“Sisters I believe and still believe: A Conversation with Abigail Chabitnoy” — curated by Lisa Olstein

Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Abigail Chabitnoy: I had a hard time shifting out of the creative space from How to Dress a Fish, to be honest. I had—have—so many more poems and notes and scraps of paper from that time that I still haven’t been able to let go or place yet. This work really began to gather steam at the Caldera Arts residency in Oregon, where I buried myself in books “looking” for what was next. I was reading about the history of wolves and their villainization and eradication in the United States, which led to the poem “If You’re Going to Look Like a Wolf, They Have to Love You More than They Fear You”. From there I developed a deeper obsession with teeth, which began to pop up in my dreams frequently, and with villains and misunderstood figures from popular narratives in general. I was also obsessed with the story of Sedna, the Inuit sea goddess, and her evolution from scorned orphan to keeper of sea game and other tales of scorned women who for one reason or another didn’t fit the prescribed mold of obedient daughter or good woman. I’d been asked a question when my first book was being finalized: Where were the women in the story? And I didn’t have a place for them in that work—or rather, I did; they were there, but in the peripheries. I wanted to bring them to the foreground. Much of this work was also being written and shaped during family separation at the US-Mexican border, and I would often take “breaks” from my day job as a research associate by scanning news sites, which often led me to reports of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and refugee crises across the globe. It struck me that the vulnerability and victimization of women, especially marginalized and fetishized women and our societal expectations of women, was tied to the narratives in various media about women, as well as narratives directed at young girls. I was reading Women Who Run With Wolves and Tishani Doshi’s incredible collection Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, and was struck by the power of these narratives. I found myself irrationally (or perhaps prudently) terrified of being in wild places alone as a women. I felt vulnerable and enfeebled in ways I had never felt before, to the point of barricading my door at night during one residency because I was alone in a big house on the outskirts of town and didn’t trust the locking mechanism on the glass double doors in the back, and I decided I didn’t want that fear and defeat to be the narrative I let dominate my life or my poems.

LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

AC: I love that—especially as I’m obsessed with Anne Carson, whose work is largely responsible for my initial pursuit of poetry. The form of my poems is largely driven by a sense of underlying connectivity. I sought ways to identify threads and paths through the collection, or to signal different registers of voices I was hearing as the speakers of various poems. I wanted to, at least subconsciously, encourage the reader to make connections between poems and narratives through vertical alignments at the level of margins and page alignments but also between lines. Frequently, lines indented within a poem are intentionally set to resonate with a line above or below in the poem, suggesting a kind of poem within the poem. The emergence of the footnotes in this collection unlocked a kind of undercurrent in the work as I negotiated whether and how to translate the Alutiiq language. On the one hand, the translation is not available using Google, and as I learned to form my own sentences as I learned more of the language, one could no longer simply look for the phrases on the Alutiiq Museum website as with the language in my first collection. But, as an early reader pointed out, to directly translate the work felt reductive. The example I always go back to is The Cantos, which operate on the assumption of a shared knowledge of Eurocentric languages. So I decided to translate the translations, not literally, but abstractly; poetically. These became the thread running through the work—the current, as it were.

LO: What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

AC: I certainly feel a close affinity to the “I” of the book, though I would argue the “I” of the book represents a more confident, unbridled, and ultimately, often, suppressed version of my conscious I/eye. As a person, I am regrettably nonconfrontational and cagey around rules and authority. Somewhere along the way between my college self and my adult self, I seem to have lost my “muchness,” but I’ve been trying to reclaim it through poetry. Some of the speakers in the book, however, represent more of an autobiographical, singular I, while at other times I feel that I/eye to be much larger and reaching both forwards and backwards to encompass those before and after me. And yet often the poems in third-person seem to me to be voiced by one other than myself, outside of myself. A narrator out of time, as it were. I very much experience the writing of my poems as a way of extending/conversing beyond myself.

LO: Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

AC: It’s actually a bit strange and wonderful how my perception of this book’s recipients has evolved. When I was working on this book, I was quite certain my husband and I were not going to have children. Between the state of the world and the uncertainty of the future and my own personal anxieties, it seemed a closed discussion. And so consciously, I imagined myself writing to girls like my niece, or those girls who were missing. Sisters, I believed, and still believe. Then, after the book was already under review with my editor at Wesleyan, I became pregnant. It was not until well after all of the edits were complete and the beautiful cover art was confirmed (coincidentally titled Let Them Enter Dancing and Showing Their Faces: Sister) at her birth that I learned it was a daughter, and I realized how much I had been wanting to have a daughter throughout the process of writing this book, and it felt as though some part of me hoped I was writing to such a daughter the whole time. It certainly cast my own reading and understanding of the work in a different light, as I was more able to home in on the defiance and strength I hope the work conveys rather than the fear and despair which nearly held me back from such a wonderful experience.

LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?

AC: In my work, I’m frequently reflecting on motives, especially when I incorporate events and experiences I have fortunately been spared. So, for example, the decision to include snippets from articles about refugees and family separations and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, either directly through facts or indirectly through images. I want to be mindful that I’m not being exploitative or voyeuristic. I write about these crises, and incorporate these experiences, because I believe the violence of colonialism and the violence against the landscape and violence against women to be interrelated, and while poems might not be the best place for sharing facts—and that is always a risky line in terms of aesthetic “success”—they operate by a logic that allows for such associative thinking and invite us to challenge previously held perspectives. And while I might have been spared, thus far, direct experience of this violence, it nonetheless impacts how I move in the world, where I am able to move freely and where I find myself repressed by fears both founded and unfounded. I want the names of those girls to find voice in my work because I see them when I reflect on reckless behavior in my teens. I see them every time my husband asks why I don’t take more walks alone in the woods. And I see them when I gaze upon my own daughter and dream of the live ahead of her in all its possibilities.

