Muriel Leung talks about embodied poetry
and writing Bone Confetti
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?
For many women as well as queer, trans, and non-binary gender identified writers, the body has been a way of tracking two movements through writing, which are at once the circumstances of the immediate present and the histories one embodies. I was 12 when I started writing poetry, and I recall that at that time, I was also obsessed with reading about palmistry, the way different lines and mounds of such a small part of one’s larger body can tell the story of one’s present and future self. I don’t think it’s an accident that this curiosity about the body was forged at the nexus of my coming into my understanding of my identity as a queer woman of color and my writing. I think what the study of the body teaches us the things we know to be true in our guts, counter to the larger normalizing social narratives that insist upon something other. When I look back at my earlier years in writing, I remember that tension well, of discomfort I felt in the face of an immediate offense or danger, and it takes so much work to recall the knowledge (ancestral and self-taught) that has forged my body so that I can insist on something different. The experience of living in the body then affords the simultaneous gesture of accessing these histories that live inside us and trains us to respond in the immediate present.
I think ire’ne lara silva in her past interview with Rogue Agent says it best when she states, “It takes discipline to listen to the body and learn its language.” In particular, I resonate with her point that writing about the body has largely been considered to be less aesthetically rigorous. Those of us who write about the body know that is not the case. And I think the devaluing of bodily writing can largely be attributed to racist, misogynistic, and homo and transphobic attitudes towards writing, wherein writing of the body is considered too easy, too informal, and unresearched. We forget that such intimacies with the body require us, many a time, to unearth some deeply embedded trauma, to make it (il)legible, and to maintain our own sense of mental health at the end of it. Writing about the body is a brutal game but it’s also the requisite life for those of us who choose it time and time again.
Bone Confetti is somewhat different than the first two books of embodied poetry in our interview series, which tell truths with straightforward, visceral language. What drew me to Bone Confetti is the way it takes on the subject of the body-mind’s grief using a different type of poetic style. If you could, please describe how you chose to use language to make meaning of the body in Bone Confetti.
Bone Confetti takes place abstractly in a post-apocalyptic world with a speaker who pursues a lover with the same futility as Orpheus in the end of his journey to retrieving Eurydice from the underworld. It loosely borrows from the myth, and it replicates the loss over and over again. I wanted to examine what it’s like to experience perpetual loss, for various losses to coagulate as one, to show what it’s like for a storm cloud of loss to preside over a land. I think, because of such disorderliness, the wildness of this grief, the language should also move in such a way.
In this ferity, the body becomes a way to anchor the text, to point the loss in one moment temporarily. Sometimes the body is ghost in Bone Confetti; other times, it’s dead or decomposing. The body is cannibalistic, sensitive, mutable, plastic, and beyond. The bodies are multiple and replicate, and I think in the rapidity of their appearances lies an excess – in bodies, grief objects, in linguistic play – that capture the grief and loss that I have known in my life. I think I only recognize it when it is made fantastical, when it is spilling over itself.
Some of my favorite poems in this book are “I Love You, Dead,” and “Touch: A Recovery Project.” I found myself approaching these from an emotional perspective, rather than an analytical perspective. Please say more about those particular poems—the process of writing them, what they mean to you, anything you like.
“I Love You, Dead” was a collage poem of hyperbolic gestures, of taking the act of two lovers negotiating their desires to the utmost extreme. Instead of asking the other to be kinder or better listeners, they’re asking to be devoured or giving permission for the other to do something very specific with their decomposing body. I think on one level it’s humorous (maybe only to me, which is fine – I have an odd sense of humor) because the logic of this bargaining feels like two people trading kinks; it has a rational manner about it in the sense that all parties are consenting and trying to access the wants and desires of the other. On a deeper lever, I suppose, it’s about the things we ask for in relationships, what feels too much to ask for or give, what happens when we ask for it or give it away. How do we summon that capacity within us? Would some otherworldly quality give us that capacity to do more than our humanness permits? Even deeper, I think, I wonder what it would mean for us to try to figure out what we can do for the dead or the people we have lost, which is premised upon knowing the other beyond their capacity to speak back to you. What is your responsibility to them then? Because I think we do have a responsibility to the ones we lose.
I’ve had this belly for years, this belly now
speckled with insulin shot sites, some
in varying stages of bruise. I'm four weeks
& high glucose in the mornings. I'm five weeks
& internal ultrasound wand, the first condom
inside me in over a year. I'm six weeks
& craving spicy, hot sauce splashed
on every plate. I'm seven weeks
& you're the size of a blueberry, baby.
I’m high risk, at risk of callousing every fingertip
from up to seven tests a day. Fasting,
one hour after eating, bedtime.
We are careful to speak in ifs:
if all goes well at the next appointment,
if I’m able to carry to term.
But we’ve told everyone too
soon. I was on incompatible meds.
I stood at my mother’s fridge before Sunday dinner
four weeks ago & ate pinched fingers full of blue cheese.
