Interview with Tiana Nobile
Tiana Nobile (poetry 2017) is a recipient of a 2017 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, the Lucy Grealy Prize for Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and a fellowship from Kundiman. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Poetry Northwest, Apogee, Hyphen Magazine, and the Texas Review, among others. A Pushcart Prize nominee, Nobile lives in New Orleans, where she also works as a teaching artist and arts coach.
- In your chapbook, The Spirit of the Staircase (Antenna :: Press Street Press, 2017), your poetry is intertwined with the paintings of Brigid Conroy. Palm leaves, sliced citrus, even the titles are painted. Why did you decide to marry the lines of your verse with visual art? What was the collaborative process like? Did the visual art and poetry develop side by side, or did the art follow the completed collection or…?
Antenna is an art and writing collective here in New Orleans, and they had an open call for chapbooks that exist at the “intersection of visual and literary arts.” I had already written the series of poems that appear in the chapbook and thought they would pair well with a visual component. I reached out to Brigid, a friend who is also an artist, and asked if she’d be interested in working together, and she was! Though the poems came first, the process was still very collaborative. Brigid and I met many times throughout her art-making to talk about our shared vision for the project.
- In the chapbook, each poem’s title reads like a racist/misogynistic/fetishistic remark. For example, “Go back to China!” and “I’ve never had an Asian before.” The title is given its own page, followed by the poem, which reads like a response. Are the poems meant to be responses to the remarks? Also, tell us about how the seed of this chapbook first sprouted?
For years I kept an ongoing list of insulting, invasive, racist/sexist/fucked up things people said to me in a note on my phone. At first, it was just a way for me to document these experiences and to acknowledge, even if just to myself, that they happened and that I’m not invisible. Most of the time when someone says something like that to me, I’m temporary immobilized. Should I shout? Cry? Run away? Ultimately, I usually end up doing nothing; I bite my tongue and wait for the moment to pass while my blood boils under my skin. When I learned about the phrase and meaning of “the spirit of the staircase,” I was really inspired. Each poem was written with its particular quote in mind, so I do think of them as a kind of response. The process of writing this series felt like my chance to take some of my agency back, to challenge the power of being rendered silent, to say I do have a voice.
- I’m saving “the spirit of the staircase” to use later. Hits that feeling right on the head. Where did you connect with this expression?
I first learned about the phrase “the spirit of the staircase” during a Warren Wilson residency. I think it was Matthew Olzmann’s class in July 2016.
- Did anything surprise you while writing The Spirit of the Staircase?
The process of writing these poems was actually incredibly liberating, which I didn’t expect. To take time to sit with experiences that had made me feel so vulnerable and to finally take some power back enabled me to release some of the pain they had initially wrought.
- Congratulations on receiving the 2017 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award! How’s life on the other side of this lightning bolt? What projects will the grant make possible?
Thanks! Receiving the Rona Jaffe Award was such an honor. I was filled with a lot of post-MFA uncertainty, and receiving this award was so affirming and came just at the right moment. One major opportunity that this grant will make possible is a trip to South Korea. In many of my poems, I explore the complexities of adoption and dislocation, but the literal landscape of my birthplace is visibly absent. I’m so looking forward to traveling to Korea for the first time thanks to the immense generosity of the Rona Jaffe Foundation.
- Your poem, ” ‘Lost’ first language leaves permanent mark on the brain, new study reveals” appeared in HyphenMagazine last fall, part of its folio of poems by Asian American adoptees. How did this actual headline from the news become the title and catalyst for this poem?
The title is taken from an article that appeared in The Guardian in November 2014. The article describes a report in which scientists discovered that Chinese adoptees, who have no conscious understanding of the language, show the same brain activity as native speakers when hearing common tones found in Chinese languages. I thought it was so fascinating that somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain I could have retained a memory of a language that I acquired in utero. This study also underscored for me the tension between what we gain and retain versus what we lose during childhood/infancy, and that idea was the catalyst for the poem.
- “Revisionist History” in Apogee (September 2017) imagines the speaker’s fantasies of their birth. A woman in a delivery room. A baby arriving at the airport. What methods have you found effective for writing about a stranger (or a mystery) with a unique significance in one’s life?
That’s a great question. As an adoptee, there is so much unknown that I have to reckon with. For a long time, I considered those unknowns as barriers to writing about it. One method I started using in order to combat this was to release the unknown and fill it with something new. Once I gave myself this permission, I was able to let go of my insecurities and preconceived notions and expectations, and I wrote feelings and ideas into details and images. By not feeling beholden to a truth that was inaccessible to me anyway, I allowed myself to take ownership over the mystery and construct my own truth.
Chantal Aida Gordon received her MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College in 2016. She lives in Los Angeles, California.