What Can a Poetry Collection Do?
Read a conversation with Angel Nafis and Alexis Aceves Garcia and discover poems from our 12-Month Poetry Generator students in this publication showcase.
’re pleased to share a conversation with Angel Nafis and Alexis Aceves Garcia, who was the TA for Angel’s 2020 graduating class.
You will find their conversation below, as well as poems from some of the students in the class here:
• Alexis Aceves Garcia, “What is a Country to a Universe?”
• Maghan Baptiste, “re: somewhere between me and the other side”
• Sophie Christenberry, “I’m First Cut Today”
“Self-Portrait as the Unknown”
“Shuffled Still Life”
“Self Portrait, With or Without Pandemic”
“Shanghai, July 2013”
“Alphabetical by Last Name”
“The Pine Trees”
“Thanking Our Stars”
We have like a thousand communication lines open right now. I’m in the Zoom chat, the Gmail chat, the Google Doc chat, and I have my phone next to me in case you text me. I’m about to get a landline put in.
Ha! Amazing. We can call each other there just for extra clarity and sound.
Seems quite right to make a space for land acknowledgement, even as we are talking now through digital space across the entire stretch of what we call these United States. Me in New York, you in California.
Yes, it absolutely does. I am calling in from the stolen land of the Kumeyaay Nation, who have been stewards of present-day San Diego, California, for over six hundred generations. Today, the Kumeyaay people can be found in eighteen different bands throughout San Diego County and Baja California, Mexico.
I am calling in from Lenapehoking, the stolen land of the Lenape people, whose diaspora is dispersed throughout the US and Canada.
Yeah, definitely. Above the ocean in La Jolla, there’s this native plant species exhibit that they had created along this walkway along the water. And so it’s really interesting to think about.
And it’s still there?
Yeah, I don’t know how old it is, but it was just interesting because I hadn’t ever seen cacti at the beach. I had never seen succulents on the shore, and I’ve been thinking a lot about time. That tension in the landscape was something I really appreciated and was just trying to admire and hold my wonder while this woman was using it as a backdrop for her influencer video.
Yes, yes, I’m actually on a similar quest. I’ve been thinking a lot about living on the coast. It’s actually not very difficult for me to get to the beach. I’m off the Q and it’s like a straight shot to Brighton Beach to Coney Island, and an awkward but totally doable bus ride to Riis. And my eyes are set, my sights are set on Riis right now: just to spend more time on that land and to be over there. I’ve had some very startling discoveries about that particular land and its connection to my dad’s maternal line.
Memory is so wild and so geographical, and I always appreciated when you had us just list memories in class. And so matter-of-factly, because I think it’s so helpful to have that drawn out of you. Especially in a more intuitive way. I feel like if I have too much time to think about memory, it kind of defeats the intuitive spirit of it, which is something that I’m constantly striving toward. And I think there’s so much I have been thinking about time—and when you were mentioning the coral reefs and stuff, it’s like, what is time to a coral reef? What is time to cacti on the shore? How can I move through and away from my own sense of time and toward a sand dollar that I picked up?
That’s been something you’ve mentioned in our fucking absurd text exchange. Particularly that you’ve been thinking about time and having a physical body. Has it been healing work? Like, what is pulling you?
Mmmm. Yeah, I feel like it’s this deep molt I’m going through recently where I’m trying to redefine what I hold as valuable traits of myself. I think, as you’ve seen me through, like, skin fades and hard parts and a lot of button-ups, all the way buttoned up and shit, it’s just like . . . for so long I have prioritized this capitalist version of me that is overprepared and, you know, just, like . . .
Like professional drag or something?
One hundred percent! Where it’s just that I’ve learned the rules of this game, and I have to play them, and then break them in the small ways that I can and still get a paycheck. Whereas now I’m like, okay, actually consider that intuition is of the highest value.
Right. And this is a question that extends to every part of writing and coming up with a process for yourself, and then, you know, feeling bad if you don’t meet the process or whatever. It’s like the tension between building structure and leaving room for play. And I’m on this journey alongside you in terms of thinking about the page not being enough, and thinking about archiving and materials and speaking to our dead. How do you approach that from an intuitive place and wrestle with structure or not?
