Ariel: So, tell me about Dead Horse.
Niina: Well, the form or the function or some other aspect of it?
Ariel: Surprise me.
Niina: Okay, so there is this weird place in Brooklyn called Dead Horse Bay, which is down in South Brooklyn kind of near the Verrazano Bridge. The reason for its name was that it used to be surrounded by glue factories, where the carriage horses would go get processed.
Ariel: Oh, wow.
Niina: Yeah, it is kinda grim. Especially after the automobile took over New York City, the carriage horse thing was no longer lucrative, so they made it a dump. Even better, right? And, so, it went from a glue factory to a dump. But then they were like, oh crap, we shouldn’t have a dump this close to the city. So they capped it and sealed it, and then the cap at some point later burst. So, now when you go to Dead Horse Bay, you find horse bone shards and fifties-era garbage, like weird bottles and shoes and things. And so it’s a very weird experience to go there. Like, you can actually take the bus and disembark and go through some hedges and then you’re on the beach filled with garbage. It smells weird, like chemicals. At low tide you find horseshoe crab corpses and it feels very much like, not a part of New York City. While, definitely very much being a part of New York City.
Ariel: Still goth and somewhat obsessed with death after all these years! [laughter] I love it!
Niina: Yeah, I know. I almost like to talk about it, because once I find a place that talks to me, I kind of think of it as mine. You know?
Niina: But of course, thousands of people go there all the time. It’s not a beautiful beach, but if you’re into the decay of cities, it’s a really cool place to visit. And so, and then there’s of course, like the idea of beating a dead horse and how much that kind of sounds like it’s about the body. As you know there’s a lot about the body in the collection, so that title seemed fitting. Plus my editor pointed out that I use a lot of single-syllable, elemental words, and the title is just like that. You know, the thing down to its essence, basically.
Ariel: So, Carl Phillips has said that poetry is more of a transformation of experience, rather than a transcription of it. What do you think about that?
Niina: I think all good literature is a transformation of experience. Poetry can perhaps be more obviously that because people expect poetry to take certain cognitive leaps. It’s not as specifically straightforward as an art form. As the sort of the weird cousin of prose, it doesn’t always make sense. So, in that way it allows you to be very transformative. You can hop from one thing to another, subject matter-wise, a lot faster and with greater ease that you could in prose. With prose you’re almost forced to explain your thought process and connections more. I think readers of poetry allow themselves to make connections more intuitively. In poetry, readers don’t necessarily expect you to do that, so that’s the great part.
At the same time, though, I’ve gotten a lot of comments about being very clear and straightforward in my own poetics, in terms of like what I write. People are always coming up to me and saying “Oh I’m not usually a poetry person, but…” and then they go on to say that they enjoyed it, or got something out of it, or bought my book. I think that is really cool too. But although I try to keep my language clear and essential, I still expect my readers to get weird with me.
Ariel: Speaking of clarity, I wanted to ask you how important accessibility of meaning is to poetry? Put another way, should one have to work hard to solve a poem?
Niina: Of course it’s wonderful if a poem talks to a lot of people. And when I edit, I really want things to be clear. But a poem takes its own life once it’s out in the world. It gathers its own momentum and it doesn’t always do what you meant for it to do. I think if your poem’s meaning is accessible to people, that’s amazing. But if you’re trying to intentionally obscure or hide your meaning, or make yourself seem smarter by being needlessly complicated, I think that’s where poetry really gets a bad rep. I can’t stand overly academic writing, period. That goes for poetry and prose and everything in between. I just think that you should know what you’re saying. Have enough control over your language to guide the reader, but leave some room for them to be surprised.
Ariel: Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. I can’t stand obtuse poetry. When I took poetry workshops with Susan Mitchell at FAU she had us read a lot of language poets, because that’s what she was into and I just couldn’t stand it. And then there’s what’s published in, say, the New Yorker, which for me is sometimes hit, mostly miss.
Niina: Yeah, language poetry is not necessarily for me either. I need to have something tangible in the world. I need to be grounded in reality, at least part of the way. Even when some of your content is impossible or implausible or surreal, there needs to be something that keeps you oriented or grounded within the framework of the poem. In that book, for me, the tangible thing was often a sense of place.
Ariel: Oh, yeah, I agree and I think Dead Horse does exactly that. I even said in my review there was only one part that I found myself, like unsure of, and the rest I was like, yeah I get this. This is, this is comprehensible and that was great.
Niina: When you’re reading something and you understand the location or the premise or you understand something fundamental about it, it allows you to get at the subtleties of it and that that allows the complicated stuff to sneak up on you. Then you’re not flailing to understand the mechanics of it.
Ariel: Yeah, once you get the, have the general focus, you can start looking at the little pieces and maybe like, play around with them.
Ariel: Okay, tell me a little bit about Kiss Me in the Boring Rain project as I too am somewhat obsessed with Lana Del Rey.
