotive and narrative movement. I’ll also mention, in fiction, Courtney Sender’s debut story collection, In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me (West Virginia University Press). Her writing is gutsy and moving and ambitious.
Things I Didn’t Do With This Body by Amanda Gunn
The Book Eaters
(Perugia Press Prize)
I need you to stay under
the grass, wriggling deep in the Earth.
Close to its unknown core.
How it began: Many poems in this book bubbled up in me as my daughter’s babbling turned to words, which then strung themselves into sentences. I wrote as she began to establish what we call an “identity.” Concurrently, I witnessed the opposite trajectory in my father’s life: His sentences shortened; antecedents slipped away from their pronouns like beads off a bracelet. Slowly, my father faded into dementia. I found myself thinking and writing about what an identity even is—and what memory is. I was overwhelmed by the disintegration of our shared memory, a loss that was, at the time, unthinkable for me. I needed to contemplate and somehow metabolize this reality, which I did by creating metaphors, and poems around those metaphors, and a collection (The Book Eaters) around those poems.
Inspiration: I am usually compelled to write by experiences that defy easy comprehension. Any event that creates a dividing line between the past and present sends me to the page. The election of 2016 created this before-after binary. Becoming a mother occasioned another such rift: The pre-mother me suddenly seemed foreign and distant, as though she’d been a figment of my imagination. My father’s decline and death created yet another rupture in my personal history. Coincidentally, he passed away one day after I deemed my manuscript complete, in October 2022. He died from a heart attack—an event disconnected from his cognitive decline. His death made my manuscript feel unfinished, so I wrote more poems and, in a sense, edited death into the book. Poetry allows me to cross the fault lines of my consciousness, and even if I don’t suture them, I can acknowledge the fissures and, in some way, hold them in my mind and bring them to the page.
Influences: I’ll mention writers whose works I’ve fervently admired and felt influenced by, though it’s possible a reader would find no trace of their influence on my aesthetic. Influence is a funny thing. Sometimes we’re influenced by books that annoy us! And it’s possible the writers I’ve adored wouldn’t care for my work or want theirs to be seen as part of my lineage. That’s my caveat. But here are my heroes: I encountered Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris (Ecco, 1992) when I was twenty-three, and I turned into a steadfast devotee of hers, devouring everything she’d written. Her balance of emotion, thought, and image pleases me. I can’t believe we’ve lost her. I’ve always read Virginia Woolf’s prose with a swoony adoration; I love it so much I almost can’t teach her books. When students react negatively to her insistent interiority, I take it personally. In the last decade I’ve discovered Terrance Hayes’s and Diane Seuss’s sonnets; I love how they both tailored this form to their own passions. And I can’t end my response here without mentioning Victoria Chang’s poetry, which has touched me in a way no other poet’s work has. Obit (Copper Canyon Press, 2020) expanded my sense of what an elegy could be. Her elegies tackle the question of what it means to be a person, what it means to have memory. These questions inspire many poets, but I suppose it’s Chang’s intense gaze, her pacing, and her nondecorative language that gave me permission to write with a voice that is thinking through questions and isn’t trying so hard to be “beautiful.”
Writer’s block remedy: Usually for me an impasse comes to exist in my writing because of a misalignment between what I want from my poems and what they—or poetry more generally—can offer. I hit a roadblock of this sort in 2018, when I found myself tired of the voice in my poems. It was a bitter voice. Why was it bitter? At that time, I was frustrated with the visiting and adjunct positions I’d found myself in, upon completing my PhD in English. Certain jobs came with no health benefits and frankly, I was filled with rage at the hypocrisy of institutions that purportedly care about the harm that capitalism inflicts upon humans yet blatantly exploit their own workers. Could poetry bring me health insurance? It could not. And I was not interested in writing poetry that merely gave vent to my anger about the health care system in this country. (Don’t get me wrong; I think poetry can shed light on problematic institutions and systems, but I was too close to my feelings at the time to make good poetry out of it.) So I took a break from writing and focused on finding a position that fulfilled me. In general, I have found it helpful to step away from writing and ask myself, “What do I want from my writing? Can my writing give me what I want from life right now?” If there’s a mismatch between my desired end and the path that writing can forge, then I place my energy elsewhere.
