Born in Pittsburgh and currently living in the Washington, D.C., area, Noah Stetzer (Poetry 2014) is the author of Because I Can See Needing a Knife (Red Bird Chapbooks 2016). His work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Nimrod, Green Mountains Review, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. He is the recipient of a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship, Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Writers scholarship, and funding from the Friends of Writers’ Barnhardt Family Fund. He is an associate editor at Bull City Press.
In January 2010, you went to the emergency room complaining of shortness of breath. There it was discovered that you were suffering from collapsed lungs brought on by pneumonia, and that the underlying cause was an undiagnosed Stage 3 HIV infection, which is commonly known as AIDS. Much of your work, including your new chapbook, Because I Can See Needing a Knife, takes place in and in the aftermath of this experience. Reading BICSNAK — especially in one sitting — is a thrilling, intimate, celestial experience. How did your chapbook take form?
After coming home from the hospital I began using a website called 750 Words that encourages users to free-write every day (it’s based on the “morning pages” concept from The Artist’s Way). It was this daily practice that helped me to work through the experiences of the hospital, my HIV/AIDS diagnosis, and the ongoing medical treatment. Those entries really served as very rough drafts of what would become the poems in Because I Can See Needing A Knife. The poems themselves were written over the course of two years during my MFA at Warren Wilson and appeared in my thesis. The chapbook serves as a sort of scrapbook in that fashion; there are poems from each of my semesters.
A powerful emotional arc forms as we progress through the poems of BICSNAK. The speaker is letting us in, poem by poem, to the experience of being examined, of recalling pre-diagnosis memories, of going in and out of the hospital, of being part of a family. Of having “Numbers crowd this room: T-cells, viral load / telephone, clocks, oxygen, and the day.” When you were forming this collection, did you have a particular emotional trajectory in mind? What was your approach to ordering your poems?
During the formation I wanted to braid together the urgent atmosphere of the hospital with quieter moments of the family so that they come together at the far-reaching “Now, Voyager” and then return back to earth to a kind of ongoing, jagged anxiety. Rachel Brownson (Poetry 2014) told me that she saw the poems in my thesis move from “acute” to “chronic” — that insight has stayed with me and one that influenced the trajectory of these poems. Jennifer Grotz worked with me on the ordering of my thesis and she suggested that I shrink the poems to four-on-a-page and then print and cut them into a kind of “deck of poems.” Doing that I could carry them with me and shuffle them—getting a real feel for which poems seemed to fit next to other poems. I used this exercise for BICSNAK and then Eric Hove, my editor from Red Bird Chapbooks, made really smart suggestions on moving a few poems that led to what you see today.
There’s a masterful pinning down of physiological moments. For example in “Now, Voyager”: “Was I still sleeping or something different while / I ricocheted and hurled, tumbling forward, / my rotation equal to the square root of my infection.” How do you make these abstract sensations so concrete and immediate?
My father’s love of the movies was passed on to me — having been raised on movies my habit is to think cinematically. I prefer to choose words with tangibility and grit especially because so many of the concerns of my work are intangible and abstract or too large, too far, too small to actually hold in your hand. Also, C. Dale Young challenged me to think about precision vs. accuracy and I think I still have some PTSD from that whole semester.
Precision vs. accuracy! Tell us a little more.
When CDY challenged us to explain the difference between precision and accuracy it made us really think about the difference between those two words. It was to illuminate the importance of using the very right words; to show the value of diction in a poem. I’ll let him explain:
“In the hierarchy of poetry, the line is king. But once you throw out regular meters, syntax becomes more important as a way of guiding a reader through a poem. Remember of course, in a poem, syntax is always in relation to line ending, a built in tension. Once you throw out syntax, diction becomes more important. This is not to say one must throw out syntax, but that diction plays a much more important role in a poem than many realize because we are seduced by syntax, by the way a mind other than our own has ordered things.”
Did anything surprise you in the process of writing about the body? In writing your chapbook in general?