These are all great questions. The short answer is that I struggle. It’s a lot of struggling. As maybe we all are, I’m more able to see clearly if I’m working with your poems, or if I’m working with, you know, Kim’s or Dante’s or whoever’s poems. It’s easier for me to see where you’re at, what you’re making, where you’re struggling. I don’t even mean in your actual writing. I mean, as a writer, where you’re struggling, where you’re kind of stuck. I can kind of doula and help you through it and sit with you. It’s much harder to reflect it back to myself. But there is a sense of . . . if I wait, or if there’s a “right moment,” the poem will be the most true, best way it can be. And a lot of freedom comes in the form of laying that down.
Mmmm. Yeah yeah.
Laying down the urge to wait for some perfect constellation and just kind of trust that I will always have rather created, I will always rather have tried. I will always rather have a draft, an attempt of some sort, than keep my fingers crossed and pray that I’m in the space to create and play.
That shift in thinking, when you start calling yourself an archivist, is huge from being just your writer-self. I mean I think it’s all intertwined, but there’s that moment of realization; you keep coming back to these memories and you’re compiling them and you’re trying to talk to your dead and you want to do right by them. But then, in my opinion, I can’t find a right way to do this work with only words. During our yearlong class, you always referred to things as “artifacts” within the books that we were reading. And it really helped me understand what I was reaching for when I was writing and holding on to these sorts of objects, or this sort of language that made up the universe I was trying to enter or build.
that’s exactly it!
I am a clumsy archivist! It’s not a perfect science.
I’m hunched over my scanner right now, you know. I took my abuela’s nightgown because I forgot that I had it and I was like, let me scan her nightgown! Then I was scanning the color of her night gown.
Woooahhhhhh LET ME PEEP THIS!!!!!!
There are these beautiful buttons that are on her nightgown, and again, I was just trying to play and figure out how I want to show this. I think all the thinking about scanning her objects is really because I’m trying to, like, open a portal with her objects. I don’t know how yet, but I just know that I’m being called to do that, somehow.
Oh my gosh. This is so beautiful, Alexis. The way that the folds look like topography?! It looks like a map. THIS IS TOO MUCH. You are going in.
There’s like a tear here that in the scan was closed. I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but I’m being called to these things. And here’s another scan of the collar that is not perfect at all. The label says “Coffee Casual.” And I’ve worn this nightgown before a couple of times just to be closer to her. This is all to say I’m trying to figure out who I am as an archivist and what I value. Just thinking about the texture of all of these objects and the landscapes of them. Filling in who my grandmother was outside of these objects, and alongside these objects.
STOP. I’M DEAD.
I love to know you’re really collaging too.
This is one of my favorite stones, just a smooth stone that just gives me a lot of comfort. I don’t know . . . it feels like checking in. I just feel like I’ve planted when I touch it. I keep it on my writing desk. This is my mom’s passport, as well. And then you can see the seal on her face and in her Afro. You can’t really tell here, but on the passport, if you get really close to it, you can see that her Afro is actually blow-dried straight and feathered. She made this linen suit. She just got dressed up for her little passport. This is her name before she converted to Islam: Delsie. That’s her handwriting. It blows my mind.
Ripe with possibility.
Remember when Leena brought in that map poem? It was pictorial in structure! And there was never fear or hesitation—you all just stepped up to the plate to meet wherever someone was in their writing experiment. And I feel like I would not have allowed myself to wade so deeply [into my own experiments] had I not come into contact with your manuscripts.
I don’t think I’ve been in a more generous class than your class, and for that length of time as well. It was such a privilege and an honor to be in community with that group of folks, and we still talk all the time, you know. It’s not like one of those classes where you leave and it’s like, all right, well, I got one friend. We were all so happy for each other and our explorations, even though they were all very different worlds. We were orbiting each other in the same universe.
You became such good readers of each others’ work. There was just less conjugation, do you know what I mean? It just got to a point where after a while it felt like folks were in the pocket. There was such a unity and common language being spoken, even amid wildly different styles and such different concerns and concepts that people were working in with their projects.
You make so many other writers possible.
You’re literally dragging me to drugs. Please stop right now.
I literally cannot let this conversation go by without talking about how generous you are, as a person first and foremost, and as a teacher, as a friend, as a writer yourself. I’ve learned so much about how I want to move in this wild, publishing, blah blah world—
Blah blah indeed.
