Contributor spotlight: Nomi Stone

Nomi Stone’s second collection of poetry, Kill Class (Tupelo Press), captures the precarious dynamic between soldiers, role-players, and an anthropologist in mock Middle Eastern villages at military bases across the U.S. Her delicate attention to detail, even the smallest, such as yogurt still fresh on a wrist in the opening poem, vividly illuminates the complicated war game which trains the military in pre-deployments techniques and cultural interactions. The collection, born of ethnographic research, provides insight into a world filled with violence, complicity, and stakes that are all too often unseen—or overlooked—by American citizens.

We published her poem “The Quadrant” back in Issue 23 of Memorious as our first interactive poem in which the reader can virtually step in to to four poems/spaces, labeled Police Station/Jail; Wailing Room; Broken-in Internet Café; and Mosque/School.

In addition to Kill Class, Stone is the author of the poetry collection Stranger’s Notebook(TriQuarterly). Winner of a 2018 Pushcart Prize, Stone’s poems have appeared recently in POETRY MagazineAmerican Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, The New Republic, Tin HouseNew England Review, and elsewhere. Stone has a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Columbia University, an MPhil in Middle East Studies from Oxford, and an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College. She teaches at UT Dallas and her ethnography, Pinelandia:Human Technology and American War, is forthcoming (2021) from the University of California Press.

Your collection, which examines an anthropologist’s observations of military training exercises in mock Middle Eastern villages in America, is an incredible undertaking that blends your work as an anthropologist and as a poet. What first interested you in this topic, both as a field of study and as a space for poetry?

Scholarship, fieldwork, and poetry have always been intertwined for me: a way to linger with questions about the world that test me and make me feel uneasy. In one of her poems, Sandra Lim writes of the wilderness, how you “cannot get around the back of it.” I’m compelled by any kind of bewildering complexity that simply cannot be contained, quantified, or pinned to the wall, and I find myself stumbling into ten-year inquiries into questions that unmoor me in just this way.

Kill Class is a product of one such long inquiry into America and the more violent contortions wrought by nation: borders, war, and the zone between self and other, where fantasies and punishments are often staged. Also, to start, I was a scholar of the Middle East, and I had always wanted to write about Iraq. I began this project in the Middle East, not in America. I was living in Amman, Jordan, interviewing Iraqis who had worked with the US military as drivers, bodyguards, and interpreters, etc.—individuals who were alternately imagined as mediators and collaborators by their countrymen, and eventually chased from Iraq by militias. I learned that some of these individuals had relocated to the United States and were working in mock Middle Eastern villages training American soldiers. These Iraqis worked as the “villager” and “insurgent” and “mourning mother” amidst fake mosques and markets, helping the soldiers rehearse cultural and tactical interactions. I was fascinated and devastated by these individuals’ predicament, as they trained soldiers to occupy their country; and also how they were salaried to enact “being-Iraq” (but not on their own terms), amidst trying to secure American citizenship, that is “becoming-American.”  And so Kill Class (and likewise my adjacent scholarship) are dogged by questions of home and nation and identity and complicity. What is America, who does it make us into, and can we be otherwise? 

You note that the poems are based on extensive interviews of soldiers and role-players, and that characters and situations are composites of the real. Were there challenges with writing about your ethnographic fieldwork—whether in how you approached the subject, the events, or the forms of the poems themselves? How did you address these challenges?

Scholarship is more rigidly accountable to the real for me, compared to poems. There is more room in poems: if I have one foot in the ethnographic, the other is in my own inscape.  As such, many of the poems aren’t tethered to a single referent: they blur across ten years of thinking and seeing and reading about war and country. For example, there is a poem in the book inspired by an inventory of titles of books: the actual books themselves had been lost in the 1258 Mongol sacking of Baghdad. I wrote the poem for an Iraqi friend who is a role-player but also a writer and who loved al-Mutanabbi Street, the beloved street of book markets that was bombed in 2007. The titles of the books were magnificent and mysterious and painful in the absence of the books themselves: there was The Drawing of Lots by Ibn al-Mutahil, The Varieties of Creeping Things, by Ibn al-Batriq, and many others including my favorite: Coming on Objects Unexpectedly(verse) by unknown. These titles became an organizational structure for the poem, which wove together many elements:  there was imagery from stories and dreams I had heard during my fieldwork; there were quotes from my interviews and also occasional lines from the Iraqi poet, Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab, a poet many of my interlocutors could recite; and there were more meta questions about my own process of translation (as a poet and an anthropologist).  Here is an excerpt from that poem, which is entitled: “And who are you now, on the other side, Coming on Objects Unexpectedly(verse) by unknown?”

