K. Iver is a nonbinary trans poet born in Mississippi. Their book Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco won the 2022 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry from Milkweed Editions. Their poems have appeared in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. Iver is the 2021-2022 Ronald Wallace Fellow for Poetry at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. They have a Ph.D. in Poetry from Florida State University. For more, visit kleeiver.com.
Vi Khi Nao is the author of seven poetry collections and of the short story collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture (winner of the 2016 FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize) and the novel, Swimming with Dead Stars. Her poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. Her book, Suicide: the Autoimmune Disorder of the Psyche is out of 11:11 in Spring 2023. The Fall 2019 fellow at the Black Mountain Institute, her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. She was the 2022 recipient of the Jim Duggins, PhD Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize. https://www.vikhinao.com
VI KHI NAO: I tried to insert your book cover into this Clip Interrogator to see if AI would help me with interview questions via prompts. But it has been running for almost an hour now, still only looking like this:
IVER: Wow! Thank you for bringing more people to the party. That’s ok! We’re enough! I want to say that I’ve been excited about talking with you, and excitement isn’t an energy I often run on. Your book was expansive for me! I’d like to start with the title: Suicide: An Autoimmune Disorder of the Psyche. It seemed like a neverending allergy to life. Would you say the psyche’s immune system, for this narrator, is fighting alongside survival?
VKN: It looks like the party doesn’t want to party with us. I have been in a dormant state of lethargy. The air here in Iowa is full of water and reading your work, a sadness that is not born from existential despair, fills your words with water for me. It snowed when I first read your book and when I reread it for the second time, it was on the verge of storming. What is the best weather/season to read your work? I was comparing the autoimmune-ness of my thyroid issues with my psyche’s autoimmune system—how it attacks itself. My desire for death is an endless project of deexistence.
KI: I was glad that Short Film came out in January, when the Midwest is the harshest. The cold here has become a kind of higher power for me, always snapping me into my body while also mirroring cycles of grief, and sometimes despair. I think it’s fitting that first readers can encounter a book about grief in winter, and the January 10th pub day helped me release it a little more. I cried most of that day and the day after. I didn’t expect to feel, finally, as if Missy were really gone. It was the funeral I’d always wanted for him, but a funeral nonetheless. I’m glad it was cold and cloudy as that happened.
VKN: When I was young, I witnessed a hungry man tearing another man’s ear from his face. My publisher wanted Suicide to come out in the vicinity of January 10th because it is considered the saddest/most depressing day out of the year. My best friend, Ali, suggested 3.14, to match (obviously) its mathematical pi-frame of existence. Speaking of the pub date of your book as a funeral, is it possible that Short Film is the carcass or the casket or neither? With the book’s ultra white background, the image that comes to my mind is of the wind, how it flosses the bones, its teeth through water and rain and grief. Your work reminds me of Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay. How grief turns everything we write into debris, as fugacious sylphs. Just before you arrived here, I was rereading from your page 38, “I drive an earless cat home from the highway.”
KI: That essay was very influential on my book, especially the poem “Who Is This Grief For?” I’m glad you used the word “carcass.” I want the memory I’m rebuilding to feel embodied to the reader, so that the loss is painful to them. Which can make it easy to forget that what I’m talking about is a memory of a body, not a body. The body is no longer. Its remains have been under patchy grass for sixteen years. There’s no justice for Missy’s body. That’s not what I’m trying to redeem here.
VKN: I love that too—how you echoed that again, in reverse, on page 16 of your book, “Missy, this is our last frame. Body is the only good word for body.” I noticed your frequent use of the word “body,” and I wondered, if I were to do a word search, how many times it is used to convey its absence/Missy’s absence. We repeat things to echolocate or echo-locate where that body has metaphorically traveled through us.
KI: I love that I’m able to talk about grief with someone who’s been writing about the struggle to survive, a struggle I also know well. In a recent panel at AWP, I talked about the fact that the idea of survival-for-survival’s sake is cultural and is something to interrogate. Your book talks about the struggle to survive, a daily death wish, as a fact of your life. Can you talk about the book’s steering away from explaining it, the why, the underneath?
