Madeleine Cravens, M.F.A. candidate in poetry, sat down with poet Chessy Normile on a stoop in Brooklyn to talk about humor, vulnerability, and revision. Normile’s debut collection, Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party, was awarded the 2020 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, judged by Li-Young Lee. This book’s poems are irreverent and highly intimate, drawing the reader in through topics such as the Bible, theories of time, and trauma. As Li-Young Lee writes in the introduction, Normile’s poems are “born of an imagination that is unpredictable, fearless, probing, self-questioning, and marked by the influence of a hidden wisdom some might consider folly.”
The first poem in Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party, “Ever,” references a boat carrying the bubonic plague. Why was that specific image on your mind pre-COVID?
Yeah, that was weird. A lot of poems in the manuscript were written for this teacher of mine, Michael Adams. He’d suggest a book to me, I’d read it, and then I’d write a poem after reading it. I think I wrote that poem after I read a book called Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year. Big changes were happening with time during that plague! An hour became a secular thing, not just a way to demonstrate your faith, stuff like that. So with that poem, I just remember how vivid it looked to me, to picture that first boat with the plague on it, and how it would come in so slowly, like time was slowing down with the boat.
Something I love about this book is how peopled it is. I feel like the speaker frequently references names without context, but also often shifts to addressing the “you.” When you invoke the second person, are you writing to a specific “you?”
I definitely used to have people tell me that my “you” was too inconsistent and meant too many things. They weren’t wrong: I really did need to understand more deeply who I was talking to. But I think what works now is that the “you” in each poem has its own specific logic and use, even though it isn’t the same “you” across the book.
Li-Young Lee called Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party “authentically weird,” which is an amazing compliment. Regarding that weirdness, what do you think about the distinction between the speaker of your poems and yourself? Do you ever feel like your speaker becomes someone or something radically different from you, Chessy?
I think that’s an important question. I do think obviously, the book is a book, and I’m a person. Part of the way I can protect myself is to let the book be distant from myself, because I do think it extends beyond me. But so much of it does originate in my experience or my understanding of something. I don’t feel much discomfort about people making a connection between me and the speaker, but I do see why people protect that space.
On a related note, I’m curious about your revision process. Do people often assume these poems are not extensively revised, because of how off-the-cuff and funny they are?
My sister and I were just talking about how many times I’ve had men tell me in different ways: “you are simpler than your poems.” Like, “Here’s an amazing piece of news for you: these poems are actually really smart and complex. Your simple mind probably can’t comprehend that, so as a gift for you, I’m going to explain how.” But really, a lot of the drafts go through years of time after I write them.
To me, Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party doesn’t read like, oh, this just like spilled out. There’s a candor and immediacy to it, but the poems also feel pretty precisely crafted.
Yeah, I remember my professor Jane Miller saying something like, “swift and sure is how revision should feel.” If ever I’m puzzling over a poem, I just don’t touch it. I let it sit and let time pass until I do know.
How do you see humor functioning in your work?
The poems I wrote in college were like stand-up comedy sets. All I cared about was making jokes. I loved making people laugh. And then at a certain point I became stuck there. I didn’t want to stop being able to be funny. I needed a real push that I was lucky to get from people: the jokes were covering stuff up. Now I hope they open up space for things, like maybe they increase vulnerability rather than deflect it.
I love that humor can work in both ways, to amplify vulnerability or obscure it. Do you have plans for another book?
I feel like this is what happened after writing poems for a long time. Eventually it might happen again. But I don’t know. I’ve had a weird time writing since it came out.
How did it affect your writing process?
I stopped writing for a while, which was uncomfortable and something I had never experienced. I just couldn’t write.
I feel like there’s this myth that you have your first book and then you just keep going right into the second.
I think something about reading your own poems that in depth is weird. Like, I read my own poetry– that’s a weird way to spend your time and use your brain. I think I kind of flooded myself. And then my brain had to enter a different space. I could write in my journal, you know, here’s what I had for breakfast, here’s how much I slept. That lasted ‘til the book came out. Then I started writing again, but it’s been an interesting pattern of fits and starts. I woke up the other night and wrote, “calling something a fandango is a great way to take the wind out of its sails,” as if that was something really urgent I had to write down.
That’s kind of beautiful in a way.
In the middle of the night, I think things are hilarious or so amazing. And so then I wake up and I’m like, what was it? And it’s of course nothing.
What other first books have you liked recently?
An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres, Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, Leila Chatti’s Deluge, travis tate’s Maiden, and this one is a second book, Cardinal by Tyree Daye, which was one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I’m also really excited for Town Crier by Sarah Matthes.