Long-Lasting Transformation

Aurora Nowak interviews
Nadia Alexis


Poetry co-editor Aurora Nowak recently had this exchange with Issue #47 featured poet Nadia Alexis. Here’s what Nadia had to say about how poetry can “give new language” to trauma and survival, how writing workshops can help to shape a piece, how photography informs her poetry, and more… 
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Poetry co-editor Aurora Nowak recently had this exchange with Issue #47 featured poet Nadia Alexis. Here’s what Nadia had to say about how poetry can “give new language” to trauma and survival, how writing workshops can help to shape a piece, how photography informs her poetry, and more.

Your poetry takes all sorts of shapes and patterns, figuratively and literally speaking: “Language” is a labyrinth within itself, “Thunder” is designed as a dictionary listing, and “Lament” spaces itself out for emphasis.  When first comped these poems, did you intend for each one to take the shape that it did? And why chose these forms?   Was it easy to compose or mold these pieces to their fitting form?

In those poems, I’m trying to explore ideas regarding love, lineage, and trauma. Part of that exploration process inevitably involved trying out different forms, shapes, and textures to move through journeys and arrive at destinations I hoped surprised me.“Language” was my attempt at writing a palindrome poem after reading Natasha Trethewey’s own version titled “Myth.” It was an assigned reading for a poetry workshop I took last semester and I fell in love with the leaps her poem took, how repetition helped me see and question truth, and how the poem made me think of the usefulness of folklore.

I’m a survivor of domestic violence and at some point in my life, I recognized it as something that can be cyclical. Growing up in a home where I witnessed it impacted in ways I never imagined. I also realized that the love languages parents teach their children are often ways of loving that they learned from their own parents. Considering this, I’ve tried to complicate narratives around the parent figures that appear in my poetry and lean into my fascination with how origin stories impact our life choices.

As far as “Thunder,” I’m drawn to definition poems because of how they allow room for defining and redefining. When it comes to topics like domestic abuse, as a victim there can be a difficulty in naming or defining, accepting the truth, making sense of violence, making sense of love, questioning one’s identity, and dealing with limiting definitions that other people project onto you in judgement. This is connected to an absence of power. So what does it look like to have the power to define things for yourself? I didn’t know “Thunder” was going to have a photograph incorporated into it when I sat down to draft itinitially but after several revisions, it felt like a natural addition and visual manifestation of the word.

“Lament” originally started off with a different title and the poem was one stanza without white spaces in the lines. After receiving feedback from a peer, I revised the poem to include the white spaces throughout. I wanted play with the idea of the form mirroring the fragmentation and dissociation that comes with what sexual and domestic violences do to the body. But I also hoped it spoke this idea of moving through time under the weight of the sayable and unsayable.

The speaker’s introduction to intimacy with the opposite sex was colored by violence and this is something she encounters again and again as she gets older. What does this say about the culture she is inhabiting? As far as the question of ease in making the poems, each and every one of these poems presented their own difficulties in the writing and revision process but they eventually arrived into the forms and iterations they wanted to be in.

Your poems address abuse and being with abusers. How do you think poetry helps people deal with these issues?

Abuse can be such an isolating, lonely, and oppressive experience that alters your life and thinking in enormous ways. Feelings of isolation, shame, and loneliness become more pronounced when you don’t feel like you have people around who you feel truly see you or who can relate because they’ve gone through what you’re going through. And sometimes what you’re going through is hard to put into words. I think poetry is one of the best artistic mediums for tackling this paradox. It can give new language to trauma and survival, help readers feel seen, provide imaginative spaces for moments of resistance and what it can mean to thrive in the aftermath of violence. It meant a lot to me to read poetry by others whose stories were spaces I could see pieces of myself and I really appreciated when they were being inventive in terms of form and the content of the works. Surviving abuse and building a new life in the aftermath is a tremendous amount of work and the journey looks different for everyone. In a culture that can be hostile to victims and survivors, I’m grateful that poetry can exist as a safe space, an art form that can encourage others to tell their own stories, and see themselves differently. But while poetry can be a meaningful part of one’s healing journey it shouldn’t be considered a replacement for therapy and long term healing work is where deep, long-lasting transformation happens. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my amazing Black woman therapist.

We are living in the era of the rise of feminism.  Your poem “Knees” is a phenomenal example of inspiring women to be powerful and independent.  “Give the knees voice to remind her of the voice she stuffed in the folds of forgotten favorite dresses.”  What is the grand message to convey in this poem?    

Thank you. In the poem, I was thinking a lot about daughterhood and power in the face of violence. What it means to be a daughter who grew up watching her mother be abused by her husband and then follows in her mother’s footsteps when she ends up in a long-term abusive relationship with a boyfriend herself. She leaves the boyfriend and experiences certain freedoms she longs for her mother to experience through leaving her husband which the reader never sees happen. So I’m thinking through some questions. What is the daughter’s responsibility to her mother? What does it mean to be free? Who was the mother before the abuse and what might she have loved or longed for? Of course, these things are complicated. And a 30-year marriage is different than a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship that lasted a few years. What they share in common is how difficult it can be to leave whether that’s because of fear for your life or another reason. I wanted to explore the difficulty and possibility of leaving from the perspective of a daughter who is desperate for a different reality. I hope to suggest that part of the leaving requires a return to self and the possibilities for creating a new life for oneself and one’s children are numerous. Ultimately, it’s never too late to reclaim your life.

As we mentioned before, we admired how “Thunder” was made out to be an excerpt out of a dictionary.  Would you be willing to comment on the image you provided for this poem?

