Nomi Stone is a poet and an anthropologist, and the author of two poetry collections, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly 2008) and Kill Class (Tupelo Press 2019). Winner of a Pushcart Prize, Stone’s poems appear recently in The Best American Poetry, POETRY, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She has a PhD in Anthropology from Columbia and an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson, and she is an Assistant Professor in Poetry at the University of Texas, Dallas.
Tim Lynch: Kill Class seems to be treated as a narrative, revealed through shifts in character focus and dramatic point of view. If, when a writer shifts POV from one character to the next, and the audience loses empathy for that first character (the longer you stay away from a character, the more empathy you lose), how do you balance the empathetic humanity of all these characters?
Nomi Stone: That’s a great question. I see the book as balanced in dual parts, by narrative and lyric, and there is a trajectory, there is an arc, but there are also landings and lingerings. And the question of character was more than a little challenging to me, to be honest. As a poet and not a fiction writer, I don’t really “do” character, and I felt a combination of things as I was trying to animate these six individuals. I’m an anthropologist as well, and in my ethnography I feel a debt and accountability to the real; I’m talking about people’s real lives and using quotes. But in this collection of poems, that was not rigid in the same way. It was much more diffuse. So the debt was more to an overall feeling or sensation, and as I was trying to figure out these characters, who were inspired by different interlocutors who I’ve known over years doing this research project, I encountered a range of challenges.
At first I was thinking, “How do I represent these role players who are being maneuvered by the military and evacuated of their humanity by the military?” They’re being turned into technologies of war, and they are being turned into archetypes. How do I represent this military maneuvering that is occurring through the structure of the poems? and I worked to do this in certain poems. There are poems where I try to show that people are rendered substitutable by the military. For example, in “War Game: Plug and Play,” there are these segments in brackets: “The war scenario has: [vegetable stalls], [roaming animals], / and [people] in it.” Each term is in brackets because those entities are substitutable, and this was the case in the role plays, in some sense. Military contractors would switch out the signs; sometimes the signs would be in Arabic, sometimes the signs would be in Pashto. They would switch out the role players, too—different backgrounds, from different countries—and this notion of substitutability was really upsetting to me. I was trying to represent that, and then I thought, “OK, well, how do I contend with the humanity of these individuals at the same time?” In the beginning, I had thought about Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and how the people kind of rise and dissolve. But then I thought, “No, that’s not right, because I don’t want to be complicit with military representations. I want to represent them more thickly.” And the way I tried to do that was by writing these poems where we exit the simulations and we drive out of the woods to the motel, and in those poems—they’re haibun, and they delve into more of the texture of people’s worlds, what they do when they’re not inside these simulations. They’re working in chicken factories, and as hotel maids, and having conversations, but in those spaces I don’t necessarily demarcate specific characters each time.
So, I think to answer your question in a very roundabout way, it’s not a work of fiction and so they’re not fully realized characters in some sense. There are spotlights on them, and then those spotlights sort of dissolve, and you get almost a fractured, fragmented glimpse into these people’s worlds because that’s part of the story that I’m trying to explore, which is one of empire, and people whose faces you get some sense of but not all.
TL: So, empire is not interested in that texture; it’s interest in utility. And the context for this narrative is that empire, in that the staging area itself is constructed within and for the benefit of empire and its creations. The collection is also then, to me, a kind of stage itself, and so the broad question is: What does it mean to create, within an empire, work that means to subvert the goals of empire? Where are you left as the creator in that?
NS: How do you invent critique in poetry? You can make argument with image, you can make overt statements. I think the most important thing as artists is to not be cosigners of empire. I guess, in writing against empire, we have to also show our position and our complicity, and so as an American I stand inside of that complicity. Also, as an anthropologist, a discipline that has colonial roots, I both stand inside that complicity and work to expose it, and work to instead move in a direction of critique. I want these poems to give the reader a chance to look at one side of empire, and to have enough of a world conjured so that they can condemn it themselves, so that my work, through the play of image, statement, etc., can bring my reader there without knocking them over the head with it. To help them look at the constituent facts and harms of empire, what it does to people’s bodies and psyches, to have us get there as readers.
