I read your interview with Frontier Poetry, & in it you talked about the joy you felt when Bury Me in Thunder was accepted for publication, and during revision. I’m wondering if you could talk about moments of joy you encountered in the process of writing the book, or, conversely, if/why joy is hard to find while in the thick of a project like this?
Any time I finish a poem, there is this moment of joy of seeing it come together. When there’s finally this connection between everything and my mind stops overworking it. So throughout writing the book, these moments carried me. This was intentionally about examining my own grief and knowing I was trying to work towards something better for myself. Seeing each poem take shape and build this book into reality was joyous, a relief, tinged with longing…
Somewhat relatedly, in the same interview, you spoke about memory as a geography, and how returning to certain places in memory can be painful. When writing a collection, or even just a single piece, that asks you to go to one of those places, how do you navigate it safely? How do you know when you need to leave?
Poetry has always felt like my safe place to put my pain. It became a childhood refuge. I know for many people writing about trauma is painful, but often for me, it feels like I’m finally allowing myself to take a breath. I’m writing this power back into existence, to have full control of the narrative. In the moments where it does become hard, I’ve learned to communicate boundaries with myself, even if it means I need to step back from the poem for a moment. I never want to push myself for the sake of productivity especially when it comes to writing about trauma. Often, this is by listening to my body. I think of it like a streetlight, where the yellow light is noticing the tension and taking that moment to slow down.
You use white space a lot in your poetry. Is that something you’ve always done, or is something you’ve leaned into over the years, and why?
I’ve been writing poetry since I was nine years old, which was mostly scribbles in my mother’s work planner. For a long time, mostly due to school, I only saw traditional sonnets and blocks of text. It wasn’t until I started getting exposed to writers like Joy Harjo, Chrystos, and other Indigenous writers, and started learning more about experimenting with form, line breaks, and white space. Of course, seeing many contemporary loves over the years has encouraged this curiosity with space and what can fill it. Writing has movement and song for me, it depends on the poems what they might come from, whether it’s a transition in breath or to reflect changes within the landscape.
This is your first full length collection. Assembling that many poems into one piece is almost always a daunting task, but were there any challenges you didn’t anticipate?
My preemptive anxiety made me worse-case-scenario the hell out of this process, which ended up helping me not be as disappointed by parts I felt would be daunting (hello event coordination, you monster). Thankfully I do have wonderful and supportive writer friends who were able to tell me their experiences with the publishing world, which prepared me as well. I think what was most affirming was this echo of the complications surrounding communication in the publishing world and how vital it is to self-advocate with your publisher. Additionally, just how LONG certain parts can take to come together (I’m talking to you again, events), and that need for patience, planning, and sometimes persistence when you’ve been ghosted after that second interview request. If you ever have a question, ASK it. Don’t assume it will be silly or unnecessary, this is your creation, make sure you feel as fully informed as possible by those around you about the realities of publishing and getting a book out into the world.
And now that this book is in the world, what are you up to? Are you diving into any new projects, or taking a well deserved break, or something else?
This answer would’ve been so different a few weeks ago! I was going to be spending the spring touring for the book, but now with COVID-19, things have changed. I’ve been doing virtual readings, which has been great as an accessible option but admittedly, it is difficult to not be in-person with readers. I’m not trying to push myself to write at the moment. I’ve always struggled with the relationship of creativity and productivity. Reflecting on “Bury Me in Thunder” reminds me to sit with this collective grief, the personal losses I was experiencing before this pandemic and through it. There are times when I have been writing, but I allow it to happen when it happens instead of forcing it. I’m mostly focusing on taking care of myself, keeping in touch with loved ones, taking sad naps, playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and trying to be there for the people I work with as a therapist. What I keep telling people is that it feels like the world is on pause, but time is still moving forward. I’m just doing the best I can each day right now. I hope you and the readers find your ways to weather these troubling storms.
Sample poem from Bury Me in Thunder
PEACH SLICES ON BREAD
The food we split between ourselves mimics cellular
the womb of it blooming, until at last
the insides are scrambled. I don’t remember
our fingers knowing such want, but then again,
I often forget our fixed nature. They say it is primal,
but we have given it another name:
optimism. The leeching pipedream that clings
to skin, air sticky in the sweet stench
of rotted fruit and anxious-moving hands.
I won’t tell you that this place we have made is safe,
violence hangs just a peach slice away —
the knife edging closer to our fingers. I know we want
to start over, to make these parts of ourselves disappear.
I won’t tell you about the grain shortages, the water
being poisoned and drained, our paradises full of mold.
Why do I have to tell you anything? Your ears are too hungry
to listen, even if it is necessary for you to know
about the nagging famine at our door.
syan jay is an agender writer of Dził Łigai Si’an N’dee descent. They were the winner of the 2018 Pacific Spirit Poetry Prize and were Frontier Poetry’s 2019 Frontier New Voices Fellow. Their work has been published in The Shallow Ends, WILDNESS, and Black Warrior Review. They currently live with their partner in the occupied Massachusett homelands of Nutohkemminnit (Greater Boston). Their debut poetry collection, “Bury Me in Thunder” (January 29, 2020) is out now with Sundress Publications. You can find more of their work at https://syanjay.com/, or on Twitter @syannnnnn.