The miles, like bodies, fall between us: A Conversation with Anna V. Q. Ross about Flutter, Kick– curated by Tiffany Troy

A recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Fulbright Foundation, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Vermont Studio Center, Anna V.Q. Ross’s recent work appears in Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, The Nation, The Missouri Review, Poetry Northwest, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She is poetry editor for Salamander Magazine and teaches at Tufts University and through the Emerson Prison Initiative. Anna lives with her family in Dorchester, where she runs the poetry and music series Unearthed Song & Poetry and raises chickens.

Anna V. Q. Ross’s most recent book, Flutter, Kick, won the 2020 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award and was published by Red Hen Press in November, 2022. Sonically virtuosic and emotionally moving, Flutter, Kick spans across the space and time of Ross’s childhood bedroom door through the classroom door of her children. The collection explores what it means to be alive in Boston, Massachusetts, near foxes and chickens, and to listen to the Blasey Ford testimony before Congress on her drive to work.

Tiffany Troy: How does the first poem, “House,” set up the collection that follows?

Anna V.Q. Ross: Thank you for this wonderful introduction and introductory question. I wrote “House” fairly late in the process of completing this book, and the house it describes is my granny’s home in Dublin, Ireland–the house in which my own mother grew up. I was born and grew up in the U.S., but we spent many of my childhood summers back in Dublin visiting my mom’s large family (she’s one of 11 siblings) and staying in my granny’s house. As an adult with kids of my own, I can see now how important those summers were to me as a counterbalance to much of the isolation I felt growing up in the States with only my nuclear family nearby. I think it’s common for first generation kids to harbor confusion about who they are and where they belong culturally, socially, familially–I certainly did. But that house was always a refuge for me, a place I would return to in my mind when we were back in the States.

When my granny died in 2017, I was devastated by her loss–she was by then my only living grandparent and a huge influence on me. She was a painter and a lover of poetry, and I named my daughter after her (Flutter, Kick is also dedicated to her memory). I also deeply mourned the loss of the house, which went out of the family. The poem began as a memory exercise–a friend challenged me to write a poem about where I “came from.” I started to walk myself through the house in my head, just as I had done so often as a child, cataloging all of the things that made it feel home to me: the “little white jug,” “the tea towel,” “the roses.” By then, of course, I had already written many poems of childhood memory and also, perhaps more importantly, as a mother looking back on childhood while observing my own children. And I was pondering where and how we learn what to notice (not just see, but notice) and also how we learn what to tell and when and how to tell it.

The “lock” on the “bedroom door” became a way to consider all this. The girl in the poem is not me or my mother. But, for me, the question of the poem isn’t the who, but the why. I’d seen that lock many times before, and I’d even used it when I slept in the room while visiting my granny as a child, but I’d never considered why it was there–why someone put it on the door in the first place and then why was it left there, almost as a totem. Was it locking in or locking out, and what? The reasons could be innocuous or dire (the poem doesn’t speculate) but for me and for the poem, the real issue is the not telling–how we learn to see but not tell so early and almost without knowing that we’re learning it, and then the way this untold knowledge stays with us, often until much later in life. Many of the poems in Flutter, Kick arise from an attempt to see and tell, both through memory and in response to the contemporaneous world surrounding the speaker. Of course, this seeing and telling is only from one perspective–mine/the speaker’s–so it is just that, an attempt.

TT: I love the idea of poetry as an attempt to see and tell, both about the poet’s origins, and about the poet’s preoccupation with the immediate present. In Flutter Kick, we see this in action as the speaker looks out from the window on a train, reads her children’s classroom handouts, or stands before the museum dioramas. Can you speak next about your writing process, and how you put Flutter, Kick together?

