Ellen Bass Interviews Danusha Laméris About BONFIRE OPERA

Danusha Laméris’ first book, The Moons of August (Autumn House, 2014), was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye as the winner of the Autumn House Press poetry prize. Some of her poems have been published in The Best American Poetry, The New York Times, The American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, and Tin House. She’s the author of Bonfire Opera (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pitt Poetry Series, 2020), and the recipient of this year’s Lucille Clifton Legacy Award. Danusha teaches poetry independently, and is the 2018-2020 Poet Laureate of Santa Cruz County, California.


Ellen Bass: Our books of poetry are entering the world in a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes. What other events—personal or historical—shaped the writing of your book, and how does the current moment make you read or think about your own book differently?

Danusha Laméris: The book begins with a poem that references the fall of Empire: the collapse of the Soviet Union, and how that event bled into my experience growing up in Berkeley, California. And, like my first book, it rests on burial ground. So there is collapse, there is grief, but also a lot of desire. A lot of moments of ecstasy, of aliveness within that frame. I find parallels in the current situation of sheltering at home and reading the daily death toll, seeing the images of police violence, while also planting radishes and watching them grow a little each day. Food has never been such a sacrament for me as it is now. Pleasure is sharpened and made acute by sorrow. Not that there is balance, there. Just that they both present, layered. 

EB: Right now, it seems as if people are turning to poems more than ever. What single poem from your book—or what theme or quality that runs through the book—would you most like to offer readers in this moment? Why?  

DL: I wrote the poem, “Small Kindnesses” in the days surrounding the last inauguration, when there was a heavy sentiment in the air. I dashed it off in maybe ten minutes, and posted it online, thinking we could all use a momentary refuge. From there it has taken on a life of its own. Sometimes people write to let me know that reading the poem is part of their morning practice. Or that, for example, it was being shared in Italy in the early days of lockdown. The idea of the poem is that, despite the greater cruelties, “mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.” I think that assumption of basic goodness is one we need now more than ever. And beyond that, I am moved when readers let me know that they have stepped out of their comfort zone and taken the risk to reach out to a stranger when they otherwise might not have. In many ways, the poem was a gift—one that appeared at the right moment. 

EB: What do you miss most about, or what has felt like the biggest loss of, not being able to            share the book in person, through travel and doing readings, and are there ways you are finding to counteract that loss? 

DL: Oh—the poets! I love meeting other poets and getting to share our weird world made of language and line breaks. I miss dinners with poets I love, and poets I’ve never met! And there is something sacred about the quiet that falls over a room of listeners at a reading, a way of breathing together. I miss that, too. 

EB: What’s a question you would want to be asked about your new book, and how would you answer it? 

DL: Well, I think it’s interesting to discuss who the poems are in conversation with. I like what Craig Morgan Teicher said in his book, We Begin in Gladness: “A poem is something that can’t otherwise be said addressed to someone who can’t otherwise hear it.” It is, by that definition, a failed communication. Or at risk of being a failed communication. And yet, such delicious failure. In these poems, I am speaking to my dead brother. To my younger self. To my dead son. To the coyotes that live on the hill behind my house. I am talking to poets whose work has carved a path for me: Lucille Clifton, Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye, Dorianne Laux. To poets whose work accompanies me to the page, like Ada Limón, and Ross Gay, and so many others. We write in community, even when that community is distanced by space and time. And in some way, maybe most ardently, I am writing to whatever it is in us that can rise to the occasion of championing the world, to find a way to praise and grieve in equal measure. At the end of the day, I, too, am speaking to the grass. 

EB: Not only are we in a pandemic, but our country is now facing a crisis that has been with us for a long time—police brutality, racial injustice, and a heinous president. As a poet, and as a black poet, how do you see your role in responding to these grave concerns? 

DL: All of the things you mentioned center on one theme: the value of human beings. Of a human life. When police kill a Black man who is pleading with them, gasping for breath, and they ignore his cries—and are allowed to carry on with their lives, unscathed—that speaks volumes. Or when a Black woman, such as Atatiana Jefferson, is gunned down by police while playing video games at home with her nephew. When the leader of our country paints the victims as at fault, while disregarding the need to protect each other on so many other levels. What can we do as poets? What can I do? What I know how to do is keep writing. Keep giving a voice to the fragility and beauty of one human life. Keep reminding myself, and whoever reads the poems, that there is value in each of us, and in our experiences. I see my role as exposing my own vulnerability and truth in service of reminding us—myself and all of us—the value in our individual and shared humanity. 