TL: And to allow the reader to maintain their own position.
NS: Right, to not be too coercive with the reader either. And hope that I can take them somewhere. The idea with either an individual poem or a book is to go somewhere, and I hope that there is an experiential arc, whether my readers come to the book feeling critical about power or not. I think the particularities and the granularities of how power is staged on the ground is a new encounter. It’s something that’s happening in our own country, and so I want to stage that for readers.
TL: So as an anthropologist, what conversation do you want the artifact of this collection to be a part of, or to build on? Or to challenge?
NS: I can start by telling you what I want to speak to in poetry, as that’s most important to me. I want this book of poems to be in conversation, in the contemporary sphere, with work like Look, with Solmaz Sharif, and Philip Metres, and Tarfia Faizullah, and the generation just before us, Carolyn Forche and C.D. Wright. Also earlier poets thinking about documentary poetics, like Muriel Rukeyser and Charles Reznikoff. I also want it to engage with lyric poetry more broadly. It is a book that is most of all, more than its preoccupation with content, preoccupied with craft and form, and how to generate an embodied experience through the line. I would say that I’m in conversation with every poet who’s influenced me, from Wallace Stevens to Louise Gluck to Jorie Graham.
As for anthropology, I see my work as being in conversation with anthropologists who critique American militarism and power, and imperialism—like Ann Stoler and Carole McGranahan and David Vine and Nadia Abu El-Haj. There are also some very good, granular, and embodied ethnographies of the American military—the work in particular of Ken MacLeish and Zoe Wool stands out for me. However, most of the ethnographic work that has been done on the U.S. military focuses on American soldiers specifically—rather than on those who are subjected to the harms of soldiers and the American government. So in that sense, this book hopes to help fill one of the voids in the scholarship on American militarism.
TL: So, nature in the cosmic sense, but also just in the dirt-between-your-toes sense. Part of the collection seems to question nature’s culpability in violence. There are moments where I’m catching the speaker looking at violence, not as a natural phenomenon, but not wholly separate from our natural phenomenon as human beings.
NS: I’m more interested in “nature” in the social sense, something that is in part imagined and produced by human beings. I’m not negating the presence of things like instinct, etc., but I would say that what I’m interested in is the forms of violence that are learned and taught and socially imbibed, violence that is made through history.
TL: That goes back, for me, to the idea of the story that’s put upon us. Sometimes it’ll present one with a single choice, and I’m thinking of the moment at the end of the title poem, “Kill Class,” where the rabbit, this non-human animal, has just become the collateral of this learned violence. When you’re presented with that choice that is not in your character, what can you do? I’m thinking of agency vs. choice, as in, “I have choice to do this, but do I have agency over my fate, within this context.”
NS: Well, refusal is possible. The moment you’re referring to in the book, I think, is a crucial moment because the speaker in the poem does refuse. She’s asked to kill a rabbit, and she says no. And of course there is the fact that the legs are in her arms still, and so she is still part of that killing. So it’s a bigger metaphor for our forms of culpability, insofar as we do say no, and might seek to have the courage to say no. One can still stage a refusal, but at the same time, the legs are already in our arms. We’ve already been part of the act, even if we aren’t the ones who raised the stick directly. It’s sort of a mourning over that fact, but it does come simultaneously with absolute refusal, at least with one’s own hands, to do something that is morally impossible.
TL: Thinking about fate and choice, where do you see that fitting into your craft, as far as the choices you make versus the inspirations, the fates, that bring you to the end of a line, or to the subject itself?
NS: I think that a poem has a secret knowledge of its own that we’re waiting to meet, and it starts with a hum or a chime, something that jingles around inside of us, and then it finds itself. So it sort of fumbles towards its own form. There isn’t a fatedness about the form per se, but poems land when they meet their form. There might be dozens of drafts with the wrong lineation, but you can kind of feel that tug when the poem hasn’t found the right music for its content. I think when the music lands, then you sort of know. It’s really more intuition than anything else. Your will is almost beside the point. If a thing doesn’t want to be a sonnet, then it’s not going to be a sonnet.
TL: So how does that work within this particular collection, where you spoke before about this book being a lot about craft and the way the lines move you through the experience?
