Shannon Nakai in conversation with Maya C. Popa about Wound Is the Origin of Wonder
96 pages. Norton 2022; Picador 2023.
Shannon Nakai: My first question has to do with your writing process. I’ve noticed that some of your poems, including the titular one, bear full sentences, complete thoughts. “Wound Is the Origin of Wonder,” “There Must Be a Meaning,” “The Present Speaks of Past Pain.” I also watched your video where you talked about “The Bees Have Been Canceled” and the genesis and thought process behind that. So it led me to wonder how holistic your writing approach is. When you sit down to write a poem: how complete is that thought in your mind when you’re putting it on the page?
Maya C. Popa: There are probably multiple ways in which this manifests, but two possibilities come to mind. The first is that I’m struck by something that makes me feel, to some degree, restless, and I’m driven to the page to exorcise or work within that energy of not being quite sure of what I just experienced, or what I even think yet. Because I do think that writing and thinking are synonymous in that moment. Poems that look at small gestures or moments between individuals are probably emerging from that impulse. Something will strike me, but I won’t have the full measure of what it is until I start writing. I always think of Wordsworth saying that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling recollected in tranquility.
Other times, the music or sound of a line will occur to me, as was the case with “The Bees Have Been Canceled.” I’ll turn it over and over in my head, then sit down to write, at which point it reveals itself further. It’s a matter of which aspect leads first. Is it the potential feeling that you’re uncovering, or the music you’re following?
SN: Right! And there is so much cadence in so many of your poems. The wordplay is beautiful and you draw a lot from the natural world and pairing sounds to sight a lot. Is that something you often do with your writing?
MP: Unconsciously, yes. Nature is central to everything. It has its own soundscape, and I’m always fascinated by that, because I live in a metropolis. A lot of what I hear is not natural, but hearing anything that is—the wind through trees or birds–is a reprieve. Nature always finds its way into the poems. It’s a compass.
Sound is very important to me. I do read the work out loud, of course. It’s primal and at the heart of what we do as poets. I like reading sonorous work and hope I write it to the best of my ability.
SN: Your discussion on being out in the natural world provoked a question. Many of your poems richly evoke that sensory engagement, which is profound in our post-pandemic world where we were so restricted in physical contact. And your poem “Pestilence” really outlines that monotonous restriction. You also made explicit references to sensory engagement– “A mouthful of black tea to confirm taste,” or walking “in the middle of the street / testing an appetite for life against / an appetite for peace…” Now that we’re in a place, more or less, in which public movement and interactions have resumed, I was curious if you have noticed anything that was lost or gained in your writing perspective since 2020, 2021?
MP: I definitely slowed down—as a writer, as a person—and I suspect many resonate with that to some degree. What was miraculous about that spring was that I got to watch it from my window; there are a number of old trees planted outside, and it was almost a meditative practice watching those buds come in, incrementally inching towards bloom for weeks.
I wanted “Pestilence” to reflect this, to take its time to get to a “sort of” point. I took notes every day; I had no intention or desire to write a “pandemic poem.” It wasn’t about creating an object, but paying witness to what was happening. Very often, as most of us recall, information changed from one day to the next. We’re still, not really, in the “aftermath” of that experience. We don’t feel that dread of lockdown or terror, but it’s going to take a long time to wash off that agony and that grief. It’s likely still shaping all of our writing and thinking in ways that we may not even be conscious of.
SN: Your first “Wound Is the Origin of Wonder” poem called to mind the similar posture of watching the natural world that we see in Walden, for instance, that rediscovery of the self in that microcosm of what you’d overlook if you weren’t sitting still watching for it. You also make some references to “an almost life,” or in between a life lived and a life remembered. It’s almost like a limbo in a sense, drawing back and away from the ever-moving trajectory. Is there some kind of respite there in the act of watching and wondering as opposed to wandering and being on that trajectory?
MP: Yes. I believe that quality of limbo can also come out of moments grief or unhappiness in which, in a way, you feel resistance to your own life. I was interested in capturing that—not making it an acute situation, but rather a kind of atmosphere or state of mind in the poem. It gives us relief anytime we can name or put space between ourselves and our subjectivity.
