NA: Tell me about the title. When did it come to you?
NS: At the last minute. First, the title was Looking for Lima Beans then The Idea of Bread then St. Lucy’s Eyes . . . These titles are from poems in the book. They are moments, important moments, but Because I Did Not Die made the most sense since it is every moment. The title poem is near the center of the manuscript, and it binds the thematic threads that intersect in many of the poems.
NA: Many of the poems in the book speak about your experience with addiction, prostitution, shame, recovery. Reading it, I wanted to rush out onto the street and take you into a shelter. How was it, writing the book?
NS: I want to rush out on the street and save that version of me, too. I did rush out on the street and save me, with a lot of help that is.
I needed to write these poems. You know the saying: Write what you know and write what you love. I know destruction and I love(d) drugs and alcohol.
My addiction will always rear its head in my work.
Many of the qualities and symptoms of addiction have become my strengths in sobriety, in my writing. It takes a lot of energy to survive as an active alcoholic/addict and when I finally stopped using and got sober, it was like a speeding train that screeched to a halt when the cargo flies off the overhead shelves.
NA: I love that image. Can you elaborate?
NS: When I stopped poisoning my body, my inner-self hadn’t caught on that this change was happening. But I had to learn and re-learn how to be a civilized, responsible human being.
I was thirteen when I started using drugs and alcohol.
I started writing these poems when I was ten years sober; in sober-time this means I was about twenty-three years old. My addiction stunted my growth (spiritual, emotional, and intellectual).
NA: What was it like—writing about these experiences?
NS: Writing these poems allowed me to let go as well as identify and embrace the pain; in a way, writing these poems allowed me to show up for myself and to not forget what happened. Not forgetting is important, but so is moving on and growing. I have moved on to new subjects, new ideas, new perspectives, new experiences, and new poems since finishing this book.
NA: There’s no blaming or self pity in your poetry. No sentimentality. In poems like “The Things I Want to Believe,” you actually wish you had someone to blame. You possess a kind of brutal honesty, which does not allow you, I am guessing here, to take poetic license with the facts of your life?
NS: I do actually take poetic license when I write about my past. I don’t change the truth about the past, but sometimes I can’t quite remember all the details or facts. I always seem to have a sort of emotional, spiritual, sensual memory. What happened, what it used to be like, and what it’s like now are kind of like three different states of mind that I tend to do a sort of dance with. Revisiting what happened, what actually took place is like reentering a state of mind that doesn’t fully exist anymore—it is like showing up to an empty room (that I’ve been in before) full of shadows, but there’s nothing actually there to cast the shadows now; they exist from a previous life.
What it used to be like is an act of reaching through memory and in this act memories are like flies or gnats swirling around. Sometimes one gets in my mouth or eye, other times they don’t touch me at all. What it is like now is current, it is a state of transformation.
Sometimes the poems capture the emptiness of that metaphorical room, sometimes they enter the shadows; sometimes they try to escape the room; some of the poems revisit the past and can’t quite reach it, and through the act of memory they transform what happened into what is happening in the poem(s).
I do wish I had someone to blame, but the reality is that there is no one to blame. I search for places to put the pain down for a little while. In a way it sits on a chair next to me. It’s there, and it’s mine, but I don’t need to carry it around inside of me anymore. Self-blame would lead to more destruction, and I work to not self-destruct. Blame leads to resentments and I choose, every day, not to take the poison; resentments are poison.
NA: You have this very sweet poem, “Ode to Maria,” about Maria Mazziotti Gilan. I know we’ve talked about how grateful we are to our mentors, including our mutual mentor, David Lehman. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the influence David and Maria have had on your work.
NS: David (my poetry dad) and Maria (my poetry mom) have given me permission to leap, skip, and jump, to say, to tell, to be, to name/identify, to reach. David gave me a prompt back in 2007: write a poem entitled Bitch. If I recall correctly, I was full of fear at the time, and I masked my fear with anger. This bitch prompt helped me confront my anger, and at the time anger was interfering with my writing. The prompt gave me permission to have fun, too. I’ve been writing bitch poems ever since. I love the bitch. Many of us have been accused of bitching, of being a bitch, of bitch moments, of bitch expressions, of bitch actions . . . I stopped thinking about bitch as female, as something that I needed to hide or keep a secret. I have a poem in the book called, “Bitches on the Roof,” that apostrophizes the bitch.
