Line / Break | Season 3 is back with poet and journalist, Natalie Eilbert!
In this episode, Natalie joins host, Ryo Yamaguchi, to reflect on how she came to art through her discovery and admiration of musician, Fiona Apple, the contradictions of the climate justice movement, and the vulnerable, cosmic protection of poetry.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:04):
Hey everybody. I’m Ryo Yamaguchi, the publicist at Copper Canyon Press, and you are watching season three of our interview series, Line Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We began Line Break as a way to connect during the severe lockdowns of the pandemic, and we’ve had so much fun seeing poets on screen, hearing poems, talking about writing, books, and life that we simply had to keep this series going. Thanks for tuning in. So I have long admired Natalie Eilbert’s poems for their vigorous intelligence, this really edgy quandary that comes across via sharply executed statements, many of which remain lodged in you all day. I am so thrilled that we are publishing Overland, her first book with Copper Canyon.
Natalie, thank you so much for being with us as a whole and specifically today. I’m really looking forward to our conversation. I want to start here. Folks might not realize that we are recording early in the day here, just kicking off probably both of our days. I think it’s 9:00 AM there, 8:00 AM here. So want to ask you this question, are you an early riser? Do you have a pretty typical morning routine? Are poems involved?
Natalie Eilbert (01:20):
Ooh, great question. And here’s the thing, I want to tell you how rigorous I am in the morning, and how the first thing I do is think about poetry. And in a way, I do, when I’m my most behaved, I like to wake up and do some meditation work. I’ll do some breathing exercises, and do that for about 10 minutes, and then I’ll journal. And that’s, again, when I’m at my best self, I will journal and I will meditate, clear out the clutter, not look at a screen. That’s the most important part. Lately, that’s not been the case, but sometimes poetry is involved.
I got into a habit, my favorite habit, back when I was working on Overland. I would wake up in the morning, this is when I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, and I would walk to Lake Monona and I would sit there and, in the same spot, write every day. And I would do that, and it would just be whatever I was just reading in the news cycle. And I just let that come into the poems. I introduced all of the things of the world into the poems. So those were my favorite morning routines that involved poetry. I hope to get back into them eventually.
Ryo Yamaguchi (03:01):
Oh, that’s so wonderful. Trying to avoid a screen in the morning becomes just logistically harder and harder. And that’s something I also try to do in the morning too, which means reading print material and things like that. I’m really interested in the journaling life or if that’s something that you’ve done all your life as a young person, if that initiated writing for you or anything like that? Or if this is something you’ve come to later?
Natalie Eilbert (03:26):
Oh, I’ve always been a big journaler. I remember, this is so silly, but when I was in third grade, I got this stupid little kitten diary. It had a kitten on the cover, had one of those locks on it that you needed a “key” to open. I’m using air quotes there, but you just had to jimmy it a little and it would just burst open. And I would write, even in third grade… There was nothing profound. It was about the James’ and the CJ’s in my class and all the ways I thought that they were either mean or cute. I had the biggest crush on Lorenzo Jimenez. I hope that he’s listening right now. I wrote about him a lot. So anyway, but yeah, I always journaled and I remember when I got particularly lonely, even… I had this moment when I was nine that I lost my house to a fire and I lost everything, every little thing. And I lost pets, I lost memories, I lost my favorite stuffed animal.
And when I moved into… I had to live in a trailer for a long time after that. And that was a very humbling and strange experience. You’d feel every wind hit the trailer, and I would write in a journal. I tried to remember who I was. And that was very powerful to me. I felt like I had to piece myself back together from these cinders. And so I did that, and that was very powerful. I still have those books, I still read them. Again, it’s not Pulitzer worthy, but it’s very interesting to see the ways that I had to grow up very quickly after a great loss and just the ways that I was describing a hurricane hitting the trailer. And the way that we were kind of seesawing between parts of the mobile home.
It really helped give me a better and tactile sense of things, I think. And I still continue that when I can. I have so many notebooks that I’ll open them to see if there’s a blank page. There is not. And I go to the next notebook and there is not. So yeah, that’s been a very important practice. I think we take for granted the thoughts that aren’t worth poetry. The thoughts that aren’t worth capturing. That’s not static, it’s meaning. It’s a different type of meaning that I want people to help bring to life through just exposing themselves with a paper and a pen and no screen. So that’s what I’m all about. And again, when I’m my most behaved, I am writing every day in a journal and not looking at a screen and doomscrolling. Not doomscrolling to be clear.
