Caseyrenée Lopez talks about embodied poetry
and writing the new gods
Please describe your journey toward writing poetry that reflects on the experience of living in the body. Have you always written this way, or did you come to it over time?
I’ve definitely fallen into writing that relates to the body, both mentally and physically. It looks me years to become comfortable enough to write about intimate details of my life. During college I primarily wrote fiction, and didn’t have a clue what poetry really was, or what it could do. With that, I suppose my journey to poetry was paved with middle-aged white men telling me what I should and shouldn’t be writing about, defining my experience and telling me what’s important—coming to poetry has been an awakening of my creativity, my understanding of what writing is and can be, and that is largely thanks to the women, nonbinary people, and trans people that have helped light my path.
To write about the body, more specifically, my body, is something I never truly explored until my late twenties, within the last three or four years. Before coming out as nonbinary, I was trapped in this awkward, cramped space between what I perceived as womanhood and attempted to be a person without labels, but it was stifling. Attempting to navigate my life without adequate vocabulary was tiresome and draining and trying to understand what I am always left me confused or alienated. But then I started writing about the idea that occupying a body perceived as woman means you are constantly at war. This idea guides my writing, allowing me the freedom to explore new parts of myself unapologetically.
Living nonbinary in a polarized world is so challenging for the speaker in the new gods that they literally tear themself apart (“amalgamation”) and negate their own subjectivity (“femme gaze”). Yet there is also an aspect of this speaker who is a warrior (“elegy to my former self”) and a nurturer (“i can be a demon for you” “i hold myself”). Do you think a person has to overcome their destructive aspect before they can fight for survival and nurture another, or can these things happen simultaneously / in a non-linear way?
I think that these things happen simultaneously all the time. There’s no guidebook on how to be a person, you just figure it out along the way. People contain multitudes and we’re typically never given the opportunity to see one another as our whole selves. There is always something blocking the path, some social pressure, some phony professional self, or whatever else, that prevents a person’s authenticity from being complete. For me, it’s about putting my intent out into the world, I don’t mean like in a metaphysical way, but in real, concrete means. I like to place a lot of my emotions and nurturing tendencies in cooking for my loved ones. That’s what I mean when I say putting my intent into the world—put another way, it would be learning to allow your love languages to speak, no matter where you are or who you’re with. When this happens, you are breaking yourself down, positively, and building others up.
elegy to my former self
bones broken open,
ripe marrow spread
like butter over firm muscle
i pluck chicken feathers,
repeat three times
blood salt sage and cedar
swirl a large tail feather in
paint my face
with iron tainted poison
shine like the bright
side of the moon
it makes sense to me
you turn your nose up
at my old hard to kill habits
Besides the vulnerability present in the content of this book, I am impressed by [what I perceive as] the vulnerability of form. Writing short poems, to me, has always felt like a major risk. You don’t have a lot of space to justify, explain, convince, or build a moment for your reader. There are some poems in the new gods that just blew me away—for example “carnivore,” “a secret,” “outside on a windy afternoon,” “october”— because they were intensely personal yet had such brevity! To what extent is it a different mental / psychological process for you to write an extremely minimal poem vs. a longer one with much more room to maneuver?
I work best in short bursts, and so brevity has always been important to my writing, regardless of form. Most of my poems begin as fragments, single phrases, or vague ideas, and are built from there, but some pieces remain as fragments when I believe the image speaks for itself. Keeping the language tight helps me write these pieces, but when it comes to longer poems, I sometimes use an essay outline to help keep my thoughts organized.
rubbing coarse sea salt in my eyes
is no different than thinking of you
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
Al Youm by George Abraham
Syzygy, Beauty by T. Fleischmann
What About the Rest of Your Life by Sung Yim
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz
Coming Out Like a Porn Star ed., by Jiz Lee
war/lock by Lisa Marie Basile
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
There is a Case That I Am by torrin a. greathouse
RAM by ari k. castañeda
Some Rogue Agent fans are just beginning to explore what making art about the body would look like for them. What advice would you give to someone just starting down the path toward writing poetry that features the body?
Writing is a vulnerable experience, but it’s further complicated when you are incorporating truly intimate details of the self. Writing about the body means you are constantly dissecting yourself, continually mining for material, and that can become exhausting. To avoid exhaustion, read, outside of poetry, on themes that are related to your poetry. If at all possible, read any prose by your favorite poets. I’ve found this helps me maintain a strong connection to my writing, while also allowing me to see these themes worked out in other forms. It’s also helpful to engage with the work in different ways. An interesting thing I like to do is write a poem in 3 different forms and compare them side-by-side, or cut about 10 printed poems into fragments and reassemble them as a single collage, cento, or another similar found form. Essentially, try to infuse the work with creativity. Sometimes writing the body can be bleak, especially if you are chronically or terminally ill, and finding new ways of engaging with messy ideas allows us to continually introduce new energy into our writing.
Originally from Georgia, Caseyrenée Lopez relocated with their family to Virginia in the summer of 2017. They work as a professor of English at John Tyler Community College, and are the author of two full-length poetry collections, the new gods (Bottlecap Press, March 2018) and i was born dead (About Editions, forthcoming), as well as a chapbook heretic bastard (Clare Songbirds Publishing House, forthcoming). In addition to teaching and writing, Caseyrenée is also the editor of Crab Fat Magazine and publisher at Damaged Goods Press. They tweet @caseyreneelopez.