Sasha Pimentel is the author of For Want of Water (Beacon Press, 2017), selected by Gregory Pardlo as winner of the 2016 National Poetry Series. She’s also the author of Insides She Swallowed (West End Press, 2010), winner of the 2011 American Book Award. Selected as a finalist for the 2015 Rome Fellowship in Literature (American Academy of Arts and Letters), her work has recently appeared in such journals as New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, LitHub, Guernica and the Academy of American Poets website, among others. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso, on the border of Ciudad Juárez, México, to students from all over the Americas in their bilingual (Spanish-English) MFA Program.
In the dark room he asks me
to change where we have to
bow below the ceiling, coughing
while he draws the sheet hung
to save my modesty, though
I have none to save. I peel off
my wet dress for pants thin
as the pillowcases I slept on
as a girl in Georgia, the purple
tie-dye ballooning my pelvis,
and I knot the remaining cloth
at my navel, fold the sheathing
I arrived inside, seams filled
with smoke, city, into a sharp
black square at the corner
of the single mattress. I can see
his body moving quickly, quietly
lighting candles behind the cot
-ton: divided, we both know not
to speak. This is the last trip
I’ll take with the one I still call
my husband, this man and this
room now a bought hour
of silence from the silence of
my body walking behind another
in Bangkok, and I pleat myself
into the center of the bed, my
calves under my thighs, palms
sweating the lap, the way Asian
women know to wait. He senses
my pinned posture and pulls
the twin sheet back, and for
the first time I see him beyond
instruction, or introduction, how
the small hoods of his eyes drip
into his smooth high cheeks,
his tendonous neck and clavicles
rooting to a person more furtive
than my own. He asks me where
I hurt, everywhere. But more
at my neck and lower back,
because I won’t ask this stranger
to cup the cone of my caged
heart. The springs depress
where he has sunk in to hold
me, his chest at the hump
of my spine, my hands in
his, our fingers entrenched.
He says of our shared, colored
skin same, same, and I say sawat
dee ka because I do not know
how to use the language past
gratitude—my accent broken,
tiger balm spiriting his pores,
and his breath at my neck, the two
candles hunkering blue light
in the corner, and somewhere
below, banned from this dark
room and in the laboring street
is the one who’s forgotten
to touch me, a man framing
in telephoto the smoky arms
of women frying chicken over gel
gas, and the foreheads of girls
hacking durian, their temples
shining, bent to the million
spines at each green shell, their
steel knives unstringing such
soft yellow fruit. Still to come
is a grief so large it will shape into
an estranged and swollen face
cursing me at the next party, our
future folding into our past, wine
staining our hands, our lips.
The sun drops, conspires
to further the darkness of this
blued room, where candles are
shivering in secret. The fan
whirs. The man embracing me
squeezes our four hands, and I
understand the gesture to trust
him. He swings me, cracks my back.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I first sat down to write this poem in December 2012. It started with a memory, and a feeling that I had about that memory.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Getting the rhythm of the poem’s language took some time. It was hard for me to get this poem’s rhythm, its voice and sense of line, and that took sustained days of writing over several weeks. The revising its nooks and crannies after the poem had taken its main shape took about a year. So some drafts. But I’m a really slow writer compared to other, better writers.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
The scene of this poem came to me very quickly in the writing process, partly because I’d thought about the scene already, even if not yet in the terms of a poem. I guess you could say that was “received.”
But everything else was sweat, no tears. I tell my students that exactly where something is hardest to write is exactly where we should double down, and write it out. That difficult subject or emotion may be something about which we may want to cry. But I don’t believe that I should be so into my own work that I can be moved to tears by something I’ve written, or am writing, myself. I save my tears for symphonies; that scene in It’s Kind of a Fumny Story when they’re singing “Under Pressure”—singing it hard—and as the song softens, their faces become bathed in blue light; and other people’s poetry.
I believe in inspiration, but limitedly: that inspiration alone can’t make a poem. The rest is work.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I knew that I felt touched by this encounter, that I had witnessed in this person—a stranger—both an intimacy and an elegance that moved me. That cracked something open in me then, in my autobiographical time, something I could not name.