Ryo Yamaguchi (06:59):
No. Absolutely. That’s a heartbreaking story and so meaningful. I actually went through that also as a young person. We lost our house in a fire. I had to live in a trailer for a while. This was an Anchorage, Alaska. So it was actually a little bit more typical to live in a trailer I think there where we were. But I was much younger. So being nine, I think that’s narratively meaningful. I imagine that must have been a junction in your life to move through. I mean, as you’re describing.
That brings to mind this question that I really like to ask everyone who does a series at the outset and that has to do… I mean you’re already describing a lot of the formative moments in your young life and as a preteen and that sort of thing. I love that phrase you said that of… I’m not going to be able to say it verbatim, but this idea of really being present to the thoughts that we don’t consider poetry. And thinking of that in poet world, I’m wondering about the first time that you encountered a work of art in which you recognized yourself? Could be books, movie, music, things like that. But sometime where you felt something actually cohere for you as an artist that you had this relationship to art that you could see yourself in art?
Natalie Eilbert (08:18):
That, at first I thought, “Damn it, Ryo, I’m not going to be able to answer that.” But then I had a moment where I do have a relationship and it may not be the most sophisticated answer though, depending on your vantage point it is. When I was in fifth grade, around the time when I experienced my house fire, I got my first CD, which was Tidal by Fiona Apple. And so that moment, that first base line that hits in the first song, Sleep to Dream, it still pulses through me. It gives me chills. If you know it, you know it, but it was this almost like I was responding to whatever was happening right before that intro. This bass, and this sort of drone-like thrum. I definitely felt myself and I felt my heart do something it hadn’t done before. And when I started to really read her lyrics. Because back in the day, for all those youngins out there, there were little booklets in the CD and you could go through the booklet. And sometimes there were stories attached to the lyrics.
But I got to some of the lines about pain and physical abuse and something cracked open. I had experienced that as a kid, and I had known something was amiss and she articulated this so well in all of her songs. So I definitely felt connected lyrically. And then enter me doing bad imitations of Fiona Apple poems using really unwieldy words. She did that too. She had a very large vocabulary and still does. But I would definitely… I sent myself to the thesaurus a lot. And usually it led to embarrassing, clunky lines. But that did introduce me to ways that I could articulate myself and cohere, as you say, with an artist. And interestingly, the way that she framed the world, helped me to better… Around this time I also read Emily Dickinson and there is something Fiona Apple to Emily Dickinson pipeline. I feel like it’s there. So I definitely started to understand through her coarse and beautiful lyricism, I was able to better understand this more clipped and purposefully obscured poetry.
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:48):
Yeah. That’s so amazing. I love the connection of course with Dickinson, and I hate to participate in what I conceive of as like an industry that really wants to attach characteristics to Emily Dickinson. But maybe to say that they’re both kind of fierce at the same time that they’re reticent. I mean, I love Fiona Apple also, and I think she arrived to me just I was near the ground lay fallow. I’m like 13 or something when that record came out. Is she an artist that you’ve followed since? I think she’s maintained a fan base in part because she’s been really judicious about her output. And of course she had that big record that came out what, like a year or two ago or something?
Natalie Eilbert (12:25):
Yeah. I have paid attention to Fiona Apple throughout her. All of her discography, I know it. There are so many artists against whom you rebel when you’re going through teenage angst. But she was great throughout because she is teenage angst and then she’s adult angst. And so it really worked out for me that way. Yeah. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a marvel. And again that fierceness, but it’s not just the fierceness, it’s her ability to invite in every hard and uncomfortable thing, including her own malice, which I really appreciate because we’re not always the good people that we think we are. And I really appreciate that there is this underlying meanness sometimes in our intention and that she just really brings out, not to say that I’m mean or anyone’s mean, but there’s something freeing about allowing yourself to rage and to say… Can I curse?
Ryo Yamaguchi (13:54):
Yeah, of course, of course.