EB: Your poems are full of joy, a welcoming of delight, laughter, ecstasy, even in the midst of pain and suffering. Could you talk about how you work with these poles that are often thought of as opposite in your poems? 

DL: I suppose it’s an issue of which gods you worship. I like to leave offerings for Saturn as well as Aphrodite. A pear and some honey. A skull and lock of hair. And maybe sometimes Saturn gets the honey! I don’t know. The longer I live, the harder it is to tell the terrible from the wonderful. They’re so mixed. I have had some of my best times in the midst of deep grief. You can get so close to the core of life in any moment of intensity. I prefer pleasure, of course. Don’t we all? And yet.... 

EB: This is your second book. Did you encounter any new challenges in the craft as you wrote these poems that were different from what you faced in your first book? If so, could you tell us a little about those? Either in general or in specific poems? 

DL: Craft-wise, I’m aware of an ongoing drive toward greater simplicity and greater complexity. I’m not sure how that plays out for the reader of the poems, but it’s there for me, internally. I want to say something plainly, but for the thing I’m saying to vibrate on different parts of the scale. I think of those Tibetan throat singers who can produce different pitches, simultaneously, in one breath. 

EB: Was there a poem in this book that was especially hard for you to write? That took more work than usual? And is there anything you learned in that process about the craft or about living that you might share? 

DL: Yes. “The Grass.” It’s a poem in response to Whitman’s rhetorical question, as well as one that grapples with my brother’s suicide. I find that when I’m writing about something emotionally difficult, I tend to dislike the poem. I notice the same tendency in my students with their own work. It took me a while to allow the poem to make its leaps—from guessing about the identity of the grass, to my brother’s early linguistic mix-ups, (saying “I don’t matter,” and “it doesn’t care”). As well as the world’s history of forcing “whole tribes beneath that green layer.” It felt like a lot to get in one poem. What did I learn? I think at some point I stopped trying to direct the poem and allowed its momentum to take over. I am always being reminded that a poem is not a product. It’s a ritual. When you surrender to it, it can change you. 

EB: You were a painter before you devoted yourself mainly to poetry. What led you to pursue poetry? is there something poetry allows you that painting didn’t?  

DL: Well, let it be said that I was happy when I was painting. I remember telling my mother “This is the happiest I’ve ever been!” I was a college student, staring all day at objects and naked people and replicating them on paper or canvas. The color! The sense of calm! There was usually good music playing and someone I had a crush on painting nearby. Heaven. 

I wrote in high school, (thanks to my peerless English teacher, Art Ward), and then lost my way. Grief and the need to express it brought me back to the page. Oh!—and a flyer for writing classes with this fantastic poet, Ellen Bass!

In poetry, we get to address the ephemeral. And all things are ephemeral. We are in intimate conversation with the world. I can’t imagine being able to communicate in that way with painting. I believe there are those who can, but I was too easily satisfied with painting. I needed a worthy opponent. Or one for whom I would get onto the mat. When he was little, my godson, Jeremias, told me, “I want to be a marine biologist, but I’m afraid of sharks.” “That’s how it is,” I said, “The thing you truly love usually lives next to the thing you fear.” I was a child who was afraid to speak, to express myself. Once, in the second grade, I cried because I couldn’t fill out a paper asking me how I felt. Happy? Sad? With help from another girl in class, I wrote “I am sad because I can’t do this.” My tears stained the page.

EB: Are there a couple poets you’re reading now that might not be as well-known as they should be that you’d like to recommend that we read? And perhaps say a word or two about? 

DL: I love to sing the praises of Zubair Ahmed, whose book City of Rivers was published by McSweeney’s in 2012. We met giving a reading together in Marin. He has such an original and startling voice on the page. You can’t teach anyone to write like Zubair. Some poets write from a consciousness that is just not available to most of us. Though we can always hope! 

Also, as you know, there are so many wonderful poets here in Santa Cruz. I will name the one whose book is sitting on my desk. My student—and sometimes yours— Dion O’Reilly, and her book, Ghost Dogs. I love the wild freedom in these poems and what they have to say about hardship and triumph. Something we can all use a dose of right now! 


Find Danusha Laméris’ Bonfire Opera here.