“Piss on the Sheets”: An Interview with Natalie Eilbert
I cried a little bit while reading Swan Feast. Some of it was just I like you a lot and you wrote something so good! But also because you wrote about being a woman experiencing and trying to process big deep emotions. What advice would you give a writer who’s trying to balance emotion and meaning and image?
I’m going to tell a story before I give any advice, so bear with me. I began writing Swan Feast when I was experiencing heartbreak simultaneous to danger in my own body. In grad school, I made the mistake of falling in love and, honestly, the love I thought I had for previous partners was a water cracker compared to the tremendous feast of that love. It was also an extremely unhealthy love—lucky me, isn’t that how this shit always goes—and the power dynamic was very troubling. To call the power play in that relationship dynamic might suggest that there was a wrestling with balance, a way of reconciling and then defying equilibrium in the space of those feelings. But I was so deep inside the relationship that I couldn’t budge in any direction. I don’t think dynamism played a part in that stuckness.
One weekend, I traveled home to my parents’ house to help move all of my grandma’s belongings from her large house to a smaller house. That became how I understood slow death in real time—the possessions you gathered over a lifetime and the home in which you have carefully placed these items start to be given away so that we can move into a smaller home, and then into a smaller home, and all the while your body is shaking under the weight of its matter until it finally buckles and even that home, the body, needs to be given away. So I came home to move my grandma’s sense of place into an elsewhere we were all unsettled by. She was by all means Hoarder Lite—no 60-pound stack of carcasses in her attic but, because she was a college professor and kept every single student paper and outdated science textbook in her possession, she had a paper trail dating back to the 70s—and so while cleaning out her basement, I came upon my Grandpa Leo’s very old art anthology.
I never met him, though there is a very famous ghost story in my family about the night he died and how he visited both my mother and brother to say goodbye. I get bristly when I tell this story to skeptics, despite being an atheist myself. But this art anthology was in bad shape. Coffee stains from before I was alive marked the pages. Whether by accident or intention, the anthology was dogeared on the “Venus” of Willendorf. At that time, I was licking the wounds of my break up and found myself in a reeling cycle with anorexia, a word I hate to utter. My hair would fall out randomly and I couldn’t sit on hard surfaces without an uncomfortable pinch from my bones. If you’ve ever seen the “Venus” of Willendorf, she’s about 4 inches tall and buxom buxom buxom. Her creator is unknown though there were thousands of versions of her found in Europe and Asia. People wanted to depict the body and they wanted to depict the woman’s body. That’s how all this started—someone had an idea about how a woman’s body should be and that notion just picked up speed until it became convention. I considered that. I began to communicate with her—and I am not sure in all this when she became a her—until her fatty presence gained momentum in my poems and I finally picked up a fork and then a spoon and then a knife. In a way, her bodily insistence relieved the burden of my own.
This is a roundabout way of telling you that I don’t have advice that isn’t to imbue your life with the experience of images. But about that, I am so glad I never got the WCW quote, “No idea but in things” tattooed on my body because I’ve since revised my stance. I never touched the figurine or saw it in any three-dimensional plane, but when it became she, she saved my life. For women, it isn’t enough to have an idea about our objective space, because our objective space has always been one imposed on our bodies. We watch brown bodies shot dead and raped in the streets and some artists have the gall to say this is poetry of witness, but it is yet one more way to remove the person from the idea, to say that their pain is a concept from which to move an artistic and/or rhetorical direction. My advice is to reconsider what balance means because, likely, that balance needs to be toppled. You might need to slip on the spill to know the bucket’s been kicked on its side. And when that happens, split lipped and swearing, can you really take your pain of emotional experience to a greater vision. But then you must trouble that vision. You need to let yourself be messy and then neat and then you need to piss on those satin sheets.
One of my favorite poems from this collection is “Galaxy Meat.” I think it’s the I’m over this shit tone. And I’m drawn to that because even when writing, I feel like a lot of people, when on the page a woman doesn’t write like a lady (genteel, glossing over emotion, beautifully hurt, but never filled with rage), there’s a don’t you know what you’re supposed to be? Don’t you understand your poems and stories should be easier? If you were tasked with creating an anthology of female writers to fight against that perception of having to write with manners, who would you include?
This is a great question. “Galaxy Meat” was one of the last poems in the collection I wrote and you’re absolutely correct—I was over this shit. But I wasn’t just over the shit of the workshop setting, a problematic atmosphere in its own right and one that I’ll get to in a moment. The poem had smelled its own pits—the entire stink of the book—and was calling bullshit. Now that you know the entire history of this book making, and the eloquent way I’ve decided to deal with the matter of manners, this was my piss-on-the-satin poem. People describe my book as an ekphrastic, in conversation with the “Venus” of Willendorf. Much in the way I have never understood the term “found” poetry (what isn’t found?), the notion of ekphrastic makes me giggle because everything is a surface from which to write. My friend, the fantastic poet Morgan Parker, and I are in Vermont this weekend at another friend’s cabin (hi Molly Rose Quinn), and we went through her family’s DVD collection, put on the 2005 movie The Family Stone, and free-wrote poems with a bottle of wine. What about that is not ekphrastic? It’s an awful movie—don’t watch it. Or do. Swan Feast, though, was getting precious, or it was being painted in a precious way because of this term ekphrasis. I was fed up with the idea of what made a poem “pretty” or “gorgeous” or “beautiful.” It felt so paternalistic. Meanwhile, I would watch every day how poems written by men had a deft muscular urgency, an intelligence more aquiline and capitalized than “that’s so brill.” So the poem served as a massive side eye to all that.
