Issue 35, Final Fringe

Metta Sáma on animals, wildness, and the unugly

by Metta Sáma, Anna Lena Phillips 06.12.2013

Metta Sáma’s prose-poem sequence, “No End to the Horror,” appeared recently in Fringe. Poetry editor Anna Lena Phillips interviewed her by email in May.

A certain literary journal used to have a line in its submission guidelines that read “No cat poems.” What are your feelings about cat-containing poems? How did le animal enter this poem?

Oh, I once heard that a certain popular writing professor forbade squirrel poems in his class, because he hated the sound of the word squirrel. I like squirrels. Animals are us & we are animal, yes? So, if we write about ourselves or our fellow humans, then we’re writing about animals. It’s quite silly for me to hear someone say that we can only focus on the human animal.

The poem began with le animal. I was so incredibly drawn to how humans and cats become interdependent and the rituals between cats and humans, the forming of bonds: who gets to be the Alpha and such. We humans laud the cat for its independence, yet so many of us (unwittingly) desire anticipating the needs of a cat (bringing them inside (domestication) from the outside (feralness), inserting ideas and desires into an animal’s body (the animal wants to be petted; the animal wants to a treat; the animal wants to go outside)). The poem, then, began to build quite naturally, the relationship between cats & humans, the rituals, the tango of power; all of this was a poetics. In my personal life, I was also creating a poetics with the animal I was caretaking.

I could imagine the piece as a short film: it would be categorized as a psychological thriller, and its main note would be horror. But as poetry, the sequence shows the ambiguity and complexity of the speaker’s relationship to the animals she encounters. That relationship with arthropods is “potentially toxic,” as she says, but it also makes possible the exploration and definition of psychological states that might otherwise be hard to name. Reminds me of Lévi-Strauss’s famous notion that animals are “good to think with.” Why write about animals? What are your thoughts about how the animals in this poem work?

Yes, animals are “good to think with,” mostly because they don’t talk back! We project all kinds of ish onto them (we’re so horrible that way!). And, we also see our animal selves in them. Where would the speaker be, for example, with her encounter with the palmetto bug, if le animal was not there, bringing the thing into the house, dropping it at her feet? Do we enter the cat’s world as it has entered ours? Do we let it bring the outside in, or do we spend our entire relationship with the cat driving the outside out (taming it?)?

You write, “There is a language used to make the ugly unugly the stereotyped desired They call the very large cockroach palmetto bug”. At first this particular name would have struck me more as an effort to make the fearful familiar—but the space between familiarity and desire, between desire and hatred, also, is a small one. The phrase brings to mind race- and gender-based language that does the same things. Does the speaker’s choice not to name the “other terror” indicate an empathy for the creature (the desire not to familiarize or diminish it), or an unwillingness or inability to bring it into the world of the desired and the unugly?

I very much love you for this question & the attendant thoughts. Louisiana, is something of, oh, an anomalous place, in some ways, & totally ubiquitous in others.

Louisiana is wild.

Imagine being in this place, with its gorgeous plantations, its tree-lined roads, its enslaved ghosts, its fog-covered bridges, its impoverished, slashed streets, its booze, its churches, its civil war graveyards, its still-operating plantations (renamed farms, some of them), its swamps and alligators, its oil refineries, its cormorants and pelicans its bayous and egrets, its poisons holy hell its poisons; Imagine that place and yourself in it, named, marked, and yet . . . and yet . . .

The naming and not naming of insects and animals, the casting away of names, of markings attributed to these beasts by us humans, this is an attempt to tame what is wild, and in the poem, then, that was a deliberate act, and of course, any word is a name: “le animal” is a marking and a marking is a naming, so although the speaker relinquishes the animal by not using its name & also frees it up by making it “the animal” instead of “le chat” or “el gato,” for example, allows the animal to have more than one nature, it’s unfixed. Same with the insects. The speaker knows what they are, and demonstrates this, from the outset, by calling the first terror “palmetto bug,” but this is an act, really, to provide an example for the readers, of how something that’s really just a bloated flying cockroach (the exterminators in Louisiana call them wood roaches) is treated with such care and beauty by Louisianans: “palmetto bug”.

The speaker in the poem, who sees these creatures, wants to feel an affinity to the creatures, as she wants to feel an affinity with le animal, and doubts her ability to do so. There’s an imbalance that she’s aware of and a balance that she tries to establish, hence being holding some power in the house with le animal and also giving le animal power (Athena-ing le animal).

One of the things I like about this sequence is how it presents internal states without irony, as when the speaker, talking about the painful bite she has on her toe, says, “The toe may have to be removed”. Would such a state be harder to represent if there were human characters in the poem?