I made the photograph while out in the woods on a camping trip with friends in upstate New York some years ago. As I mentioned before, I didn’t know the photograph would be used in a poem one day but I knew I wanted to capture a sense of life and loss in the image. One thing I love about hybrid poems that incorporate visual art within them is having the chance to examine ways the text and image are in conversation with each other. What additional thread does the image? How is it related to the said or the unsaid? I think a master of this is visual artist-poet Monica Ong. Reading Silent Anatomies, her book of hybrid-image poems gave me permission to try bring my poet and photographer selves together on the page.

As well as being an educator and poet, you are also a photographer.  Have you ever written any poetry about the subject of your photographs?  Or visa-versa, have you ever been inspired to photograph a subject related to your poetry?

I would say that the poetry here in issue #47 and other poems in my full-length poetry manuscript are directly related to a lot of the photographs I’ve made. While I wouldn’t say I have written ekphrasis poems based on my own photographs I’d say there are two photography series that contain photographs that thematically concerned with some of the same themes I explore in those poems. I have an ongoing family photos series that I’ve been working on for over five years wherein I’m documenting my family as well as the Harlem apartment and neighborhood I was born and I grew up in. These include portraits but also a focus on the physical spaces we inhabit and how they impact us. The other series titled, What Endures examines what it means to move through and survive violence against Black women’s bodies and spirits. That series is primarily made up of self-portraits and images of my mother in a natural landscape, where similar to the man-made world things live and die. I do think I’m inspired to photograph subjects related to what I write about in my poetry. For instance, I’m all about Black women thriving in real life and existing in new ways in photographs. They happen to be my favorite subject to photograph. However, I also make photographs that aren’t directly related. On top of a full graduate course load, I’m currently taking an online independent photography workshop that’s focused on combining text and image in photography. The weekly assignments are calling me to step outside of my existing photography projects but still honor my obsessions and my desire to make visual art that feels personal to me.

Many of the lines and scenes from your poem “Lament” remind me of moments and lines from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues (i.e “home in hands of grass” and “sinking in floodwater.”)   Did any of those monologues provide inspiration for this poem?

Oh, that’s really interesting! I remember attending The Vagina Monologues performances in college and I always admired those women for getting up there to perform in ways I was too shy to do. None of those monologues inspired the poem directly. I stopped writing poetry in college but luckily returned to it within a couple of years after graduating. However, I believe every time a woman stands in her truth unapologetically pushing back against patriarchal violence and repression it does make it a little easier for others to do the same. Among my greatest inspirations are Black women who have spoken their truths through writing and visual art. Mahogany L. Browne’s poetry collection Redbone, which is based on her single mother’s experiences with domestic violence and a daughter’s as witness is one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

“Aubade After the Storm” is almost like an escape, but with allusions of suffering.  The implication of after the storm implies safety, yet words like “wounded rooster” and “gauze after drawing blood” are woven into this work.  Would you agree this poem is about wanting to return to the known, but the known is bad for you?  Or is there another theme in mind?  

When a relationship with someone ends it’s normal for you to miss the good times. Those things are familiar and they were probably sources of comfort despite the bad times whether it was an abusive relationship or not. One of the complicated things about no longer being in an abusive relationship is how you deal with the inevitable occurrence of you missing the person. You may feel shame about this or judge yourself for missing them. You may also be shamed by others who judge you for missing them as if it’s the pain and abuse you miss. Of course, that isn’t what you miss at all. I’m trying to explore the complexity of that a bit. It’s less about wanting to be in the relationship again and more about normal phases you experience after it ends and you are moving forward in your healing journey on a path that may feel unfamiliar.

When it comes to workshopping your creations, what have been some of your favorite moments?  What were some times where it was hard to adjust to critiques?  

One of my favorite moments is one of my friends and former classmates in the MFA workshop was able to identify how I was attempting to use water imagery as a device in my poems. He also noticed that there was a consistent concern with the notion of ‘someday’ in my poetry, not just a longing for it but a belief that it would come. This not only helped me on a craft level but it was encouraging to hear someone get what you were doing while also illuminating another thing you hadn’t thought as deeply about but that you felt deeply in your spirit. I think challenging moments in workshops have included people just giving feedback that praises the work by calling it powerful and courageous. Even though that type of feedback is well-meaning, at this stage of my writing journey it doesn’t really help me make the poem better or understand what’s working or not working within it.

One of the times it was hard to adjust to critique is when I workshopped “Aubade After the Storm” and someone (or maybe it was a couple of folks?) suggested I remove the use of the word “abuser” from the poem and replace it with a concrete image. I ended up ignoring that suggestion because it felt critical that the term abuser be used in that particular poem. I was trying to lean into the power of naming and I believed I would lose a lot to go with the suggestion of making it a metaphor instead. Somethings just need to be said plainly. 

I’ve only workshopped one hybrid poem that had two photographs in it and I found some of the feedback helpful while other feedback wasn’t. Since I was newer to experimenting in this way, I ended up deciding just to keep experimenting with image and text on my own rather than bringing it into workshops unless there who were making those kinds of poems as well. This may not be a perfect solution but that’s what worked for me.

Finally, I think workshopping poems based on trauma you’ve experienced can be challenging because of how it can feel like you’re exposing yourself and there may be an ounce of being retriggered. But it helps me to remember that I’m writing these poems and seeking feedback with the hope that they will help me shape the poems into their best forms so that the people who need to read them will.

By Nadia Alexis

Nadia Alexis is a poet, photographer, and organizer born in Harlem, New York City to Haitian immigrants. Her poetry has been published in The American Poetry Journal, Texas Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Her photography has been published in fields magazine, TORCH Journal, and MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora. She has received poetry fellowships from the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop and The Watering Hole, as well as a visual arts fellowship from the The Carr Center Independent Scholars Fellowship program. Her photographs have been shown in several exhibitions in the U.S. and Cuba. She is currently a creative writing Ph.D. student at the University of Mississippi where she also earned her MFA.