Collier Nogues is the author of The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground, selected by Forrest Gander as the winner of the 2014 Drunken Boat Poetry Book Contest, and On the Other Side, Blue (Four Way, 2011). She has received fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Fishtrap, and holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of California at Irvine. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in At Length, Matter, The Cincinnati Review, The Literary Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Tongue, Pangyrus, and the Lost Roads Press anthology Hick Poetics. The title erasure from The Ground I Stand On was featured in the 2014 SALTS Gallery exhibition The Printed Room: read the room / you’ve got to in Basel, Switzerland. She teaches creative writing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, curates Ragged Claws, Hong Kong’s English-language poetry craft talk series, and edits poetry for Juked.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The biggest effect of my first book was that it made me feel I had done right by my mom. She was a middle-school English teacher who had always wanted to be a writer, and she was very supportive of my own writing. My book came out five years after she died, and I was surprised by how deeply I felt I had fulfilled something for her as well as for myself.
My new book, The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground, is nothing like the first book, because this one is all erasures of historical documents related to the Pacific War. It’s about a much more public world, about imperialism and violence, where my first book was comparatively intimate. But at the same time this book also comes out of my personal history, from my upbringing on a military base on Okinawa.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I took a few fiction workshops in college, and every teacher told me I sounded like I should be writing poetry. I wrote these two-page-long, mournful stories loaded with what everyone agreed was ‘vivid imagery.’ My teachers were right; those weren’t stories. They were the under-plotted fleshy outerclothes of poems.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Usually I think I am doing one thing and I realize halfway through, after months or years, that I am doing something else. So once I figure out what I am actually making, I’ve got quite a lot of it done, but that first part takes forever.
The process of drafting has worked differently for erasures than for other poems, though in both I’m looking for a sense of friction between several lines or images. When I’m writing conventional poems, I look for scraps in my notebooks, and see what happens when I put two interesting pieces of language next to each other. Or I’ll take a piece of borrowed language and rework it, maybe feeding it through Google Translate a few times or riffing on its sounds, and when something catches I’ll put that little piece next to something else. I don’t get a sense of a poem happening until three or four chunks start to feel like they’re balancing something among them. With the erasures, it’s a treasure hunt: finding the few vivid metaphors in a political manifesto and going from there, or looking for a first-person pronoun near crisp, standout verbs. In either case, nothing ever ends up looking much like its original shape.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
It depends. I’d been wanting to engage with the complicated situation of Okinawa, and my growing up there, for years, so I had been gathering ideas for a while. It seemed like at least a book-length project. I started working on it seriously about four years ago, but it wasn’t going anywhere until I started messing around with erasures, which happened because of Ezra Pound. I read a few of his Radio Rome broadcasts, in which he uses the word “she” often, to mean “democracy” or “France” or other abstractions. Maybe once he uses it to mean a particular person. That, combined with the extreme racism and anti-Semitism in those rants, made me want to interfere with his language. I’d been looking at Tom Philips’ A Humument, so I tried erasing. The result was a narrative about a single imagined “she” at home, listening to the radio during the war, maybe even listening to Pound.
Writing that poem was extremely satisfying, and I started to look for other historical documents that were frustrating to read for their jingoism, or their political grandstanding, or their utterly shuttered perspective. The early Western visitors to Okinawa, like Basil Hall and Commodore Perry, for example, have all the expected 19th-century colonialist things to say about the people they met, or didn’t bother to meet, when they anchored in Naha Harbor and charged ashore. Repurposing their words felt like a fitting way to engage the larger context of my own experience living there as part of the U.S. military more than century later.
The book found its final shape when I realized that the erasures alone, without the original poems I had planned to include, would make the book. The final version is half-print and half-digital: the poems exist online, in interactive versions, so that the original document’s language appears when you touch each line of a poem. And so in a sense this book is many books—a miniature library about how U.S. and Japanese and Okinawan history have intersected.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are like rollercoasters. They terrify me, but I also love them once I get almost all the way through. Then I want it to be my turn again.
I also love readings because they’re a good place to discover other writing I like. And especially, seeing what other poets do when they turn their poems into performances, into voiced sounds, is great. I like reading with other people because there’s a solid chunk of time where I can just enjoy what’s going on.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Yes, though I don’t think I’m trying to answer questions as much as ask them. I am interested in what gets dismissed as “natural,” and why, whether it be femininity or cruelty during wartime or a supposedly fundamental goodness of ‘human nature.’ How does language figure into our negotiations around what we think of as ‘natural’? For example, part of the process of rationalizing inhumane actions during war (or any time, really) involves deploying metaphor to transform other people into beings naturally deserving of or able to bear that cruelty. I’m interested in what happens to someone, to her relationship to language and to other people, when she uses words to dehumanize or objectify someone else, and how language itself can seem complicit in how we turn words to that purpose. In The Poetics of Imperialism, Eric Cheyfitz quotes Abraham Fraunce explaining in 1588 that a metaphor is when “a word is turned from his naturall signification…so convenientlie, as that it seeme rather willlinglie ledd, than driven by force to that other signification.” That "rather willinglie" sticks with me.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think writers should engage in our writing with what we perceive to be pressing questions. I also think we should engage with those questions in other ways, since literature can only do some work. Teaching and activism are some obvious complements to what a writer does in her writing life.
I admire writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Mallory Ortberg, who synthesize riveting writing and razor-sharp political critique on a daily basis. They are so quick, and every single thing they write is good. They’re models of how writers can play an activist role in larger culture.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I haven’t done it very much. I would like to—when I have, it has been tremendously helpful. It depends on the kind of writing I’m doing, too. With this book of erasures, an editor could help with organization, but maybe not so much with content.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“It’s not about you.” A friend told me this (she phrased it much more kindly) when I was worried about not having brought an appropriately formal coat for another friend’s mother’s funeral. Of course she was right. It is hard to remember this but it is almost always true, and usually it is a relief even if it stings my ego.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I like lists. A typical non-teaching day will begin with making to-do lists and then crossing off what I’ve already done (of course!). And then begins the struggle to do the writing before I do the things which are easier to cross off: the necessary other work (class prep, student emails, etc.) and the totally mundane (cleaning the bathroom). Breaking down my writing projects into tiny, doable steps and putting them on the list usually works: “Item: complete the second sentence in draft of poem X.” I feel undeservedly clever for having figured this out.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I go read contemporary poets who are doing wonderful, strange, sharp things with poetry as a genre. Dawn Lundy Martin, Craig Santos Perez, Cathy Park Hong, Claudia Rankine, Bhanu Kapil, Ronaldo Wilson, Maggie Nelson. It helps me remember that if I can figure it out how to make it work for someone reading, I can do pretty much anything to a “poem”. So then I am problem-solving instead of trying to write.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
River water and beer.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Painting. History, if that counts as “not books.” But mostly books.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The ones I mentioned above in # 11. Srikanth Reddy and M. NourbeSe Philip, for what they’ve made erasure poetry do. Gillian Conoley, Rusty Morrison, Allison Benis White, Shane McCrae. James McMichael’s Capacity. Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Have a kid. Maybe? (That’s why I don’t have one yet.)
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
My whole family is small-town talkers and writers: English teachers, librarians, a couple of ministers. I would probably have been a librarian. That would be great.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was working in advertising in my early twenties when my mom got sick, and I took time off from my job to take care of her. I don’t know what I’d be doing now if that hadn’t happened. The circumstance of her illness meant I had something to write about, and something I needed to escape, both.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
19 - What are you currently working on?
Whatever it is, it’s still at the stage where I don’t know what it is yet. Here's hoping I find out soon.