Writing in an Embodied Fashion: An Interview with Jill Khoury

We at The Booth couldn’t be more excited that Jill Khoury’s first full-length book, Suites for the Modern Dancer, will be published by Sundress Publications in 2016. Khoury, poet and editor of Rogue Agent, made her Pushcart Prize nominated appearance in Hermeneutic Chaos with “::Grief:Hunger”, a staccato, gnomic piece with a sharp eye on the poetically visual. More information about her and her impressive body of work can be found at jillkhoury.com.

Gritty

-Interview by Olivia Olson

1.One of the aspects of your poetry that I admire most is the way you set beautiful images within a sorrowful tone. What is it about that aesthetic that is important to you?  

I very much enjoy unexpected juxtapositions and linguistic risks, while still keeping an emotional core in the work. Although I’ve been writing poetry seriously for over half my life, it’s only in the last three years I feel I’ve really come into my own in regard to finding my authentic voice. A draft of a poem starts to feel “real” to me when it accomplishes this contrast you mention.

2.Your work is often quite visual. What do you think poetry gains by being influenced by visual art?

[I think it’s worth it to note the simultaneous existence of the fact that I’m legally blind. I would say the ironic existence, but to me it’s not ironic.] It’s important to have a conversation across media. Poetry gains something by being influenced by every kind of art—music, film, dance, as well as visual art. I am a mixed media artist on a nonprofessional level. The perspective is nonverbal. It’s color and line, it’s tactile, it’s movement. When I need to be nonverbal and still create, this mode is there for me. To communicate a feeling that hits you before words come to mind to describe it—that’s what visual art does, and music too. I think everything is to be gained when you put different art forms in conversation. The inspiration can feel infinite.

3.What about disability poetics interests you particularly? What have you learned in writing about disability and the body?

Well, since I am a poet with multiple disabilities, disability poetics in some way feels like the history and ars poetica of my people. Besides that, I am interested in the calling-into-question of the normal and the normalized. The acknowledgment of our universality as vulnerable and changing bodies, and how this is an asset to the work rather than a hindrance. Disability poetics embraces risk and change. I’ve learned that writing in an embodied fashion often brings out strong emotion in people. It can make people uncomfortable. It can cause people to dismiss your work. It can elicit tears of joy in the audience. The poetry of the body inspires connection.

4.Your first full-length collection is coming out next year. What was the process of compiling that collection like?

Endless. I wanted to tell a story of myself and of women like me that I have met, but I had no idea how to do it when I began the process. Women who wind up often in a liminal state, a dangerous state, an extreme state, a marginal state, and become sensationalized often by the artistic gaze. I wanted to write us authentically. I did the best I could, and I hope it will be well-received.

5.Did you have a poem that surprised you particularly in the collection? Or, did you have one that was especially challenging for you? 

So an editor that I hired to consult on the manuscript asked me to write, essentially, the origin story of my blindness. She said that such a poem was necessary for the book, and I agreed. But I’m not a narrative poet, nor do I particularly like to make meaning straightforwardly. I needed the poem to be somewhat extradimensional to really represent the experience as I had internalized it. I was kind of dumbfounded to start, and then the pressure of having this assignment sort of evoked a poem from me. About a month ago it was published in Copper Nickel alongside some poems by Martha Collins, and I literally cried.

6.Did you start writing differently when you began teaching? Did you start seeing your own poems differently when you began editing Rogue Agent?

It depends which kind of teaching. When I taught comp as an adjunct, I wrote nothing. Student papers strained my physical and mental resources to the limit. I have no idea how I published a chapbook during those years. When I work with community writing groups doing more overtly creative kinds of work where the focus is on the generative process as well as product—that tends to fuel my drive to write. I will often do prompts and assignments along with students. Reading every submission that comes in to Rogue Agent has definitely changed how I perceive my own poems as I am in the process of submitting them.

7.How do you make sure that your poems never get stale or stuck in a rut? 

I have so many projects going on at once that I haven’t had time to think about the possibility of my writing becoming stagnant. I hope this continues.

8.Do you have any books/journals/poets that you’d like to recommend?

Oh my gosh, the list could be so long! How about ten books? These are not all super-recent titles, but I’ve read them all fairly recently and they’ve taught me something or inspired my own creative process in some way. I’m interested in storytelling and world-making that doesn’t employ the traditional narrative poem structure, and most of these books do that.

Girl Show by Kristy Bowen.

Blood Medals by Claudia Cortese.

Wunderkammer by Cynthia Cruz.

Last Psalm at Sea Level by Meg Day.

Exodus in X-Minor by Fox Frazier-Foley.

The Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn

Wolf Centos by Simone Muench.

The Dead Girls Speak in Unison by Danielle Pafunda.

Striven, the Bright Treatise by Jeff Pethybridge.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine.

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