Poetry as Homeland: An Interview with Mónica Gomery

MÓNICA GOMERY interviewed by SHELBY HANDLER

Mónica Gomery

Mónica Gomery’s forthcoming collection, Might Kindred, was the winner of the 2021 Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. The book inhabits a variegated landscape, exploring the nature of home as a first-generation American. In the conversation that follows, Gomery and Handler discuss ancestry, identity, intimacy, and the liminal spaces between.

Shelby Handler: The book opens with two stunning epigraphs, one from Franny Choi and one from Ursula K. Le Guin: “the future is already full; / it is much older and larger than our present; / and we are the aliens in it.” This primes us for the way Might Kindred weaves, expands, and constellates the past and future. How do you see time working inside the universe of the book? And across what spans of time did you create the book, in this universe?

Mónica Gomery: There’s a longing for connection that drives Might Kindred, including a longing for relationship with my ancestors, both living and dead. The opening poem takes place the day after my grandmother’s 100th birthday, and the final poem was written the day after she turned 101. Although the rest of the poems were written over the course of five years, it was important to me that this collection be held within the final year of my grandmother’s life. Throughout the writing of it, I was anticipatorily grieving her: her hands and voice, her history and memories.

I love this epigraph from Le Guin because of her assurance that the future already exists, and that future generations exist somewhere parallel to here, which implies that when our ancestors were alive, we were already here too, a part of their world. We are more available to each other than we know. Her words remind me that engaging with ancestry is as much about the future as the past. We’re ancestors to the future, but we are also ancestored by the future. Speculative writers like Le Guin do the work of imagining worlds on the page, and I think queer people do that work, authoring the future, with our lives.

Handler: In addition to spanning time, place, and generations, the book spans many poetic registers: mythic, spiritual, elegiac, praiseful, anthemic, and more. I’m curious about the relationship between the modes of ode and elegy in the book, between poems, and even within poems. How do you see gratitude and grief in conversation in the book?

Gomery: I’m a person who’s generally in love with the world, but it’s a complicated love, best embodied by the Hebrew word yirah, meaning both awe and fear. The two work in tandem—it’s the feeling of being filled to the brim with both wonder and heartbreak. I think to open one’s poems to gratitude has to mean simultaneously opening them to grief, devastation, and even terror. Ross Gay calls it “adult joy,” meaning “joy that is informed fundamentally by the fact that we’re going to die, and what we love is going to die.” If joy is love, and love is interconnection, then it leads us right back to grief. We’re connected to people and places which invariably suffer.

My partner teases me about how even my more joyful poems end with an exploration of death. For example, “Now We Live Together” begins as a meditation on domesticity and happiness, and then pulls in the larger context surrounding that happiness—homophobia, intergenerational trauma, and the losses and griefs of our ancestors. Or “Because It Is Elul,” a poem praising a miraculous encounter with stingrays, which in the same breath mourns human estrangement from the natural world. Grief is the backdrop on which joy can exist, and maybe the joy makes it possible to acknowledge what’s been lost. They are braided together into gratitude, and the poems try to hold a wide enough space for it all.

Might Kindred cover

Handler: So much of your work feels rooted in the body. In this book, as you grapple with relatedness, family, and community, I noticed the speaker drawn towards “shoulders” as a physicalization of different types of “kindreds.” Are you drawn towards the shoulder as an image? Why?

Gomery: I love this question, and I can feel my writing friends laughing because they make fun of my obsession with this image! Have you ever walked close to someone and you unintentionally bump shoulders? Or you’re sitting beside someone, maybe at a poetry reading, or in shul? Or you’re in motion, at a dance party, or political action. When we’re crowded together, our shoulders are sometimes our first point of contact. There’s something special about that intimacy—accidental or intentional, with a stranger or a friend. Something about the edge of us, the body’s border, and where it collides with another body’s border, fascinates me. 

There’s a sweetness to it, as with the opening lines of the poem Might Kindred. The speaker is seated next to a queer poet who she longs to be close to, yearning for a friend, wanting to exchange stories. She imagines her shoulder housing a tiny rose bud, its petals wound tightly together… there’s energy and tension. It feels like it could bloom or fall apart at any moment. That precarity and desire can happen just from sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with another person. There’s also a strength—I picture people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a picket line, resistance fighters, a human chain blocking a bulldozer… images of bravery and solidarity. And there’s something ancestral about it too: our bodies are like Russian dolls. We contain the generations that will come before and after us, shoulders cupped by shoulders, stacked into one another. Somehow, shoulders conjure all these different associations for me. It’s been an important touchstone image throughout this collection.

Handler: Stitched across Might Kindred, you have the recurring “When My Sister Visits” and “Here” poems. These poems powerfully undergird themes of family, relatedness, place, and home, in mythic and daily ways. What was your process for writing these? When did you realize they would form consistent threads throughout the book?

