i strike where my cunning becomes feminine: A Conversation with India Lena González about fox woman get out! — curated by Tiffany Troy

India Lena González is a poet, editor, and multidisciplinary artist. She received her BA from Columbia University, where she graduated with honors, and her MFA from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. While at NYU she served as a writing instructor for undergraduates and received a Writers in the Public Schools fellowship enabling her to teach literature to middle school students via Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Her work is published or forthcoming in American Chordata, The Brooklyn Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Harvard Review, Lampblack, PANK, Pigeon Pages, and Poetry Northwest, among others. A three-time National Poetry Series finalist, India is also a professionally trained dancer, choreographer, and actor. She is the features editor of Poets & Writers Magazine and lives in Harlem.

fox woman get out! is the recent winner of BOA Edition’s Blessing the Boats Selections. In this serpentine debut, the reader is enraptured by the exuberance of the speaker’s voice, as the personas of the speaker’s multitudinous self perform for and outperform a world that seeks to define them. The visual aspect of the poems connects the movement of the body to the architecture of both a physical home as well as a metaphysical one, as the fox woman slips through and defies societal expectations and reclaims power as the poet’s alter ego.

Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem, “we n’ de ya ho,” set up the rest of the collection that follows?

India Lena González: “we n’ de ya ho” was a poem I’ve been trying to write for many years, especially from undergraduate onward. That was really the beginning of it. I could tell the seed of it was there, but I wasn’t able to deliver the message that I wanted to. It was getting caught up in the history of my people as opposed to originating from my personal experiences. The poem is now a prayer, a manifesto, a cry to my ancestors asking them to be with me, which is a main thread throughout the collection, whereas before it was simply a passionate retelling of history. By the time I got to graduate school, I remember writing this poem, and it felt so hot when it came out of me, like it had been waiting to be birthed all these years. Finally, I had the chance to get it out of my system in this form that could not be contained, in a way that felt visceral to me, and very true to how it came, as opposed to trying to make it something neat, or something that fell into a sweet narrative. I wanted it to be wild, and the words and lines that fill the poem were begging to have their own space on the page and not be nestled next to each other. The poem needed a form that was a forest, not a manicured garden, so I set out to recreate the natural world on the page.

I remember when I brought the poem to class, I was like, let’s see what people think. One of my classmates said, You’ve arrived, this is it. I was surprised to know they could get that energy off it. Then I had another classmate say, This should be the first poem in your collection, because it’s essentially a map or a guideline for people to know, this is what you can expect from me. This is where we’re going to go together, and if you can get past “we n’ de ya ho,” then you can travel throughout the rest of the collection as well.

TT: For me, “we n’ de ya ho” definitely sets up the expectation that there’s gonna be a lot of play in poetic forms, and that the visual or typographical aspect will play an important role in the reader’s understanding of your poetic voice. I also admire the symbols you use to break up the poems.

ILG: I guess we could call them “sections.” I wouldn’t, but one could. These symbols for me were like building a house: These are the wooden structures. This is the hut. This is the top of it. This is the roof. This is the foundation of something. Or maybe I’m going to put a word in between these two symbols to emphasize it, or to cut it off from the rest of the poem.

I am playing around with how form can build a world, and, like you said, it can also teach the reader what to expect from me. The performance of language is as important to me as what I’m saying, and it’s that idea of performance on a physical level that I stay true to. A poem is a body, a line within it is a limb, and I can break that limb, or I can twist it, or I can pull it. I want the reader to know I’m going to do all those things. The collection can be a bit kaleidoscopic or disruptive, but to me it feels like the most honest way of showing people what it is to be alive.

TT: I love how the different parts of architecture could be seen as parts of the body, and how they are in turn synecdoche to the characters or personas of the poem. To me, the movement through which your poems move conjures the performance of family and ancestral history.

ILG: Because I come from a dance background, I couldn’t not bring the physicality of language and my body to the page. I couldn’t pretend that I was just a mind. Sometimes, writers are really good at being a brain floating in a jar. And we applaud that intellect. I admire that wholeheartedly, but because of my performance background, I can’t help but give you all of myself. When you do bring all of yourself to the equation or to the page, it complicates the art form in a way that feels more real to me. Because you do see the body, the layers of the body, the ancestry, the mythology, the spirituality of it.

