Anthony Frame: Your recently released your first chapbook, For Filthy Women Who Worry About Disappointing God (Diode Editions, 2017). How would you describe the collection?
Urgent. Provocative. Brave.
AF: You are fairly new to the poetry world. Your poem, "Ishra'aq (aunty's prayer)," is your first published poem. When did you start writing poetry and what made you decide to take the leap toward publication?
I started writing poetry last summer when I was at a magical place in the shadows of Mount Rainier. A place filled with women writers, fig trees and wild flowers where I was fed delicious meals and given a quaint cottage with a real wood fire. It's a place called Hedgebrook
that nurtures women who write. I was supposed to work on a book about my adventures as a disease detective but on the flight to Hedgebrook I wrote a poem that shocked me. It's called "Night Prayer" and it's one of the first poems I've ever written and the last poem in the chapbook. The poems kept coming. I wrote a dozen more poems at Hedgebrook and they formed the basis of the chapbook that won the Diode contest. I had a second residency at the Martha's Vineyard Writer's Residency where I worked on more poems.
AF: In addition to your work as a poet, you are also a journalist and a doctor (or as your website describes it, "news reporter and disease detective," a description I love). How has your work as a journalist affected your work as a poet? Similarly, what do you think your medical background adds to your creative work?
Poetry is a new medium for me but it's the one that is giving me the most freedom to explore the absurdities of being a doctor. You see beautiful, bizarre things when you are up close to the human body every day. Case reports don't do justice to those experiences of disgust, grief and joy. Training to be a journalist gave me another set of tools to prod at humans and pry into people's lives. I'm very nosey and not that interested in myself.
AF: Can you describe your process as a poet? What has to happen for you to start thinking, "There's a poem here," and how do you move from that initial spark to a finished poem?
Sometimes it's a memory. "Polyglot" was inspired by an incident at a family wedding a few years ago where a very young boy sat next to me and casually said wicked, misogynistic things about the bride's appearance. Early drafts of that poem were weak so I left them alone and went back a few days later. Other poems such as "Night Prayer" are inspired by conflict — the idea that some types of sex are considered unlawful in certain religions — but those forbidden acts can feel holy, like worship.
AF: For Filthy Women is now available and I've seen you named as finalist the contests run by in Coal Hill and Bateau. Do you see the manuscript before you start writing the poems or do the poems lead you to the manuscript?
I write poems around a theme and that leads to a manuscript with poems that are interconnected. I'm thinking about how to do this for a longer collection. Some poetry books don't seem to do that and others do it brilliantly. I read Nate Marshall's Wild Hundreds
recently and need to figure out how to write a manuscript of that length with pieces so varied but connected. It's a memorable collection.
AF: What drives you as a poet? Was there a moment when you realized this was an art form you had to be a part of or did it happen more slowly over time?
It happened on the way to Hedgebrook. When I arrived, the other writers asked, "What are you?" I was supposed to say I was a non-fiction writer but instead I answered, "Poet." I've been saying that ever since. Last year was rough for me, as it was for so many people. Poetry and poets saved me. I lost my home in a tornado during Christmas of 2015 and on the one year anniversary I had a dream where Ocean Vuong
saved me from an approaching tornado. That sums up my relationship to poetry right now.
AF: Which writers, whether poets, fiction writers, journalists, etc … inspire you? Who are you reading and what do you draw, as a poet, from them?
I read and re-read Gayle Danley
, Franny Choi
, Eunice de Souza
, Monica Sok
, Nikky Finney
, Danez Smith
, Eduardo Corral
, June Jordan
, Joaquin Zihuatanejo
and Alfred Tennyson
. There are so many talented writers who inspire me to write and read more. When I've needed moments of comfort and certainty in the past year, I've gone back to novels and short stories that I read in happier times, even if the stories themselves are unsettling. I read lots of Octavia Butler
and Amy Tan
AF: What are you working on now? What projects do we have to look forward to from you?
I'm working on a comic book, a full length poetry collection, a podcast for public radio and the memoir I began at Hedgebrook. I'm still covering public health and medicine as a reporter which feels even more necessary with the new administration. I need another residency or three.