Maria encouraged me to sit with my truth for longer periods of time. On days when I have courage I am capable of channeling the bitch and the truth. In fact, today I just taught a poetry class in the Cumberland County Prison in Pennsylvania, I sat at a table with ten women and we shaped poems into bitches and truths into poems.
Maria and David’s work continues to teach and mentor so many of us; their interactions with their students and the larger literary community reach so many of us and for that I am grateful.
NA: Binghamton or Johnson City (I am assuming Johnson City is a suburb of Binghamton) is like a character in the book. Tell me about your relationship to Binghamton.
NS: Yes, Johnson City is a small town that borders Binghamton in upstate New York. My great grandparents immigrated to this area from Italy; there used to be a shoe factory here called Endicott-Johnson. My great grandparents and my paternal grandfather got off the boat at Ellis Island and said which way to E-J.
Johnson City, Endicott, and Binghamton are part of the Triple Cities in Broome County and the E-J shoe factory sponsored a form of welfare capitalism that provided homes, parks, and social programming to its workers. My great grandparents worked at E-J’s and my mother worked there when she was in high school. The factory thrived in the mid to late 20th century. By the time I was in high school, there was only a skeleton of the factory.
I was a hoodlum when I was a kid; I climbed up the sides of the vacant factory buildings and jumped on and off of train cars as they passed the old factory yard. A part of me died on the streets of the Triple Cities, and when I go back to visit now, I see my ghost, I see foot pedal singer sewing machines in antique shops—probably the same machines that my great grandmother used—I see someone else’s reflection in the empty storefront windows on Main Street. To walk on the streets of a place and be in the past and present simultaneously is a surreal experience: the poems breathe this.
In the hills of Endicott, New York, there was a densely populated Italian neighborhood where my great grandparents lived. I remember lush gardens and grape vines when I visited as a little kid. Endicott is the home of IBM, too. Many of my family members worked at IBM; working for IBM was an opportunity not to pass up. Unfortunately, IBM polluted the land, moved out of the area, and there is nothing to replace the jobs it offered. Endicott has emptied out—I emptied out too—and I don’t think the economy can or will ever fully recover. It’s another small rundown factory town like so many towns in our country.
NA: Didn’t you start a poetry project in Binghamton?
NS: Yes, I started The Binghamton Poetry Project in 2010 when I moved back to pursue my PhD at Binghamton University. This was an incredible experience and opportunity to give back to a community in need. It all started with a phone call to the Broome County Public Library. I asked if I could hold poetry workshops in their space, and they said yes. Next thing I knew I was running workshops for little kids one night a week and workshops for adults on another night. I eventually asked my peers at the university to teach workshops and then started applying for grants. One thing led to the next, and I was publishing a bi-annual anthology that showcased the work produced by our participants…
The Binghamton Poetry Project has received funding and support from The Broome County Arts Council United Cultural Fund, the Chenango Arts Council (made possible by NYSCA), Binghamton University, and it is housed under the Binghamton Center for Writers. The Binghamton Poetry Project also brought workshops to the YWCA and underserved teens at the Boys & Girls Club in Endicott, NY. Since moving away from Binghamton in 2014 the project has been passed on to a wonderful poet and friend, Abby Murray. After she moved back to the west coast after completing her degree, the project was put in the hands of another wonderful poet and student at BU, Heather Dorn. Both Abby and Heather have added so much to the community of voices; they’ve continued the bi-annual publication; they’ve extended the workshops into new venues like the Veterans Center. The project is thriving, thanks to everyone’s willingness to make poetry a priority.
NA: I also admire the poems about you and your beautiful wife, Deanna. I especially like “Another Ending,” in which you write:
“A handsome man next to us/ asked if we were sisters. Then, the woman at the café/ asked if we were sisters. This is when I wanted/ to grab you by the neck and kiss you hard.”
How often do you get asked that question? How is it, being a lesbian couple in rural PA?
NS: Constantly. When we lived in NYC we must have been asked if we were sisters at least once a week. My answer was always different. Sometimes the answer was yes, sometimes no, sometimes a blank stare and a grunt, sometimes I’d turn to Deanna and repeat the question, sometimes I’d repeat it back to the person or say something like, you mean, you and me, no, we just met.
On the one hand, rural PA is surprisingly gayer than I expected. In other words, there is a LGBTQ community here. On the other hand, we’ve experienced discrimination here.