I’m asking the reader to really follow me because the camera work of the poems changes all the time. We’re following Uncle Bubba over there, then it’s Big Mother, then it’s me. And then it’s Twin. And all these different things. So, I’m asking you to follow these shots that are really close shots that feel very intimate to me. I’m showing you everything I’ve got and there’s something really vulnerable about that, but also really fun as well, because as the poet you are in charge of the camera. I’m not just the performer, I get to show you what I want to show you, and also turn the camera away when I don’t want us to go there quite yet.

TT: The camerawork in “we n’ de ya ho” almost serves as a dramatis personae, or the beginning of the play where you introduce the cast of characters.

ILG: I almost thought of doing that for the book, but then figured people will think of it too much as a play. But the intersection between, Is it a play? Is it a poem? What’s a monologue? What is not?, that interweaving of genre is interesting to me.

TT: That’s also interesting for the reader, for sure. Do you want to describe the process in putting together this collection? How did you organize the collection into its five flowing parts?

ILG: That is the word, “flowing”! I think of the book as water, in terms of how it’s constructed, and fire, in terms of the content. I didn’t want to have sections. I didn’t want to title anything or break the collection into parts I, II, and III. Those ideas felt too rigid for me, and the whole point of the book is to break free from categorization of any sort. I use those symbols from “we n’ de ya ho” as structures to allow myself and the reader to breathe together before diving right back in.

The way I built up the collection was by thinking, how nice can I be to the reader? That’s number one, right? I’m asking a lot of them, because it is so complex to go into one’s identity fully. I start off in a way where I can build up my persona on the page, and then from there I can subvert it, I can complicate it, I can go deeper. I can make twists and turns, but in terms of sectioning it, it was really about the flow of water.

I adore bodies of water, and that idea of water and fire comes in the collection in a few different ways. When something’s too hot, we have to cool off. Then, we can build that heat back up again, and then I give you water again, either literally or metaphorically, just a moment to breathe. I was thinking of those symbols as saying, We’re done for right now. Hopefully there’s comfort in that.

Also, the first poem, “we n’ de ya ho” has no page numbers. The last two poems have no page numbers either. I was very intentional about that aspect, because I wanted them to become pre-birth, or pre-life, and post-death poems, so that they complicate this notion of a book being representative of the most current lifespan of an author. There’s something before, a gestation period that is “we n’ de ya ho” that feels very much like we’re in the womb again. And then these poems at the end feel very disembodied to me in a way that’s cosmic.

My questions while writing those poems were: If we go into something post-physical, what would that sound like? What do you think about or say at that point in “time”? I think of all living entities as reincarnations of each other, and a book as being a circle that never ends. Never having any corners to the work, but keeping it very curvy, moving in and out in the way it comes close to you and then retreats. That’s, in very abstract terms, how I thought about building this book in a way that would make sense for these specific poems.

TT: What you said about the flow of water and both the gestational period and post-physical world calls to mind how in “for my future babies,” the persona imagines her sons and daughters. That poem, as well as the collection, is interested in thinking not about finite beginnings or endings, but cycles, as you said.

ILG: In American storytelling, we’re always looking for the beginning, middle, and end, and then you close the book and it’s done. From how I see the world and what my ancestors were bringing to me during the writing process, everything felt rounder as opposed to being cut off. It was a simple matter of completing the circle. Then, the poems just keep going around and around, and that felt really nurturing, to not close anything off entirely. I know we have to end the book at some point, but even in the ending, I have it go back to a new beginning, the birth of something new, even the end presents us with the opportunity for living.

TT: I love how that is also connected to how your book resists the rigid characterization or definition of things by showing your readers how complicated identities can be.

ILG: To define something, to me, is very colonial in the sense that you’re trying to claim it or own it, by way of having knowledge of it. My sister introduced this idea to me, just because I call something a table doesn’t mean I know anything more about the life of that object. I might assume the table has no feelings, that it has no life. But when I leave the room, what happens to the table? What does that word or definition really tell me about that thing?

So defining something, I think, is almost the death of it. Because it’s like putting something in a chokehold and saying, Just go to sleep. We have defined you already. It’s done, it’s dead. The idea is, if I don’t define it, but rather move past it, or if I flirt with the definition of it, whatever it is, and then just make a U-turn and go the opposite direction, that somehow feels more alive to me, and continuous. I’m so happy being the thing. I don’t know anyone who’s happy being categorized and can live in that box of themselves. I wanted to just push through that rigid mental structuring of the world.