Natalie Eilbert (13:55):
I’m not sure (laughs). Just to say, “Fuck the pleases and thank yous of this earth. I am not grateful.” I think we need that sometimes.
Ryo Yamaguchi (14:08):
Yeah. Yeah. That’s amazing. I mean, I can’t not hear the opening of The Iliad which is saying goddess the anger, and which is something, it’s like where critique can become even just invective where the magnitude of an emotion becomes like a ringing in the ears and how there’s an aesthetic quality to that or something, I don’t know, that’s really wonderful. But I think that you are introing a poem pretty well here. If you feel up for reading one from Overland, I’m really excited. This’ll be out just in a few months, probably from when this airs in the spring. But we have galley right here and we’re so excited. I feel like maybe you ought to tell us about this work of art here also, but maybe first a poem. If you’re up for it. Yeah.
Natalie Eilbert (14:55):
I am absolutely up for it. This is a poem called Caliche, and just to give some context, I found this very old life magazine in an old boyfriend’s apartment, and it was from 1968 and it wrecked me because I didn’t see any differences between 1968 and now in terms of how we’ve progressed ecologically, or environmentally, politically. So that’s to say.
All right, I’m just going to read this poem. Caliche. I don’t know how many ways a body can end. Night is a steady calculus, volitional in its grief. What was resolved in all these books on poisoned water and child cancer yielded no causation. Girl’s die from a knot behind the spine one after the other and this is a confidence interval. Page after page, the fanning of money. Inside a book, the decades old action group ends contorted. I pull a 1968 life magazine from its sleeve and read the anger back into hippies.
Only one agitator in the Dakota crowd to greet Nixon, thrown from the rally in a familiar way. The Santa Barbara oil spill, the neglect at San Miguel, dead slick pups between rocks. Disappearance is active loss. We lose the world with deliberate focus. Factory dyes bleed into spongy soil for two world wars. Neuroblastoma mutates in utero, cancers primed for footnote. I think about what of us medical tools shave off: my uncle’s squamous cell carcinoma, four joints of my mother, the remnants of a brother. San Miguel’s centuries-old root system remains in a calcium carbonate cast, the vegetation gone. Tourists call this a forest but it looks like statuary of Mary’s praying every direction for a relief that cannot come. We can say the sun drenches earth with gold. All day, we can say this.
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:05):
Oh, yeah. That’s so powerful. I mean, the outside of this, I said that so many of your lines stick with me all day. And I mean, there’s like 10 of them there. I mean the image of the Mary’s, the statuary of Mary’s, and in their different directions, they’re so fraught with anxiety and pleading. Okay, that reading resonates with the whole page of questions I’ve got over here. And so as they’re all lighting up in my emotional intelligence, I’m trying to find one. This one place I want to start a little bit in this conversation about your work is maybe, with a question our wonderful intern Tobi wrote, and I’m just getting to it here. And I really like this lot, particularly because of the way this poem starts and this direct address to the body.
And I think that I ought to just read this question verbatim. There’s a couple other quotes here from some of your lines, so this will be a good little collection of quotes too. So Tobiasked this, “On the liveliness of language you write, I would die for language as language dies in blood in Virgin Song.” And in consultation you write, nobody was ever around to guard me like a ghazal. How does the materiality of the body and the materiality of language overlap for you? How does the effort to protect language connect to the protection of bodies, which in Overland does not guarantee ‘safety.’ Or put differently? Does being defensive of language do something for your speaker, that physical defense cannot? Few elements there. Yeah. I know this is the first time you’re hearing this. Yeah.
Natalie Eilbert (19:42):
Tobi, that question is a poem. I think about language a lot, of course, as a poet. And there’s another poem in the book where I say, and this is the last poem in the book, ‘The Limits of What We Can Do,’ where I say I like poetry because there are no miracles in it. And I mean that with a little hutzpah, there’s obviously miracles in poetry, but it’s not the miracles we think. Language and the idea of poem as armor is so beautiful to me and it’s given me resilience and strength and has offered a structure in a structureless world.
