M Ó N I C A G O M E R Y
i n t e r v i e w
COMP: These poems will soon appear in Might Kindred, which won the 2021 Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize and is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press, fall 2022. Congratulations! We’re thrilled to publish these poems and to give readers a peek inside the book. Can you tell us, broadly, the central concerns of Might Kindred?
Mónica Gomery: Thank you so much, for publishing these poems, and for your interest in the book! Might Kindred is a collection of poems seeking beloveds and belonging. The poems speak from my experiences, as a first generation US citizen, daughter of immigrants who were the children of immigrants, as a white Jewish latina, and as a queer woman. In the words of Rick Barot, the book is “the braid of who I am,” at the intersection of my identities and the legacies that live in my body. Seeking kindreds is complicated when you’re a person raised between countries, cultures, languages and continents. Where is home? Who is like me? How do I responsibly embody it all? There’s a yearning for belonging in these poems, alongside a skepticism about belonging being achievable.
My first book of poetry, Here is the Night and the Night on the Road, told the story of one specific loss in my life. Though painful to write, it was a clear and focused project to explore one experience over the course of a whole collection. Writing Might Kindred was a very different experience—I packed into this book everything I’m obsessed with: the dead, my dog, oceans, apocalypse, queer desire, mountains both mythic and real, epigenetics, sacred texts, my grandmother. The book asks questions about the conundrum of home: being a neighbor, being a resident, living on colonized land, the dangers and harms of assimilation into whiteness for my family and communities. God gets into the poems too, and climate change, a dendrochronology of my hair, and an ode to the poop bag. All this is to say, I wrote these poems as my plural and fluid self. When I opened my arms widely to gather kindreds, I drew in all kinds of mess, debris, pain and beauty. The book is concerned with that fullness.
COMP: Your work is formally exciting and varied. We’ve published two ghazals, an abecedarian, and a poem that, though not in received form, overflows with patterns and repetitions. What does form mean to you as a poet? How do you know when a poem wants to be written in a particular form?
MG: I think of form as an antidote to loneliness and isolation. Working with a form transports me from my solitary experience sitting in a room writing, into a lineage and an echo chamber. Whatever form I’m stepping into, I know that someone created the architecture of it, its walls and windows. I enter into it to be in relationship with other writers who have written from within this container, to be in relationship with the history of writing itself. On that note, h/t to Shira Erlichman, wonderful teacher, who introduced me to the ghazal and encouraged me to spend time with this form of Persian origin. And to Leila Chatti, also one of my teachers, whose devotion to the abecedarian is a beacon.
I feel about form the way I often feel about exercise, meditation, or prayer. Preparing to go there, I’m rebellious and full of inertia. I’ll do anything to procrastinate. And then, once I do go there, I enter into a container with shape, ritual and structure. Then, I’m extremely grateful, and reminded that there are no shortcuts in writing or in any kind of practice. Form offers a container for this boundless hunger I have to write. I often have no idea what I’m thinking or feeling when I sit down to write, and working with repetition lulls me into a kind of trance, pulling language out of me that surprises or scares me, or teaches me something that I didn’t know was alive in me. Repetition helps me trick myself into articulation.
Hopefully, writing in form isn’t about just landing the form perfectly, to prove that I can do it. There has to be tension and resistance. There’s a dance with the pattern, and a choice around when, why, and how to break the pattern. I appreciate inherited forms for the invitation into structure, as well as the tension of tweaking or rebelling from structure. I think a successful poem is born from that tension. For example, with the abecedarian that you’ve included in COMP, this is an alphabetical form. My relationship to the alphabet of any language I speak is a stilted one. I come from a multilingual family that has lost whole sections of alphabets in the oceans between continents, in the gap between one generation and the next, in the possibility and impossibility of transmission, and as a result of trauma. I wrote this abecedarian thinking about the life of my grandmother, who started over as an immigrant on a new continent, with a new language, multiple times over the course of her life. For me to write an abecedarian about her life, it requires missing sections, multiple languages, a chaotic rendition of something otherwise highly ordered. The abecedarian form let me work within the alphabet and also mess with the alphabet, in order to reflect on my familial relationship to language itself.
COMP: Despite their complexity, or perhaps because of their complexity, these poems are for everybody. We read a couple to a class of college freshmen (most of whom have little interest or experience in reading poetry) and had a thoughtful discussion about literature as a social force, the importance of representation, and the value of public grief. How do you balance a poem’s responsibility to both the personal and the social?
MG: What a big question! I have learned, with great gratitude to feminist writers and activists like Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich, that when we speak with specificity and vulnerability about our personal stories, we are engaging with communal concerns and political terrain. That nothing about our lived experience is actually singular or individual. The pandemic has made this extremely clear– we are vastly interconnected.
I’m thinking of many poets whose words have charted a map for me. Devin Samuels teaching how art captures experiential and social-emotional knowledge. Pádraig Ó Tuama exploring how a poem extends hospitality to the reader. Dujie Tahat discussing the writing of poems as a way to participate in the oldest human conversation of all time. Ilya Kaminsky claiming that poetry’s non-normative use of language pushes against empire’s hegemonic use of language. Andrea Cohen describing how in times of uncertainty, poetry reminds us that what we feel and think has been felt and thought before. My favorite line from Jeanette Winterson: “A tough life needs a tough language, and that’s what poetry is.” I could go on forever with the list of poets whose work breaking down the binary between the personal and the social has shaped me.
And that’s just the living poets! As an inheritor of an ancient textual tradition, I also look there for models of the role poetry can play in a social landscape. One of the places I find poetic lineage is in the Book of Psalms. The Psalms are a communal resource, an overflowing well of poetry that is meant to accompany us through ecstasy, crisis, and everything in between. Encompassed within those 150 poems are existential questions, communal and individual laments, anxieties, anger, and pleas for help, alongside joyful praises and gratitudes of all proportions. We need this wide range to reflect back to us what it means to be human, and what it has meant across centuries. I think poetry by its very nature is both personal and social—poetry is relational, it reaches across individual human experiences to build community between writers and readers. A poem is a bridge to another person’s humanity. In this way, there’s so much good work out there for poetry to do. I’m thrilled to be part of this project in any way I can be.