The best way to respond:

Human 1: Oh Em Gee! A flying cockroach! Kill it Kill it Kill it!

Human 2: *kills it*

Human 1: Phew! That was close, now get rid of it!

Human 2: *gets rid of it*

Although the entire poem takes place indoors, it explores wildness and other-animal-ness. And the interiority it expresses shares something with the nature-writing tradition. What new forms do you see writing that engages with the natural world taking? How can such writing renew itself?

I don’t typically read nature poems, often because, I suppose, they’re so in the natural world. I sent this poem along (in other words, I hoped for it to have a readership) because of the smash-up worlds: the interiority of the speaker and the exterior actions, the nearly claustrophobic inside of the home and the ability for these insects to find cracks and crevices to enter, the domestic nature of the cat and the speaker’s belief in the cat’s (dare I say) essential feralness.

As with any living thing, renewal happens with the turning over of soil, the mobility of seeds, the fire that destroys and cleanses, the water that, with the aid of wind, washes and carries away the old. Renewal also happens with the detritus of the old still lingering, haunting us. I suppose a more laconic way of saying that: “We write new when we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we live newly.”

At Fringe, we define “longer poetry” as work over 40 lines, but the definition is less important than having the category itself: We created it because we were getting very few poems of any length. Are there other prose-poems sequences that you like? What does the longer form allow that the lyric does not?

Oh I can’t think of any prose-poem sequences, but I can think of prose poem books that feel sequential, like the first two sections of Khadijah Queen’s The Black Peculiar. I suppose Evie Shockley’s last moment in the new black is a prose poem sequence, although I can’t be too sure of that. Prose poems, I originally thought, were ideal for fragmentation, fracturing, chaos, tension, dynamic energy. If, inside of that pretty little tightly controlled box, all manners of, to stick with the topic, crocodiles are snapping at butterflies which are terrorizing flies which are bumping into cows which are swatting at egrets, you know, that’s energy, that’s tension, and when that energy is interrupted by a pithy speech about sex and the slave trade, well, that’s the world, it’s fractured, it’s boxed in, and yet, it breathes, it stretches its arms, it never looses its tongue, and yeah, that’s it, yes, the prose poem never lets the speaker loose (or feel shamed of) her tongue.

Writing about the natural world has always included writing about fear, but as a woman who does that sort of writing, I find a particular kind of fear is involved: fear of the human. This poem involves no other humans directly, and yet the way it discusses fear is relevant to human relationships—size differences, the balance of power . . .

Yes, and there’s also the implicit fear of what will happen if a human interrupts this cozy little den. And fear, of course, is all about the unknown, the myriad self that has been allowed to sleep, until it’s shaken out of slumber. And of course, there’s the incredible lack of fear exhibited by the insects and le animal. The curiosity, the hunger, the chase. I suppose if I were to extend this series, which I had thought about doing, I’d show the few moments le animal showed fear, and they each had to do with the semis speeding along the interstate. Her owner said she’s afraid of thunder, but we went through Isaac together, chilling on the couch, watching some horrible movies on Netflix. But I can imagine le animal having fear of thunder, which maybe it associates with the same booming, house-shaking sound of the semis.

In this and other poems, you’ve chosen to write with little punctuation, preserving the initial capital as an indicator of a new thought. How does this strategy serve your work?

No punctuation and spiraling yet seemingly controlled thoughts are my new obsession. I love punctuation and play with it so often, and love to make it do work that it’s never done before, inviting the reader, then, to be actively involved in reading. Making reading a real experience. And this, too, is a real experience. As you & I worked out the kinks of this poem, I had to stop and re-read a line or a word, trace my way back, question myself, you know, thinking, ummmm, chica, really, do you want your readers all tongue-jammed, and I always replied, “yes yes yes”. It’s so important, for me, to refuse the norm, as often as I can, and not just for the rebellious sake of, but to take those moments of rebellion to really think about how we got there, how and why we stay, and what are the risks of staying, and what are the risks of leaving. It’s not new, this thinking, and it gets lost, forgotten, we stop fidgeting.

VIDA’s Count is pointing out the jagged imbalance in the representation of women’s work in the world of literary journals. Roxane Gay has done a similar, if smaller, assessment of how work by people of color is represented, with similarly discouraging findings. As both a writer and an editor, what are your thoughts on this imbalance?

Do better.

As with any work that we do in the U.S., we have to gain awareness; we just have to be willing to go there, to completely investigate the self, to completely acknowledge the history of the self & all the self is tied to, to hash it out, deal with it, and to simply step the fuck up. This is not a statement limited to Caucasian Americans.