Niina: Oh yeah. So, I found myself listening to Born To Die and thinking a lot about it and not quite being able to grasp why I liked it so much. Some of the lyrics are kind of basic and it’s not that’s it’s musically that complicated. The album wasn’t even that well produced in some parts. But something about the persona that she adopted – the absolute certainty with which she talks about her devotion to the darkness of love, made it rattle around in my brain. And so, I slowly wrote the poems while listening to particular songs, like on repeat, until I got some lines down. There is something about her that I can’t get over, but that project helped me a lot with my obsession around that album. It helped me put the album away a little bit.
Ariel: I know how you feel. She’s easily one of my most listened to artists in the past five years. When I saw her play live a few months ago I didn’t even care about the lackluster stage show just because I was so caught up in the lyrics music. Anyway. Shift of topic. I know you attend a lot of poetry readings and even host your own, Popsickle. I’m curious how has the Internet informed and contributed to the well-being of poetry in your mind?
Niina: Quite a lot. It makes sense to poets. I think poetry benefits from the immediacy of Internet because it reduces the turnaround time on publishing in journals, or in any form of print really, and I feel that poetry works best when it’s reactive to the zeitgeist. When there’s a faster cycle between writing and publishing it, it’s good for the medium. It’s also easier to reach more people than a print subscription to a journal would. Not that print is not valuable, of course it is, but it’s just like more, it’s got a wider reach and more tentacles, you know.
Ariel: Cool. What books in print are you reading right now?
Niina: Right now I’m reading Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair, and Green Girl by Kate Zambreno.
Ariel: I’m reading a history of Miami’s segregationist housing policy. It’s academic history, but written in an accessible way and I find the subject fascinating.
Niina: Actually that sounds extremely interesting. I’m working on a little bit of prose which takes place in Florida. So I was just reading about Everglades draining, which is another smart idea Florida had.
Ariel: Yeah, Florida’s land developers haven’t always been bright, but they’ve always known how to sell the idea of a potential that on closer observation is detrimental to everything that made it in the first place. I took a Florida History class at FAU and the professor had said about how it’s this underserved niche in the field.
Niina: I think Florida’s a really interesting state because of it’s heterogeneity in population and it’s proximity to different areas of the Americas and of the world. And because, it’s the place sketchy people go to disappear for many reasons.
Niina: There’s also its various environmental issues. There’s just so much to say about it, and it should be taken seriously, but like, Florida’s sort of the crazy bitch of America, right? Everyone’s like, “Oh Florida, there it goes again!”
Ariel: “Florida man does something unusual and awful again.”
Niina: Exactly. I wanted to start a Twitter account for like heroic Florida Man stories that were like “Good job Florida man!”, or something. That stuff happens too it just doesn’t get as much circulation.
Ariel: Yeah. We’re not all dying from eating too many roaches.
Niina: Yeah, we’re not all like throwing an alligator into a Wendy’s.
Ariel: Haha! And of course that happens in my hometown of Jupiter, way to go Florida Man!
Niina: I know! That made me laugh so much when I read it.
Ariel: Yeah, all my friends were sharing that too. Almost as a counterweight to that kind of notion I’ve been reading a lot of works by Florida authors lately. I just finished a collection of short stories by Jennine Capó Crucet about like Cuban life in Hialeah. Then there’s Paul Kwiatkowski, who wrote Every Day Was Overcast. Weird coincidence, but after I interviewed him a couple of months ago, I’ve since found out that I have three mutual friends with him.
Niina: That’s awesome. Karen Russell and Kent Russell both write about Florida too. And Sarah Gerard is publishing a collection of essays about Florida next year with Harper Perennial.
Ariel: Karen Russell wrote Swamplandia!, right? My eleventh grade students are reading that in their English class right now.
Niina: That’s awesome. Yeah, I love her. Her short story collection is really good.
Ariel: Yeah I want to read Swamplandia! too, but, like, I need to stop buying books for a little bit and finish reading all of what I have, so I don’t.
So now that we’re talking about all these books, I wonder how did your MFA influence your creative process?
Niina: If I could go back in time I would do a lot more research about MFA programs. The program I attended maybe wasn’t the one for me, because it was super narrative, and about as literal as poetry can be. But, the main way it influenced me was getting me to New York and, so you know, hooking me up with an initial community of people who were my first readers and all that stuff. And I still stay in touch with like a couple of the people and they’re critical in my process. So, that part, that part mostly, community I guess.
Ariel: I read this article in Jezebel that touches on some of the subject we’ve been talking about – the internet, reactivity and poetry communities – and was wondering if there was any overlaps with your experience.
Niina: I attended one of the schools where this particular “inappropriate literary man” taught, and although my personal experiences were different than the ones this article touches upon, I felt that the program’s atmosphere was very male somehow. Maybe it has to do with some old-school notion of the MFA program, but in retrospect it’s especially confusing to me at that school because the program was mostly non-men. That was ten years ago; it does feel like there’s a change in the air now. Voices that might have stayed silent even as recently as then aren’t staying silent anymore, and that’s a good thing.
Make sure to read my review of Dead Horse and then buy it of course! You can follow Niina’s website by going here. Also, as a special Halloween treat, dear reader, feast your eyes on this collaborative poem that Niina and I wrote when babies for duo-poetry performance: I present to you Degothalizer 2000!