emet ezell, author of BETWEEN EVERY BIRD, OUR BONES speaks with Cleaver Poetry Editor Claire Oleson
Poetry Editor Claire Oleson speaks with emet ezell on their debut poetry chapbook, Between Every Bird, Our Bones, out now with Newfound.
Claire: This book gives us bite-sized poems in paragraph-like vignettes. What drew you to this form, this body, for your language?
emet: In BETWEEN EVERY BIRD, OUR BONES, the text and the body are unapologetically queer— which is to say, they never fully solidify into a single shape. No table of contents, no capitalization, and no titles. Instead, these poems fly through the sky with infinite beginnings and infinite iterations.
I found this poetic form by listening deeply to the physicality of language. Sparked by images and sounds, I wrote slowly by hand. This allowed me to prioritize the carnality of language, its cadence and direction. When I listened long enough, the writing told me what it wanted: wide margins and solid blocks of text. I needed a form that could hold oscillations between insurmountable paradoxes; I needed a form that acknowledged the fact that not everything resolves.
In threading the vignettes together, I found resonance with Etel Adnan. Adnan writes in a similar form in her book In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, grouping the text into chunks that prioritize the image. There is something about these blocks that shifts the pace of time: their brevity allows for focused attention amidst movement.
For me, poetic form and gender expression are always intertwined, perpetually asking: what shape does now need? I want poetry to be as vibrant with form as our bodies are with gender. It is my hope that this chapbook might shimmer across the sky to other trans poets, helping us find one another as we write into expansive and genre-breaking forms.
C: Things cost money in this book. Yeast infections, MRI’s, underwear, clementines, and the reclamation of Palestinian cars seized by Israeli Occupation Forces. These show up in definable, convertible currency. Why is that important?
e: Things cost money in our lives— and those costs, translated to dollar amounts, carry distinct somatic sensations.
My poems rigorously research emotion and materiality. What do I feel when I spend $169.29 and why? My mouth goes dry and I start to sweat. My eyes dart fast, my breath quickens. I want to know where these reactions come from. Are these feelings mine or was I taught to feel this way? What can these feelings teach me about class and power? How does money occupy the intersection between my family history and global histories? How does the specific amount of money I have (or do not have) impact my capacity to engage with myself and the world around me? What does precarity look like on the page?
Inspired by Eula Biss’ Having and Being Had, I made a rule for myself: anytime I had an emotional reaction to a dollar amount, I named it explicitly in the poem. Part of the perversity of wealth inequality is that we don’t talk publicly about money and the sensations which accompany it. Even when we try to talk about class, the psychological toll of poverty and precarity remain unacknowledged. What do rich people obscure when they hide their wealth, either through offshore accounts or social pretense? How do the rest of us maneuver around money? The Occupy Movement had a huge role in shifting our collective discourse. But we are still lacking the emotional language to have conversations about our economic realities.
As a community organizer, I know that if we can’t talk about something, we can’t change it. One of the ways our bodies metabolize and spit out the violence of capitalism is through language. Perhaps a poem can be a spell that allows us to move towards economic justice. By bringing visceral cost into the poem, I am smashing the illusion that poetry could ever exist outside the material conditions under which we live.
C: Could you speak on the Venn diagram between closing a door on a place and closing a door on a gender or sex? These feel like wholly different subjects at first, but in reading your chapbook, I felt them holding hands in some of your lines.
e: In my body, gender is a place, bound up with birds and dirt and trees and sky. When I departed from Texas and from the gender I was expected to inhabit, it upset many people in my life. Much of my family cannot call me by name or acknowledge a world beyond Christian conceptions of male and female. As I wrote the poems in BETWEEN EVERY BIRD OUR BONES, I wanted to investigate: How does place shape our experience of gender? How does gender shape our experience of place?