LO: How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

AC: To follow on that reflection of motives, while I want to incorporate a plurality of voices in my work, it’s important to me that I signal these shifts and do not speak as or for anyone other than myself—though even as I respond, I’m given pause to consider such implications for erasure poems and persona poems. Something I suspect I will reflect on further in the near future. Because I don’t want to suggest that there isn’t room for such imaginative expansion through writing, but I do think there are instances where the stakes are higher and care must be taken. Thus the inclusion of end notes. But I think similar ethics are responsible for the way in which I’ve moved away from providing direct translations of the Alutiiq language. What is my responsibility to the language and to my community? How am I responsible for continuing those traditions I am able to continue? How do I proceed in a way that recognizes the fragility and strength of those traditions? What does it look like to center that language rather than continue to send it to the peripheries?

LO: What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

AC: I wish I could provide a better answer, but honestly, sound is still an aspect that I am constantly reminding myself to pay more deliberate attention to. I do often compose in my head and aloud before I first capture a line or sequence of lines, often in the notes app on my phone, to later be written out with pen and paper before transcribing back into the computer. And so I do spend a great deal of time going back in and out of the text, speaking the work back to me, but I really do surround myself with so much silence. I think the biggest role the aural life of this work plays is in feeling my way through repetition and echoes; images recur, but that means so too does the language of those images. And yet that doesn’t quite feel right either. There are occasions when sound does drive the logic, as in the opening sequence. I say outright, don’t I, that I am looking for a way to sound, and where they cut my fingers, the image progresses entirely by sound. What a longwinded non-answer!

LO: As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?

AC: I experience poetry as being somehow outside of time. That is, when I am reading it and when I am writing it, I feel as though I’m consciously stepping outside of time’s movement and its demands into a place where stillness is a refuge. In the Alutiiq culture, one is reminded to look both ways—forward to the future, and backwards to the ancestors. There’s the concept of time being nonlinear in many non-Western cultures, but more specifically than that, it’s an awareness of how we are in communication and continuity with those who came before us and those who will come after, again emphasizing connectivity and responsibility to community. I hope these poems both provide a refuge from our current moment in time while also extending the reader across time into the company of others and so providing fortification in this current moment.

LO: How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture? 

AC: I went back and forth on the order of this book a few times. On the one hand, I felt early on that there were five parts. Perhaps because I was still tied to the original title, Anatomy of a Wave. But five is also a significant number in Alutiiq culture. Above the earth are five sky worlds. There’s an idea of reincarnation up to five times. While I had initially wanted to avoid a specific narrative arc in this book, there was nevertheless a trajectory or development, a growing confidence if you will, that I recognized early on. At one point I tried to arrange the poems using conventional wisdom of “stronger” poems bookmarking the work, trying to further break from the idea of narrative, but I was called out on the disorientation of the inherent narrative by an early reader and returned to the original structure, which was ultimately organized by resonant and recurring images and voices.

LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm? 

AC: This book very much began with reading widely, and I can’t recall all of the works that would prove influential. But some works I brought with me to each of my residencies were books on the Alutiiq language, the Inuit sea goddess Sedna, Alutiiq tales and histories, Tishani Doshi’s Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men, and Women Who Run with Wolves. I think I was also reading the Wicked + Divine graphic novels around the time of writing this book, and was listening to a lot of Florence and the Machine and Halsey. I had Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex on my “to read next” shelf the entire time, but still haven’t gotten to it!

LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

AC: I’m not sure I’m out of the creative space yet. There is a particular/peculiar “she” that has followed me from my first book and through the second that I don’t think I’m done with yet. In fact, I don’t think I’ve yet fully uncovered her. So I’m still listening for that voice. But it’s also been a bit gentler moving from this book than the first. I finished How to Dress a Fish in graduate school and was fortunate to find a publisher very shortly after, so there was a lot of closure all at once and I had no idea what I was going to do next—in my writing or life. I don’t think I read a poem for at least six months. I leaned entirely into novels and “pleasure” reading. This time around, I’ve been doing a lot more teaching and so I’ve been able to keep in a persistent space of inquiry and possibility. At the same time, the shape of my writing has been very much influenced by new demands on my time. I’m preparing to teach at UMass Amherst starting this fall, and I welcomed my daughter in March. Along with two spoiled dogs who were meant to be my only “children”, perhaps it’s no surprise I’ve been drawn to the fragment lately. (I’m responding to your questions while she naps on my chest, after several failed attempts to get her to nap on her own.) But I’ve also been playing with linocut block printing and want to dig more into the relationship between the word and the image, if not quite poetry comics, a kind of illustrated/fractured narrative. I’ve also continued trying to learn more of my Alutiiq culture and language, which has provided some continuity in my work. I’m still very much interested in how stories shape and sustain us, and in identifying patterns and lines of connectivity across narratives and histories. I’m interested in questions of culpability and responsibility, while trying to remind myself to slow down and dwell more in wonder—which I’m hoping my daughter will help me do more!