In terms of whom I would include in my anthology about messing shit up, oh boy. Morgan Parker would be part of that list absolutely. Claudia Rankine. Feng Sun Chen. Cathy Park Hong. Angel Nafis. Monica McClure. Lara Glenum. Aase Berg. Athena Farrokhzad. Khadijah Queen. Natalie Diaz. Simone White. LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs. Nikki Wallschlaeger. Carrie Lorig. Sara June Woods. Jennifer Tamayo. Montana Ray. Camonghne Felix. Nabila Lovelace. Aziza Barnes. Solmaz Sharif. Tory Dent. Bhanu Kapil. I could keep going. I love poets who disrupt the white noise and force heads to take a hard look at themselves. That’s the messiest thing you could do to a person, and you’ve gotta be rude about it.
Another thing you do really well is you use dreams not to distance a reader, but to actually add depth to character, moment. In your poem “The Limits of What We Can Do,” you wrote: “In my dream I wrote an article for Slate called “The Limits/of What We Can Do” in the face of annihilation/ and it was received well. I wake up nestled marked curled/like clickbait, a deep-sea fishing net…” What are some of your favorite uses of dream in any art (Books, art, movies,etc.)?
It’s funny that you should say that about my work. I never thought that I was very good at dream writing first of all, and second, I hate dream sequences in art with few exceptions. But I find dreams to be remarkably interesting when I interact with other humans regarding dreams, as it acts as a device for them to tell you something deeper without the pressure to speak of their vulnerabilities. It’s all there, encrypted. It is for this very use of device in art that I dislike it. Though there have been some important dream sequences for me. I think that all of Murakami’s books, for example, are dream sequences. I use this word eidetic a lot because I think the experience of reading poems is always always always eidetic. The images exist in this strange, topographical map and they are real or they are not real, but they are realer for their liminality. The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe is so eidetic to me. Abe said in that one “Loneliness was an unsatisfied thirst for illusion,” and I think about this all the time too, though it means something new to me each time I consider it. I’m going to say something outlandish regarding this answer, which is something I thank you for making me realizing: The act of reading is to be inside of someone else’s fixed dreams and our experience of reading afterwards, when we recall the images and emotions and scenes and, yes, loneliness, come from the same recall as any of our own dreams. In this way we are self-encrypting, which can be our greatest weapon against the drone of time. But also watch this dance performance by Sylvia Guillem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SS_WJmLGFrA
You’re also the Editor-in-Chief of The Atlas Review and the Editor of TAR. Why did you decide to found Atlas and branch out into releasing chapbooks?
I wanted to create a literary magazine on my own terms after watching too much nepotism in the community. Everyone who rubbed elbows with everyone else—those were the folks who ended up in the gatekeeping journals. So I wanted to invite writers who might not have been in any circle or scene into the fold by upholding an anonymous submission process. It was an exercise for me, to see at first whether or not those with catchy names were in fact offering the world with the creme de la creme. Of course this wasn’t true, and I wanted to find other names, in other places, in other stages and sentences of life. I did. It’s been great.
I decided to branch out into chapbooks when I realized I wanted to start paying contributors. I also love editing manuscripts and I find it’s just unfair to only work with one or two pieces of work by a writer whom you adore. I wanted the full immersion. Mike Lala’s In the Gun Cabinet is being printed very soon and I’m delighted by this, our inaugural chapbook in our inaugural chapbook year. I’m delighted by all the chapbooks coming out this year (yours included—oh my god you guys, I can’t wait. Check out Megan Giddings and stop reading this right now). I want to eventually take on larger projects and do more with the books we’re producing. I want to build communities where perhaps the community chose not to venture. The branching out is just one way we can branch out into other ventures that service writers and book enthusiasts. So far, so good.
What can a writer do in their first paragraph to impress you?
I want the air knocked out of me, but I want to figure out how to catch the air and force it back into my lungs before I’m finished. I like clean and simple sentences that are completely and utterly devastating, that astonish and infuriate and agitate. I want to be so bothered by what I just read that I keep going. I’m less impressed by a “painted scene” to begin with. I’m in Vermont staring at a meadow and it’s, eh, whatever. Challenge the frameworks of your genre. Be insane. Piss on the sheets. I like factories and processing plants and vestiges of our technological hubris. The world is dying, right, so tell me why it’s dying. Begin by answering a question or an argument (answer is incorrectly) and never tell us the question or argument. Why is any of this happening. Give me what I need to dream about your world.
About the Reader:
Natalie Eilbert is the author of the debut poetry collection, Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015). She is also the author of two chapbooks, Conversation with the Stone Wife (Bloof Books, 2014) and And I Shall Again Be Virtuous. (Big Lucks Books, 2014). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, jubilat, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. She is the founding editor of The Atlas Review.
About the Interviewer:
Megan Giddings was a former executive editor at SmokeLong Quarterly and a winner of the Kathy Fish Fellowship. Her chapbooks, Arcade Seventeen (TAR) and The Most Dangerous Game (The Lettered Streets Press) will be released Fall 2016. She has been anthologized in Best of the Net 2014 and in Best Small Fictions 2016. Her stories are forthcoming or have been recently published in Arts & Letters, Passages North, The Offing, Pleiades, and Black Warrior Review. You can learn more about her at www.megangiddings.com.