A Conversation with Nomi Stone
By Laura Liu
Nomi Stone is a poet and an anthropologist. Her second collection of poems, Kill Class is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2019. Winner of a 2018 Pushcart Prize, Stone’s poems appear recently in POETRY Magazine, American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Best American Poetry, Tin House, New England Review, and elsewhere. Kill Class is based on two years of fieldwork she conducted within war trainings in mock Middle Eastern villages erected by the US military across America. Stone has an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College and teaches anthropology at Princeton University.
I was fortunate enough to sit down and ask Nomi some questions. Read on for the result!
Laura Liu, Interviewer: To begin, how did you first come to write poetry? Are there any people or experiences that influenced you in your development?
Nomi Stone, Poet: When I was two years old, I began carrying around a magnetic refrigerator letter, a green W. It is a funny, iconic story that my parents tell: the first whiff of intuition that words might be important to me. My parents had to purchase repeated sets to get a new green W every time it was lost. I began collecting words when I was tiny: my mother tells stories of how when I was three years old, I would toddle around issuing long monologues with words and phrases I had just learned, translucent curtains, and that I was often more interested in sound than in sense.
As soon as I could write, I began keeping a notebook of words that delighted me. And I have been writing actual poems since I was six years old. When I was small, my father would leave poems under my pillow (I especially remember the Whitman and Sandburg), and we would read them together in the morning. So there it was, the sparks of Whitman’s “to touch my person to someone else’s is about as much as I can stand,” and the muscles of Sandburg’s Chicago, a city “laughing with white teeth.” These early encounters with image glowed over my synapses and woke me up.
LL: Currently, you are a post-doctorate research fellow in Anthropology at Princeton, and are also writing a book on war. What do you find most fulfilling about your pursuit of anthropology? How have you found it to enrich your pursuit of writing?
NS: My philosophy of seeing as a poet is strongly inflected by the anthropologist’s mandate: to make the familiar strange and the strange, familiar. In that helix of estrangement and de-estrangement, I think that the poem, through the tools of syntax and sonics and the like, can recompose the body’s experience.
Ultimately, becoming an anthropologist was a huge gift to my poems: a way to think hard about war in the 21st century, and the role of the lyric, documentary poem in speaking about it. Both drawing on the outside (real life) and summoning readers in, the double movement of the documentary poem “constantly courts its own collapse” according to Philip Metres. I am interested in the vertigo of this experiment, working to ethically render the dark work of history and politics on the body in an era of American Empire. Getting a PhD in anthropology gave me 7 years to read first about culture and politics, and then narrow eventually into questions of war, militarism, and violence. I spent over two of those years doing fieldwork between the Middle East and America, researching war and interviewing those whose lives have been demarcated and unmade by it. I’ve written in multiple ways about this research: academic articles (in Cultural Anthropology and American Ethnologist) and my ethnography (the book on war that you mention) is a now a finalist for the University of California Press’s Atelier Book Series. But ultimately, it is Kill Class, the collection of poems, which matters most to me: a book-length, bewildered song about Empire and what it has wrought.
LL: Your forthcoming collection of poetry, Kill Class (Tupelo Press, 2019), is based on your observations of mock Middle Eastern villages in U.S. military bases. What inspired you to conduct these observations, and how did the experience of reflecting on and articulating them most surprise you? What was the greatest challenge you faced in the drafting of Kill Class?
NS: Kill Class emerges out of a very long trajectory in my life, a time made up of thinking a lot about nation and home and (un) belonging and longing. My first collection of poems, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly 2008) is about both my own relationship to home, as well as to faith and ritual, and my fieldwork within one of the oldest Jewish communities in North Africa —which is said to have arrived on the island of Djerba carrying a single stone from the destroyed Babylonian Temple in 586 BC. Muriel Rukeyser dreams that a poem might “extend the document”: this book is a chronicle of one community’s ghosts as they were narrated to me, and my own ghosts as an American Jewish woman who has intermittently lived in the Arab and Muslim world for a large portion of her adult life. Tracing the Djerban Jewish community’s lamentation rituals not only over their dead, but over land and home, I wrestled with my own understandings of place and borders, nation and community. Kill Class brought these wonderings of mine about home and belonging into more friction with questions of violence, power, and complicity: a meditation on America.
The entire arc, from research to reflection to writing, continuously surprised and challenged me.
The project began when I cold-called dozens of military bases across the United States to ask if I could observe trainings in their mock Middle Eastern villages. No one obliged me until I encountered a public affairs officer who was so charmed, upon googling me, to discover that I am a poet (he was too), that he said he would do everything he could to get me in. That was maybe the first surprise. One of the great research challenges I faced was my own uneasy border location: an anthropologist-in-training insisting on independence, constantly dodging the attempts of military personnel to secure my professional advice on how to improve the simulations. Never have I been more aware or ashamed of anthropology’s thorny history in assisting colonial governments and military engagements.
