Poet of the Month: Nomi Stone
April 2015


[image Nomi Stone]Nomi Stone is the author of the poetry collection Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly, 2008), an MFA Candidate in Poetry at Warren Wilson College and a PhD Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Columbia University. She earned a Masters in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford and was a Creative Writing Fulbright scholar in Tunisia. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Memorious, Plume, The Painted Bride Quarterly, cellpoems, The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Poetry, The Asian American Writer’s Workshop's The Margins, at The Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere.  She is currently completing Kill Class, a collection of poetry based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork she conducted within combat simulations in mock Middle Eastern villages erected by the US military across America.

Statement of Poetics

For the past 10 years, I have sought to heed Carolyn Forché’s call to comprehend the impress of the social on the poetic imagination, conducting ethnographic fieldwork and writing poems first on an island off the coast of Tunisia and then in mock Middle Eastern villages across the United States. My philosophy of seeing as a poet is deeply inflected by the anthropologist’s mandate to estrange the familiar and de-estrange the hitherto unknown. In that helix of estrangement and de-estrangement, the poem, through language and form, recomposes the sensorium.  A tiny cosmos is summoned into our seeing as the music of the poem enters the body. 

In 2003, I spent a year on a Creative Writing Fulbright in Djerba, Tunisia, living in one of the last traditional Jewish communities in North Africa. It was there that my fascination with ethnography developed and fueled my poetry, culminating in the publication of my first collection, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly, 2008).  Djerba is the
home of the one of the oldest Jewish communities in the region: according to the community’s story of origin, they arrived on the island after the fall of the Babylonian Temple in 586 BC, carrying a single stone from the destroyed holy place. My notebooks jostled with surplus: scrawls of Arabic vocabulary; maps of the village market; recounted rituals; recounted crimes. I whittled down that abundance into poems: often small, odd haiku-jewels, handfuls of which I could carry home. The poems in that book are engined by the singing of the thing-itself: I wanted them to be pared down to pure thingness and color, for “blue” to burn through; for “honeysuckle” to ache all the way to the bone; for the “stone” to act as a tunnel of light. Meanwhile, I sought registers in language to represent in my poems the theological and mystical, the mythical parables, as well as the lived daily, its awkwardness and its hopefulness, its texture of voices.  Each mode required a different well of diction; still, I sought to animate the book as book through echoes and recurrence — the bareness of the landscape, the blue in the poems’ cells, the flash of gazes, an affect of longing and displacement.

An interviewer asked once if I saw my poems on any level as historical, cultural documents, noting that I use the tool of ethnography and I bring in histories, mythologies, and ancient texts. I answered that the ethnographic thereness had been my way in and that deep reading of the histories/lores of North Africa had added richness to my thinking. However, I explained that ultimately Stranger’s Notebook is much more of a book of poems than a cultural document. Djerba is said by some to be the Odyssey’s Island of the Lotus Eaters. In one of the poems, I invoke that mythology. But most important is the poem as poem: that poem, its colossal flowers, their cups twitching with pollen; the electrified sky, razored into triangles by the branches; the gorgeous but at times almost dumbly malevolent mirroring between the sea and the sky, half-collapses the world with the inscape. For me, the work of the poem is this: a convergence point between my interior colors and affects and the world.  The phenomena of the world populate and rejoice the inscape; the inscape redazzles and reconfigures the world. I am saying, with this poem, that the island of Djerba both makes my heart beat fast and slow; entraps and woos and lulls and haunts me.  I am saying its nectar is as much dark as sweet, and as much sweet as dark. That is why, in the end, I write poems.

My next poetry (and academic) pursuit took place in a radically different setting.  I spent 2011-2013 on anthropology fellowships observing pre-deployment exercises staged by the US army in mock Middle Eastern villages across the United States. I spent the last several years with the Iraqi role-players, moving back and forth between the hollow houses in the simulated village to their “real” lives. These haunted, uncanny spaces require the most sensitive tools of language and rhythm. Imagine collapsible houses full of prayer rugs and fake bullets; a lit market and a mosque glowing in the forest; a recorded call to prayer; in some instances, buried spoiled meat mimicking the odor of a mass grave. Meanwhile, a fake wound is applied onto the chest of an Iraqi role-player who was nearly killed several years ago when he worked as an interpreter for the American military in (actual) Iraq. Fake explosions and bullets pop through the villages, creating different effects within different bodies. The body recoils, the body breathes, seeking release, the body laughs—a rhythm creatable for me only in a poem.

In my new manuscript Kill Class, I am again trying to conjure a new sensory, imaginative and social micro-cosmos.  The added challenge here is how to represent the simulated in the poem, as a lived experience that is also in conversation with the past. Many of these Iraqi role-players have come directly from the (actual) 2003 Iraq War, where they worked as interpreters and contractors for the US military.  After their countrymen accused them of collaboration, they were rendered strangers in Iraq and targeted by militias.  They have come from the theater of war to war as theater; now in the America to which they at such great cost aligned, they enact the Iraq from which they are estranged.  I wrestle continuously with how to represent that impossibly complex experience.  Idra Novey’s Exit Civilian and the work performed by her “little prison” have been invaluable to me in creating worlds that function like strange machines: “Enter the little prison a comma/ And you come out a question mark” and “Enter an apple/ And come out the teeth marks/ In its yellowed core.” In the war simulations, Iraqi role-players (many are asylum-seekers and immigrants from the 2003 Iraq War) enact war on a loop; they mourn and bargain and protest and die, on repeat, in tiny theaters.  Morgan Frank at Memorious has just published a brilliantly-rendered e-rendition of my poem “The Quadrant.” In the poem, there are four rooms, each containing a simulation.  She has published the poem as hypertext, with the Room-Poems linked within the body of the introductory poem.  This online permutation is a perfect enactment of how I want this poem to be read: the reader must digitally enter the rooms inside that wood.  In this, the Quadrant is not only a sensorium, but a four-chambered ache, a tiny dark machine of unmaking.


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