"You Have to Pause": An Interview with Heather Nagami

Heather Nagami is a Kundiman fellow and the author of Hostile (Chax Press). Her poems have recently appeared in Zocalo Magazine and The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide. She was a finalist for the 2015 Rita Dove Poetry Prize.

Her poems, "For What It's Worth" and "Courtesy of Strangers," appeared in Issue Eighty-One of The Collagist. 

In this interview, she speaks with interviewer Victoria DiMartino about the challenge of revision, the importance of wildlife and nature’s current state as inspiration, and stopping to pauce and reflect on the moment.

This poem is centered in a very specific place. From the details we can gather, the narrator is out west in a desert state. How did you write this poem? Did you find inspiration from the setting first or did the poem stem out of an experience similar to the one mentioned in the poem?

I began by writing about a situation I experienced, but as I developed the poem, I came to understand that its greater meaning stemmed from living in the Arizona desert, which offered the privilege of continual interactions with wildlife yet also made me increasingly worried for the situation of the local animals and plants.

The line “You have to pause, lift / your foot off the gas, stare / as she stares back, waiting” really caught my attention. This is one example of how the language is not only crisp and clear, but well thought out. Would you like to speak to the way you created this particular scene in the poem and how you developed the language that went into it?

The words themselves came pretty quickly; however, I went through many revisions of the line breaks and stanza breaks. With that second stanza in particular, I wanted to slow down the pace to mimic the poem’s plot—when the driver’s eyes meet the coyote’s eyes, that moment of negotiation between human and wildlife—and also to create a moment of reflection for the reader. Placing line breaks after each verb seemed most appropriate to reflect this pause, this feeling of holding one’s breath. I’d hoped the slower pace would signify the importance of the next lines, a look into a future that sends the driver on her merry way as the coyote focuses on her family’s survival.

Your poem conveys simplicity; not much occurs except an exchange between strangers. The piece is short and dense even with the crisp language I spoke of before. How did you go about developing a piece that was very centered in the present moment while still be conscious of all the other elements that are surrounding that moment?

Revising this poem was quite a challenge because I didn’t have a clear vision of the big picture at first. With most of my poems, I begin with an idea, and then the writing is all about finding the appropriate framework in which to house it. This poem, however, originated from that present moment you mention, and my initial revisions (e.g. splitting the poem into five stanzas for visual symmetry, adding superfluous details) seem haphazard when I look back on them now because they did not reflect the epicenter of the poem’s tension: my own anxiety about the state of Arizona’s wildlife and my feelings of guilt for living in an area that encroached upon the space of countless creatures who had resided there long before I had ever moved in. Once I understood the impetus for this poem, I was able to cut unnecessary lines and split stanzas in a way that enhanced the underlying meaning.

Is there a book that you’ve read more than once that you read when you need inspiration or comfort?

Yes. I read Li-Young Lee’s Book of My Nights.

Have you written anything lately that you’d like to share?

I recently finished writing a poem whose ideas had plagued my mind for over twenty years. After finally discovering the appropriate framework for them, I spent about five years writing the poem and revising it. It’s a serial poem that employs the language of standardized tests, grammar rules, and literary concepts to analyze the psychological impact of sexual assault and rape culture. It was a healing experience to write it, and I hope fellow survivors will find it healing to read. It’s called “Easy Grammar,” and it was published in Berkeley Poetry Review, Issue 48. It can be found online here: https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~bpr/48th-issue/.