Leah Silvieus is the author of three poetry collections, most recently, Arabilis (Sundress Publications 2019), and is the co-editor with Lee Herrick of The World I Leave You: An Anthology of Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit (Orison Books 2020). She is a Kundiman fellow, holds degrees from Whitworth University and the University of Miami, and is currently studying literature and religion at Yale Divinity School.
Ansley Moon: I’m always interested in how a book comes into the world. When did you know that you were writing a book? And, did Arabilis start as the chapbook Season of Dares? What is the biggest difference between your second chapbook and your full-length collection?
Leah Silvieus: I don’t think I ever really felt as if I were writing a book. The poems came slowly, over a period of about a decade, and I thought that the poems in my chapbooks and the new poems I was writing had little to do with each other. It was only after Margaret Bashaar, my editor at Hyacinth Girl Press (who published my first chapbook, Anemochory), nominated me for Sundress Publications’s open reading period that I began to look at all of these poems as a potential collection and saw the thematic throughlines that drew them together: desire and loss. While my chapbooks were an effort to witness loss and longing, I think Arabilis is an effort to ask the questions, What happens next? Given what’s happened, what do we do? How do we survive?
AM: Arabilis begins with an invocation. Who or what did you imagine invoking? Why start here, were you asking permission?
LS: The invocation that begins the book is a cento, made up of lines and phrases from the other poems in the collection, and although that poem begins the book, it was one of the last poems that I wrote—so in that way, it is a beginning, a uniting thread, and an end to the collection. I feel as I was invoking the spirits of past selves and the spirit of memory, if there is such a thing. In a way, I think it was less about asking permission as giving it, to revisit personal history, to try to make sense of it, to re-envision it in some ways.
AM: What major inspirations did you find while writing your book? Or, if your book had a soundtrack, what music would be included?
LS: As far as literary influences go: Jericho Brown’s The New Testament, Essy Stone’s What It Done to Us, Chen Chen’s self-portrait poems, Carl Phillips’s Speak Low, Jennifer Chang’s “Dorothy Wordsworth,” and Traci Brimhall’s Rookery. Several of the poems are drawn from the experiences I had while I was working on a farm/estate in Maryland. Living and working close to the earth in that time re-connected me with memories of my rural childhood.
AM: Both this book and your chapbook, Season of Dares, have gorgeous covers. Congratulations! How did the covers progress? Were you involved in the process of designing your book cover?
LS: I had a specific image in mind for Season of Dares, that of a little girl playing with fire (which I feel like really encapsulated the themes I was working with in the collection). I scoured the internet for an image that fit, but couldn’t find anything that felt right. Then, one day I was visiting my grandmother in the nursing home and going through old photos, when I found one of her as a little girl playing with a firework in the yard—something that invoked danger, courage, and maybe a little mischief. I immediately knew it was the one. I sent the photo to my editors at Bull City, and they agreed. I had a similar experience with Arabilis; I imagined a cover image that was feminine, strange or surreal in some way, and had something to do with plants or flowers. I spent one night down a rabbit hole on Instagram searching for images, and I happened to find the work of the South African artist Janelia Mould; as soon as I saw her piece, “To Nurture,” I knew it was the one. Even the title was perfect, and in some ways, a response to Season of Dares and the kinds of violence it was grappling with.
AM: In a previous interview, you wrote about beginning the collection with summer. What does summer evoke for you? Conversely, the book ends with spring. What does spring evoke?
LS: Growing up in the mountains, summer always felt dangerous to me. My father was a wildland firefighter and would spend most summers traveling around the country fighting fires, first digging line and then later, as an Incident Commander. Summer to me was fire season, a season of danger—temperatures often soared into the 90s and 100s (we had no air conditioning), and in Montana, the skies would turn apocalyptic red, the air would be thick with smoke, and we could see the flames on the ridges of the mountains surrounding our valley. When I was 10, 14 elite firefighters called hotshots (some who were from a town just down the highway from where we lived), were killed in the South Canyon Fire in Colorado. I remember watching the story on the news and their deaths haunted me for the rest of my childhood and even now. To me, spring has always been a fraught season as well—its promises of renewal are often accompanied by a kind of volatile uncertainty: I often think of William Carlos Williams’s “By the Road to the Contagious Hospital”: “They enter the new world naked, / cold, uncertain of all / save that they enter.”