VKN: There isn’t that much explanation. I think pain shapes the infrastructure of that desire. I had open heart surgery—my second within approximately three years—this past January, ten days after the birth of your book. I experienced the most intense pain. After they cut my sternum in half and pulled me apart. After tolerating all of that, the sacrifice, in my mind’s eyes, isn’t to exist, but to have the opportunity to self-dissolve. It’s not easy to die. I don’t believe in leading a tortuous life. I’m not designed to be a martyr or saint. You write in “April 25, 2020”: “Yesterday, your bones turned 39. / Three days ago, mine turned 38.” It makes me think of marriage. Two lines, two tombstones, lying in the cemetery of a book. One line, still there, one deceased, having an annual conversation with one another, counting the page of their bone or bone density/destiny and having the same conversation over and over. Does your grief impede your intimacy with your current/past/future lovers? Does death stand in the doorway of your life, counting his fingers, tapping his toes, marching to and fro—
KI: Another heart surgery! I’m sorry that you have been in that much pain. I hope it’s the last one for you. “Hope.” That’s another idea that Suicide seems to challenge. I’ve heard often that we can’t live without hope, but millennials are reported to be running low. A passage in your book that resonated with me was describing the phenomenon that great things can happen while one has given up all hope. Can you talk more about that?
VKN: I was referring to the famous stockbroker, Jesse Livermore, who believes that hope is greed. It’s a financial market term but I think it also applies, in general, to quotidian, non-fiscal, emotional existences. Investors who hope that the stock will go up, especially companies who are on the verge of bankruptcy. This type of hope is born not from hope, but from greed. Whenever I release any attachment (where hope becomes a walking verb) to an outcome—the sincerest act of de-greeding—good things do come. The good things are the elevated state of courage to tackle avoidance, confronting reality head on, and the ultimate release of control: the letting-go part, the most beautiful part. As such, in this context, it is its most authentic definition & the only true facial expression of hope. What is your relationship with it?
KI: This is refreshing to hear. So many people I know get uncomfortable when I challenge the idea of trafficking in hope, but I haven’t trusted it for a long time. I wrote the line from Short Film, “Already, hope sounds like / the adult word for magic” almost ten years ago, and have been thinking it for longer.
VKN: What is your favorite poem from your collection? Or when you read your work out loud, what poem(s) of yours click with the audience the most? I experience this quite often—the poem(s) I love do not often share impulses with consumers of my work.
KI: I’m always surprised at what an audience loves. They love to hear “For Missy Who Never Got His New Name” and “Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Living Body.” If I had to pick a favorite, it’s probably the book’s final poem, “Because You Can’t,” partly because I wrote it in a dangerously hopeful place. But in that place, I could access joy, excitement, and the benefits of a life Missy would have wanted for me.
VKN: What dangerously hopeful place is that?
KI: It was dangerously hopeful because it was building on a fantasy. Weeks later, I suffered from a life-threatening reality intrusion, one that opened every wound from Short Film. This is partly why I drew comfort from your conversation about hope in Suicide. From December 2021 to the middle of 2022, I was fighting to stay. I was fighting the urge to die in a way that I hadn’t since high school. In the middle of February, I submitted Short Film to Milkweed thinking winning the submission contest was a pipe dream, while going through the motions of having some kind of—self worth? Drive? It’s hard to say. But I felt like a personification of your paragraph about losing hope.
VKN: What life-threatening reality intrusion is that? What wound was that? What broke you?
KI: An important backdrop to “Because You Can’t” is that the lover in that poem was my first trans friend since Missy. When I met him, I didn’t even have a lot of queer community. He was someone I’d admired long before we met, someone who represented everything I’d wanted for Missy: complete freedom. Subconsciously, he also represented that for myself. The power differential was dangerous, probably unethical. For me, the connection was blissful until the very end, when my consent was denied—in every way it could be—and he disappeared, avoiding accountability. Someone I talked to every day for nine months decided I wasn’t worth a conversation. That’s a very old wound for me. I think my friends thought I’d be alright after a few weeks, but I kept waking up thinking it was 1997, that Missy was alive and had disappeared and I must have done something to cause it, I must have been unlovable in some way. The part of the hippocampus that believed all of it was still happening—an infrequently discussed part of grief—was the loudest. I was no longer watching the film from a safe distance. I was inside.
VKN: I am sorry you went through such depths of pain! If you were able to have that conversation with the friend who violated you, what would that conversation look like? And, though it was against your will to be inside of that film, what wisdom has emerged out of you being on fire?