You’re a reviewer for Her Circle. What do you enjoy about book reviewing? What would you say to those who worry about the decline of the craft?

To those who are worried about any decline: step it up or hand it off to someone who can attend to the art of reviewing.

Reviewing a book makes me slow down, examine myself, call myself out, and really attend to the work. The first book I reviewed I hated. I just couldn’t get into it. But then I stopped and made myself write down everything I hated and to really be honest about that noun “I”. About a month later, I sat down to the book, set aside my ish, and re-read the book, and it was incredible: the poems were almost all formal forms, and I’d missed that, completely, the first read. So, I had to examine that (I have a contentious relationship with formal form), and let that go, and then re-read, a week later, to just note what the author was doing, how it was working, what it created, in terms of an experience. To be honest, I also had to look at failures.
Reviewing is the only time that I take to go through those stages, to reckon with myself, and to give in to the experience of the work.

This fall you’ll become director of the Center for Women Writers at Salem College. What plans do you have? What are you looking forward to most?

Oh, I have way too many ambitious plans & not enough course release time to actually do the work! But, within the first year, I want to bring life to the center and seriousness and play. My great hope is to have a 5-year series with social justice and social activism as an umbrella term, and bring in writers, artists, and activists whose work is deeply entrenched with social activism and social justice. I can imagine that some of these writers will perhaps take us on walks through the city, so that we can talk about environmental justice, for example, and that we can really become writers who are completely connected to the worlds we inhabit. I also hope to start a series of symposiums, the first of which I hope to be a publishing/editing symposium. In part, I want to really highlight North Carolina writers and activists and artists, and I also want to, initially, create bridges between NC and South Carolina, NC and Washington, DC–Virginia–Maryland, NC and Tennessee, & NC and Kentucky. All of this depends on students and their interests and willingness to be part of this, to hold it, to co-direct it.

What good poems have you read in online journals of late?

Websites/blogs: Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s “Bardo,” “In between,” “In the Event of Change,” all up at PoetryFoundation.org; which led me to Tenzin Tsundue’s “Refugee” on his blog.

Journals: Hafizah Geter’s “The first time I saw my father with no teeth” over at ToeGoodPoetr; Piotr Gwiazda’s “Aspects of Strangers” over at B O D Y; Patricia Spears Jones’ “Dinner with the ghost of Lorenzo Thomas” in EOAGH; Sarah Hulyk axwell’s “Evveryone Walks the Stret” from bluestem; Lynne Procope’s “The Byrd poems, Part 1” in Muzzle; & I’ll end with Ching-In Chen’s “Various Various” in Mead, but that entire issue is pretty damn slammin.

Binary round

Pen or pencil?
Whatever is closest

Postcard or letter?
Whichever is dearest

Dragon or unicorn?
Oh well dragons

Dragon or winged lion?
Once again dragons

Vowel or consonant?
Ooooooo mmmmmm weeeelllllll

a or e?
schwa

Cake or pie?
I don’t like sweets

Page or screen?
Poem or fiction      Left-alignment or taking up the page

Dactyl or anapest?
Which is which?

Cymbal or gong?
Those are both pretty loud, aren’t they? Can we have violin or viola?

Early or late?
Oh, this can get one in trouble, yes? Early

Coffee or tea?
Weekends or weekdays

Metta Sáma

Metta Sáma

Read More

Metta Sáma is author of Nocturne Trio (YesYes Books 2012) and South of Here (New Issues Press 2005 (published under the name Lydia Melvin)). Her poems, fiction, creative nonfiction, and book reviews have been published or are forthcoming in Blackbird, bluestem, Drunken Boat, The Drunken Boat, Esque, hercricle, Jubilat, Kweli, The Owls, Pebble Lake Review, Pyrta, Reverie, Sententia, and Vinyl, among others. Sáma is a visiting assistant professor in the MFA Program at LSU.

Anna Lena Phillips

Anna Lena Phillips

Poetry Editor

Anna Lena Phillips’s  writing appears in BlazeVOX, Open Letters Monthly, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and others. She is the recipient of the Southern Women Writers Conference’s 2012 Emerging Writers Award in poetry, a 2012 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Contest award, a 2011 Emerging Artist grant from the Durham County Arts Council, and 2008 and 2009 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prizes. She has been awarded residencies at Penland School of Crafts and the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities. She received an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College in 2006. Her projects and pursuits are catalogued at todointhenewyear.net. One such project, a letterpress-printed, pocket-sized guide to poetic forms, is slated for release in 2013. Anna Lena is a founding editor of Fringe.

Both comments and pings are currently closed.