I just wrote a poem where I say that it isn’t time that scares me, but the hours that we build into that time, as in we have constructed so much oppression into our day. We have through no means of… or through… It’s not because we intend to harm ourselves, but our bodies aren’t meant to do what society wants us to do. We’ve been thrown into this assembly line of purpose and it goes so against our ability to find meaning. And for me, poetry is that meaning. It’s not the checkbox at the end of the day. You don’t say, “I wrote a poem and things are better.” But language and poetry prioritizes observation over this capitalistic need for something, we don’t need when we’re writing a poem. I mean, we do need in the capital N need in the romantic, capital R need, but we’re not trying to do anything. We’re not trying to turn a profit is what I mean.
And I may be going a little off the topic or the beautiful question, but I think about the way that poetry is able to protect me and many of you from the violences of earth. And it’s not real protection. It’s a psychic, and cosmic, and powerful protection that leaves us raw. So there’s a paradox to being guarded like a ghazal. There’s a paradox to wanting to die for language because language, it’s this hovering ghost, it doesn’t intervene. It is just behind your ear sometimes, whispering to you. I’m mixing a lot of metaphors, and I think I’m doing that because I’m trying to… I have a lot of thoughts about this, but I’m trying to capture them at once.
But I think going back to what I said earlier, those thoughts that aren’t poetry, that is language too. And it’s powerful language. You have these ways in which, again, the world wants to confine you to one mechanism of language. And we can’t, as poets, as, I almost said ‘partists,’ as poets, as artists, we cannot be that… We are not monomaniacal. We don’t work in this system of monolith and we won’t. So I think in that sense, that’s how I see the incarnation of poetry in this physical sense. It’s complex. It’s not bound by some divine meaning, at least not for me. But there is something very present and yielding about the ways that we can form meaning from the internal structure of words and poetry.
Ryo Yamaguchi (25:11):
That’s so powerful. And I love… I mean, what I hear at the center of this idea of utility and language. And I love when sometimes conversations in the series, but so many conversations I’m privileged to have return to the uselessness of poetry. And I just adore that concept. You’re answering another question that I have here that is a far more ordinary question, if you don’t mind talking about journalism also, folks know that you’re also a reporter. And of course there’s this obvious question I have about the difference between writing clean copy on a deadline versus writing poems that are pushing the very edge of what language can do. Do you demarcate those in your mind? Do they have a dynamic relationship? Yeah.
Natalie Eilbert (25:59):
They do. I think I just mentioned observation and the power of that. And of course, Carolyn Forché, as a being who encompasses both journalism and poetry, is the person who coined poetry as witness. And so this idea of being present to witness is absolutely an overlap that I see in my own work. It’s transformed over time. The reason that I got into journalism in the first place had a little bit to do with the limits of what poetry could do, which is funny given the last poem in my book. But it’s a very interesting question because the audiences of poetry and your typical reader could not be any more different. I’m told constantly write to a fifth grade audience. And that’s with journalism, and I find that to be important for a lot of reasons. And not trying to elide meaning, not trying to obscure the intention, which I sometimes use poetry to do.
There is a sounding alarm sometimes with journalism, that is certainly there with poetry. But again, it’s that difference of immediacy that I think is important. I try to write poetry not to be timeless, but as a response to big and small things. I’m sorry. Here’s piggy. And with journalism, it’s not a response because I’m not responding. I’m merely collecting other people’s ideas. And I’m an aggregate of information. I’m so sorry. He’s showing his butt right now.
Ryo Yamaguchi (28:34):
I think we all welcome. Yeah. Yeah.
Natalie Eilbert (28:36):
So it’s interesting. They’re very, very different. For me, they feel very different. I’m not able to share my opinion about what people say, though I, of course, am able to frame topics. And there is something similar in the structure of that, journalism and poetry sometimes rely on structure, very different structures, but structure nonetheless. So I guess again, those intersections are there, but it’s the difference between an aggregate of information and a response to these more ineffable questions.
Ryo Yamaguchi (29:24):
That’s really wonderful. I love this idea of poetry is response, and there is this frame of mind that poetry should be immemorial and it should. It can be both, I think, in a way. Well, I am glad you brought up Carolyn Forché, and a quick plug here for our last season in which we had Carolyn Forché on, we talked a great deal about poetry witness, particularly in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Russia’s attack of Ukraine. I’m thinking about one thing that I think that has been an element of all of these beautiful responses that you’ve been giving, which is this idea of the indeterminate of poetry as poetry is really grappling with very untidy concepts. That even the idea of malice and being able to approach malice and be present to it, even if it’s something that maybe is unpopular or something that creates shame or these other feelings.