Writing about the body— writing about my body— was a way of re-acquainting myself with my body. Landing in the ICU and then remaining in the hospital for weeks afterwards with several doctors, nurses, & technicians sharing accountability for and access to my body, I left with a little bit of alienation from my body—like it wasn’t wholly mine any more. The surprise I experienced has been in finding the changing degrees to which I possess sole ownership of my body; and all the ways my (infected) body is perceived, medicated, managed, and legislated for and against in our country.
In this era that is aggressively hostile toward the marginalized, including those with illnesses, what is the role of the artist?
I was raised on Silence = Death and saw first-hand the truth of it and so I think the artist must speak, write, paint, dance, et al. I think today it continues to be vital to speak out, loud and often, as we confront these new (old) tactics of double-speak, propaganda, and spin. I hold close to me these words from Tiana Clark: “You’re not alone. Write no matter what. Whatever you’re scared about is what you need to be writing…. If you’re scared, just do it scared.”
Imagery of outer space (“Planets dissolve; my lungs fill with sick. Stars, / outside and up, expand and burst to life:”) and of cars (“the pull of combustion”) reappears throughout your poetry. How did these elements find their way into your work? What roles have they served?
Both image streams arrived as a surprise and over time. As I’ve reflected on them, I have come to an idea of what they serve for me… and who really knows right? But “outer space” I think serves to be the large — very large — “thing” against which something as small as an infectious agent is compared. Virus is so so small and outer space is so so large, there is some comfort in considering the vastness/openess of space instead of the claustrophobic confines of the body especially when there is an infectious interloper inside. And the car/driving/road became a totem for my father. I was obsessing over the kinds of things fathers and sons share and specifically my father and me. The moment my father came to my hospital bed remains a powerful image in my memory: it seemed to fulfill some antiquated idea of what some fathers of gay sons might have found themselves facing (at least that was the message during my growing up): coming to the hospital bed of a gay son with AIDS. And that idea led me to consider what typical father and son traditions he and I shared: teaching me to drive is one of them.
In “pamphlet_16_253057_HIV_and_Cerebral.Hypoxia_Factsheet_HIV_STD,” published in Bellevue Literary Revue, the speaker marvels at the “silent astonishing math” of water evaporating from a jar. (Reminding us that both science and literature are fueled by mystery!) What role can science play in helping a writer uncover an emotional truth?
Initially as I spent time acclimating with my infection, I had to learn a whole lot of medical/scientific terms and concepts. I was immersed in a new language bank. Something that I became aware of was that doctors and nurses expected that I knew what they were talking about but I didn’t really know anything except the basics. I don’t know if this is a shortcoming of the medical profession — that they speak in a way that telegraphs their assumption that you understand all these terms and the implications of their reported numbers — but that was my experience. At night in my hospital bed I used my phone to Google all these foreign words and tried to make sense of the concepts and reports and their implications. I think I took in this process of discovery: I’d come to know the seriousness of my condition at the same time that I finally defined a term or a complication. And it was through this process that my emotions were calibrated — and distanced because of the science. It was a way of slowing down in a deliberate and precise way the truth of what was happening.
What’s next for you and your work?
I continue to edit and tinker with a full-length manuscript of poems that has begun to make its way around contests and open submissions. I will be reading this April at Cafe Muse in a Maryland suburb of DC and in May in Pittsburgh, PA.
And AWP’s coming up! You’re driving the volunteer effort to represent the MFA Program for Writers at the bookfair. What does AWP mean to you — especially with it being in your DC backyard this year? What are you looking forward to?
This is my second year as volunteer coordinator for the WW table but will be the seventh year I attend. My first AWP was in DC. At that time I had just begun writing again and knew nothing about the presses, journals, programs, and writers that attended. I’ve gone to AWP every year since and every year I seem to know a little bit more than I did the year before. It was while attending the Minneapolis AWP Bookfair that I got the chance to see Red Bird Chapbooks in person and that led me to submit my chapbook to them. This year, there is an HIV/Elegy panel that I will be going to; staffing the WW table is a chance to get to know more alums; Bull City Press celebrates 10 years with a reading; and I’m excited for the panel celebrating Michael Collier — but what I most look forward to is seeing old friends.
Chantal Aida Gordon received her MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College in 2016. She lives in Los Angeles, California.