In “Behind the Book,” we chat with authors of new or recent collections about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. This month, we spoke with poet Eugene Gloria about writing into the political, the lyric impulse, and how the notion of “the book [as] a unified song” guided him while putting together his unflinching new collection, Sightseer in This Killing City (Penguin-Random House, 2019).
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LANTERN REVIEW: Sightseer in This Killing City responds to recent reactionary politics around the world, including in the Philippines, the US, and Europe. Did the project that became this book evolve into its political perspective over time? Or were its politics there from its genesis, and if so—was there a particular political moment that served as the igniting spark?
EUGENE GLORIA: Some of the themes that have emerged from my work over the years have explored masculinity and gun violence, displacement and grief, as well as beauty. I think I still find myself writing about these things. When I first imagined working on this collection of poems, I was interested in interrogating the person I have become after living in Indiana for many years. The initial title of my manuscript was “Karate, Guns, and Tanning,” named after a strip mall near where I live. But then the results of the US presidential election of 2016 happened around the same time the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte as their president. I wrote a significant portion of Sightseer in This Killing City while living and teaching in the Philippines while on a Fulbright grant in Manila. I guess it’s safe to say that the book’s political perspective (when it was being shaped as a book) became a response to the collective grief many of us share in the era of Trump and Duterte and the mass killings we now experience with alarming regularity. So I ended up adding newer poems and taking out some older ones that no longer fit.
LR: Many of the poems in Sightseer are written in persona. How did Nacirema (the primary persona in the book) first find her way to you? Did composing in her voice shape your own process and craft at all as you worked on the book?
EG: The name Nacirema comes from Horace Miner’s essay “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” from American Anthropologist, published in 1956. It was a satire of sorts addressed to other social scientists. I loved the idea of a name meaning “American” except spelled backwards. I was working on a poem about a Filipino nurse I knew from my old neighborhood in San Francisco when I first encountered the name via the visual artist Michael Arcega, whom I met at the Montalvo Artists Residency. He told me that he stole the name from Miner, and so I didn’t need his permission to use it as the name of a character in my poem. From “Nurse Nacirema” came “Ave Nacirema,” then gang-banger Nacirema in one of “The War on Drugs” poems, then Camino Nacirema in “My Sad Economist on the Nature of Things”—and so on. Having a character to work with allowed me to extend my examination of identity as a performed thing and not rely so much on the “I” persona who is also a stand-in for myself. And so, yes, developing a voice through Nacirema allowed me to take various directions with my collection that I hadn’t originally imagined.
LR: Music heavily informs the syntax and sonics of the poems in the book. How does music factor into your writing process? How did it factor into your process for writing Sightseer?
EG: I often find myself revisiting my student days in writing workshop whenever I’m in the classroom with my students at the university where I teach. I find myself sometimes saying the same thing my teachers used to say to me about my poems: “So where’s the music in this?” I’ve always imagined music as feeling and sentences having their own level of sound in order to create “big” feelings. Sometimes you need to suspend sense in order to privilege music. As I’ve grown as a teacher who writes poems, I’ve allowed myself to experiment with formal structures in order to create new sonic possibilities for my narrative poems. “The Suitcase” is one example from the collection that comes to mind. Of course the lyric impulse takes over whenever I resist telling a story in my poems.
LR: The book is broken into four parts that function almost like dramatic acts or musical movements. Can you tell us more about the process by which the overall form of the book came together? For example, did you first decide upon the overall structure and then write into each section? Or did you begin with a looser assortment of poems that began to group themselves as you wrote?
EG: I once met a poet who told me that she was working on her latest collection, and she was starting with the table of contents, listing the titles of poems she still had to write. Knowing her work, I didn’t think she was kidding. I’ve often toyed with the idea of putting together a book in the same way. I write in this old-fashioned way of crafting one poem at a time until I think I have enough for a book. Conceptualizing the collection is an entirely separate process. At one point, I had imagined the book in the form of a two-album set and calling it “The Essential Nacirema”—each section of the book as one side of a vinyl disc. Arranging my poems in sections allows for significant pauses, breathing room, and allows for the ending poems to resonate until the reader moves to the next section. I go back and forth on creating sections or not having them. Somehow it made more sense to do it for this collection.
LR: This is your fourth book. Have you found that your approach and perspective to shaping a manuscript has changed over time? If so, how has it evolved? If not, what are the constant stars that have always seen you through your projects?
EG: I think it was Robert Frost who said that when you’re putting together a collection of poems and you have twenty-four poems written, the twenty-fifth poem will be the book. The idea of the book being a unified song is also a guiding principle for me.
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Eugene Gloria is the author of four books of poems—Sightseer in This Killing City (Penguin-Random House, 2019); My Favorite Warlord (Penguin, 2012), winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; Hoodlum Birds (Penguin, 2006); and Drivers at the Short-Time Motel (Penguin, 2000), a National Poetry Series selection and recipient of the Asian American Literary Award. He is the John Rabb Professor of Creative and Performing Arts and English professor at DePauw University.