AR: The first two words that come to mind in answer to this question are “long” and “slow,” ha! I wrote most of the poems in Flutter, Kick when my two children were very young. I was caring for them and adjuncting at several different Boston-area colleges and universities while my husband finished graduate school. I slept very little–sleep became a delicious, elusive elixir that preoccupied me more than anything beyond my children–and on the rare occasions that I got enough sleep, I woke up very angry. Adrienne Rich, who had three sons, called motherhood “a radicalizing experience.” I remember reading that (while preparing to teach a class, of course) and feeling such a sense of relief, and then anger washed over me again, because she’d written that 50 years ago, and here I was experiencing the same thing.

Why was I angry? Because I felt utterly and totally erased. It was as if I’d fallen into a trap society had set for me (Stupid me–how could I not have seen it coming?), one that, at best,  allowed people to disregard me–Don’t bother her. She’s busy taking care of her kids (without any offer of help, of course)–or view me with bemused puzzlement–Why would she try to have a career and raise children at the same time? Doesn’t she know that’s not possible? At worst, of course, were outright hostilities: being asked in job interviews how I planned to balance the position with my childcare responsibilities, colleagues referring to pregnant women in the department as “traitors,” a male supervisor casually suggesting that I quit my position because I must be so overwhelmed. Not getting the job, having classes magically given to another colleague at the last minute, the job description for an open position in my department rewritten at the last minute so that I was ineligible to apply. It’s painful to write about even now. Perhaps I was naive, but I was so surprised by it all, and then so hurt.

We treat mothers terribly in this country. Really, we treat all women and nonmale-identifying folks terribly. There was a quote I heard during the pandemic: Other countries have social safety nets. America has women. This rang true with a visceral clang, but the first time I felt the unendurable fact of it was when I first became a mother.

Then there was the fact of my name, which unexpectedly disappeared. Suddenly, I was Mom to everyone from the staff at the pediatrician’s office, to teachers at my childrens’ schools, to random strangers on the street or at the store or really anywhere I found myself, to other people’s kids. It was so disorienting! I had wanted to be a mother, and the road to motherhood hadn’t been easy for me–I had multiple miscarriages over the course of several years before my daughter’s birth–but I also wanted to be myself.

I began writing the self-portrait poems in Flutter, Kick as a way of seeing, and perhaps asserting, myself in the world around me again. These self-portraits eventually formed a kind of spine for the book, and they also allowed me to slowly begin to write my experience of motherhood–my joy in my kids alongside all the difficulty and confusion of it. The first self-portrait I wrote was “Self-Portrait as Smaller Moon,” in which I imagine myself as the “smaller moon” of the title being sucked into and absorbed by the larger moon of motherhood. There’s a voice in it–my daughter’s–asking Where does the moon go, Mama? And the poem was the beginning of an attempt to answer the question.

These poems also helped me to begin to find the connections and parallels between my children’s childhood and my own, and then my mother’s experience of motherhood and my own. Gradually, the circle widened farther to incorporate other mothers and other mothers’ children, and I began to write the “Report” poems and, after those, all of the other, more singularly titled poems. As I was putting it together, I tried to balance the more inward with the more outward-looking poems–a poem like “Fugue,” vs. “Wrestling with Gods” or “The Crossing,” or “All Hallows” vs. “Passenger Pigeon.” I hope that this balance (or attempt at it) is evident as you read. Of course, the book is predominantly lyric and grounded in my own life, but writing it helped me feel less alone.

TT: You definitely struck the delicate balance between interior and outward-looking poems, particularly in poems that observe the lively conversations between your children and you versus interior-looking poems that reflect upon the real struggles of being a working mother. I feel your experience is emblematic of the experience of American working women.

How did you utilize repetition and poetic forms on a craft-level in Flutter, Kick? To me, listening to you read “Fugue” was devastating because your performance unveils for me the lyrical prowess of incantation. I read Flutter, Kick with an understanding of the poems as a kind of score towards the performance.

AR: I love that idea of the poem as a score! I hadn’t thought of it in such direct terms as this, but of course I do use structure to–I hope–create rhythm and emphasize sound in the poems, and reading aloud is integral to my revision process, so these elements probably become more pronounced as I work on the poem.