KI: Days after he summarily broke up with me over text, I started writing a letter. And during my first stay in a psych ward since 1997, the stay that appears in Short Film, I kept writing it. The letter articulated some of the ways that his actions were cruel, but it also apologized for defending my personhood—for having stood up to him for the first and only time—before his breakup text. I regret sending the letter while still in a fawning state. Now, if he had the ego strength to face me, I would ask what happened, from start to finish, what his intentions were from start to finish. I would say, If this is how you can leave a connection, what is the connection for? I would challenge his capitalist vocabulary and ask what it would have cost him to talk to me. I would listen for a cost outside of his own discomfort. I would say, Here is what silence cost me. And I’d tell him, without punishment or blame. I would tell him that my consent has been denied by people to whom I hadn’t formed attachments and my recovery was much more resilient. I’ve never had this experience with someone I actively desired, continued to desire. I continued to desire him. I missed someone willing to inflict great harm. I’d never wish that confusion on anyone. I would ask what all of it must be like for him.
I learned, after this experience, that there are fewer things that can stop me now. I reject the premise of stories about resilience and getting stronger after going through something impossible. But I think this experience might have been a homeopathic remedy—the wound was there and was probably going to open sooner or later. It forced me to look at these younger selves who consciously didn’t care about their father’s attention but must have split off from the ones who did, because I kept abandoning myself to his archetypal representations, to people who had no container for love. I wonder if one of those inner children might have died in this experience: I kept having dreams that my friend had dropped his own baby, born premature, and I had to watch the life leave its eyes. It’s important to acknowledge when something dies, to call attention to those fairy-tale questions: what died in you, what lives in you, what lives in you now?
VKN: I have experienced that silence you spoke of. Of being ghosted. Eventually she told a friend that she wanted us to be friends again, but I informed her friend to tell her “No.” It was the most empowering gesture. How do we take our power back when it has been taken from us either through volition or chance?
KI: I’ve been doing it through poetry. I was talking to a writer recently about her sexual assault, and she said it’s difficult for her to access anger toward her assailant because, “Think about it. I have the space to talk about it. He doesn’t.” A magazine is about to publish a poem that allowed me to ask for my consent back. I couldn’t get angry until writing that line. I love how poems, like friends, are angry when we can’t be. I’m sorry you were ghosted. That she expressed the desire to be friends again shows how impulsive and careless it is, how anti-community care ghosting an attachment can be.
VKN: I recognized the gesture/request as another type of ghost. She didn’t contact me directly. She went through a friend. And I didn’t want to be involved in another type of ghostness.
KI: Yeah, it sounds manipulative at best. I’m glad you could access your own power from that refusal.
VKN: I want you to feel empowered. There are many pathways to that door. I always tell myself: I can always self-erase, self-obliterate, self-dissolve. I don’t have to re-blue-pencil myself for existence’s sake. And it keeps the anxiety of being at bay—for the time being.
KI: Thank you. This conversation is nurturing for me in unexpected ways. It’s easy to forget the ways one has power. Your book engages its structure with the pi number, and throughout, I thought of the seeming foreverness of the narrator’s death drive. The paragraphs are numbered accordingly and the text ends with possible motivations for staying: human connection. But the decision to stay, the power, still seems left to the narrator. And it ends with pages of more numbers. Can you talk about the relationship between numerical endlessness and pain, if there is one?
VKN: I am happy that poetry is there/here for you. It may seem insignificant—this word you used—this one simple word—taken out of context and in isolation—the word “pine.” To quote you from page seven: “You’ve risen from the pine floor / and pulled me up,” but I thought more about that pine tree more than the floor. About how we rise and how we are being pulled up by the past too. I wanted readers to continue. Thus, the blank paces to do so. The opportunity to participate. The numbers will also outlive me. I am just a chair, you know, sculpted for life to sit on. There is no remedy or exit out of it. I feel that death guarantees that exit, but what if it doesn’t? While numbers and pain are endless, I am not. Death, the great equalizer. Suicide is such a vulnerable book and numbers are often not seen that way: as an intimate, fragile beast. The dichotomy and juxtaposition is sharp, and that rawness is available for anyone who is ready to meet me, especially at the intersection between ethics and chance, and possibly curiosity.