POET OF THE MONTH SPOTLIGHT: AN INTERVIEW WITH ANAÏS PETERSON
HBR poetry editors: what is your favorite line (or short sequence of lines) of poetry you have ever written? (this doesn’t have to be something from the three poems you sent us!)
anaïs peterson: oh goodness, i’m terrible at making decisions. i’m sure this is supposed to be a short opening question but i’m probably going to make it long. to start broadly there are poems and lines that no matter when i come back to them they make me proud. honestly, my favorite lines are the ones i come back to and they make me feel bad about myself—i’m so impressed by what i’ve written in the past i’m just sitting there like damn i don’t think i’ll be able to write anything close to that ever again. all that being said, i’m fond of this line because it’s so full of love and always makes me smile—
when i say take good care i am wishing you freedom and sunlit monday afternoons.
a room full of tulips, a pot of sunflowers, and a yard blue with blooming scillas.
HBR: we’re awestruck by how “the revolution will be beautiful” moves through all of its beautifully evocative images, as well as different ideas about the personal and the expansive, so quickly but so seamlessly. could you explain the process behind the construction of this poem to us?
AP: i think it makes the most sense to start with the form when diving into this piece—"the revolution will be beautiful" is a ghazal. the ghazal is a type of arabic verse poem. the ghazal was sung by iranian, indian, and pakistani musicians as well as adopted by poets writing in urdu, hindi, pashto, turkish, and hebrew. as anyone who’s read it probably noticed, a ghazal is composed of couplets all ending in the same phrase. before this phrase is the couplet’s rhyming word, in this piece the word ending in -tion, and this rhyming word appears twice in the first couplet. the ghazal also traditionally includes the author’s name or a meaning of their name in the last stanza. i played around with that a bit in this piece, and rather than using my name used hun.
i wrote the first variation of this poem almost exactly a year ago in january 2020 and even in the first draft, it was a ghazal (i went through a phase when i was trying to write in only non western forms). ghazals are traditionally structurally, thematically, and emotionally autonomous couplet to couplet and i really like how the form of this piece allows me to bring in such a variety of topics that all come back to the same thread. the form and the content are closely intertwined in this piece and all the ghazals i’ve written.
the piece started with the phrase you see used as the title and echoed in the text, the revolution will be beautiful. this phrase came to me during a teach in/art build i attended in january 2020. at that time i was absolutely drowning in direct actions and teach ins and community organizing. but that teach in was such a gift—it is one of my favorite organizing spaces i’ve been in to date. it was a rare space where i felt hopeful and it was the first time i could see the new world that is on her way.
the real hero of this piece is those rhyming dictionary websites. as soon as i knew this would be a ghazal i sat down with a rhyming dictionary and made a big list of -tion words. i copied a list of about 15 down into my notebook and from there i picked the words on that list that stuck out to me or inspired certain topics. i then built each stanza around that word—knowing there were definitely things i wanted to bring in but doing almost word association to write the piece.
i also love to bring quotes into my ghazals. couldn’t tell you why but it’s something i keep doing. the quote you see in this piece is from ocean vuong and his heart wrenching and incredible novel, on earth we’re briefly gorgeous.
as a reader i will often wonder while reading if the poet had a direction for the piece, if they knew where it would end and i have to say for this piece i had absolutely no idea but i love how it turned out. i did some minimal revisions on this piece but never messing with the order of the couplets. i wrote this piece bringing in such a vast diversity of beautiful moments in my life inspired by the rhyming word and in that sense the piece really wrote itself.
HBR: “on being utterly intertwined with the marvelous” weaves tender language (“i know you have names i whisper to the stars”) together with some darker images that hint at a more unforgiving world (“steel fences and barbed wire ripping apart the soft blue of the night sky”). do you actively try to mix cynicism with optimism in a lot of your poems?