Out of the sonorous dark, came the objects: the bells

beneath the river; the bridge (it is your childhood bridge):

the men and women and children crossing

the bridge on that holy day—

someone yelled: “it is a trap”

and do you know, they jumped that moment

out of their deaths,

the river took them.

From the darkness, came the lightdrunk hole

out of the whitehot nerve; came keepers

from the Yusifiyya farm, their bees fanning

the air. Amber-yellow, almost bitter under the sweet

it can cure your sore throat

if you eat the eggs of the bees right from the comb

(he explains; have I translated this correctly)

you will have a very strong heart.

In the poem are allusions to Al-Sayyab’s poem, “Death and the River,” with bells beneath a river, melding into a story I was told by different individuals I interviewed about the 2005 stampede on a bridge in Baghdad, of pilgrims en route to the Shiite shrine of Imam Musa al-Kazim. In the poem is also an allusion to a conversation I had with an Iraqi man with beautiful green eyes who became a beekeeper and desperately wanted to one day return to his farm. It ends with my own query: Have I translated this correctly, that compulsion that drives writing an ethnography, and also writing an ethnographic poem (even one that is more dreamily and hybridly tethered to its referent). 

The poem is not documenting one particular moment in my fieldwork, but rather its entire arc in some sense. When I wrote it, I felt haunted by a conversation I kept having with different Iraqi role-players who had become friends. After the role-plays (spaces which had very little to do with Iraq for them), we would go to lunch at someone’s house and watch the Iraqi news as the Islamic State rose to power. The news would be on all afternoon as a backdrop, while we cooked and ate, and someone would eventually sigh and say Iraq is over. And then someone else would say, Maybe Iraq isn’t over. Give it 20 years. Maybe there will be an Iraq again. Then we would sit around and they would tell me stories about Iraq: beautiful and terrible things they remembered. I wrote the poem, “Coming On Objects Unexpectedly” as a kind of dream-reply to those conversations: “out of the sonorous dark, came the objects….. From the darkness, came the lightdrunk hole/ out of the whitehot nerve.” 

I made the poem as a counter to the American military’s reductive archetypes and glossy cards with bullet points about Iraq. The poem—perhaps more compressed, more mysterious— lives alongside an ethnographic monograph where I do a bit more explaining. Who was at the bridge? Who was the beekeeper? And on. Still, on its own, there was something in the poem of what I learned about what my interlocutors had lived in Iraq: the beauty and the fear, the honey and the sting, the goneness of what the country was and the imagination of an otherwise. 

Extracting information is a goal of the soldiers throughout the game. With project books, there’s always the chance that too much can be said or too much left for a reader to infer. How did you approach providing information versus withholding it in the poems, and as you arranged the poems, in the collection as a whole?

In his essay, “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin contrasts stories with information: stories have some kind of strange, magical kernel in them that keeps re-releasing itself to us, each time we read them. Information, conversely, is meant to be immediately available and digestible on a first time read. These mock villages and surrounding cultural trainings for war produce a military economy of providing and extracting information. Poetry is a refusal of that mode of inhabiting the world, of turning knowledge into a means of war-making. So in that sense, this book rebukes the category of information from the outset. Still, I tried to give my readers a foot-hold within the context I was writing about with a short introduction to the book. Also my press used blurbs on the back that offered more of that context. After that, my readers are on their own: the poem is meant to be weird, uneasy, never totally docile and useable. 

One of the most striking moments in the collection occurs in the last three lines of “Mosque / School Room” where the anthropologist uses the soldiers’ strategy to build rapport to get information for her research. On the one hand she’s a witness, but at times she’s also a participant—in the game itself but also in the culture and the learning processes that take place. Do you see these poems as poetry of witness? And if so, how is this complicated when the anthropologist and poet becomes a participant?

Actually, it’s key to note that the soldiers are appropriating anthropology by militarizing anthropology’s historical tool of building rapport with communities that they wanted to learn about. Not the other way around. This said, anthropology is no innocent: it has colonial roots and has often been entangled with the state.  However much of contemporary anthropology is engaged in ongoing redress for its past. The discipline has become intensely self-critical and post-colonial in orientation. 