The journal I’m keeping isn’t littered
with cravings of ice cream & pickles, isn’t
interspersed with pictures of my belly with a placard
of the time frame held to the side.
When you start a pregnancy obese, your belly
isn’t for show. What I’ll share with you
is a log of glucose readings & carbs per meal.
I hope my fingertips heal. I want to save you,
but I’m afraid I’m carrying you like a bruise,
that you’re soon to fade, but not before you turn
a sick yellow. Not before you leave me tender.
“Touch: A Recovery Project” is a prose poem that operates on the refrain of “touch,” which obsessively tracks the forms that touch can take. It begins with suspicion though, its first lines reading: “Touch acknowledges cavity in chest center. Touch should in theory be essentially good for knowing salt and gravity.” At the opening, the body is already compromised and all knowledge of touch as safety has been corrupted. I find that to be true of sexual trauma, the hyper-vigilance that follows, the way the body can experience touch like a barbed thing. It is a poem that acknowledges that it can no longer revert back to its original knowledge of safety and that it must build a new home of its uncertainty. Rather than train the body to unlearn the violence it knew, the imperative “Touch” becomes “Touch me” to demand that someone else learn its language and history.
I’ve always been interested in how poems can challenge people to examine their naturalized sensibilities towards their values and desires, and to me, these two poems are insistent upon that work. For “Touch: A Recovery Project” in particular, I wanted to imagine a space where healing could be survivor-centered and systemically transformative at the same time; what it would mean for us to do the labor of learning someone else’s trauma even if they keep it close to themselves, even if there is a hole in place of something tangible and immediately legible to you. “I Love You, Dead” too considers what it means to be fluent in someone else, to accept the terms in which they operate, and to forgive oneself for when we inevitably fail each other.
I have new bruises now:
on the back of my hand, blue
& small as forget-me-not petals
where the medic tried
to start a line en route
to the ER, after failing
at the inside of my elbow—
fluids needed since I was losing
so much blood.
The medic told me how his wife
miscarried twice before
they had their daughter.
He gently pushed my ring aside
so he could lay his hand flat
across the top of mine
as he tried to find the vein.
He failed again & I didn’t get a line
until after the ER exam,
the plastic speculum clicking
into place, the collection
of blood into a white cup.
When I offered to take off
my ring, he joked that man
of mine better not find out
how easily I remove it.
I feel like I’ve let go
of too many things too easily.
I tried to keep you, baby.
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
This question is always hardest for me because my list is always inexhaustible and always accumulating. After a trying year, I am grateful for the poets I’ve encountered this past year whose works have deeply moved me as much as their love and support of literary community building. Not yet included on this list (as they’re in the works!) are forthcoming books from Vanessa Angelica Villarreal, Beast Meridian (Noemi Press) and Vickie Vertiz, Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut (University of Arizona Press), both of which I hope everybody is on the look out for. I am probably missing 50+ books from this “must read” list but for now, this will have to do:
Kimberly Alidio, After projects the resound (Black Radish Books)
Kenji C. Liu, Map of an Onion (Inlandia Institute)
Jennifer S. Cheng, House A (Omnidawn)
Melissa Buzzeo, The Devastation (Nightboat Books)
Sean D. Henry-Smith, Body text (New Delta Review)
Kay Ulanday Barrett, When the Chant Comes (Topside Press)
Angela Penaredondo, All Things Lose Thousands of Times (Inlandia Institute)
Michelle Lin, A House Made of Water (Sibling Rivalry Press)
Kazumi Chin, Having a Coke with Godzilla (Sibling Rivalry Press)
Chen Chen, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions)
Ching-In Chen, recombinant (Kelsey Street Press)
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge (Sundress Publications)
Ashaki Jackson, Language Lesson (MIEL)
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?
Read widely and across the spectrum of experiences. Read beyond the literary canon comprised of predominantly cis straight white men and observe how the body appears for everyone else. As you read, take note of lines or fragments or visual text that stirs certain feelings in your body. Try to name where it is coming from—do you feel it in your chest? Your stomach? Your shoulders? To deepen your practice, try to get a little bit more specific each time—do you feel it sitting on your collar bone? Is it shifting against the very top of your tail bone?
I think it’s good practice to read others and write simultaneously. It’s helpful to learn the somatic responses we have to writing in order to broaden our understanding of language and its capacities. Once we train ourselves to respond to other people’s writing in such a way, it could surprise us of how much our body retains of this other knowledge, how it could move us to write in more cognizant ways of the world and of ourselves.
Jennifer Jackson Berry is the author of The Feeder (YesYes Books, 2016). She is also the author of the chapbooks When I Was a Girl (Sundress Publications, 2014) and Nothing But Candy (Liquid Paper Press, 2003). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as Booth, Harpur Palate, Poet Lore, Verse Daily, and Whiskey Island, among others. She is the Editor of Pittsburgh Poetry Review and an Assistant Editor for WomenArts Quarterly Journal. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Visit her website at www.jenniferjacksonberry.com