This also prompts me to think back to the origins of the lyric–that lyric poems were sung and, if written down, would have looked to us like song lyrics, which is the parallel meaning of the word, of course. I often teach a class with a composer friend, Scott Wheeler, called Poetry & Song, in which we have students write poems and then turn them into song lyrics as they set them to music. We talk a lot about repetition and refrain in that course–using words to mirror and give rise to melody. I was teaching that class while writing the poems in Flutter, Kick, and I’m sure that it influenced my writing process, even if I wasn’t completely conscious of it at the time. Scott also set a couple of the poems in the book– “Passenger Pigeon” and “One Time” –as songs, and when he did this, he added in even more repetitions.

But going back, or deeper, into my own composition process, I connect to language very much via my ear, first and foremost, rather than my eye. In fact, sometimes I find the visual reading process distracting. When I was at Columbia for my MFA, I lived in Washington Heights at 181st St., and I had about a 40 min ride down to Columbia via the A and the 1/9. I’d be up in my apartment frantically trying to finish a poem for workshop, and then on my way down to class on the train, I’d go over it in my head obsessively–like an earworm. I quickly found that this was a very effective editing technique because the parts of the draft that I couldn’t remember were the weak or confused moments, and by the time I got to class, I’d often rewritten it in my head.

Back then, though, I wasn’t relying on repetition as a technique, or at least not consciously. In fact, I was pretty suspicious of it–I thought that I would bore my reader if I repeated myself. I also distrusted my ear (the example of revising on the subway, notwithstanding). I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but I think this is partly because I had undiagnosed dyslexia as a child, which primarily affected my ability to spell, and still does–I rely on spell-check and am constantly using my dictionary app. We didn’t have spell-check back when I was in elementary and high school, so in order to learn to spell, I had to separate sound from visual language, which was grueling work–I’m surprised that I stuck with writing at all! I know several other poets who also have dyslexia, however, so perhaps there is something to having to think so intently about language from an early age that serves us later on? 

It took me a long time to trust my ear again, though, after all of those failed spelling tests (the WORST way to learn language, in my opinion). If you look at the poems in my first book, If a Storm, you’ll see that most of the poems are primarily image-based, with little attention to sound, rhyme, repetition. But I was writing much of Flutter, Kick while my kids were very young, and I was watching them acquire language–observing how sound almost always came first, before meaning, and also how early children learn rhyme and how this shapes their understanding and expression of the world.  If you listen to babies learning to speak (linguists and early childhood educators call this “jargoning”), they are almost always rhyming–”bababa, dadada, mamama.”

I remember sitting with  my daughter on our living room floor when she was a toddler, reading through a board book with pictures of different vehicles and their names. We got to the page with a picture of a “VAN,” and when I said the word aloud, she stopped and looked confused and then pointed at the ceiling above us, where there was a ceiling fan. I laughed and laughed, but of course she would hear those two words as sounding nearly identical! I think we’re trained very early–probably when we start reading–out of hearing, or listening to, language and trained into thinking of it only as a means of conveying information, but there is so much more to it than that. Sound provides us with association, consciously and subconsciously, between words, memories, experience, and also there is the pleasure of sonic connection in rhyme, which goes back to music again.

Coming (finally) to repetition, another part of motherhood is the constant repetition of questions– “Why, Mama?” – and routines, the routes to and from school/activities, etc. The dailiness of it all can feel very much like a merry-go-round, and in writing about it, I needed to use repetition deliberately to capture these rhythms. More viscerally, I found myself relying on repetition when I was writing about painful memories and subjects–I used those repeating sounds and phrases to hold myself to the page and stick with the experience, because my (self-preserving) instinct was to move through and away from it quickly, which wouldn’t allow the reader (or me, if I’m honest) to grapple with their emotional freight. In the case of “Fugue,” I relied on the hard “ee” sound in “repeat,” “seat” and “3” and the phrases “Boston, rush hour, I-93” and “Can you tell us what you don’t forget?” That question from Senator Amy Klobuchar seemed to leap out of the radio at me, but of course it would have been so much easier to keep forgetting, or rather allow the memory to remain unsaid. But the “ee” sound evoked, for me, the feeling of panic that kept rising up and interrupting, forcing the memory and the words out.