AP: hmmm, my first reaction is to say not intentionally! i can’t remember ever sitting down to write a piece or revising a piece to better balance the cynicism and optimism. i will say this question has made me a little self-conscious now in writing!
i guess coming back and reflecting on this question it’s not so much a cynicism and optimism binary but more so reality/dreams or present/world building. i think all three of the pieces but particularly "on being utterly intertwined with the marvelous" operates in this mindset—what we have and what could be. i have to say i love this piece. it’s one of my favorite pieces i have written about my experience taking classes in PA state correctional institutions and i do think it’s because it captures the love and the violence and the dreams in a short piece. i am not intentionally cynical nor am i ever intentionally overly hopeful but i view writing as a type of world building and work to have pieces of both what is and what could be together in the piece.
HBR: in “a new language,” you mention that “sometimes when the sun rises all i ever want is to be called is my name but as the stars glimmer i remember womanhood is more than white women in pink hats bleeding between their legs...” could you talk us through this conflict and general themes of the poem a bit more?
AP: ahh! i wrote this piece moving through a montage of moments in which i felt a type of queerness. these are a collection of moments in which i was surrounded by people who helped me grow in my own queerness or when i found myself staring at gender in strange and complex ways.
the title of the piece, a new language, actually comes from a conversation i had with a friend in the greenblue summer dress mentioned in the piece. in our conversation, we talked about a desire for a new language or rather the failure of our current language—how pronouns and the ways we have to describe ourselves are so limiting. i like to think of this piece as an attempt to build this language—one built on beautiful moments, things we can’t quite describe but better explain who we are better than any pronouns ever could.
the last bit of the piece, what was mentioned in the question, is really the conflict in this piece. the first stanza is an attempt to articulate and paint and imagine this new language—it’s the moving forward. the second stanza is the now and in some sense why there needs to be a new language. i think about womanhood often and will say i’m often moving through this heavily gendered world with more questions than anything else. i do think coming into my own queerness into 2016 i saw womanhood as so limiting, defined by hillary clinton and white women and those pink pussy hats and i hated it! this piece is holding both the desire for a new language and the understanding that womanhood has beauty and complexity and is so much more than white feminism.
HBR: we thought many of your poems read a lot like letters, as many of them address a certain “you” in a kind, thoughtful, and loving way. when you are writing, are you writing to or for anyone? a particular audience or yourself, perhaps?
AP: i love this question especially as someone who’s gotten feedback on workshop before about not using the broad poetic “you”in poems! but the yous that are used through both "on being utterly intertwined with the marvelous" and "a new language" stand in for very particular people in my life and stories. in writing "on being utterly intertwined with the marvelous" the use of you rather than names was intentional and necessary. the piece is so intimate i feel it’s almost more relatable with the you, giving space for the reader to be part of the conversation either as the you or in their mind putting in their own you.
i don’t think i often write for myself—i write to tell stories and create spaces in which other people can see themselves reflected. that being said, there are definitely poems that are not ready for the world or i’m not able to share them for a myriad of reasons. but to your question, i think every poem i write is a love letter. not love poems in the traditional sense at all as love is so much than the romantic pigeonhole it’s been shoved into. even the most cynical poem is a love poem, an act of care for myself as i create and hold space to hear out the fear/terror/rage.
HBR: what do you think your biggest strength is as a poet?
AP: hmm i really don’t know! i like to think that i write poetry that is accessible. there is little i find more infuriating about poetry than the poets who write poems full of obscure language and it feels as though they’re writing to hear themselves talk or play into the stereotypes of poetry. there is definitely poetry that asks the reader to do work and that is important but some poets just sprint over that line and that really bothers me. but to your question! i hope it is the way i tell stories that either create a space on the page that the reader sees a part of themselves in or at least builds a bridge so that they may understand a life different than theirs.
HBR: in your bio, you mention that you are primarily a prose poet and a lyric essayist. is there a reason why you feel especially drawn to these two forms?