Gomery: Years ago, a mentor came to visit me in Chicago. She is a Jewish Latina like I am, and a poet; both a teacher and friend. I was newly living there and didn’t know many people. Her visit reminded me that I make sense in the world. After she left, the first words I wrote were, When my sister visits... I was tracking something about feeling revealed to myself through this visit, but when I started to write, it wasn’t exactly about my mentor. It was about the experience of a shadow self, who holds parts of me that aren’t otherwise recognized, the parts I censor in order to make myself more legible to the world.

This sister was me and not me. She was the me that stands to the left of me, and holds up a mirror. She was mischievous, and unapologetic, she traveled across borders and brought with her cigarettes, rumors, and silence. She drew me out of myself, highlighted my inconsistencies, and also confused me. She returns throughout the book to ask questions about identity and belonging, she is a companion and also an antagonist, and she responds to loneliness. At first, this was one long poem, published in Ninth Letter. Then I worked on the manuscript with the wonderful Shira Erlichman, who wanted me to chop it into smaller pieces and keep going, daring me to see what I would learn if I wrote more sister poems. She actually assigned me to write fifty! I didn’t write fifty, but I probably wrote fifteen.

The “Here” poems are meditations on living in a place where you don’t have ancestral lineage. They weren’t written as a series, but at some point I noticed I had multiple prose poems in the 2nd person, all exploring the dynamics of being a resident/guest/occupier/neighbor in a city. When you come from an immigrant family, there isn’t always a “home” to “return to,” and for me as a first-generation US citizen, the idea of home is fraught. I’m from Boston, but I grew up in a household longing for Caracas. In Caracas, my family longed for pre-war Romania and Czechoslovakia. Each generation has located home on a different continent, speaking a different primary language. So writing poems about home is both an exploration in the present tense, and a surfacing of the past homes carried within. Lately I’m comforted by the idea that poetry itself becomes a homeland, similar to how our textual tradition becomes a homeland for Jews, rather than any one geographic location.

In the last “When My Sister Visits” poem in the book, the sister challenges the speaker to look at herself in a mirror. Until the final edits, it ended like this:

Look again, she says, lifting the mirror.

I see the exhaust fumes of airports.

Kwame Dawes, my editor, pushed me to reverse the lines, so that the poem ends with, “Look again, she says, lifting the mirror.”

I often feel that if I come from anywhere, it’s the place between places: the airport runway tarmac, the exhaust fumes, or the silence between learning one language and another. The identity my family gave me is best located, as Franny Choi writes in the other epigraph of this book, “at the edge of the continent,” or between continents. Kwame encouraged me to reverse the order of the lines as, I think, an act of humility. To hold up the mirror without defining what’s found there. The sister lifts the mirror up to the reader and silently asks: Who are you? What do you see? The answer will be different for each reader, maybe different each time the poem is read.

Handler: One of the central stakes of “Might Kindred” is how it grapples with immigration, racialization, and Jewishness. It is risky and important to write deeply, and you do so powerfully, even beautifully, about the social construction of whiteness, and your own experience of it, as a white Jewish Latina. What has your process been like in figuring out how to bring voice to the fraught histories that inform your own identity? What kinds of language were you drawn towards in that wrestling?  

Gomery: Alicia Ostriker writes, “What can I possess / but the history that possesses me?” and in many ways, that’s how I feel about these topics. It is a difficult, painful history, and though perhaps I’d rather not write about it, it possesses me, it created me. My people have assimilated to whiteness twice over—first as Jewish Ashkenazi Holocaust survivors arriving in Venezuela, and then again as white-skinned Latinx Jews arriving in the United States. There’s no way for me to explore the themes of this book—ancestry, language, place, belonging—without looking honestly at the impact of this assimilation on my family and communities: the ways we’ve benefited from it, what we’ve lost because it, and also the places where we’ve managed to resist it.

I don’t believe there’s a way to write about whiteness without getting it wrong. The very nature of whiteness is that it obstructs and obfuscates, it distorts reality. In the introduction to The Racial Imaginary, Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda write about how white people have a habit of leaving their bodies when thinking about race, wanting instead to enter someone else’s body or experience. So as I write through this, I try to stay with my body and my people.

Whiteness cuts off belonging, or congeals belonging with really dangerous beliefs, like anti-Blackness and nationalism. Therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem writes in My Grandmother’s Hands: “We will not end white-body supremacy—or any form of human evil—by trying to tear it to pieces. Instead, we can offer people better ways to belong, and better things to belong to. Instead of belonging to a race, we can belong to a culture. Each of us can also build our own capacity for genuine belonging.”

As a Jew, as a queer person, and as a Latina, I’m part of so many deliciously textured and profoundly beautiful traditions and practices, ones that infuse life with meaning, integrity, and connection. There is no experience of culture for me that isn’t entangled in both—he risks and dangers of belonging, alongside the potential for good. I want to cultivate better ways of belonging, for myself and my communities.