NS: There is a lot of fragmentation and repetition, and a feeling that we can’t entirely get out of Pineland. I tried to manage that rhythmically through sections, by structuring the book so that we keep being spat out and then circled back in. Every time you leave you return. I think that on the level of the line, the lines are as varied as possible to enable surprise, but often I kept thinking of the line as a noose in this book. How do you keep getting swirled and trapped and knotted in by the line? There’s a sort of cacophony of voices, and that’s another form. You can’t quite grab any one of them. I also use the haibun a lot, this form where the prose poem breaks into lineation, and that felt like an important form, because of the sheer surplus of field work, and there’s so much material. Basically, I needed the space of the prose poem as I was doing a sort of anthropological observation, but then it kind of caves in with the lineation at the end, and these are almost these admissions of subjectivity. In reporting, we all know that the self is always there. When you double over with the lineation, that’s kind of an admission of the presence of the self and sensation-flooding in these contexts.
TL: On the self, what did you discover in writing these poems, or after you felt the collection was completed, whether personally in your own life, about yourself, about the world in the context of war?
NS: I certainly discovered my own limit points during the project. The spaces I was in were very gendered, and extremely intense masculine spaces. I did field work in military bases, in military bars, in spaces that felt sometimes threatening and uncomfortable for me. So I reached a personal edge in my capacity to be in spaces like that. I think I learned a lot about laughter and humor in dark spaces also. The Middle Eastern role players—hired contractors, who I spent a lot of time with, we became friends—many of them were individuals who had grown up in Iraq, and were in their 30s, and so had grown up under totalitarianism, and sanctions, and war, and occupation from the beginning. And many had lost loved ones, and they were acting out war in these simulations. Of course, it was all fake. For a lot of individuals it either generated no feeling at all, a sort of inuring to violence, and certainly mock violence. Or it generated laughter. I had thought that it would be uniformly traumatic, and it was deeply traumatic for some people, more so for those who had experienced direct trauma in wartime, injuries or kidnappings. They were deeply traumatized. But the vast majority of people I spoke with were constantly making jokes and laughing about these portrayals of death and these portrayals of their homes. That was surprising and interesting to me, and deeply understandable. The sort of uncanny weirdness of the representation of death produces laughter, but also the fact that there are these archetypal representations of the Middle East that are just very silly.
TL: You talk about the fixed, threatening space, and it makes me think of “Mass Casualty Event,” that last line, “No, I am in a painting.” I’m just wondering, through this experience, what might you have to say to those who are in a context where agency, their autonomy, is being challenged or undermined by that fixed context?
NS: Structure and agency are such an impossible problem. How much maneuvering can we do amidst structure? There are political, economic, and social structures that are so entrenched, and also it depends on our level of privilege, our maneuvering within them. So I guess there is the question of what is even imaginable amidst the structures that constrain us. Can we speak, can we protest? Are we safe to speak or protest? Not necessarily. Especially when you have less power in the structure. So, I don’t know. I think it depends on our position. If we’re thinking about things like impossible political structures, or poverty, our agencies are minimal, and they come best when seeking solace through other people and community, and trying to build something and activate change even in micro ways by not doing it alone.
TL: How has that been enacted for you, those minimal micro changes, in your life?
NS: I think that a lot of us are trying to wrestle with the kind of agency that we have under the current administration, and how we fight what feels like an uphill climb. Amidst the threat to choice right now, and women’s bodies feeling imperiled, a lot of people are wondering what the hell they can do. I was reading about being a Planned Parenthood escort, helping someone who’s going to go and have an abortion by being by their side or also deflecting protestors. And I’m moving to the South, to Texas, and I think the importance of getting involved in local politics is so important. Even if you’re in a blue city in a red state, and it feels like you can’t move, you still have to keep fighting, because there are people whose freedoms are being taken away. I’ve had some agency curtailed amidst my wife’s green card process, and waiting and hoping for it to be granted by the state, essentially, and in the meantime her not being able to travel or work, and that feeling absolutely terrifying. We sought agency by inviting friends to come visit—small acts to not fall into a hole, small daily things.