AP: i have a poetry degree but what i consider to be the most impactful english writing classes i took during my undergrad were both lyric essay/CNF classes. the transition first into essay and then back to poetry was difficult but i am so grateful for the guidance i received in my prose writing and i don’t think i would have found my voice without them. having this background, i often find myself writing between genres and having no idea what to call it. i was first drawn to poetry because it allowed me to write outside of the rules of the english language (i.e. commas. i hate commas) but after writing in prose and learning i can still ignore grammar i have no idea what to call most of my writing. so naming those forms is really an excuse for me to write in whatever ways feel right and call it a bit of everything—a piece will often move through iterations of being prose then poetry and then back to prose again before i find what i feel best tells the story.
HBR: we’re curious—where does your love for sunflowers and skies come from? why do you think it is that these images keep reoccurring in your poems?
AP: that’s a great question! i’ve absolutely adored the sky for a long time for so many reasons. i’m in love with sunsets, really no poetic reason about endings or anything but they’re gorgeous! a couple of years ago when i was drowning in work organizing a march but also feeling so badass i remember going on a walk under the most glorious soft pink sunset and thinking “the sunset is the only thing that should make me feel insignificant.”
as for sunflowers, those are a more recent love. sunflowers have recently popped up in a lot of sweet/impactful/important moments in my life—i have a poem upcoming in dreams walking entitled “because our roots find each other underground” that goes through some of them. i do think my infatuation with sunflowers has grown since writing about them—i don’t know if other poets/writers also do this but once i write a poem about a certain thing i gain a new type of love for them.
i don’t quite know why they both keep coming back though—i think on some level they’re easy to adapt in many situations and by situations i absolutely mean metaphors. but the question makes me think of an episode of VS podcast (a podcast i absolutely adore) where they discuss nature and canon. nature is understood as a type of “universal” when really there is no universal—not even in nature as we all experience and relate to it differently. i can’t begin to say it as well as angel nafis so check out the angel nafis vs. observation episode!!
HBR: if you had to describe your poetry in three words, what would they be and why?
AP: i mean if i have to start anywhere it would of course be gay but i think it would be most accurate to say queer. queerness in the broadest sense of attraction/identity/politics. but beyond that i really have no idea. i had a friend once describe my writing as “a tiramisu with layers of so much love and fullness and youness that I can't even read it except by hiding behind a pillow and peeking out with one eye, afraid that your prose is going to swallow all of the emotional capacity of the outside world into it.” and i loved that. i can’t pick three words but i want my poems to feel like summer rain and early morning sunshine and singing movement songs.
HBR: lastly, what are some goals you have as a poet? these can be long-term or short-term goals, ranging from the quantitative to the qualitative. an alternative way to look at the question would be: why do you write poetry? what is it that you hope your words will achieve?
AP: really i just hope to keep writing. to experience more wonder or rage or joy in this world so that i have stories to write. i hope i continue to hold the stories i have already written dear to my heart but also i hope do not write them forever.
anaïs peterson (name //they) is a queer, mixed race asian american, prose poet, lyric essayist, organizer, and lover of the sky currently occupying osage territory (pittsburgh pa). anaïs received a ba in english writing and urban studies from the university of pittsburgh and anaïs' work is now a mix of lyric essays and prose poems writing around the topic of freedom in its many forms and often returning to dwell on sunflowers. anaïs is a climate justice organizer and abolitionist and their work often explores themes of incarceration and abolition, community care, and imagining liberation. anaïs’ words have appeared in sampsonia way, mixed mag, teen vogue, etc and has upcoming in dreams walking and royal rose magazine. anaïs is the digital content coordinator for all female menu, a poetry reader for non.plus lit, and is currently the stop the buildout fellow at earthworks. anaïs writes in black pen and garamond size 11 and tweets from @anais_pgh. you can find a full list of anaïs’ publications and more information at anaispeterson.weebly.com.