This was also the experience of writing the poem. Initially, I kept stopping and getting up from my desk, needing to physically distance myself from what I was putting down on the page because it was frightening–nauseatingly so–to re engage with those memories. Once I found the “ee” sound, I was able to focus on following that through the poem, even as I interrupted it with the repetition and deconstruction of the question “Can you tell us what you don’t forget.” In reading the poem aloud, I try to mimic this experience–the halting reluctance of the memory as it surfaces and the way sound and repetition draws it out into the open, almost despite the speaker. This was something I had to practice. It’s a difficult poem to read aloud, for many reasons–the emotions, the information it reveals, the structure–but I’ve been including it in most of the readings I do from Flutter, Kick, mostly because every time I read it, a woman (or more than one) comes up to me afterward to thank me and tell me that something similar happened to her.

TT: Thank you for this deep dive into the writing process of “Fugue,” and in walking us through the difference between the visual and auditory aspect of words and language, your construction of it down the 1/9 line. More importantly, I am so grateful that you overcome your discomfort in reading “Fugue” as a way to reach out to other women who may have shared a similar experience.

In closing this interview, do you have any tips for aspiring writers? And do you have any closing thoughts for your readers of the world?

AR: My first advice for aspiring writers is always to read, read, read, read, read. I can’t tell you which poets to read exactly, because the poets that help you to write will be different from the ones who help me, but I can advise you to cast as wide a net as possible. Read contemporary poetry, ancient epics, and everything in between. Read poems in translation and, if you’re multilingual, read in every language you can. Read poets with whom you think you have historical, social, or biographical affinity and those with whom you seem to share almost no common experience.

Don’t worry if you don’t like something that you read–just move on to the next thing. Matthew Olzmann visited with my poetry students at Tufts last week, and he offered them a wonderful analogy. He said that if you’re driving along in your car and you turn on the radio to a random station that you’ve never listened to before, it’s pretty unlikely that it will be playing your favorite song, or even a song you like or can tolerate. But you wouldn’t give up on all songs because of this. He pointed out that if you only liked 1% of the poetry in the world, that would probably equal millions of poems, so keep looking.

To piggy-back on Matthew’s advice, keep changing the station, the poet, the book, until you find what you need to hear. No one can teach you how to write better than the poets you read. What you are looking for are the voices that turn on the writing switch in your brain and help you to start looking and listening more acutely to the world around you and to what your own voice is saying back to it. It’s a kind of sympathetic nerve response, maybe? A way to activate the poetry nerve, ha! But this is the beginning of writing, and it is also the way to keep writing for the rest of your life.

Surprise is another crucial element in poetry, both for the writer and reader, I think. I remember taking a class with Marie Howe in grad school, and she told us that our poems are always smarter than we are. I nodded along, only half-grasping what she meant, but it was years before I really tried to write with this as a guide–to let go of the impulse to over-determine the poem and instead let it lead me to what it/I (the two combine at a certain point) need to say. This takes an enormous leap of faith. I have to believe that the poem will take me somewhere real, that I’m not just messing about and muddying the waters for the sake of the mud, or being flashy or falsely profound. Because I do believe in clarity–clarity of image, phrase, intent–it’s just that I can’t know what that clarity is when I begin the poem; I have to learn it.