I didn’t know I was queer until I was 21, kissing another trans body in the middle of nowhere at a Jewish farm in Connecticut. What I had thought to be true about myself disintegrated beneath my feet. I was in gender and sexual whiplash; when I returned home to Texas, I had no way to integrate the huge shifts I was experiencing. It took failure and practice and patience and community, like learning a language— like learning your way around a new place.
I know now that girlhood and womanhood are places I cannot physically return to in my body. And yet, I can return to their ephemeral imprints in my interiority. I can remember the gendered ghosts I carry, the years in which I had giant pink bows pressed into my hair. Can I hold these ghosts of my life with fondness? Somehow, it feels similar to the way I can return to the familiar shape of oak trees in my grandmother’s yard, even though they are no longer there.
C: The language you give us shows hospital waiting rooms alongside border checkpoints. It feels as though roosting pigeons and ultrasounds both carry immediate medical knowledge. Can you tell us about your birds? This book is dense with them; share with us a bit about your augury.
e: The birds have been following me since I was a child, although it’s the dead ones that demand the most attention. With the climate crisis, I find more and more dead birds. They follow me across continents and arrive dead on my doorstep. Usually, they carry information or a request. Sometimes, I feel their blessing.
When I lived in Jerusalem, I saw a dead bird every day for two weeks straight. The message was clear: I needed to go meet my family, who live in an Ultra-Orthodox religious neighborhood of the city. When I finally arrived at their apartment, my grandmother’s cousin Zelig had just died. He was a rabbi who specialized in studying the Jewish laws about bird sacrifice in the Temple. Suffice it to say, augury runs in the family.
I’m doing my part to trace the death of birds and the stories of my ancestors. When I handle a dead bird, either by burying it or by preserving its wings in salt, I’m listening for my ancestor’s instruction. Speaking with birds is my way of interacting with the wisdom and eventuality of death. The more I dig into my own lineage, the more I find myself singing: how can I inherit the sky?
C: Do you have a favorite bird?
e: I’m currently obsessed with the Cassowary bird.
These birds are massive, flightless beings that only eat fruit and are found near the tropical forests of Papua New Guinea and West Papua. They have a giant, horn-like bulge on their heads called a casque that both protects their skulls and allows them to pick up sounds at lower frequencies.
What evolutionary brilliance! Could I also simultaneously cultivate protection and perception? Can I grow a bone-like bulge, one that assists me in listening to different frequencies? How do I protect my skull? Is this what it means to be a poet?
C: What are you working on now?
e: For the past few months, I’ve been writing into questions of inheritance. What is the spiritual work of ending a blood line? What’s passed down when there is no down? For me, these questions carry a queer, diasporic materiality. They are also questions that evoke poverty, eviction, bankruptcy, and debt.
While writing poems about my grandmother in South Carolina, I found myself confronting the perpetuation of poverty and incarceration in my family. Many of my relatives in South Carolina have been in and out of prison, and it’s worth noting that South Carolina has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States.
I’m working with these poems, shaping them into a full-length collection that situates my familial lineage inside the syntax, history, and cost of incarceration in the US South. Amidst my research, I’m trying to give the poems time and space to sit in order to figure out what it is they have to say.
C: Thank you so much for your time and your answers! emet’s chapbook, Between Every Bird, Our Bones is available from Newfound Press here
On November 3, 2022, emet ezell will be reading with poet Mónica Gomery at Philadelphia’s oldest LGBTQ+ Bookstore, Giovanni’s Room. You can find more of emet’s work online at www.emetezell.com
Cleaver Senior Poetry Editor Claire Oleson is a writer hailing from Grand Rapids Michigan. She’s a 2019 grad of Kenyon College, where she studied English and Creative Writing. Her work has been published by the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, Siblíní Art and Literature journal, Newfound Journal, NEAT Magazine, Werkloos Magazine, and Bridge Eight Magazine, among others. She is also the 2019 winner of the Newfound Prose Prize and author of the chapbook Things From the Creek We Could Have Been. Contact her by email.