Because of how you move and what you cherish and value in building relationships with other writers.
You’re going to murder me. It’s never been more difficult to interface with past students before y’all’s class. When I see you guys, it’s like, too much for me. It feels like what I would imagine meeting a birth mother feels like. Like I belong to you in this weird and powerful way that I can’t control but also, who are you? I feel like we were in the trenches together.
IN THE TRENCHES LOL.
Can I ask you about your initial thoughts when you were approached to do this one-year manuscript generator? What were your initial thoughts?
So Julie Buntin approached me and she was kind of like, hey, we have this [twelve-month] fiction class and I love poetry, I value it, and I want Catapult to be a place for poetry too. And I was like, wait. An opportunity to talk poems and manuscripts with people, which I do anyway? And I can basically design the course with Catapult? And we can set up a really cool, dynamic, strange, classic syllabus to really sit with what it is we think makes a collection, with what makes a poetry book? It always struck me as an opportunity to explore being a student of what a poetry collection can do as an artifact, as a tome, as a masterpiece, you know . . . or as an attempt at saying a particular thing. And we could edit the work we’re making in real time and build out those intraconversations. It always struck me as an opportunity to basically have a book club, studio space, slash collaborative editorial space on steroids. We spend a year talking about the sequence, talking about the stand-out poems, talking about the logic of the arc, the motifs, the scaffolding . . . all of it. In the hopes that as we are side-by-side, writing weekly together, we can create this body of work and have that be a stamp in time of what we’re writing. I don’t know, it just felt kind of like all the best parts of the peer-editing and bookmaking circles that I’ve been blessed enough to be a part of, whether in my friendships, in my partnership with Shira, and with mentors—who from the time I was seventeen or eighteen would be incredibly generous and send me their manuscripts and what they were working on, and together we would build.
Yeah, let’s do it.
Shall we go down memory lane? This Cancer and this Sagittarian . . . should we?
Let’s do it. Let’s keep it spicy.
I miss this.
Oh my god, we would just be in that bitch CLOWNING.
With the heat! There’s a heat that we all generated when we were talking about anything.
Shout out to being in the room with each other. Shout out to the past.
Imagine. Shout out. What a time.
Does it feel like a long time ago or recent? Or both?
Both. I love to see everyone’s writing out in the world, and that’s been such a beautiful way to track time and connection.
It’s so awesome. Yeah, speaking of archivists.
Where is your writing at? If you could trace it through pre-generator, during generator, beyond the generator?
I feel that pre-generator I was working in publishing, and I was trying to write my poems now and then, but I had little sense as to where I was at and “what I was up to,” as you used to phrase it. All I knew was that I had to reorient my life so that writing was a bigger part of it. And that kind of pushed me toward the generator. And then during the generator, you tricked us into writing manuscripts in the best way. As a young writer, you’re trying to figure out how this whole thing operates. You’re looking in the acknowledgement sections of different books, trying to constellate how people function, where they get published, and trying to learn the business part of it. And I think it was so helpful to have your class as a space to be like, “How did you feel about the process? Did you feel honored in that process? What was conflicting for you?”
Ugh. I feel electrified and so fertile! Shira and I leave for our first joint writing residency soon, and I feel like I might pop off-off. It’s a three-week residency, and I cannot even remember the last time I had three consecutive days where I relaxed. So I’m very excited. And you know how sad gurlz like to turn up in the fall.
Listen, I can’t wait for the scans.
Scans on scans on scans on scans.
I feel like you might open a portal.
You know, I might come get you!
Angel Nafis is teaching a new iteration of her 12-Month Poetry Generator in 2022. Check out this listing for more information!
Angel Nafis is a Cave Canem Fellow and author of BlackGirl Mansion (Red Beard Press). Her work has appeared in The BreakBeat Poets, Buzzfeed Reader, The Rumpus, Poetry, and more. She represented the NYC at the National Poetry Slam and the Women of the World Poetry Slam. An Urban Word NYC Mentor and founder, curator, and host of the Greenlight Poetry Salon. Recipient of the 2016 Ruth Lilly Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship and the 2017 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, she is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at Warren Wilson College. With poet Morgan Parker she is The Other Black Girl Collective.
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