The next fearless poet to be featured is Eugenia Leigh! Here’s another honey badger who will be riding the wave of this summer’s Honey Badgers Don’t Give a B**k Tour. I am endlessly excited to showcase Eugenia’s work and go on an epic book adventure with her. Not only is her work full of the kind of vitality, toughness, heartbreak, and faith that begets the most devastating poetry, Eugenia is an amazing spirit and fantastic reader.
Eugenia Leigh is the author of Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows (Four Way Books, 2014). The recipient of fellowships and awards from Poets & Writers Magazine, Kundiman, Rattle, and the Asian American Literary Review, Eugenia serves as the Poetry Editor of Kartika Review. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is currently a doctoral candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In the following poem “We Called it the Year of Birthing”, Leigh begins with a story of making, of genesis: “God handed me a trash bag bloated with feathers. Turn this/into a bird, he said…And make with this,/ a new father.” From the beginning, we understand that what God is asking of the speaker is painfully inconceivable. It is up to the speaker to rise up to the request—to turn brave, to pick up shards, her own traumas being “sordid with similar beaten people”. To turn these fragments, these wrecked objects—feathers and bolts and nails—into something whole and human, requires a kind of alchemy.
But magically, forcefully, the next stanza turns, creating its own poetic alchemy: “Others of us—/the stubborn, unbreakable humans—weld our wounds/to form tools. Then we spend our days/mending bent humans or wiping the humans/mired by all the wrong fingerprints.” This poem is not a poem about merely facing the past. This poem is not a poem about merely pain. This poem is about the courage it takes to collect the darkest scrap, the vestiges from one’s history, the raw spaces, and heal them by re-making, re-building, re-birthing—the speaker and the speakers are agents of creation rather than decimation, reclamation rather than repudiation. At the end of the poem, we are rewarded with a moment of absolute wonder: “The morning the first baby was born in our circle of friends,/ we hovered over this child who, unlike us,/ was born whole.” The thrill and triumph of this line is not without its acknowledgment that the baby born into this new family is “unlike us”. This poem moves from the impossible to the miraculous in four short stanzas. Be on the lookout for Eugenia Leigh’s forthcoming collection from Four Way Books, Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows!
We Called It the Year of Birthing
God handed me a trash bag bloated with feathers. Turn this
into a bird, he said. He threw me a bowl of nails. And make with this,
a new father. God gave some people
whole birds. Readymade fathers with no loose bolts.
The rest of us received crude nests. Used mothers.
I banged the nails into two planks of wood
and marched around a church screaming, Father, father
until friends appeared, hammering
the scraps they were given to make something of themselves.
When beaten hard enough, some people scamper into corners
sordid with similar beaten people. Others of us—
the stubborn, unbreakable humans—weld our wounds
to form tools. Then we spend our days
mending bent humans or wiping the humans
mired by all the wrong fingerprints.
The morning the first baby was born in our circle of friends,
we hovered over this child who, unlike us,
was born whole. You were given a good mother, we said. A good father.
Each one of us prayed. We scrubbed our soiled hands
before we held his swaddled body.
first appeared in PANK
In the words of Angry Asian Man, who are you? What are you all about?
I am a poet and question asker who believes in miracles and believes in you. I am the friend you call when the world is skeptical of your latest, looniest dream. My favorite kind of human is the kind who was almost crushed, but came out the other side with a laugh and a giant middle finger toward the hell that almost claimed her.
Tell me about your current or most recent project. How did you transform it from its genesis to its current form?
Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows, my first collection of poetry, will be published by Four Way Books this October. It is not the book I intended to write, but it’s the one that needed to be written.
I credit my “guardian angel poet” Laure-Anne Bosselaar for honing in on the first poem I wrote about my father and encouraging me to explore that narrative. As a close-minded young poet resistant to becoming “another poet writing about her fractured family,” however, I stayed in the mud of bad poems hiding in extravagant metaphors for many months before resigning to the idea that Laure-Anne might be right. The story I needed to tell might be my personal history after all.
It wasn’t until Marie Howe then gave the assignment to write a poem about “where I come from” in a litany devoid of metaphors or my other literary crutches that I started to tell the truth as brazenly as I could manage. I wrote those first poems six years ago, and I don’t know whether I could write them now. I hope to honor that younger poet by presenting this book to the world with fervent intention and without any apologies.
Tell me what you get excited about, in terms of your poetry and your work. What have you discovered in the process of shaping and forming your manuscript(s)? What has shaped, challenged, or invigorated your poetic practice?
I love the secrets poets embed into their line breaks and wonky forms. I believe every tiny revision a poet makes will change the poem’s overall impact a hundredfold. This might be because I err on the side of finding meaning in everything—not only in poetry, but also in life—and I love poetry because every word and break and white space is infused with meaning. My favorite part of the practice is discovering what the physical shape of a poem or the sound of a poem might be trying to say, and then laboring to bring out that hidden layer as much as possible.
Who are your influences? If you could map a poetic lineage, how would it look? Or the opposite: whose work do you admire and come back to, but contrasts from your own work?
The Bible was my first exposure to poetry—not only the Psalms, but also much of the prophetic books, which are also part of the Jewish Tanakh. Religious scriptural texts truly are the original experimental, cross-genre masterpieces. The book of Genesis, for example, tells two creation stories, and in the first of the two, the narrative is written entirely in prose until God creates humans. Then suddenly, injected into that first prose chapter, we see three surprising lines of poetry to describe the way God creates humans, as if to say that’s how well crafted we are.
How anyone could mistake this piece of art for a scientific account baffles me. It sounds to me like this story was written to help us rewrite how we perceive ourselves and perceive the world around us. That’s both the magic and the danger of powerful writing: it can reshape our worldview.
The first contemporary poets I fell in love with were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I was 13 years old and drawn to their ruthless honesty and their pains because this was the age I first began to struggle with my own will to live. I do often wonder, however, how much of my personal worldview and my own style of writing at that young age were influenced by their words.
What is one thing that you desire to say as a poet, but haven’t said yet? What does the future hold for you, if you could hold it?
I am more comfortable writing about violence, death, pain, and rampant brokenness, but I am interested in what it looks like to write also about renewal and redemption in a way that isn’t saccharine and stays true to our struggles. How does a poem shake the humans and demand that we all have hope without being preachy? Or should we dare to do that at all?
For a long time, I believed an artist’s most important job is to report what we see and know with unflinching truthfulness. But what if an artist’s job is also to challenge what we see and know by imagining possibilities beyond our present realities? Maybe this is a conclusion the better and wiser poets have already come to, but I am only now coming to them myself. The learning process begins with writing terrible poems about positive things, which I’m attempting to do lately.