VI KHI NAO: On page 46 of your Indictus, you wrote, “When I examine the memories that broke me, I torture my question.” How do you desire me to interview you? Should I torture your question with my question?
NATALIE EILBERT: When I first started this book, I wanted to interrogate the memories floating around in my brain. I say float but what I mean is that they crashed into parts of me, they never let me stop wanting their crash. I had this relationship with my memories that hurt to recall, the memory itself a dysfunctional feedback. Nobody has ever asked me consent around this, not my memories or the stuff or persons who produced them. I think that you should absolutely torture my question with your question. It is the only way to fight back against it.
VKN: The words “memory”, “skin”, “hole”, “rock/stone”, “forgiveness” are words I noticed you revisit with an apoplectic frequency. The way you have used them in your Indictus gave me the impression that they are all words that are synonyms with one another. Do you feel the same way? Or do those words hold stronger distinctions for you?
NE: I’m glad you caught onto that. I would say that the forgiveness I’m after is more of a hole than a stone, memory is the imprint a rock leaves in the dirt. A hole in many ways speaks not about a void but the opposite—the edges of the hole must exist in order for us to understand that we are about to fall. We know holes only because we are not falling, or, because there is ground beneath us, we assume as much. Forgiveness is like that hole, in that those who require forgiveness have to rely on their guilt to work, the edges upon which the memories function. An apology patrols the hole.
I wanted, in this collection, for words to ricochet, to intercept and interpolate each other. The language fits the incidents because language is as much a hole as it is the skin around the hole. I relied on these sometimes opposing forces to speak that which I could not.
VKN: To reference you, on page 33, you wrote, “I compose letters of forgiveness only after a drill sounds.” What do you mean by “drill” sounds. I know the act of drilling creates a hole. Do you mean by that kind of drill? When I think of drill sounds I think of alarm bells in institutions to warn people of a fire or of a pending tornado or hurricane.
NE: Growing up on Long Island, there was always this clockwork siren that sounded at dusk. I never understood it but it became part of the landscape as a cicada does. The drill or the siren or the chirp matches the grass and the smells. It sets the stage for some good core memories. I wasn’t thinking in that moment of a tornado drill. I wasn’t even thinking of a fire drill, though my house burned down when I was 10. I had this image in my mind of a woman standing over a fresh-drilled hole with her letters. In the letters she has released her abusers. This is fiction, the biggest most blundery-est fiction, because there will never be an opening through which to forgive, because these abusers, I don’t think, will ever have sorrow for what they did. There’s this moment in The Glass Essay by Anne Carson where she imagines herself bereft and standing on a cliff’s edge, the wind blowing through her until the wind scorches off her skin and muscles and eventually, she’s just this standing skeleton awaiting—what?—redemption? Perhaps. I think of that image often. I see me holding letters, gripping them without skin or muscle. Just whatever below me is left.
VKN: How long did you live in that house before it burned down, Natalie? Do you miss it? Did you lose many important material objects that were dear to you?
NE: It was my childhood home. I lived there all my life until it burned down when I was ten. I see ten as the cutoff point of my childhood, but I also see it as a fresh start. I had a lot of pain in that house. It could not be melted or turned to soaked sooty damage. The material object I lost that I most valued was a stuffed dalmation dog named Lucky which feels very on the nose. I used to carry around Lucky under my arm so that its stuffed head poked out of my armpit. It was like a ring that leaves an impression in the body when it’s not there. For whatever reason, Lucky was not on me when I fled the house. I must have been that scared. My sense of fear was already challenged. I had already experienced the dissociative effects of abuse and it caused delayed reactions. I had to go to a neighbor’s house. I sat in the backroom while my house burned down watching Lady and the Tramp. I remember sitting there and realizing I didn’t have Lucky. I hyperventilated in my seat but I didn’t move. I didn’t want to be seen by anybody.
VKN: “INDICTUS,” you wrote on page 11, “points to the unsaid.” Does part of this manuscript point towards or reference Louise Glück? One of the writers whom you read frequently in your youth. You had quoted her in one of your interviews. “The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen.” What moved you about her work? And, what is her work in relation to yours? What part of your manuscript do you desire for it to be “unseen”?