Writing Kill Class created other challenges: how to represent the simulations in a poem? The mock villages were so uncanny: collapsible houses full of prayer rugs and fake bullets; a lit market and mosque glowing in the forest, a recorded call to prayer, fake wounds applied on the chest of an Iraqi role-player who was nearly killed a decade ago when he worked as an interpreter for the US military in (actual) Iraq. Fake explosions pop through the village, creating different effects within different bodies. The body recoils, the body breathes, seeking release, the body laughs: these rhythms were only possible within a poem. Kill Class was seeking the right structure and syntax for awhile: I wanted to conjure for the reader the truly asphyxiating the space of the fictional country, “Pineland.” The book is full of long lines and fragmentation, and it has a has a recursive structure: there are multiple sections, where you keep driving out of the war game to a Motel outside, and then driving back in, over and over again. There is a dizzy undertow to those pines; even if you leave, you can’t return.
LL: Switching gears a bit, some argue that this is the best time to be an emerging poet, while others argue that it’s more difficult than ever to break through societal barriers. Do you have any advice for such writers, either for those who know writing is their passion and/or those who are still deciding?
NS: I advise young writers to, most of all, read voraciously: as much contemporary poetry as possible, but also, become a pupil of much earlier work. Read John Donne’s sonnets for his precision, metrical irregularity, and his wielding of paradox, awe and blasphemy—“he will never be chaste unless God ravish me.” And then read Terrance’s Hayes sonnets, “part music box, part meat,” and feel breathless over the movement of the form over time. Read Gerard Manley Hopkins for his sonics: they are somersaulting and jubilant and terrible. And then read Jenny Johnson’s In Full Velvet, its virtuosic command of sound, its lyric tumbling. Read Emily Dickinson for the gaps, the spaces between one thought and the next, and then read Jorie Graham. And read craft texts: God I wish someone had put some Ellen Bryant Voigt or Jim Longenbach in my hands when I was 19 years old.
LL: You have quite the international experience, having academically engaged with the Middle East, North Africa, and France. What connections have you drawn between these three areas and their writings, and how do you find these different cultures have influenced the continuous development of your own writing?
NS: When I was a child, I fell in love with the French language. I had read this quote from Charlemagne, “To have a second language is to possess a second soul,” and I wrote it on my wall behind my bed; I loved this idea of soul-enlargement. On it went: I went to a French immersion camp over the summers where we had to sing songs conjugating verbs, well-suited to my nerdy temperament. The counselor, who I had a crush on, called me Mademoiselle La Dictionnaire, because I was such a word-collector. Learning French enlarged these possibilities (if not my soul, etc.). In college, I became a French literature and Creative Writing double major. But, then, soon after I encountered Francophone literature, and thereby: North Africa, colonialism, and questions of power. I went to Morocco to study Arabic immediately thereafter and then I moved to Tunisia. By this point, I was increasingly interested in questions of power and then, over time, war and Empire. I moved to Jordan and spent time interviewing Iraqi refugees, and falling in love with that particular dialect of Arabic. When I began to study the military, it had its own strange language: the airless compression of acronyms, the strange-to-me use of left and right to indicate boundaries (left and right limits) and temporality (left of the war), as well as just space. I realize I have slightly derailed this question, focusing on the doors that these different languages opened in my life. It was always language first for me; I’m also deeply interested in the cultures and literatures of these areas.
LL: Finally, what books or poems have you read recently that had an impact on you? What about them has kept them in your mind?
NS: I’ve recently been thinking about a world-making or world-unmaking impulse in a book. I just read Claire Wahmanholm’s gorgeous apocalyptic book Wilder, and I keep thinking about it in tandem with Inger Christiansen’s book Alphabet. Christiansen uses the Fibonacci sequence to build the world out of a void (“apricots exist, apricots exist”), a sort of cauldron that begins with the elements and spirals outward into all things, from cicadas and doves to death, destruction, love, and tenderness. Wahmanholm’s book uses something like an inverse logic: many of the poems are achingly sparse and then amidst this, there are these strange, lush, sinister, alphabet poems: but just a scattering of them: B and D and G and on, little prose poems heavy with alliteration and consonance, in each you’re inside that particular letter: “D is for dragon and damsel, diamond and diadem. For deciduous/ woods, their dropping leaves. For dew and the dewclaws of deer.” But as we read the book we increasingly realize there are only a handful of these letters; the rest of the alphabet (world) has blown away.
Laura Liu is a senior at Conestoga High School, and has been writing her entire life. As an editor for her school's literary magazine, The Folio, she is always looking for ways to help herself and her peers develop mastery and voice in writing.
Laura is a 2019 Merit Award Winner for Writing (Poetry) from the National YoungArts Foundation, and has won top prizes in competitions such as the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) Student Contest, and the Central League Writing Contest. She was also published in NFSPS' annual poetry anthology, Encore, in 2017.
Header Image: Nomi Stone