- Inside the Rib:Red Hen Press Launch Sisters Discuss their Work
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Veronica, we were introduced to each other a few months ago because we are "launch sisters," both with books published this winter by Red Hen Press. Even though our work is very different, in different genres, it was exciting to recognize a shared fascination with the intersection of personal and political themes in our work. Tell me about your path to writing the poems in Vocabulary of Silence.
Where do I begin? Both A Bell Buried Deep and Vocabulary of Silence were written as books. That is, I had an idea, a concept, questions like little splinters around which I wrote poems. For Vocabulary it was, on one level, the continued U.S. wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, I had just spent a year editing a book by Awista Ayub (However Tall the Mountain) an Afghan-American, and [End Page 22] was immersed in research about Afghanistan. Then, I conceived this collaboration with visual artists here in Taos, NM, at the RANE Gallery, titled My Land is Me: Four artists explore the Veil. My poems for that installation were the spur for the painter, sculptor and photographer with whom I worked.
My book grew out of all these experiences, as well, I should add, as the ongoing occupation in Gaza. But at its heart is the infamous photo from Abu Ghraib: Lynndie England holding a leash attached to the neck of an Iraqi prisoner, nicknamed Gus. Like the iconic photo of the Vietnamese girl child running down the road during the Vietnam War, this photo just burned into my psyche. I still can't shake it.
So I had a lot of seeds, Ellen! But let's get to your process. What was the seed of your book?
In contrast to your experience, House Arrest was not originally conceived as a political novel, not written to a theme. For three years, I had been working on a manuscript about sisters with a strong radical family legacy who are torn apart by their political differences after their arrest at a demonstration. Unable to do it justice, I put it away and turned for inspiration to a short article I'd clipped from the Boston Globe. It was about a home care nurse assigned to give prenatal care to a young cult member under house arrest because of the death of a child. I was a nurse, and I imagined the nurse and the cult member becoming good friends. I couldn't stop wondering what it would be like for a nurse to try to forge a therapeutic relationship with a patient whose health beliefs were very different from her own. And what would happen if their friendship and their beliefs clashed. The more I wrote, the more the cult became a metaphor for political outsiders, and the family backgrounds of the nurse and the pregnant young woman brought issues of war and race into the story.
We can't help writing about the things that obsess us, and I am obsessed by the way our family legacies shape our lives, for better and for worse, and by the interplay between our decisions, especially about political activism, and the consequences of those decisions and actions.
What about you, Veronica? I can see how the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza have informed the poems in Vocabulary of Silence. What other ideas or images obsess your work, especially your current work?
Well, I now seem to be writing poems of a more meditative nature, like this piece called After Reading Eugino Montale, which begins, "Perhaps there is more/than a blue, half-opened door..." A kind of mantra begins with "perhaps." What is a change for me is that I'm letting the poems happen, rather than choosing a theme first. Although, there is of course a dialectical relationship between "choosing" and "finding" a theme. Anyway, I'm not sure why my current work feels meditative, perhaps to open myself to what comes. But being a "political" writer, or as someone put it...