In the title, fox woman get out!, people want someone like me to get out. They don’t necessarily want me in the center of this space because I’m going to take up all the space. But I’m not going to apologize for it, or play nice, or pretend to be your idea of a woman or a Black woman or a Native woman, whatever the case may be. I’m not interested in performing [people’s assumptions about my identity], but if I have to perform, I’ll make it fun for both me as the performer and the audience, so that the power play is a give and take.

TT: What you said calls to mind how some of your poems reenact scenes from a play where you also invert that power structure.

ILG: People might assume that the performer has the power because you go to see them on stage, or you bought the book so that you could read that person’s thoughts or their words. But really the power is with the audience because you have to arrive to make it a proper show. And then, you’re sitting there watching or reading, and you’re expecting something. There’s a social contract involved with most art. For me as the performer and the writer, the onus is on me to give you a show. I have to give you some aspect of myself, and I’m asking, what if I take more ownership over that?

I’ll come out on stage when I want to come out, and when I don’t, I won’t come out. That’s the fox woman; she doesn’t appear when people want her to appear, or as often as one might expect her to appear throughout the collection. But there are glimpses of her fur in and out of poems, and that for me is the performance. You just have to sit there and wait and see. It becomes really mischievous, because you don’t know what I’m going to give you, and I don’t really know either until the poem is done.

TT: And we never entirely know what the fox woman is, but the persona metamorphoses into an animal, with references to the fur or sweat, in a way that feels freeing, like a ha! ha! to the spectator who usually holds the power to define.

ILG: The fox woman, the shapeshifter, is taken from different myths. I didn’t know that when I chose her. I just thought I’ll be a fox and a woman, I’ll put them together, that animal speaks to me. Then I Googled her, and found out she already exists within Asian mythology and Native mythology. I read more about her, just to understand how other people in the world were utilizing this character. She’s neither confined to society nor to the natural world. She lives in the in-between.

Any man who wants to marry her, well, that’s going to be a tough marriage, because he’s not in control of her or her whereabouts. When she leaves, she is completely fox again. Or she becomes a woman again. She’s always going in and out. That betwixt notion of being in between something was, for me, an aha moment. This is when I touched the center of the collection. I needed a persona that would embody this idea that I’m neither this nor that. The spectator cannot categorize me, because the moment you want to pin me down, I’ve already disappeared into the forest. There is something about her that allowed me to feel fully myself on the page. I have the ability to disappear into the wild as fox woman, and then to come back to civilization when I want to, and to play woman or man in a funny, over-the-top way, and then go back into my den. That felt like the truest version of me, being in the wilderness of the page.

TT: I’m wondering if you want to compare and contrast the different poetic forms in the collection?

ILG: The funny thing about form is that I don’t really think about it all that much, it happens to me. In that immediate happening, I almost can’t stand to write a poem left-aligned anymore. When I am seeing the words in my head and they’re coming out, I have to write them with their required form somewhat in place, or else the poem doesn’t feel right to me.

Coming from the performing arts, I’m always thinking about the performance aspect of not only how does a poem read, but literally, what does it look like to the reader? How can I add another layer to this story through form? And the wildness, or the natural aspect of being a fox woman, comes through in the form. Then, there are poems that are more contained, in a sense. For me, that feels like the heat dies down a little bit. I’m taking it easy on the reader. I’m not going to ask their eyes to jump across the page and their mind to make so many connections all the time. I’ll give them a chance to have a nice poem, or however one wants to think about these pieces, and then we’ll go back to breaking things apart again. It’s all about that balance.

Everything feels like molecules that bounce around all the time. I wanted to have that kinetic energy where we’re always moving. I wanted to have that blurred sensation of I’m here, and then I’m there. In our day-to-day lives, we’re everywhere all at once, and so I don’t want to pretend that I’m just here when I’m actually mentally in all these other places. The form shows people exactly where I’m located physically and emotionally.

TT: That you walk the reader through and give us a chance to breathe before diving right back in definitely came through.

ILG: I’m happy to hear that!

TT: What are some major motifs in your collection?