TL: In that vein of community, speaking in some sense about the writing group we cultivated alongside other poets here in Philly, and about what writing does for you as an individual human being beyond the scope of the page, what is the significance of bringing other people into that process for you?
NS: I think the space of the workshop is a really beautiful space, because you get intimate with five or six other poets’ voices and worlds and lives, and that kind of intimacy, to have an intimate reader who knows your trajectory, is a really huge gift. Also so we don’t fall into overly easy patterns where we start to imitate ourselves. You can be held better accountable when you’re in a room full of people who know what you’ve done, and what you’re capable of doing, so you don’t write a lazy poem. I also think having that kind of ear and audience makes you ramp up the vulnerability. To write a poem that’s real is important, and I felt that when we had our workshop. These people who I deeply admire, poets I admire and humans I admire, we’re all in the act of growing as poets and as humans. I felt a dynamic where we each wanted to bring markers of that growth to the room, as poets and as humans. I think we did that; we pushed ourselves for ourselves but also for each other.
TL: There was a comfort in making ourselves uncomfortable, in that we knew that others would make us comfortable.
NS: Both comfortable and uncomfortable. Or push us, if it was too easy, the moves we were making.
TL: Or calling each other out when we’re being clever. Like, a lot of times I want to think about craft as, “OK, word here, line break here, OK.” But there’s the emotional work of craft too that, to my mind, gets left behind—or more precisely, that I want to leave behind sometimes. It’s difficult. And I think that’s exactly the work of the workshop. We showed each other where we were being alive in the poems.
NS: Yeah, I think we did that. And we took care of each other as people. I remember I had gone through a breakup, and I was ruined, and you bought me all these CDs, because my car was broken into and all my CDs were stolen, all my 90s and 80s CDs! And you showed up with this duffle bag of CDs; it was amazing. It was so loving, and that was something—I was kind of new to the city, and it was really important.
TL: I mean, you’re also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, for no reason other than being nice.
NS: [Laughs] Say more!
TL: I remember the first night you came to the workshop, the poem you brought—which I think was “War Catalogues” actually—just shot energy into the workshop too. Which is to say, each one of us brought everything that we had together.
NS: And we were wrestling with some intense stuff in our poems.
TL: And we were open enough to let ourselves wrestle with it.
Anyway! Thinking somewhat of that idea of openness, kind of going back to the first question: How did these poems change how you think of empathy?
NS: Empathy is a thing I have complicated feelings about as a concept, in part because these trainings were about mobilizing a manufactured empathy for a goal, which is, in wartime, to get useful operational information. So, I felt suspicious about empathy, because it was being used as a wartime tool. This was not real empathy or radical empathy, it was this instrumentalized empathy. I was doing a lot of self-questioning. What are the stakes? What are the risks involved in empathy, psychically or bodily? This idea of stepping into someone else’s shoes—really, how far is that taking us? So I feel suspicious about that. In “Human Technology” I talk about this, “enough of this emptied word ‘empathy.’ / Ask for more: for rage. For love.” So I’m more interested in that.
TL: And I guess that’s the book, contending with how love can undo the technology of empathy.
NS: Love is really important in the book. The speaker is wrestling with looking for love, but it’s also love as the naked openness and care that we meet the world with. Tenderness. How do we love the world well? How do we love people well in it? How do we let people be whole rather than turn them into entities that we use and get something out of? Is it possible to strip instrumentality? How about friendship? Can we have a pure encounter where we’re not trying to get something? And then we’re just seeking connection and warmth and true reciprocity, where we actually want to know the other person and be known, and take the risks inherent in that mutual knowing. It’s hard to be open and be known. How far do people open usually? Maybe to your partner, you open in that way, or maybe to your brother, and maybe to two friends you’ve known for twenty years. But what would it mean to sit across the table from someone and be really open? That’s a challenge. And it’s also a challenge to not fall into scripts. How do I, even in being asked questions about Kill Class, not fall into a script of a prior self-speaking? Because it’s easier. And I answered some of your questions in that way, because I knew the answer, because I’ve said them before. But the problem with that is it’s not interesting to me. If I’ve said it before, I’m not making a discovery. So, I guess the challenge, and the courage, is—how to shake yourself out of a script and connect.