Let me go to one thing that I really wanted to ask you about. And the word I’m using here… Okay. So eco-justice is also just a major, major, major element of Overland. And I think that it’s in a way, it’s an advancement of your interest and your topics and the way that you’re combining eco-justice with justice for women, with bodily justice, sexual justice, gender justice. So that’s, of course, a background to this question that I’m about to ask, which is eco-justice and bodily justice.
But the word that keeps coming to my mind is pollution. And this idea of… Of course, there’s pollution of the earth, but something I also see a lot in these poems, and let me just bring my copy up here. Something I also see a lot in the work here in Overland is this idea of moral pollution or confusion. Nothing’s easy, there’s no panacea in the title poem Overland. You have this great line, which is fairly pedantic, but it’s really illuminating. “I pay for organic the buck 20 that could keep a village fed for a week. The payment, a wish to clear my name.” I was wondering if you could talk about the sense of writing poems from this vantage where guilt, and critique, and privilege, and civic action are so sophisticatedly, complicatedly intertwined. Are there particular writing techniques that you go to, to illuminate these kinds of contradictions?
Natalie Eilbert (32:06):
I don’t know if I go to writing techniques, but I, certainly, am trying to encapsulate the contradictions of the climate movement. Everyone who’s in it, there’s the thought that it’s not the individual. It’s like six corporations who are polluting the earth. And then there’s the but part where they tell you, activists will say, “Well, we have to do something.” And that idea of mobilizing against a force that is so powerful and beyond our reach in every way can be extremely devastating. Just trying to reach toward action that will never come, that asymptotal reach, but that has hope in it, right? You’re trying your best to convince the most greedy people on earth that total annihilation is coming and that is not something that is moving to them. They do not respond to justice, poetic justice, social justice, any kind of justice. It’s not that way for them.
In that poem in particular and throughout the book, there are these small efforts ‘to clear my name, small efforts to say that I’m not a part of this, but of course, we all are in big and small ways. I used to have, when I was more suicidal, I had a thought that the world would be better with one less body. And I definitely felt that for a very long time. And I could never get over this thought that once entered my head when I was in my 20s, the best thing I could do for the earth is not exist. That is also a contradiction of life, right? In a way that’s true, that fewer bodies could be helpful, but it’s not at all. That’s also a very problematic answer that is steeped in eugenics, that is taking the blame away from the biggest greediest hands and saying, “I should annihilate myself if you won’t annihilate…” I’m sorry, “If you won’t not annihilate us.”
There’s no real… Just going back to the question, the writing technique that I have for these poems is to let in all of the contradictions since, say, that there isn’t anything wrong about contradicting myself. And of course, there’s the off quoted Walt Whitman line, “I contain multitudes.” But right before he says that, he says, “Do I contradict myself very well? Then I contradict myself.” And I love that idea that it’s not just okay to contradict oneself. It’s necessary to be honest with the question of our role, we must contradict ourselves.
And yeah, going to this question or this idea of the pollution, I love thinking… I mean, I don’t love thinking about pollution, but I love the way that you’re asking about those moral gendered pollutants that, of course, are there. I mean every day where polluted with mindless chatter of strangers and blame is pointed every direction. And we’re just watching and thinking, which side do I take? Which take is my take? And that idea of ‘take’ itself is strange to remove or to lay one’s hand on. I’m trying, I guess in my poems, to be completely honest about both the use and uselessness of what I’m doing at any given point. I’ll leave it at that.
Ryo Yamaguchi (37:29):
Thank you for the bravery of this answer and for confronting. I think a deeply entrenched idea that living in the late history that we live in leads us to. And I’ve also thought a great deal about that idea that the best thing I can do is not exist. And I even consider this in… I love wilderness and backpacking. There’s this sense of leave no trace principles. And when I clear a camp, I mean the best thing I love is the sense that I was just never here.
