This winter, Bodega launched its first contest. Jay Deshpande, our poetry judge and the author of Love the Stranger (YesYes Books, 2015) chose the poem “Bargaining,” by Diannely Antigua, which you can read in this issue. We asked the two of them to interview each other about process, product, and everything in between. Here’s what they had to say.
Jay Deshpande: Hi Diannely! We should really talk about “Bargaining,” but first: have you gotten to do any writing today? What’s your usual writing mode and where do you write?
Diannely Antigua: I’ve been able to sneak in a little bit of writing while at work. I find that I do my best writing when I’m supposed to be doing something else. It’s all about small rebellions. If I’m supposed to be replying to a work email, inspiration normally strikes then. It’s difficult for me to write when I set aside dedicated time. It’s too much pressure to “perform poetry.” During today’s small rebellion, I was working on a poem in response to Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire. It’s an assignment for my craft class at NYU with Yusef Komunyakaa.
JD: “Bargaining” struck me for many reasons, and gave me that great feeling that we hope for from poems: having a whole, untranslatable experience. The poem gives the sense of a clear persona. And I like the way it moves from sentence to sentence—there’s an elliptical quality to it, as though the poem builds its argument from distinct materials that all have some underlying coherence. Can I ask you about how you began the poem?
DA: My craft class with Matt Rohrer was all about the techniques of making things new. We started with Walt Whitman and worked our way to Stein, the BreakBeat Poets, and even flarf. What really stuck with me was the lesson on the cento form. Our assignment was to write a poem using mostly appropriated language from books found on our bookshelf. I felt so odd using another poet’s work and calling it my own, even if there was some attribution.
But I looked on my shelf anyway, found my old diaries, and thought that could be a safe loophole to the assignment. I was appropriating language from my bookshelf, but my own language from years before. Since I was a nine, I’ve filled over 28 diaries.
“Bargaining” was the first poem that I wrote appropriating language from one of the diaries, the 24th diary to be exact. The poems are collage poems, yet it is a bit more complicated than that.
JD: I’m very interested in that use of diaries. It’s an invaluable way of drawing upon a non-poetic source text, finding the lyricism and the potentiality in its language. But it’s also an appropriative act, and means changing or re-seeing something about an earlier you. It’s almost a choice to remix your own younger self. I’m curious: how does this poetic project make you see yourself (as you look back on the diaries) differently? Does it give you new appreciation for her? Or can you see the self of those diaries as fully distinct from the personae you’re writing in these poems?
DA: The most shocking experience I’ve had so far was rereading my first diary. It spans the ages from 9 until about 12. It’s completely indoctrinated with a need for God’s approval. One sentence could be along the lines of, “oh, I really like this boy,” and the next sentence would be something like, “but I’m gonna pray to God that He brings me a righteous husband.” It’s shocking but also the reality of my life then, a clear reflection of what I was being taught. Part of me is still very much the girl in these diaries. It’s not easy to separate from prior selves, but I’m trying to give her a voice. She’s been through so much.
Your book, Love the Stranger, captivated me in such an emotional way. I found that even when I wasn’t sure of the exact action of a poem, it resonated with me. I truly could feel the emotional weight of the language. I was especially drawn to the poem “On the Meaning of Love.” It’s such an erotic, strange, and surreal poem. I’m curious about the craft of this poem, and how you were able to build upon these intimate moments between the speaker and the beloved.
JD: I’m really glad that you had that experience with the poem! “On the Meaning of Love” relies in some ways on more stable narrative conventions than I usually use. It tells a story, describes the progression chronologically, works in quatrains—which are one of the most balanced homes for storytelling in a poem. I wanted to use that form to counterbalance and to emphasize the discomforts of the gesture that the speaker performs. In terms of how I started to write it, I first found the title—and the first line came almost automatically. But I also knew it would have to rise to a profession of love and disturbance all at once. I guess the challenge here was going slow enough that I could sit with the discomfort. That seems like an important lesson outside of poems, too.
DA: I feel that poets are constantly asked this question: What do you feel truly constitutes a poem? Is there a logic that must be met in order for something to be considered a poem?
JD: I love thinking about this question, even if it’s endless and unanswerable and a poetic hobby-horse! Maybe it’s because each poem has to declare its own existence on its own terms, has to formulate its own rules—and it must do so in order to surprise us—that we keep having to talk about this. If every successful poem reinvents the wheel somehow, then there are an infinite number of answers.
Lately, I think of poetry as intensified language. But I’ve also been finding a few definitions particularly useful for demarcating what is a poem and what isn’t. James Longenbach says that a poem foregrounds the event of its language over any experience that language might describe. Barbara Herrnstein Smith notes that the poem is a mimetic act, so it’s never actual— it’s fictive discourse. And Ben Lerner thinks of the poem as being a failure to live up to the Platonic ideal of what a poem might be—always pointing to a possibility it will never achieve.
But maybe the most important thing is that the language of the poem does something to surprise the reader, to call us to attention.
DA: Going back to your book, Love the Stranger, I couldn’t help but be enamored with the song-like melancholy and longing present in each poem. I think that’s love, right? I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the impetus behind these love poems. Why love poems and what makes them different or similar to other love poems that you’ve read?
JD: I’m drawn to writing pieces that could be love poems, simply because the emotional impetus that brings me to the page most often has something to do with desire, or loss, or the experience of a body pulled between desire and loss. Well before Love the Stranger started to come together, though, I was already really drawn to the power that an addressee exerts over a lyric poem. Whether or not they’re spoken to directly, having that clearer sense of someone at the other end can sharpen the urge to write. I think I’ve frequently relied on that to find what the poem itself wants to say.
DA: Who is your poetry doppelganger? (Looks and/or poetic style.)
JD: I know the answer; but by the rules of doppelganger-ing, if I met my P.D. I would have to kill them, right? And that’s not good for business.
DA: So what are you working on now, and what can readers look forward to in the future?
JD: Right now I’m playing with a few different things! I’m working on translations of a French-Egyptian poet named Georges Henein, as well as several nonfiction projects. As to poems, I’m just reading everything I can and trying to complicate or challenge my notions of who I am when I write.
Diannely Antigua is a Dominican American poet and educator, born and raised in Massachusetts. She is currently an MFA candidate at New York University and an associate poetry editor for BOAAT. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Day One, Split Lip Magazine, Rust + Moth, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.