soft surface

digital journal, residency, and bookshop


soft surface was a poetry journal and digital residency from 2019-2021. thank you for your support.

soft surface: Your decision to write E A R T H was prompted by your desire to "better understand what it is [you] mean when [you] say the word earth." However, the work is filled with references to the body, sexuality, queerness and intimacy. How are these themes linked to the word earth for you?

Jac Nelson: What I like about the poem is that it opens these very questions without offering definitive answers, without narrowing down to an argument or theory about earth and the body, because it’s lived, which means it’s changing, and needs to stay open to what isn’t described or written down. But many things come to mind. They’re linked in that it’s from my body that sexuality (though I’d say sex itself is much more present here than sexuality per se) and queerness and intimacy proliferate. And my body and earth are the same. If it wasn’t already in me (and it probably was), this is wisdom I received very early from the biblical creation story, the story of G-d fashioning the first human body out of dirt itself.

Then there are languages of colonization, acquisition and war (projects having at least something to do with land, with earth) and languages of sex (in the context of a dominant culture that takes “sex” to be the act of inserting a penis into a vagina – not to
mention how this very act is deployed non-metaphorically as a tactic in projects of colonization, acquisition and war) and both showing up in discourses of power and getting mixed and redeployed: penetrate, subdue, conquer, overwhelm, dominate, submit, finish: where is the literal usage and where the metaphorical?

And what about languages of intimacy and of state projects such as regulation and diplomacy (taking “the state” to be, at least in part, an earth-focused project)? This is the dominant culture out of which my subjectivity emerges. But questions emerge for me out of my subcultural experiences too, subcultures that understand themselves as reparative. For example, an idea that I learned from certain healing or spiritual modalities is that it’s a good idea to send “that which is no longer serving me” - or put another way, my garbage – into the earth, which “knows what to do with it.” From my position, notions of putting things in the earth as a healing, restorative, or transformational practice both make intuitive sense, and make me squirm. I think of the waste that is a “solution” to consumption. I think of narratives of a man’s “need” to ejaculate into a woman in order to maintain his physical, emotional, and relational health. I think about even how capitalism, in order to survive and thrive, needs to repeatedly lodge itself into our bodies through narratives of our inadequacy. But then, of course, I also think of the seed, the nurse log, of compost, decomposition, of rituals that involve burial. So I don’t know.

“My body’s not really a place to put it / though I’ve been figured that way / a lot / nor
does my body keen / hysteric myth of wilderness in fact what seems / to go inside / me
never never does”

If I have any empathy for earth at all, and for bodies – that is, if there’s any possibility of me doing less harm to earth and to bodies (and please please let there be this possibility) – it’s through my body, through the fact of my embodiment.

SS: How are your videos in conversation with the work, and why is water a major component in both the videos and the poemform itself?

JN: Water is not earth, but it’s not not earth. This is interesting to me. Unlike the poem itself, which was written 2 years ago (though revised now for the hundredth time), the video work developed over the course of the residency. During the weeks of the residency, it was my encounters with moving water that really showed me the lie of a narrative that earth is a place to put it. Garbage lodged in or skimming moving water hits me differently than garbage in a dry ditch, which I guess I’ve become almost completely desensitized to. Almost.

SS: How do you navigate ethical decisions in your writing? Do you see your work as political?

JN: I want to understand my work as not being free to speak from a position that could be outside of, elevated above, or indifferent to the political. Like, not even if I believed and stated here that, no, my work is not political. I think of my time as an MFA student, a
moment in workshop when a new student – and the only person of color in the cohort - asked if the use of the word “brown” as a landscape descriptor in a poem about grief and loss made it a “race poem,” and our white professor said “yes.” The subtext here was that a “race poem” is something that a) is avoidable and b) should be avoided. This poet’s deeply personal poem being made (and dismissed as) racial in that workshop made me, if I wasn’t already, in that very moment allergic to the kind of neutrality and freedom from politicization that gatekeepers grant me on account of my whiteness.

I get a lot of help making ethical decisions in my work, from the people in my life and especially from works of writing by other poets and theorists. How to make ethical decisions is always an uncertainty for me, always a question that aspires to listen for response. What I’m trying now, to put it succinctly, is to make sure that I myself am implicated by my poems: “This time I hurt you / ... I wanted / something to eat but what about what I had done.” And to put my drive for safety and power – and the strategies of control and censorship I’ve developed to secure these (a popular word for all this is perfectionism, a symptom, I think, at least, of whiteness) – on the line. Which is not to say I don’t engage control and censorship, I do, quite thoroughly. But I try to rupture it. It’s baby steps. Writing about anal sex and using the word “asshole” in a poem – these are, for me (hello white midwestern protestant family! hello “America”!), examples of putting my own sense of safety-in-perfectionism on the line, examples of evasion of my own control and censorship.

SS: Can you elaborate on your "compression poem" form? What inspired the creation of this form, and why do you use it for E A R T H?

JN: This form gives me a really tight space to work in – spacially it recreates a kind of tightness and lack of mobility I feel in relationship to my own body, traumatic experiences of intimacy and attachment, and rage and grief I feel around historical and
present-day relationships with earth and bodies, my complicity in and responsibility to these relationships, my powerlessness. I think especially it permits me to explore rage, which I have a ton of, but which I’ve been taught is very dangerous to acknowledge and share. It also allows me to explore the wieldiness and wiliness of syntax, and to take an almost surgical look at language’s near-total passivity in the presence of argument, coercion, and power.

SS: What poets do you continually return to?

JN: Though it’s been years since I’ve spent time with her work, I owe a lot to Anne Carson, I think especially when it comes to tone and control, and using a kind of distance to bear the weight of a great deal of grief and rage. Present day, I return over and over again to Layli Long Soldier and Fred Moten. I’m really interested in the presence of “we” in a poem, a “we” that is at the leading edge of an ethical call and response in poetry and in the world. It is this among other things that draws me keeps me returning to their work.

SS: What are you reading right now? 

JN: I read a lot more theory than I read poetry. I’m in the middle of Fred Moten’s The Universal Machine, just finishing up The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda and Max King Cap), and getting
ready to (finally!) tuck into Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy. In terms of poetry, I’ve been spending most of my time lately in Norton’s anthology of contemporary poetry, and really inhabiting the reality of who is present there, who is not, and how who
is present there is mythologized by the editorial material. I’m trying to develop an understanding of white (i.e., racialized white) subjectivity and its formation, and of course I’m interested in the formation and transmission of white subjectivity in, of, through, and at the expense of poetry. So, yeah, anthologies.

SS: What's next for you? 

JN: I’m way better at creating work than I am at “getting my work out there,” but I do believe my work is important both politically and aesthetically, and I’m sitting on a ton of it. So my big task right now is to knuckle down and find ways to share it. In addition to
submitting and promoting my work, I’m especially excited about a research-based project I’m working on, provisionally called WHERE I, a project that takes up a call I received while reading Layli Long Soldier’s book Whereas for the first time. I grew up on
the same land where some of the historical events in her work take place, but didn’t know these stories until reading her work. I’m researching my own ancestral history and creating poems and art that explore my and my ancestors' proximity to and complicity in
the formation of whiteness and in the particulars of genocide, slavery and racism.