NE: Louise Glück’s The First Four Books of Poems was the first collection I read in a college setting. I had heretofore been obsessed with Sharon Olds and Sandra Cisneros, but Louise Glück felt like a whole other dimension. I imagined her world as this navy blue painting with white score marks haphazard all around me as I read. There was something about her haunt that made me feel like I too could become my own disguise. I could exist as the I of a poem. The I is so thin and barely there, a line pointing up. I liked how she challenged what the ego could do nestled into its darkness. I felt that she raged in a way I understood. Quietly, with technical grace. Well, I hadn’t yet any technical grace, but I was certain I had the quiet rage down. The idea of the unsaid, as she tells it, was such a manifesto. To “make a whole that does not forfeit its power.” I don’t believe in finished things, or that art is ever really finished. I think that my obsession with holes has a lot to do with that, whether parts of ground collapse or sink, whether something burrows its way into and through another thing, no matter the circumstances, holes make us vulnerable to the fact that we won’t stay whole. A hole that does not forfeit its whole, could be another way I think about the unsaid.
VKN: What could the ego do nestled into its darkness, Natalie? What did you have in mind? The talent of the ego under the duress of darkness?
NE: When I share personal stories to others IRL, I have this tendency to look down. I think a lot of us do this. We worry over how confrontation will affect the discourse. After I write something, it makes me sick. It’s like I’ve reared my head up from a dark place and in that brightness, I realize where I am and to whom I’m speaking. With poems I do this. I write and rework an idea, press further into the part of me that wants to run away, to be unseen, and I push seeds under the skin, nestle that life there. Maybe that part of me will quit running away if I can root it down. It’s like I’m antagonizing a sense of agency. There are many faces of trauma, many different kinds of darkness and light, and many actors playing the same part. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of which I I am. Whether I’m truly myself when I enter into a poem and chase after this other self, or whether I’m with someone at a party voicing a secret into the ground. Either way I’m in duress. I might as well grow a poem out of the fear. Maybe duress is the closest I ever come to the kind of power to which Glück refers.
VKN: Your award winning book, Indictus, arrives very aptly and very timely. What do you hope your book could achieve as it navigates and helps shape the coeval, explosive conversation of our sexual assault coming out era?
NE: I keep starting and restarting my thoughts here. Ideally, I want readers of this book to close the book mid-poem and meditate on their difficulties. I want more voices leaving tortured questions, not with an answer, but with crisper questions that work the same way I see language working, amid opposing forces. If the question of what happened is there, then it is also the question of why you must ask what happened. There is the question of why you labor over such questions as you sit with pals over brunch. There is the question of why fabric softener hurts so much. I teach creative writing and I think that students early on in their poems feel this need to be vague in their writing in order for others to relate and interpret widely. I explain to new practitioners that the best way others will relate is if we smell the sourness of a mimosa and the shattering of a tray of dishes and the scent of fabric softener buzzing the occipital nobs until you realize you’re sweating. At first they don’t want to be so specific, but then they are so specific. I want someone to go on a similar journey with my book. I want others to actualize their own events, form the necessary vocabularies that will move them further from this exhausted node. What I want is for survivors to realize—eventually—that they’ve survived.
VKN: You wrote on page 48, “In Latin, to incubate is to watch jealously.” What kind of things do you wish to incubate in your readers with your poetry collection, Indictus? Besides cellular masses? And, are you happy with how the book is born or formed? If you are unhappy with it, what part would you like to change?
NE: For a long time, I’ve thought about Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Monument.” At the end, she tells us to watch it closely. While I didn’t like to be seen growing up, I loved to watch. I thought I had great superpowers that enabled me to see more details than others. I could stare at a tiny stream along a hiking trail for hours, counting the tiny creatures flying and scattering around its surface. I scrutinize language with a similar witness. I like turning words around and finding how their roots differ from their current economic function. I suppose what I would incubate in my readers is a curiosity in utterance. How do you speak and what do the bones of that speak mean? When do your memories exist again in the present? How might you watch those memories and the words chosen more closely?
I don’t know if I’ll ever be happy with this book. I want to be in the room with everyone reading it, pulling the book out of their hands every few minutes and explaining to them why I chose what I chose. I got so tired of my memories, of writing them down. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha wrote in Dictee, “Face to face with memory, it misses.” I think about that often, and even allude to this line in one of my poems. I was up close with memory, rattled by it, holding it by the shins as it dragged me. I remember still in my first creative writing class in college, I wrote a poem that starts, “I still haven’t gotten it right yet.” I was 19 years old and already, I was feeling impatient that I didn’t know how to language my suffering. I have languaged my suffering in this book and I missed. I have languaged my suffering in this book and didn’t get it right. What I did instead was write a book that released me of the burden of either scenario. I missed it. I didn’t get it right. There isn’t any reason to make something correct that was incorrect and criminal in the first place. It’ll stay messy. I think it has to stay messy.
