The 2021 Blue Light Books Prize is open for submissions until October 31st! In this email interview with 2021 judge Nandi Comer, IR invites her to talk about her new book, Tapping Out, her literary influences and writerly obsessions, and the process of developing ourselves through writing.
NANDI COMER is the author of the American Family: A Syndrome (Finishing Line Press) and Tapping Out (Northwestern University Press). She is a Cave Canem Fellow, a Callaloo Fellow, and a Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellow. Her poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Muzzle, The Offing, and Southern Indiana Review. She currently serves as an assistant poetry editor for Four Way Review and as a poetry editor for Obsidian Literature and Arts in the African Diaspora.
Tapping Out features illustrations and definitions of different moves and luchadores, which also serve to delineate the different sections of the book. How do you conceive of these expressions working together?
The book is about Lucha Libre—sort of. It’s about home, love, travel, and identity. It also is a deep dive into language, how one acquires new vocabulary, and how we don’t always have the language to say what we mean. The definitions serve as an intro to the themes of the poems, but they also demand the reader to participate in the quest for meaning that is so important in writing and language acquisition.
I am always working with a dictionary nearby. I don’t think too many days go by without paging through to search for the meaning of a word or opening the dictionary app on my phone or computer. I love the way different dictionaries serve specific roles in my life. A dictionary of literary terms, a Spanish-English dictionary, the urban dictionary—they are about gaining access to a language and meaning.
When I started writing poems about Lucha Libre, I was using the definitions as epigraphs for individual poems because I was aiming to explain to a reader unfamiliar with wrestling. Once I began assembling the collection, I didn’t like how the terms were restricted to single poems. I did what most writers do—I played around with assembly and reassembly. There was even a version where all of the poems that were introduced with definitions were in an individual section. When I decided to pull the wrestling terms out and use the definitions as section headers the mystery of sequencing shifted. The meaning of the poems became more expansive. The definitions gave the group a framework to be in conversation with each other.
You introduce different types of luchadores throughout your book. Do you identify with one more than others?
Let’s see, there are so many divisions of “types” of wrestlers. The exóticos, the minis, the superheroes, the families, and then women! –who I feel like they should have their own category for how incredible they take to the ring. The técnicos (faces) and rudos (heels) are the two dominant groups. Sometimes I identify with técnicos. They are the heroes. They don’t want to cheat. Through brilliant strategy, they prioritize taking down their opponent within the confines of the rules. Writing can be a struggle and I like to think that within the structure, I hold down the body of the poem and shape it into what I want. Writing within the structure of rules can open extraordinary possibilities. On the other hand, I am naturally rebellious like the rudos. They are the rule-breakers. There is a satisfaction in knowing the rules and throwing them out. What might be expected of me is not always what I want to give. Maybe I am a técnico with rudo tendencies. Either way, when I go to matches, I find myself rooting for técnicos.
What do you consider the makings of a good book of poetry? Do you gravitate toward literature that appeals to your own “writerly obsessions,” your oft-revisited themes and ideas?
My writerly obsession might not be as obvious. I am most drawn in by voice and lyric work. I love it when a collection takes me in and then surprises me. I can be taken up by almost any collection that has an original approach to language and/or its subject matter. The poetry that I think is most engaging is the kind that serves as a container for multiple acts. If I do a close reading of the work will I find more? Is there close attention to craft in the syntax or structure? While I find myself drawn to new or historically marginalized perspectives, I am excited by original representations of familiar stories. I want to fall in love with the mystery of a writer’s invention.
You adapt a line from Federico García Lorca’s “Ghazal of the Terrifying Presence” in your poem “Tamed.” What other artists influenced this collection? Who do you draw upon for inspiration?
There are so many influences on the poems in Tapping Out—some more obvious than others. I see this collection as a contribution to the rich tradition of African American travel narrative and so I spent a lot of time studying the first ideations of black travel in the slave narratives. If I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams, I set out to create a document that extends the conversations found in Phillis Wheatly’s view of her country or Olaudah Equiano’s global voyages or Fredrick Douglas’ escape to freedom. I also turned to contemporary poets working through themes of displacement and travel abroad like Tracy K Smith and Collen J. McElroy. The memoirs of Langston Hughes and the essays James Baldwin were texts I kept returning to.
My life was changed when I decided to do close readings of writers taking on personas in their writing. I am always returning to the poetry of Ai, Wisława Szymborska, and Patricia Smith. Reading them taught me a lot more than just stepping out of my perspective. I borrowed strategies for sequencing and their use of historical research for my poems. I could live a complete life returning to their books.
Your poems, like “Negrita,” “Kathmandu,” and “Guadalajara in the Form of Litany,” work a lot with questions of identity and place. Do you have any advice for writers working to excavate their own histories or develop their own voices?
Place. Home. These are very difficult things for me to write about especially because I struggle over what it means to be from a place like Detroit. When I was growing up during the economic decline of the 1980s, my generation was taught that success was equated to leaving, that we needed to find the life of wealth in the suburbs or a safe college town. When I left for college, I thought I’d never move back. Then a family emergency brought me home indefinitely. I returned to a community struggling with a new recession, numerous foreclosures, and a city battling bankruptcy. But I also came home and connected with poets, grassroots organizers, community gardeners, and artists all building the community they wanted to see without the dominant cultural definitions of wealth and prosperity. Through community, I fell in love with my complicated home.
So advice? The work of unearthing is dirty. Drop to your knees and dig. Allow yourself to feel the rich soil, worms, and roots of the stories that connect you to place. Everything you find may not seem like good stuff at first and the process might feel a little dangerous. You might find a stone or discarded bottle. But that’s important too. Even the weeds are useful. And too, leave your subject alone. Write about something else. When I am not writing about Detroit, Detroit, like a squirrel, will creep up behind me and sit in my poems. It likes to bury little gifts for me that I will have to dig up later.