CW/TW: Mentions of sexual violence
Hi all! I haven’t been writing on here as much as I ought, but I think you’ll pardon me. Two classes to finish teaching, four graduate courses to finish taking, two positions at a lit mag I’ve been fielding, and beyond that, working as an assistant for a professor, have taken whatever energy I might have had soundly out of me. It has been a rough semester, but also one full of shining moments. Two such ones happened today.
I came back to my apartment from my horror class to find my contributor copy of the 2023 Pushcart Prize anthology waiting for me, with a crisp, clean, creamy white business card passing on the series editor’s compliments. For me, flipping through the pages, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of anxiety: that I had dreamed the whole thing up, that somehow they had made a mistake, that the poem (a meditation on the insidious nature of patriotism) would fall short of their expectations in the long time between awarding it the prize and publishing it. I have never been more happy to be wrong. Barring a small typo in the epigraph, the poem was there, in all its glory.
It’s interesting looking back on the poem’s origin story. The poem was inspired by rereading Catherynne M. Valente’s “Deathless,” a personal favorite of mine. First encountering it as a student of Russian language, literature, and culture, I’ve since devoured the book six times, and every time, I come at it from a different angle. It is a love story. It is a revolution story. It is a story about girls and men on one reading and a story about the sublime nature of fairytale on the next. It is a craft book, or a distraction from a grueling academic calendar. The best books have this multiplicity. But there was one line in the book that stuck in my jaw, refusing to go away: The war is always going badly. That became the epigraph and inspiration of my poem, “A Brief History of the War.”
I wrote the poem and thought little of it: it was a poem. I liked it well enough to send it out places, and to my surprise and bewildered delight, Beloit Poetry Journal picked it up. And then they nominated it for the Pushcart. It was my first nomination, and I expected nothing. It was an honor just to be considered. And when I got the call at a friend’s graduation that it had won, all of a sudden the world was electric. The green of Haverford College’s campus blinded me in its beauty. Staring at the banners that hung from the lampposts that proclaimed “Welcome, friend,” it felt like I had arrived at something, a breath exhaling. I had proved myself.
A similar moment of arrival followed on the heels of that experience. The morning of November 9th, I woke to an email in my inbox from Riot in Your Throat Press, accepting my manuscript, Bad Animal, for publication. I’ve spent the month since in a similar state of reverie, in disbelief. Bad Animal was not the book I expected to be my first. That moniker would belong to Patrizate, a book I had conceptualized around my relationship to Russian language and culture and that of my family’s. But the universe disrupts our best laid plans, and Patrizate needed more work. After 12 rejections, some encouraging, most not, I put it on the backburner. In the spring of 2022, in my graduate poetry workshop, a strange poem entitled Prayer spilled out of my pen and I knew with a start that it was the beginning of a new book. This one was darker, more powerful, one that grappled head on with experiences of love, sex, death, and violence in the natural world. It scared and thrilled me. I began writing towards that strangeness and resolved that it would be my thesis project. Surely, it would take years, certainly it would take the rest of my time in the MFA program.
And then a summer job I thought I had in the bag fell through, and I had nothing to do except pace the length of my small apartment and write. I made a pact to finish the manuscript with a good friend of mine and dynamite poet in her own right, Sara Potocsny, and began writing in earnest. I became smitten with a scientist who lived in Louisiana, went down to visit him. He led me on for months with talk of returning to New York, and I watched the initially happy arc of the book morph into something angry, necessary, and bitter. In that relationship, I discovered a specter hanging over the manuscript: another scientist who had led me on for most of my college years and a little bit after that before cutting me out of his life completely. And while that was ultimately the kindest thing he had done in our relationship, I still felt the cold sting of rejection. Here it was happening again. And with that feeling of rejection came other, uglier memories, of my college relationships and the men who had assaulted me.
So, I did what I had always done: I wrote about it. And then it was a full-length manuscript, and then come November, I sent it off to Riot in Your Throat Press, a press I admired for its focus on feminist voices and beautiful books, and a week later, they plucked it out of the pile. Everything since then has felt like a dream and a touchstone: proof that I’m out here doing something right.
Bad Animal is not a cheerful book. It has its moments, but it is, at its core, an act of catharsis. And I can’t wait for you to read it come July 2023. Keep your eyes peeled!
Now: I must go and try to come down from it all. Today has been an exercise in giddiness, and it’s all gone to my head.
Until next time,