I think that if I can do that, surprise myself into learning or realizing something new or in a new way, I can also surprise the reader, and we can be together in the moment of that surprise and learning, which is really the reason for art, isn’t it? Or one of the reasons. When I was writing the poems that became Flutter, Kick, I was pretty desperate–for time, for sleep, for a sense of myself–and I think this compelled me to make this leap with my poems. If I had 2 minutes to myself and I tried to write, I didn’t have the luxury of planning things out, I just had to go for it and trust that something would come, and I was so grateful when it did. It was almost like meeting a new friend and getting to know them: “Oh so that’s what I think about that thing that happened yesterday, or that I half-heard  on the news, or the conversation I had with my kids. Hmm.”

I’m working on a new manuscript now that I began by accident during the pandemic. I was cleaning my desk and found some notes from a friend who’d read poems from a later draft of Flutter, Kick. She mentioned that she noticed that many of the poems ended with a reference to “sleep.” I immediately flashed back to a comment that Mary Jo Salter, who was my mentor when I was an undergrad at Mount Holyoke, made when she read a draft of my first book, If a Storm, and noticed that many of the poems ended with a gesture towards “sky.” That juxtaposition of “sleep” and “ “sky” really struck me, especially as we were all sitting inside in a kind of enforced lockdown “sleep” and looking longingly out the window towards the “sky.” I started a poem with the title “All my poems used to end in sky,” and the first line “but now they end in sleep,” and I had no idea where I would go with it, but I knew I needed to follow that journey from sky to sleep. The first poem ended with the word “sleep,” and that made me curious–it was almost a tease–so I wrote another one with the same title and same first line and the same final word, “sleep.

Something about establishing that framework–knowing where I would begin and end– allowed me the freedom to go where I needed to go in the middle, to explore the terror of the pandemic, my family, the world events happening around us, connections to our past, present, future. The poems kind of octopus out and then retract back to that final word. There are nearly 60 of them now, a whole book’s worth, to my shock. But I can honestly say that every single one of them surprised me as I wrote it.

I suppose that if I were to turn this around to readers (my readers or anyone else’s), I would say that I hope they come to the work looking for, or at least open to encountering, the unexpected, both in the poems themselves and in their reactions to them. I think that, as with most things, we can decide what we like–and much of the time “what we like” translates to what we feel comfortable reading, learning or otherwise being exposed to. These choices may be almost inadvertent, influenced by our teachers/friends/families and our personal histories, although sometimes they’re quite deliberate. The issue comes when comfort becomes a value judgment–“poetry that I feel comfortable reading is good poetry”–so that a poem that disrupts our expectations, formally, structurally, or in its approach to subject-matter, becomes in our minds “bad poetry.” We’re all guilty of this–it’s so easy to do.

But of course this conflation of comfort with value leaves out so much–the bodies, voices, minds, experiences of so many of us, and this has a knock-on effect with publishing, so that these voices and experiences aren’t heard. For a long time, I felt inhibited in writing about motherhood, as if having a mother weren’t a nearly universal experience. But it was treated by many journals and presses as niche subject to which only women of a certain age might respond, or a subject particularly vulnerable to sentimentality, as though there aren’t millions of maudlin love poems out there. We don’t, as a consequence, label love a niche topic! The reality is that many/most of us have complicated feelings about our mothers and, if we’re mothers ourselves, about our children. These feelings are created, to a great extent, in reaction to the way the world around us views and treats women and children as largely expendable. That’s an uncomfortable truth to reckon with, but a necessary one, and if we don’t read and publish these voices, we perpetuate the structures that view them as expendable.

This is just one example of far too many, but to connect it to general reading practices, I’ll say that I often remind my students that when something they read makes them feel uncomfortable, it means that it has made them feel something, and that’s not necessarily or even usually a bad thing, but rather a sign to keep reading. I had the great fortune to be able to take a seminar with Frank Bidart in graduate school, and I remember that he started our first class by saying “Poetry is not fashion,” meaning we shouldn’t write poems based on what we think readers want to hear or journals and presses want to publish. I would like readers to approach my work, and all poems, with that in mind: “Poetry is not fashion.”

Tiffany Troy is author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.