SN: There’s this tension between what lasts and what doesn’t in these poems. Like nature. That lasts, but it’s indifferent to us. It’s affected by us, but completely indifferent. You described this kind of jokingly as a depressing book, but I actually got a lot of undertones of joy in your poems. You make so many intelligent, compassionate references to joy. There’s this gravitational pull towards it. The celebration of a shared owl, or Noah’s family in which you recognize the unsung heroine in that story. In some ways I would say that joy appears as a character, an unsung heroine, except you’re singing her. Would you say that’s an accurate observation?
MP: I’m so grateful to any reader who sees that. I was looking at the tensions inherent in wonder. It’s a powerful source of meaning and joy in our lives, but its etymology is linked to wound, to the sensation of being breached. That feels entirely right to me. Love, for instance, guarantees pain. It’s a sort of cliché by this point, and it’s not as though we’re fishing for pain in life. Rather, it’s that pain is guaranteed alongside the things we do wish to experience, and to live richly and fully comes with discomfort and grief. I feel extremely on the side of hope and joy, very much so, but I also want to pay witness to the moments that feel layered with more than that.
SN: I love the epigraphs you chose. I think they speak to that. “If I defer the grief, I will diminish the gift,” by Eavan Boland. Were there any surprises or discoveries for you as you were writing and developing this collection?
MP: It didn’t necessarily surprise me, but it seems to have surprised others that the five or so poems that address the pandemic never mention it by name. “All That Is Made,” which is one of my favorite poems about Julian of Norwich and Christ is, to me, a pandemic poem because it opens on a vision of pandemic spring. But I never mention “COVID,” and I was recently asked why I chose never to mention it by name. It never occurred to me to do it—I think that surprised me once I realized—because, strangely, I didn’t feel like the poems were about the facts of the matter. They were more interested in the internal and cognitive shifts that were happening under those conditions, and the collective experience.
Every night at seven, the people in my neighborhood would open their windows and clap for the workers going to or leaving their nightshifts at the hospitals. Everyone thought this was a beautiful and moving moment of solidarity and collective celebration. And I acknowledged it as such; and yet, for me, it was the hardest time of day. During daylight hours, I could almost pretend it was my choice to be at home, rereading books I hadn’t read it years, and teaching online. But this moment would fill me with terror and sadness. It was a deeply affecting gesture, but it amplified the contrast and unbearable realities of the moment. We were celebrating people risking their lives night after night. I ended up including a phrase about it in “Pestilence.” That is, perhaps, what surprised me about writing the experience of the pandemic: what went in and what didn’t go into a poem, what comforted and what didn’t during those months. Some details become impossible to transform beyond the observation itself into the language of the poem. That’s also often the challenge of writing about current events.
SN: Because that distance for retrospection may or may not have occurred in that time.
MP: Exactly. Ideally, you want something that’s also full of time and timeless. That’s a tricky thing to negotiate with poems that are responding to the moment.
SN: To wrap up this interview, I was curious what you hope to see in your own writing and in the landscape of poetry itself in the near future.
MP: Such a great question. I think, as concerns the landscape of poetry, there’s never been a better time to take risks, the biggest risk being exactly who you are, and writing exactly your voice, your story, your manner, your form, your lens, all of it. Again, I think and hope that the pandemic served to remind us that life is fleeting, and self-restraint in those areas is not what will serve us best. We need more people being authentically themselves. In my own writing, I always hope to pay better and better attention to the world—as a poet and a person. To be more deeply appreciative of the world—the natural world in particular—and of the planet I am blessed to live on and upon which I fortunate enough to write these poems.
Maya C. Popa is the author of Wound Is the Origin of Wonder (Norton 2022; Picador 2023) and American Faith (Sarabande 2019). She holds a PhD on the role of wonder in poetry from Goldsmiths, University of London. The Poetry Reviews Editor at Publishers Weekly, she teaches at NYU and elsewhere.
Shannon Nakai is a poet and reviewer whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Cincinnati Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Atlanta Review, Cream City Review, Heavy Feather, Cimarron Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. A former Fulbright recipient and Pushcart Prize nominee, she holds an MFA from Wichita State University, where she teaches creative writing and literature. Follow her on Twitter @shanviolinlove.