ILG: Definitely selfhood, performance of selfhood, performance of gender and race, reclamation of one’s identity, and the idea of power. There’s toxic masculinity that comes in and out, but there’s also the real power of being fox woman, of stepping into your own and saying, This is who I am, unapologetically. It’s going to look idiosyncratic, read idiosyncratically, and feel different. But I hope that the reader will follow me on that journey and enjoy how honest that portrayal of self was.

TT: How did you draw from your literary influences to build up to such an idiosyncratic feat?

ILG: In terms of literary influences, you know it’s really funny, I’m not one of those writers who’s pulling from this voice and that voice and then mixing them all together. I took a class in college where we had to read different writers and try to mimic their style in a sentence or a paragraph. I failed miserably; I could not for the life of me mimic anyone else’s style. I get it intellectually, I know what those writers are doing on the page, but I couldn’t apply that to my own writing in any sense. I kept drawing a blank. So, everything I’ve ever read, just like any movie or TV show I’ve ever watched, or any conversation I’ve had has influenced this work equally. Yes, there are books that I love, that were my influences growing up, that changed the way I thought language could work, or opened up more possibilities for me poetically. But literary influences are the same for me as my favorite actor, or my favorite dancer or dance company. They all add up to my artistic world. What I read, or what I see, or what I dream about, all influences me the same on the page.

TT:  Your character and persona definitely shone through.

ILG: Thank you. Tone on the page, or my voice, has always been my leading factor as a poet. The most important poetic elements I can offer a reader are my character and my voice.

If a poem is a monologue, would you listen to me give the whole monologue? Have I given you enough of myself that you feel connected to me as a poet? I always think about things like that; if someone’s on stage by themselves, maybe just a random person, and they’re reading a poem of mine, would that hit you in the same way as a monologue would, where you actually vibrate because of the words the character said? Then the musicality of the language follows in terms of how the work hits your ear. Is it more staccato? Is it more lyrical? Is it pleasant? Does it hit really hard, like a punch, or bebop? I’m always interested in that. Then everything else flows from there.

TT: What is your revision process like? How do you hone in so that the musicality emerges and shines in the poems?

ILG: Musicality is my primary focus and content comes slightly afterwards. I’m always thinking about the form, the more aesthetic aspects of the poem, as well as the way a poem sounds. Both my parents are musicians, and I grew up playing music (I played the violin all throughout my childhood and adolescence and then played the drum set for 10 years), so melody and rhythm is extremely important to me. My ears hear things a certain way, and the percussion of that hearing is important to how I write.

Revision is generally when I refine the meaning of the poem. Once I have the flow of the song and it sounds the way I want it to, then I can start to move the words around the page differently for meaning, or swap words out for better suited ones.

It’s all very intuitive: Does that feel right to me? Does that word want to be there, or should I push it over here? And then, if I do, what happens to the rest of the poem? My poems almost always come out very improvisationally, and then I refine to the extent that the poem requires it.

Sometimes a poem comes out almost the exact way it wants to be, and I don’t touch it too much past that, because if I mess with the equation too much, it’s going to throw off the balance of the work. Other times, I recognize that the feeling of it is right, but the language isn’t, and then I have to really fine-tune building up that poem in a way that can carry the sentiment behind it, carry it through to the reader, so it becomes something that can last and isn’t just true for me as the poet.

TT: Do you have any closing thoughts you want to share with your readers?

ILG: The best way, in my opinion, to enter into fox woman get out! is by being willing to remain open-minded, and to look at yourself just as much as I look at myself in the book. That’s when the work really becomes alive. Some poets don’t necessarily require as much out of their readers as I do, but pulling in the spectator so that they’re as much the performer as I am is a part of my work. How much of yourself you are willing to bring to the page is how much the poetry will dance for you, or move you, or complicate things for you. The hope is always that it can help someone else live their life in a way that is truer to who they are.

If you want to read the book, it’s going to be a journey, right? It’s not going to be a collection where you read it in one hour, put it down, and you’re done and can move on with your day. I don’t ever want to write a book like that. I want it to stick to your ribs, to have to move its way through you. If you want a nourishing meal, I’d say, this is the book for you, but also know that you’re going to have to chew the words, to be able to digest it properly. Would you say that’s a correct way of putting it?

TT: Absolutely, and I’m still digesting fox woman get out!, a collection that changed the way in which I saw what poetry can do for the reader as well as the poet herself.