VKN: Your abstract poetry embedded in realism, in my eyes, is a way of getting it right. The way you construct sentences are very original and so brutally raw that there has to be a right to it, meaning that your absence and its absence are a form of wrongness. As, you wrote so beautifully, “Memory beheld a glimmery data. It/ let grief conjoin and it began, a kind of home/ in its continuum (I misread this as condominium). I can no longer be the woman/ who tells you what solidarity means./ It’s a rock folded over a breathing hole. / And I need no air, only similitude.” Will you give us access to what you mean by “similitude”? It remains vague or foggy in my subsconsciousness despite how beautiful and thought-suggesting it provokes or sounds on the page. And, although you cannot tell what solidarity means, could you tell us what it’s about? Especially in our era of explicit sexual harassment. What is the best way to hold institutions of men and women responsible for the machine of sexual assault they have generated as a species? Do you think? And, is solidarity a way of being accountable and to avoid confusion as you defined in one of your poems that “confusion is a way to deny complicity” (p.52)? What is the best way to avoid confusion? A “Dear Abby” advice column to modern women and men who struggle with speed and chaos?
NE: It’s a pretty raw moment in the book, this idea of solidarity, this idea of similitude. I had this experience with community that really rattled me. I had been attacked by a few for not reporting something dire that happened between me and another colleague. I didn’t want to do anything about the information but look at it, be that good witness. There were other times where I felt quashed by communities who sported the term solidarity without genuine solidarity in mind, only one kind of solidarity. I apologize here because I am being vague, answering a question about being vague with a vague response. I think that I rely on a level of opacity in order to protect the cowering parts of me that never recovered from being tired of being brave. I needed to exist on something like breathing. I needed to function on something like my reality. In this sense, I think that institutions aren’t the only ones who need accountability. We need to always be engaging the many folds of engagement and confession, including the biases we hold within our communities. Confusion means, literally, with fusion. We are confused because we have fused realities. It points to a difficulty in communicating truth, because sometimes we don’t know what truth even is. We don’t know what happened, if what happened was bad, if we should say something, if they should say something. There’s just no protocol. I don’t know what the best way to avoid this level of confusion is. Perhaps it’s how we view sex at all. I have trouble articulating abuse to my family because there’s always been so much weirdness around sex—like, as a woman I can’t be in a position to make such decisions over my body. This was never said to me, mind you, but it is a subconscious dialectic. I find myself fused to shame over what my body is. I wish we had a better dialogue across institutions and bodies regarding how difficult these matters are. Instead, I choose to move in and out of direct and indirect ideas about the body and the shame of the body. Sometimes I am thinking at large about its writing as praxis and sometimes I am thinking within the events into which I’m writing. I try not to announce if I’m above or below the act.
VKN: I agree that there is a time for things and allowing humans to be humans is an important aspect of solidarity. I suspect that solidarity is similar to discussing “rapes over pancakes”, yes?
NE: My favorite food in the world is pancakes. I met my childhood best friend at a diner that boasted the best pancakes on Long Island and we ate pancakes and shared what we couldn’t have shared years prior. I don’t know how it came up but it was a natural transition. One of us put their fork down. She had been at my house when the first abuse happened. I was not with her when hers happened. It did feel like solidarity, in that we confirmed each other’s events. The pancakes continued to be a joy. I see pancakes as my warrior shield now.
VKN: I also love pancakes and waffles too. I will say that you have great taste in food then! Speaking of favorite, what is your favorite poem from your Indictus?
NE: This is such a hard question! It changes. Sometimes I hate every single poem in the book and sometimes it exists as a whole glimmering favorite. Right now, I find myself reading a lot from the final sequence in the book, “Liquid Waste.” In general, the energy of that sequenced-out poem feels accurate to my experience of writing the book. I repeat in this section, “Again I chew the cud before I waste beneath myself” and it is such a strange line that overtook me. I was sitting in a bathroom looking at a sign about liquid waste and this line hit me. I didn’t know why. I kept starting the poem on this idea. Again again again. I was reading a lot of Mina Loy and I think she is a really special writer, especially in terms of generating ideas. Mina Loy’s use of the word delirious sort of undergirded that whole experience. I liked the way it moved and flowed as a piece, all the various stories that unfolded as I obsessed over certain shapes and colors within the poem. It’s my favorite piece to read out loud. I stomp my foot sometimes while reading it.
VKN: I better read that poem out loud right away so that I could have the opportunity to stomp my foot too. And, also, what kind of pancakes did you eat with your childhood friend? I really love strawberry pancakes.
NE: This is an excellent question. I had blueberry pancakes with a berry compote on the side. Strawberry pancakes are also something godly.