AM: Much of your work explores spirituality. Jericho Brown wrote that “Arabilis is a book that champions the idea of poetry as prayer.” Is this what you intended? What role does spirituality play in your work?
LS: Prayer runs through my work in several different ways—in that in my poems, like in prayer, I am often speaking to something unseen, sometimes petitioning for a witness, sometimes asking for forgiveness—and I also think it suffuses my work prosodically. I think I learned a lot about poetic language through the language of prayer in the Baptist and Pentecostal churches I grew up in—both in terms of the mixture of high and low diction and the cadences and dynamics of the “music” of prayer that surrounded me as a child.
AM: In addition, you, along with Lee Herrick, are editing an anthology of Asian American writing and spirituality. Tell me about that process. How did this anthology come to be?
LS: A few years ago, I was looking for a collection of contemporary Asian American poets’ work about faith and spirituality for a project. I found anthologies of Asian American poetry and poetry about faith and religion but none that connected the two. I was also trying to figure out what faith meant to me and wanted to read poets who were dealing with faith, spirituality, and religion as a way of navigating that. I started to think, although such an anthology doesn’t exist, what if we made one? I was fortunate that my poet friend, Lee Herrick, agreed to come on board as co-editor. The anthology is broader and richer than I could have imagined when we first set out—we have poets from all stages in their careers who represent a variety of faith practices, cultures, and geographical regions. The project was a huge undertaking, but it has been nourishing and revitalizing every step of the way.
AM: You and I met for the first time at Kundiman’s poetry retreat in 2012. I believe that we had both just finished up our MFA programs. When we met, I remember that we bonded over both being adoptees. I also remember you saying then that you didn’t write about your adoption. Do you think that something changed, or do you think that you were always writing, in some way, about adoption?
LS: I think that you’re right; I’ve always been writing about adoption in some form or another—or, if not adoption itself, then the loss and longing that I’ve felt as an adoptee.
AM: This might be a bit of a stretch, but many of the poems in Arabilis examine the relationship between the human world and the animal world. In many of these poems, the humans are inflicting a type of violence on the animals, or are privy to the vulnerable lives of these animals. I cannot help but make the connection between the animals and adoptees.
LS: That is so interesting! I hadn’t seen the connection with adoption until now that you point it out, but I do think that the poems were a way for me to engage with violence, vulnerability, and power in a wider sense as well.
AM: As an adoptee, what do you wish that people, who might not be adopted, understood better about adoptees? Why?
LS: Adoptees have a wide range of experiences and thoughts/feelings about adoption, and we need space to tell our own stories.
AM: You and I are part of an intense and top secret group chat and not so secret adoptee group. What has been gratifying about this group?
LS: As an adoptee, chosen family has been so important to me. We’re all writers and support each other in our writing process, which is great, but it also feels empowering to know that whatever losses we’ve experienced in our biological or adoptive families, we can choose each other and are chosen by each other as family.
AM: Much of your work covers vastly different areas, the Midwest, Korea, etc., but still feels reflective of the place from the food to the animals, to the landscape. How does place play into your writing?
LS: My work has always felt grounded in place. I’ve always felt torn between a deep longing for a place that felt like home and the desire to keep moving, to not become too attached to anywhere. I think that tension has fostered a more acute attention to place and what aspects of a place (as you mention: food, landscape, animal life, etc.) might also symbolize.
AM: Now that you’ve published your debut collection, what are you working on now?
LS: In addition to continuing to write and to edit, I’m starting a masters program this fall at Yale focusing on religion and literature.
AM: One of the things that I admire about you as a writer is not only your ability to craft a gorgeous poem, but also to write critically about poetry. In fact, congratulations on receiving the National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critics Fellowship! What will this process include, and what are you looking forward to?
LS: Thanks so much! It’s a one-year fellowship program that entails active mentorship from NBCC members. I started writing reviews when I was feeling in a rut about my own writing and wanted to pursue ways of reading more intentionally and deeply. Since then, writing (and now editing) reviews has been an active part of my writing process; the practice not only exposes me to writers and writing that I might not otherwise encounter but also is a way of connecting to the greater social, cultural, and political conversations that literature incites and fosters.