I am a white female wearing a wedding band sitting at a Starbucks on a college campus in central Pennsylvania. I am privileged. Right now, at this very moment, I blend into my environment as a married woman in a diverse college community. But, I shouldn’t have to blend in. When I go home later, I worry that my neighbors notice me and my wife. I think they are confused that there is not a man and a woman living next door. I recently shared two stories with the editors over at The Tishman Review about two specific interactions that took place here in PA. The first interaction was when we moved here last year. There were men working on our rental house, and one of them asked me where my husband was—he was flirtatious. It was as if he was trying to find out if I would be living in this big house alone. My response was my husband gets here tomorrow. He is on a business trip. I said this out of fear. I felt like that if he knew my wife was that other woman carrying boxes that he would treat us differently. The second experience happened at a dog boarding facility. The place is wonderful, and the people are kind and generous. It took us a couple of months before we were considered regulars. We’d often drop off and pick up our dog together. Then, our routine shifted. One evening when Deanna was picking up our dog, Luca, the woman asked if the other woman that’s usually with her was her sister. Deanna said, oh, that’s my wife. The woman’s response: oh, well, look at you just saying it like that. People like you make great pet owners. She was sincere and nice and in a way it was a kind sentiment, but, people like you, really?
NA: The cover image for Because I Did Not Die is from a drawing by Deanna. Could you say a few words about her art? Does her artwork ever influence your poetry? Do you ever work together?
NS: Deanna did a study of the Japanese red lantern plant, and she generated a series of charcoal and pastel drawings. This series is comprised of eight drawings and the one on the cover is the sixth in the series; the composition is inspired by Carvaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath. I love all the drawings in the series, but there is something about this one—it pulls me into the center where the two subjects almost touch. The plant’s skeleton, its papery covering, its veins, and the rich orange-red color of the husk illuminate against the black background and the content of the book connects to the associative representation of subjects surrounded darkness, yet the subjects are not consumed or weighed down by this darkness.
When the red lantern plant matures, it turns orange, and when it is young and unripe its green and the fruit is poisonous. Transformation and survival: I get it. The arrangement of the orange husks in the drawing look like they are falling, well, one is falling and the other is reaching. And both expose their fruit. I think I see all of this when I just glance at the drawing, plus I know what it is like to expose my fruit, to reach for survival, to have blackness in the background, to be positioned in a way that represents another world (Caravaggio’s painting) where the heat of conflict is a decapitation of the mind, eyes, and voice, or in Caravaggio’s painting the head of Goliath that is said to be a self-portrait of the artist.
Deanna and I don’t work together; rather, we work side by side. We are in conversation with one another about our work and we probably influence each other more than we realize. Deanna’s process is inspiring. When there is a large piece of paper taped to a wall in our house for a month, I get to see the lines come to life; this gives me permission to create, too. Simply witnessing white space transform is inspiring.
NA: I would be remiss if I didn’t add that you are also a very witty poet. I was thinking we might close the interview with one of your humorous poems. Maybe “Just in Case We Get a Divorce”?
NS: Yes, of course. Here it is:
Just in Case We Ever Get a Divorce
She was a beautiful bride
although her face didn’t look the same
as it did in the advertisement.
When she arrived in the mail,
after I washed the ink off her forehead,
I knew she’d be perfect for the job.
I ordered her with no intentions
of getting a new pair of boots,
but the mail order bride company
threw in a freebee.
I love boots;
there are about twenty pairs
in the back of my closet
covering a pile of mysteries.
I toss them there in the middle of the night
just in case we ever get a divorce.
Nicole Santalucia is the author of Because I Did Not Die (Bordighera Press, 2015). She is a recipient of the 2014 Ruby Irene Poetry Chapbook Prize from Arcadia Magazine for Driving Yourself to Jail in July and the 2015 Edna St. Vincent Millay Poetry Prize from the Tishman Review. She received a Creative Writing Fellowship from the Marion Clayton Link Endowment, a Chancellor’s Award and a Council Foundation Award for Service from Binghamton University. Her non-fiction and poetry have appeared in publications such asRadar Poetry, The Cincinnati Review, Paterson Literary Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, 2 Bridges Review, Bayou Magazine, Gertrude, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment,and So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art. She currently teaches at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and brings poetry workshops into the Cumberland County Prison.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books, most recently Why God Is a Woman (Boa). Others includeThe Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in A Vacuum? She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Find out more about Nin here. Follow Nin on Twitter @AndrewsNin .