So in writing time, I sat down to try to get as close as I could to naming it. I sat down at first just to write a portrait of him, to try to find a language that could capture some of his dignity, and the intimacy that I’d felt. But in writing the portrait, I discovered that such intimacy of encounter necessitated a first person point-of-view, an exchange between two people that was sharpened by a single, personal “I.” I discovered, as I wrote the poem, that I couldn’t separate the “I” as character too far from the “I” that was me, Sasha writing it, because as I questioned from where that intimacy came, I realized it had originated from my own autobiographical hurt.
Likely for this masseuse, it was just another paid job, I another tourist. He wasn't the one who was changed by the experience, it was me. I think it was the gentlest that a man had touched me in years at that point in my life, maybe ever, without wanting something in return. I suppose that’s because what I had to give, the baht, was already given. I knew from my own childhood and almost all my experiences with men until my second husband, Michael, the touch of a man as only applied in desire, or violence. That men touched women’s bodies in order to receive, or to reflect themselves, back. To be touched physically, with hands that didn’t ask for my skin to swell—to meet those hands not by welt nor sexual surrender—it shocked me, stirred in me that maybe my body could live a different existence, as it does now. So while I first tried to write the poem in longer lines (a longer line can accommodate more possibilities in language), I learned while writing it that such a moment needed more breath, more hesitancy, more space for the speaker to breathe as she learned to realize in that moment what she was experiencing. In real life, it took me over a year to realize what I had experienced. But the poem needed that pained and mending understanding to happen in its own unfolding present.
In his essay “My Grandfather's Tackle Box: The Limits of Memory-Driven Poetry,” Billy Collins writes: “[e]ven a poem based on a past event can give off a feeling of immediacy
if it manages to convey an awareness that it exists in the present
tense of its own unfolding—an awareness, ultimately, of its own language.” Meaning, if we are to leap in a poem beyond the first stirrings, or scene, into something larger than the first perception, it has to be through a concrete present that leaps by sonic and imagistic intuition into a new territory. Sometimes that new territory is a new knowledge, or a music, or an awareness that something will come from this—which is why in this poem there’s a hint to the future, a future the speaker can almost sight, but not quite. Why that future seems to wobble in the corners of the room, or in the fan, because though the speaker is moving into an awareness that something is happening, that she is experiencing something that will forever change her, she doesn’t know yet how those changes will happen. Only that she is being changed, will change.
Once I found the line length (the hardest thing for me to find), I could listen to the rhythm of the poem’s language, guided by the line telling me when to speak and when to pause. Then I followed that rhythm, and wrote the poem to be as long as it needed to be to tell its story. Which was longer than I’d initially conceived.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
I think after I had typed several drafts and I still couldn’t find a line length that felt right, I had to hand-write the poem multiple times in different ways to slough off the visual habits I’d developed with my computer screen and word processor.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I always let a poem sit for months, more often a year or two. I’m old enough to know that if it turns out, after time, a poem I’ve written is shitty, that I can always write another one. I can out-wait the shittiness of my own writing. But not so old enough that I can come to a poem’s final form so quickly, as more seasoned poets can do, they live with the song in their ears so.
I let a poem wait inside my computer, or if I really like it, I print it out and lay it on a corner of my desk, so I if glance at it between reading and studying later, I might remember it’s there. I need for time to efface the superficial layers between what’s real in a poem—if there’s a real emotion there that needs words—really needs it, something plain and true—versus the want to have written.
I don’t trust myself because I’m a nerd. Michael says he often wakes to me swiping on the square blue glow of my ipad, and I’m reading poems or essays on craft then. I tell my students, why waste a minute not in poetry? Even the busiest of people can keep poetry books near the toilet—there’s always time to read the most incredible thing to read, even if what your body is doing is ordinary. But I fall in love with other poets’ poems so much, so easily, sometimes I just want to write because that poet has opened something in me. Natasha Tretheway’s “Repentance,” for example. Great art makes you want to make great art. But it doesn’t mean that what you make will also be great.
I’ve developed an aesthetic that doesn’t believe in poetry as experiment, nor poetry as play. I think loss is the necessary bitter half to the poems that end up compassionate, or generous—that the capaciousness of a poem comes from its own understanding of what we risk, how great it is what can be lost. And because a poem’s form is part language, part space or silence, I think if we dare to speak against that whitespace, it ought to have as its engine, necessity. “He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do,” Philip Levine titles a poem, and while I fail to achieve that standard, I take the advice to heart with each poem I’m writing now.
