Ann Bracken (AB): I’ve enjoyed reading Made of Air, your latest poetry collection. The poems explore many facets and experiences of contemporary women, from motherhood to homelessness, abuse, and even murder. How did this collection come about?
Naomi Thiers (NT): Only half the poems in this book are centered on women’s experiences. The other half of the poems center around the weirdness of getting older, and other types of vulnerability, but mainly the adventure of aging—which, as Bette Davis said, isn’t for sissies! More about those poems later.
To say how the section focused on women came about— I’ll go back to the book I published five years ago, She Was a Cathedral. As I was choosing which poems to gather into a chapbook manuscript, trying to find a theme, I realized I’ve written a lot of poems centered around an individual woman, known or unknown to me—her experience, her life. So, I put about 25 of those together into that chapbook. Years later, I added some new woman-centered poems to the ones in Cathedral to make this section of Made of Air. As you say, they’re about a multitude of different kinds of women— from various countries, diverse situations, some average some extreme.
I think I’m just extremely interested in females and their experiences. I admire women’s resilience, their resourcefulness, their joy in life, their intelligent and sensitive take on the world—and I think I would even if I wasn’t a feminist. So, I write about them! I mean, I tend to write about people and their lives— but I probably write more poems about individual women and their experiences than about men. I love writing about women I know, my friends—to honor them.
AB: The poem “Lions” speaks powerfully about the challenges of standing up to an authoritarian government and being disappeared. What inspired you to write this poem?
NT: That poem came when I encountered a quote from a woman whose daughter had been—as thousands were—“disappeared” by the Argentine military in the 1970’s. She was one of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who marched in the Plaza in Buenos Aires every week holding signs with pictures of their grown children, demanding for them to be released or to know their whereabouts. The quote from this anonymous woman—who probably wasn’t an activist, but who rose up when her child was taken—was on an Amnesty International brochure: “It is as if lions grow inside of me, and I am not afraid.” I started trying to imagine her thoughts, how she might speak to herself, and the poem just unfolded. It needed very little working.
AB: You employ such evocative images in your poems. I was particularly struck by the way you use bread to open and close the poem “Refugee, 15.” Additional strong images are “rockslide of grief” and “face a lace of cuts.” How do those images serve the story of that poem?
NT: I love how you’re asking about very specific images, Ann! I’ll say a bit about how I came to those images. I feel some poems just kind of flow out, they seem to want to be written, and others you have to push out little by little, because you have a line or an idea and really want to write the thing. “Refugee, 15” was one of those I had to push out. I was thinking a lot about Syrian refugees and wanted to challenge myself to write about a person in that situation. I felt led to focus on a teenage girl and write part of it in her voice—likely because it’s such a vulnerable time of life. What came to me first was that idea of having to push yourself to survive, to force yourself even to eat, when you feel in every fiber like giving up, paralyzed by grief or fear – so: “Fear is in your bread/ and you must choke it down.” Then I just kept putting words down, and it was slow going, trying to come up with images of what her experience would be like as well as describe her emotions. And of course, some feeling and questioning—Do I have a right to try to describe the inner life of someone going through something I never will? I tried to imagine what things about her home she’d be thinking of and missing, and looked up some details about Syria, so I could put in the name of the Khabur River, for instance.
Fear is in your bread
and you must choke it down.
To think of home—
the courtyard with its red filigreed rug,
the peel-paint walls, how the breeze with its tang
of the Khabur River touched your just cut hair
as you curled up, writing in your diary—
starts the rockslide of grief, the thundering
that blocks out sound, pulls
a knife across each breath until
you drag across your body like a sack,
walking with others
toward the border.
But something rises up,
wants to live:
I won’t be that man sitting
on his burned porch, face a lace of cuts,
waiting in rain for death.
Shut away now the images of home,
like your diary with its leather straps.
Preserve your young life.
Eat your bread.
To put her emotions into words, I reached for the very physical sensations that come with extreme emotion—feeling like rocks are cutting into your chest and your stomach plummeting. . .not feeling your own body, its vibrance. The image of a man sitting in front of his bombed home, face a lace of cuts just came to me. I was glad the detail of a diary came in at the beginning, because that something many teenage girls do, so it may help the reader feel some connection, that this person—in a situation so more dreadful and fearful than those of us who haven’t had our country ripped apart are likely to know—is like a girl they know, isn’t news copy. Then at the end, locking the diary—she shuts and locks away herself, her previous self, to survive. Back to sheer survival, so back to bread. But by the end, she’s exerted her will to eat no matter what; she’s choosing life.