There’s usually a part of me missing in any communal space, something I need to negotiate in order to belong. In this way, I’m like a lot of people carrying complex heritages. And poetry is a powerful terrain for exploring this. Poetry, for me, is the process of trying to language the unlanguageable—the most complex and mysterious parts of human experience. I write to become newly and differently familiar with the world, and I strive for a poem to be a site of possibility and transformation. I want a community that is active in opposition to racism and domination of all kinds, and one that stands in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for sovereignty. I’ve written many poems addressed to my ancestors, challenging our assimilation. Many of them have ended up, at least for now, on the cutting room floor of this book. They are angry, devastated, frustrated, bewildered, and condemning poems. And all of those emotions are important. But it would be easy to say, “that was them, not me,” when in truth, I can’t separate myself from the choices my ancestors made, even as I seek to heal them and choose differently. The poems that made it into the book are attempts to implicate myself and to take my ancestors with me on the journey toward change.

Handler: In an act that felt sort of akin to gematria (Jewish numerology), I did a word frequency counter on your manuscript. The words that appeared most often are “mountain,” “book,” and “us.” What do these words say about the heart of the book?

Gomery: I’m so grateful you did this! You taught me so much about the book. There’s an essay I love by Aldo Leopold called “Thinking Like a Mountain,” an invitation to consider oneself as part of an intricate, interconnected web, an ecosystem. A mountain is a collected intelligence—forests, rodents, stones, moss, and hawks. Streams, mycelia, and coyotes. A shared and elaborate nervous system. Yet we speak of it as one thing, A Mountain. Non-individual, and whole.

There are different mountains in the book—El Ávila in Venezuela, the Biblical Mount Sinai, a mountain in Connecticut where I spent the day with a now deceased beloved, and the Carpathian mountains of my grandmother’s childhood. Although each mountain is distinct, they’re all part of the same Mountain within me, as depicted in Rithika Merchant’s incredible painting on the cover. I didn’t know that the Mountain would appear so prominently in this manuscript until late in the game when I was pulling the poems together, sequencing them. Like “shoulder,” I guess it reveals an obsession. For me, mountain is a verb, a language. Mountain is the body, mountain is God’s body. A mountain is an ancestor. Wise, looming, silent, ever-present.

My partner is reading Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness right now, and shared a passage with me that makes the same claim about “book,” in the voice of books themselves: “Books do not exist in a singular state… The notion of a ‘book’ is just a convenient fiction… Of course, there are individual books—you may even be holding one in your hand right now—but that’s not all we are. At the risk of sounding full of ourselves, we are the One and the Many, an ever-changing plurality, a bodiless flow.”

I’m interested in these archetypal ideas, the many mountains that compose The Mountain, and the many books contained within The Book. And then there’s the anxiety of it. Yehoshua November has a poem called A Jewish Poet, which opens with the line, “It is hard to be a Jewish poet.” He goes on to list all the constraints tradition places on his ability to write freely. My favorite line is: “And every day you have to ask yourself why you’re writing / when there is already the one great book.” I think this vexes us as Jewish writers belonging to a vast textual tradition, but also probably vexes writers of many identities and backgrounds. How do we write something new, in the shadow of what’s already been written?

And “us”—what a complicated word! If the talisman word of this collection is kindred, then us is its shadow sister, its twisted twin. Who, what, where, is a kindred? And what does that say about the possibility of an “us”? I know in my bones that I’m not singular: I’m full of people, dead and alive; I’m full of mountains and books; voices and memories; of lovers and ghosts. I am forged and shaped in family, chosen and biological; in community. “Us” is, for me, the truest thing about human life, about my life. And it’s so loaded. I belong to fraught plurals, both gorgeous and dangerous, united and fractured, capable of mutual aid, generosity, and healing, and capable of violence and harm. The book wants to gather all of that in, and really look at it, metabolize what’s there. That’s what I hope this book is doing.

 

Shelby Handler is a writer, organizer, and educator living in Seattle on Duwamish land. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, Poetry Northwest, PANK Magazine, Sugar House Review, and The Journal, among others.

Mónica Gomery is a poet and rabbi living on unceded Lenni Lenape land in Philadelphia. She is the author of Might Kindred, winner of the 2021 Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize. A Venezuelan-American Jewish poet, her work engages with queerness, loss, diaspora, theology, and cultivating courageous hearts. She has been a nominee for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net and is a graduate of the Tin House Winter Workshop. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in the Iowa Review, Adroit Journal, Black Warrior Review, and Poet Lore. She is also the author of Here is the Night and the Night on the Road (Cooper Dillon Books, 2018) and Of Darkness and Tumbling (YesYes Books, 2017).

Poetry as Homeland: An Interview with Mónica Gomery

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