Advice: As a poet with only one book published so far, I feel like a toddler who just took her first steps and is being asked for wisdom on walking! Rather than offer advice, I can share one of my guiding principles. I think there’s a vast difference between a group of thematically connected poems and a book. In early 2021 I had achieved the former, but I wasn’t content with my manuscript’s structure. I wanted to feel about the whole book the way I can feel about a single poem when it’s working well—when all its parts contribute to the symphony of the whole. It’s helpful to mull over how the manuscript moves from one poem, or section, to the next. I spent almost two years obsessing over the architecture of my manuscript, and in October 2022 I finally felt about the whole book the way I feel when a single poem’s parts click into place.
Finding time to write: I write at night when everyone’s asleep. This means that I sleep less than I should, and sometimes that fatigue becomes too heavy for me to lug around as if it’s nothing. I used to drink too much coffee, but then my thyroid decided to malfunction, so I can’t consume caffeine the way I once did, which means that sometimes the need for sleep trumps my need to write. As a result, I’ve started to rely more on semester breaks, when I have some time that’s not eclipsed by teaching. I suppose I’m trying to say that none of my ways of stealing time to write have been especially graceful.
Putting the book together: I initially wrote individual poems and deflected worries about a potential book. As my poems accumulated, I started to think about conceptual linkages between them: I was writing about new motherhood and my father’s memory loss. For a while I thought I may be constructing two manuscripts instead of one. Then, when I wrote the title poem of the book, I had an “aha” moment. Prior to motherhood I’d (naively) seen myself as a sealed-off container of ideas, but while pregnant I’d contained a whole human, and as a new mother I contained milk. In the poem “The Book Eaters,” I compare myself to a book being eaten by insects—a book offering a type of nourishment to living beings that its author had not intended. As I wrote this poem it occurred to me that I could write about memory loss in similar terms. Both my father and I were no longer insular containers for ideas. When I came upon this metaphor, I wove it through the book and many pieces fell into place. The book’s first section tackles memory loss; the second one tackles reproduction; the third one tries to formulate a response to the question of what it means to be a self, given that memory loss and motherhood challenge the speaker of this book to see identity as much more porous than she’d previously imagined.
What’s next: I am currently writing toward a new collection of poems with the working title, Spineless. Some poems are told from the perspective of individuals who are conscious of their character status and experience the book’s confines and author’s dictates as oppressive. Why does an author force characters to perform their desires for the prurient eyes of onlookers? I am intrigued by how we relate to our textual offspring—how we project ourselves onto our artistic creations and, more interestingly, become moved by our creations, as if they are not entities we’ve brought into being, as if they existed of their own accord. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Dover Publications, 1994) had a profound influence on me in my youth, and as I entered adulthood I revisited the novel, reading it as a portrayal of how the artist’s creation can be a monstrous mirror, a beloved, a therapist, a sinister twin. The myriad moods our creations hold fascinate me.
Job: I’m a literature professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.
Time spent writing the book: I wrote most of the poems in my debut collection between 2016 and 2020. Then I spent the next two years organizing and reorganizing the manuscript, adding and stitching more connective tissue into the book while also considering the movement and pacing of everything. Altogether I spent almost seven years writing and editing the book. I might have been able to let go of it sooner, but the separation anxiety was intense.
Time spent finding a home for it: I started submitting The Book Eaters to first-book contests in October 2022 and won the Perugia Press Prize for first and second poetry collections in February 2023. It took four months to place.
Recommendations for recent debut poetry collections: I’ve enjoyed Katie Farris’s Standing in the Forest of Being Alive (Alice James Books), Leslie Sainz’s Have You Been Long Enough at Table (Tin House), Elisa Gonzalez’s Grand Tour (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and Emily Lee Luan’s 回 / Return (Nightboat Books).
The Book Eaters by Carolina Hotchandani