Another classic tool in anthropology is what is called participant-observation: that is, a kind of learning that comes from both participating and observing. It’s a strange dialectic, because the anthropologist is generally some kind of outsider, so you can only participate so much. But the idea is, if you want to study cheese-makers and cheese-making, you also yourself learn how to make cheese. I do see these poems as poetry of witness, but I also think there is no such pure category. They are poems of witness, poems of uneasy participation, and poems of complicity. I am not in the American military (observer) and I write to critique the military (critic); however, I am an American citizen. As such, I am entangled (participant). 

Throughout the collection, there’s a current of violence that’s imagined and role-played, but that has very real implications. One of the moments where this comes out is in “After the War Game” where the anthropologist is at Billy’s house with the soldiers and “then one of them laughing / pulls a 45 out of the drawer / This is loaded    They look at me.” It’s then shaken off as a joke. Still, it’s threatening and, in a way, reads as a nervous sort of energy from the soldiers. Then, there’s the repeated imagery of circles which perpetuates this unsettled feeling, especially when the woods, too, begin circling in. How does the location—the American South—play a role in these themes?

Yes, it’s true: the woods are meant to circle in, a claustrophobic cloverleaf that keeps returning us back into this site of war. In Kill Class, in each section, there is a poem entitled “Driving Out of the Woods to the Motel,” which allows the reader exit and momentary reprieve. But then we loop right back into the woods in the next section.  Meanwhile, the gun joke can’t fully be diffused because the instrument remains loaded. So too, the past circles us in, and there is a bullet inside the past that keeps ricocheting in circles towards us. 

The threatening energy you describe is indeed linked to a historical topography of violence in the United States, and particularly in the American South. A new friend and colleague of mine, Whitney Stewart is a really brilliant historian coming out with a book called This Is Our Home: The Struggle for Homeplace on Southern Plantations, about the ramifications of racialized ideologies around home and landscape (and also the home-making strategies of those who were enslaved). In one chapter, she describes how the built environment on plantations (groves of trees, fences, etc) enabled both surveillance and separateness. We were both haunted when we realized that one of the plantations she is writing about is very near one of the sites where I did fieldwork. These are interconnected stories of racializing, othering logics in this country that turn people into things, from a brutal history of slavery to using non-white others as instruments of war in a training camp. I think that writing against those logics helps us to better see them clearly, to perforate these circles— to show the real lives and worlds of those who enclosed by them.

 One final question, are you working on a new project now?

Right now, I am working on a new collection of poems called Fieldworkers of the Sublime, which explodes “fieldwork” beyond anthropology, and into a broader category of being alive. It is a book about awe, about fear, and also the ways we are each observers and participants in the sublime (through nature, science, the social world, and intimate life). The book also has a research component that segues from my previous work: I’m interested in the lives and work of scientists in diaspora in the aftermath of war. More broadly than this, I have been spending time with scientists in their laboratories lately: visiting geoscientists and honeybee biologists, getting glimpses into their ways of knowing. (I’m also teaching a spring class called “Laboratories: Ways of Knowing in Poetry and Science” this coming spring). And relatedly, I’m about to start a collaboration with Faruck Marcos, an amazing biologist with a biophysics background at UT Dallas, translating equations into poems and thinking about infinity together.

This new book in progress is also different from my previous work because I’m pushing against the binary between the Field and Life in the space of my own poems: being-alive overflows the grid in every direction. I’m writing about love and my new marriage and queerness and desire and my attempts to overcome my own limits. I’m also especially interested in form (and queering form) in this book, and I have been working on a series of sonnets.

I’m really passionate about seeking form and tools of craft to render modes of being/becoming in the world, and to speak the unsayable. (Which is the topic of a class I am teaching next year!) Also, as I mentioned, I have an anthropological book under contract, Pinelandia (the University of California Press, 2021) that is the scholarly companion to Kill Class.In addition, my wife, fiction writer Rose Skelton, and I are co-writing a long epistolary essay about the writing and reading life, love, solitude and togetherness. 

Interviewer Anastasia Stelse teaches at the University of South Florida. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Verse Daily, Narrative, The Louisville Review, Whiskey Island, and Crab Orchard Review, among others.

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