But to counter that with this idea that the world needs you, particularly if you are already arriving to these conclusions. And I just love the way that you’ve brought that affirmation into an affirmation also of contradiction and into this way of letting in. I also often think about that preliminary line to the famous Whitman quote and how much it goes under-sung. And I don’t know, I’m just so moved by the way that you’ve opened up this space to allow for those multitudes in the discomfort of them. And that feels like to me, even if it’s not the beginning of healing, it’s at least a way, it’s a path or something. And of course, poetry is magnificent for this, right?
Natalie Eilbert (38:55):
Can I interject one thing to what you said?
Ryo Yamaguchi (38:56):
Please. Yes. Yeah, please, please, of course. Yeah.
Natalie Eilbert (39:00):
The idea, Ryo, of leaving no trace is beautiful and going to the campground and picking things up as though you never existed. But I will counter and say that we imbue our energies, and I know this is going to sound very woo-woo, but we do put ourselves into that day with those things. And it may not be traceable to humans who are always looking for the most useful thing to trace. It may be useless to humans to trace where you were, but you were so useful in that moment with earth. And I think we take sometimes for granted this idea of what is and isn’t useful. Our relationship to putting our hand on a tree has no economic function and it is the most profound thing that we can sometimes do. So there is no trace in the physical, most capitalistic sense and also the ecological sense of not wanting to put garbage, but the trace that you leave and that we all can leave when we go into the forest has more power, I think, than any drill.
Ryo Yamaguchi (40:30):
Yeah. Yeah. Thank you so much. I very recently had place to hand on a particularly beautiful doug fir when I was in Washington and was feeling. Well, what I thought to myself was, “Here’s what I’m going to leave.” And I’m going to sound woo-woo here. Here’s what I’m going to leave, and that’s my love. I see you, that kind of thing, and I don’t know. Well, that’s wonderful. Okay. I would love to keep… I mean, there’s so much more here I want to talk about. This maybe feels like a good resting place. Maybe a time to maybe close with another poem if you feel good with that? Yeah. Yeah.
Natalie Eilbert (41:12):
Yeah. Absolutely. I will end on… Well, since we are on the topic of existing versus not existing, I’ll read this poem that I never read, which is exciting. I guess I haven’t read a lot of these poems yet, but that’s for another time. It’s called, It’s a Girl. In this first segment of the last Landscape, you pick up old poems you’ve written. They are the first poems you considered worthwhile. Your mother leads you to the master bedroom to show you your birth cards. People now dead congratulating you on being born. They say, “Natalie dawn, we hope you are a good girl.” And mud floats up your throat, the filter of a cigarette trapped in the waist bin the note to Catherine telling her and scribbling out just when he let you go from between his legs, you remark on the roundness of your face. So 16 and precious, what a little baby. Three years earlier, he reached into your body and presented you the stone of your name.
Aah, aunt Rose sent her love to the girl. The members of the bereavement group say, “Rainbow. Rainbow.” Daniel was the only boy for whom your parents do a baby shower. And great grandma didn’t come out of superstition. In his death no more showers, a crib from the money guarded the rest of us, a cage of blonde. Good luck. In the next segment, a letter you wrote and a letter you crumbled, you tell us, Daniel is the best boy among us because he turned blue and stopped. You dream and it is wretched as the horse whose hair was rinsed with flame. You swallow spinach and it is wretched as the origins of immolation, a sauce sprinkled with sacrifice. The night is dense and you rest alone. You rest and it is a boring sentence. You flare your cheeks, dark seams of skin taunt your body. A brother who is dead, who had never lived. Isn’t this the curse light? Not a trick, but a necessary source.
Ryo Yamaguchi (44:21):
Oh, thank you. I’m so mournful. It’s a beautiful poem. I just read that poem earlier this morning as I was just coming back into the book. So wonderful to hear that. So wonderful to talk with you, Natalie. Thank you for taking this time today and for venturing into all of these lush, and challenging, and meaningful topics. I don’t know, it means a lot to me. So I’m really grateful for it, and I hope all of you out there have enjoyed it. And I guess I’ll take the theme of this topic and just say, “Be good. Be mean. Be everything. Be all of it going forward.” Yeah. Natalie, I hope you have a wonderful day. Thank you again.
Natalie Eilbert (44:57):
Thank you, Ryo. This has been so wonderful.
Ryo Yamaguchi (45:00):
Thank you. Thank you. All right. We’ll see you all next time.