AB I love the interplay of the young and old women you describe in the poem “Striding.” Can you talk a bit about how those two women in the poem evoked an image of your friend who died at 48 years?
NT: That poem has something special behind it. I had a great friend, Patty Bertheaud Summerhays, whom I met in my MFA program at George Mason in the late 80s. Several friends I made in that program I‘m still in touch with, even still exchanging writing with—like Ramola Dharmaraj, Jane Schapiro, Perry Epes—but Patty I was closest to. She was one of those warm, open people who helps everybody feel relaxed and welcome—and also a stellar poet. We went to grad school together, constantly gave each other feedback on poetry, partied together, gossiped about other poets, went to Mexico together and worked in a shelter. We had our babies the same year, raised our kids together and were very bonded. Then she got colon cancer and they hadn‘t caught it soon enough–she died within two years. I think about Patty every day—she meant so much to my life.
A few years after Patty died, I was waiting in my car at a light. A young woman happened to cross the street and just as she reached the other side, an older, elegant woman crossed behind her. Sitting there I felt I was watching my past younger self go by, then my future older self—I was between them. And I instantly thought of Patty, “frozen in mid stride/ you will never cross/ with dignity to the end of a long life.”
The last lines of that poem are how I think about Patty’s spirit after death:
I see you coaxing
a smile from the legless beggar in Juarez,
standing up to a coach who shamed your son.
I see you stunned, fighting, blasted by chemo.
Your shade towers in the middle of this intersection,
but for you, the wheel will not turn.
Patty, I hope
that wherever you are –
for with your fierceness
I know you are somewhere –
you are striding.
AB: Longing seems to be a theme in several of your poems, particularly “All is Calm.“
Can you talk about how the novel The Giver and the image of a padded world play into that theme?
Loss and longing are so connected—you can’t feel longing if you still have something, if you’re just rocking along with it still jingling in your pocket. So, let’s say that something is youth. It was sneaky, there wasn’t any bright line to it. But recently I realized I really really wasn’t young anymore… I don’t have that youth thing that always carried in my pocket as I went along. This made me think carefully about what experiences do you really have less of after, whatever–50, 55? You lose people (though their spirit can come back so strongly, like Patty), you lose physical capacity, but I’ve also found a big one is I no longer have the intense emotional ups and downs, the storms, the anguish, the day long fizzy highs. I’m so, so emotional, and have been roiling so much of my life that there’s a good side to that. But it is a loss, that evening out as you get your older.
In The Giver, everyone in the speculative society described—except for one or two people whose role is secret—has muted emotions and lives quite a bit in their heads; even the awareness of extreme joyful events or traumatic ones, any overwhelming emotion just isn’t present. So, they live in a padded way. The Giver him/herself, one person, feels everything the rest of the community can’t It’s a fantastic book.
There’s a good side to not being roiled by emotion. But I’ve found I need to find a new way to feel and to keep plunging into experiences, not settling. I wrote “All is Calm” when I was wishing even the awful, hard emotions were still accessible. (Incidentally, I love that I could use the word capsaicin naturally in the poem!). I’ve made peace with that aspect of aging now. I’ve read there’s a correlation between being older and happier, more content–and I believe that is mostly true.
AB: Has the pandemic affected your writing practice? How has it either helped or hindered your creative spark?
NT: Oddly, I don’t feel it has made much difference to how much I want to write, how much I do write, or what I write about, poetry-wise. Like for everyone, it’s made a big difference in my life, 9- 10 months of everything near surreal in 2020, etc.. I’m an introvert who needs to be shaken out of it, so that lockdown period was tough—but I didn’t feel more or less of a spark for poetry. I don’t write every day by ANY means. But if I feel uninspired and am going too long with nothing—I try some kind of form. That always brings back poetry for me.
Naomi Thiers grew up in California and Pittsburgh, but her chosen home is Washington-DC/Northern Virginia. She is author of four poetry collections: Only The Raw Hands Are Heaven (WWPH), In Yolo County, and She Was a Cathedral (Finishing Line Press) and Made of Air (Kelsay Books). Her poems, book reviews, and essays have been published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Poet Lore, Colorado Review, Grist, Sojourners, and many other magazines and anthologies. Former editor of the journal Phoebe, she works as a magazine editor and lives on the banks of Four Mile Run in Arlington, Virginia. Her latest book Made of Air can be ordered from Kelsay Press at https://kelsaybooks.com/collections/all. If you’d like access to her earlier books, message her on Facebook.