VKN: You wrote on page 38, “I love men when they let me see myself.” What did you mean by this, Natalie? What do you mean by “see.” I equate seeing with letting someone be.
NE: I had been in enough relationships with men in which I performed for them, praised them, worshipped them. It was sometimes genuine but often I felt a need to placate, especially if they had abusive tendencies. It was a self-preservation. It was a lie required for survival, or so I thought. There have been a few men in my life who have actually given me a sense of purpose and self-reflection, who chose to praise me without my needing to do a thing in return. It felt disingenuous to write this book in which I purport to destroy men when it’s simply not true that I want to destroy men. I want certain men to disappear into the sun but for the most part, what I want is for men to be allies. But real allies. Not the kind that want cookies for saying they’re allies.
One more thing about this line is the verb “let.” I had bad experiences with men over the course of one summer. I told someone “I let him do that.” I found I did this often. I let them do XYZ, itself a way to diminish bad behavior into a kind of consent. I use this word a lot too in the book because it’s a word that brings up particular hurt for me. There’s a way, then, in which this line engenders agency with passive allowance. They let me see myself still suggests I am still under their control. Certain individuals emotionally manipulated me so badly that I’m not sure I wouldn’t still let them in. I hope that’s not true but, again, this is a very complicated word for me.
VKN: The verb “let” seems to connote that the ball is still in men’s court when it comes to women’s volition and her rightful sense of autonomy, not just inside verbs and the language of grammar, yes? I could understand having beef with the word “let.” I would be too. You wrote on page 82, “Captivity is a way for seduction to form a skin.” When you write that when you “auto bio graph” yourself against your skin, do you think this autobiography is the opposite of captivity or an extension of captivity? When you take the skin of grammar into your mouth, what is one taste from it that you despise the most?
NE: It’s an extension of captivity. The reason I split autobiography into this three-part verbing is that I wanted to elicit the automatic story of women and femmes. I wanted to convey a performance of agency that is not agency at all, as with a whale swimming in captivity in her small pool of ocean. The skin of grammar is a bitter rind, this need to be accurate or satisfying in how you speak of your trauma. Because it is a skin in this book, it is another organ that must function within a larger system. It is not my skin yet. I am not supposed to eat the rind.
VKN: Your tri-splitting of autobiography is very witty, apt, acute, and it fits the sonic and epidermal narrative of your Indictus. I love it very much. On page 49, you wrote, “Last night I realized the phone never rings in my poems.” If the phone did ring in your poems, would you pick it up? And, if you were to pick it up, what would you say to your poems? Would you ask it to call 911 on your behalf if you were in a state of emergency?
NE: I imagine the phone ringing in a David Lynchian way. It rings with menace, the hole calling me back. But when I wrote this I was thinking about the New York School and all the people ambulating around in those poems. Nobody hangs out in my poetry, thank god. Nobody calls. I would probably only pick up the phone in my poem if I knew it was the hole communicating what I needed to do next with an image. I would be curious how the hole would deal with the police, as I never had much luck reporting my crimes. I would watch that episode of Law & Order: SVU for sure.
VKN: On page 11, also, you wrote, “I take these specific men who saw no mind, who lacquered my body with my possessive, giving me only the failure of narrative, sentencing my life to verb —I take these men and I form them into the wound of a line.” What do you consider as a narrative failure? Could you provide us an example of one?
NE: I consider a narrative failure one in which the story does not explain what happened because it is couched in a memory terrorized by its events. An example of this would be the environment and circumstances that led to my first abuse. I couldn’t ever language my chronology, if it happened before or after my house fire, if in the basement of my original or replica house (they built my new house on the same burnt foundations of the old one, too obvious a metaphor I know), if my childhood friend was over or if she had already gone home, if my brother and his friends were in the room next to mine while it happened or if I made that part up. All of these questions acted to gaslight my own experience, because the memory became vague and less clear when I couldn’t answer them. Trauma is a narrative failure for these reasons, which is why, when I see other writers freely write rape scenes and sexual traumas into their prose with crisp violent clarity, it feels so cheap to me.
VKN: As you did in your childhood, would you use four sticks of butter to write a poem in a future house, Natalie?
NE: I would really love to. I would do it now, but I actually have two sticks of butter out in order to bake cookies for my students this week! An award for all the poems I had them write this semester.
Natalie Eilbert is the author of Indictus, winner of Noemi Press’s 2016 Poetry Prize, slated for publication in early 2018, as well as the poetry collection, Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Granta, The New Yorker, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, jubilat, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2016 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin–Madison and is the founding editor of The Atlas Review.