FIVE QUESTIONS WITH NICOLE SEALEY

Image Credit Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Image Credit Rachel Eliza Griffiths

On Thursday, October 5th, Nicole Sealey read from her new collection Ordinary Beast (Ecco, 2017) at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House. Sealey is also the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. Her work has received numerous awards including the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, the Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, a Daniel Varoujan Award, among others. Sealey is an alumna of the creative writing program at NYU and is the executive director at Cave Canem Foundation, Inc.

Assistant Web Editor, Nadra Mabrouk, interviewed Nicole Sealey about Ordinary Beast, writing as nurturing, the mundane, and exploring our obsessions. 

1. Throughout the book, but particularly in the first section, there is a focus on the ideas of infancy as well as maternal and paternal love. In “A Violence,” the speaker imagines throwing her hypothetical maternal bone to the strays outside the window, a haunting image straddling an invited barrenness and abandonment. In so many ways, we all feel that selfishness, that desire to only have to care for ourselves, and as writers, we all feel that maternal/paternal connection to our own works. Do you often feel that you have to distance yourself from your work in order to care for and nurture yourself, or is writing the poem the act of nurturing itself for you?  

Yes, you’re absolutely right. We’re all a bit self-involved—writers and non-writers alike. As for myself, though I do feel very protective of my poems, I ultimately mean for and want them to be shared.

Writing poems are acts of self-care to me, so I don’t feel the need to distance myself. I’m exploring my obsessions—love, loss as well as the large and small violences that have shaped me/us—and, in so doing, engaging in a lifelong conversation with myself. As this dialogue continues, I suspect feelings will change. What won’t, however, is my desire to better understand myself (and by extension you) through the process of writing.

2. The collection grapples with being legendary and being ordinary, following the trajectory of an ordinary life such as getting married, having/not having children, and death. How does writing poetry help you investigate that tension in your own life? Do you often wish you could just be satisfied with the mundane, with our “brief animation,” as you so beautifully put it?

I don’t think I believe in the ordinary. Our brief animation is far from routine. When I look closely, I see nuance (subtle as it might be) in what appears to be the mundane. I awake as a new person every day, influenced by what came before. Imagine this: I went to what I thought was an ordinary book launch 10 years ago and didn’t know then that my future husband was there. All that to say, life itself won’t allow our brief animation to be mundane.

3. The idea of separating your mind from the flesh in order to let go of any racial/ancestral pain is so heart-wrenching, to cut yourself from a tormented and suppressed lineage and be so far removed from it, as mentioned in “In Defense of ‘Candelabra with Heads.’”  Was writing “Candelabra with Heads” a turning point for you in your work? When was this piece born on the creation timeline of Ordinary Beast?

If my memory serves me correctly, “Candelabra with Heads” was written in spring 2014. The poem, as you know, was inspired by Thomas Hirschhorn’s artwork of the same name in which mannequins are duct taped and mounted on a wooden platform. The poem was actually born when I saw the piece for the first time in 2012. It then took a couple years to articulate how it had inspired and affected me.

Ordinary Beast is comprised of poems I’d written between 2011 and 2017, so “Candelabra” falls somewhere in the middle of that time.

4. I am marveling at the impeccable construction of “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You,’” which we published an excerpt from in our latest issue. It all flows so seamlessly. Was it created moreso using lines that have always somewhat stayed with you over your writing career, or did the piece require more extensive research and time?

Though I did have a few lines in mind for the cento, the poem required much research and years. I scanned hundreds of poetry collections for beautiful lines. I copied hundreds of lines by hand until I had at least 10 times what I needed (a traditional cento is 100 lines long). Papers with poetic lines lined my dining room table and littered my dining room floor for months. For the better half of 2016, I’d circle the table, careful not to step on the papers strewn on the floor, like a poetry shark in search of the next line and the next line and the next.

5. Now, because of “An Apology for Trashing Magazines in Which you Appear,” I feel that I must seriously ask — how do you really feel about Brad Pitt?

Ha! You know, back in the day, I had the biggest crush on him… I’m a married woman now, so I’m completely over Pitt. Plus, Idris Elba is more my speed.

Washington Square