If I let a poem sit, with time I can see if there’s something real there, or if it was just desire, or sheen.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I think I’ve been talking about this already. But in short: the events themselves all happened, even down to how I folded my street dress in exchange for a soft t-shirt and fisherman’s pants, and how I sat. The fiction lies in the narrative drama that comes from the adjectives and verbs I gave to those facts.
Oh, and the sun dropping. I think the actual massage was earlier in the day. But in the poem I needed the sun to drop to signal transition, change.
Is this a narrative poem?
It’s narrative in that time moves the telling of the story forward, versus a lyrical poem centered around an emotion, or a question.
But Federico García Lorca says that “[l]a verdadera lucha es con el duende.” And one of the ways that a poem can access that struggle with “black sounds” is through an awareness of its own wrestling of language. I like to interpret that wrestling of language as between a poem’s narrative momentum versus its lyrical intensity. This isn’t just in poems. In the writing I admire, which transcends genre, there’s always that visceral push and pull between the telling of a story and a euphoric celebration of language, as with Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Narrative momentum is what pushes the writing ahead, how things unfold, or a character’s desire. There’s a forward propulsion of narrative time, which is not the same as “real time.” But lyrical intensity is what I call those parts of constructed language that are so musical, so sensual, yet also so unadorned, they seem to linger outside of time. Those moments when stubborn language finally gets past itself as a medium, and arrives perhaps at what William Carlos Williams calls “not in ideas, only in things,” what Richard Hugo calls the real subject beneath the subject, the “treasure,” what Honorée Fanonne Jeffers calls “not the necessary self awareness […] but rather, the necessary questions,” and what Major Jackson calls “to be inside a poem and to be vulnerable.”
So time moves forward as the story is told in these poems. But I hope too that maybe, for a bit, it feels like it can stop, too.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Without a doubt, Philip Levine. I’ve read, studied and taught his corpus, and I continue to return to his poetry every few days, but most especially when I’m trying to write something that feels hard to get out. I’m always thinking of how his poems stretch and arc. How his poems extend what is specific into what is large, so that the specific becomes saturated with the large.
I know I was reading Jorge Luis Borges’s lectures from This Craft of Verse and his poems selected by Alexander Coleman, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Annie Allen, Cyrus Cassell’s The Crossed Out Swastika, Eduardo Corral’s Slow Lightning, Louise Glück’s Wild Iris, Corrinne Clegg Hales’s To Make It Right, Juan Felipe Herrera’s 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border, Edward Hirsch’s illuminating aesthetics in The Demon and the Angel, Langston Hughes’s Collected edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, June Jordan’s Directed By Desire, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Pleasure Dome and The Chameleon Couch, Dorianne Laux’s Facts About the Moon, Li-Young Lee’s Book of My Nights and his memoir The Winged Seed, Hugh Martin’s The Stick Soldiers, and many others.
I know that because I just looked back into my syllabi from that period of time, and those were the books I was teaching.
I know too that during that time I was actively studying, if not formally teaching their books right then: Rosa Alcalá, Maram Al-Masri, Denise Duhamel, Rita Dove, Beth Ann Fennelly, Jorie Graham, Marilyn Hacker, Shirley Lim, Federico García Lorca, Dunya Mikhail, Anna Moschovakis, Octavio Paz, Paisley Rekdal, Adrienne Rich, Stanley Kunitz, Brian Turner, Gerald Stern, Leon Stokesbury, William Carlos Williams, C.D. Wright, and prose writers Mikhail Bulgakov, Italo Calvino, Steven Church, Julio Cortázar, Truman Capote, Amy Hempel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, and Alice Munro.
I know this because sometimes when I’m trying to learn what a writer’s doing, technically, in a literary text, I type up that text into a Word document so I can understand it through my hands and eyes—so I can read it through my body, rather than through my intellect. And these were some of the documents I can find that I’d typed up during that time.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
To anyone who is willing to take the time to read any of my poems, I’m grateful.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Just my husband, Michael. He knows what I care about most in poems—partly because I’ve spent too many nights or mornings not letting him sleep because I’m babbling to him before bed, or as he’s waking, about poetry. But he’s the person I trust in all things valuable to me, poetry being very high on that list.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
While this poem takes up some of the same concerns as its brothers and sisters in For Want of Water, what is body, what is family, and what we can’t say, because it’s not dealing with larger issues like the border, immigration, drugs or war as the other poems are, it’s more narratively direct.
What is American about this poem?
The poem’s insistence and centering of “self,” and its belief that intimacy is immediately possible between strangers—that’s very un-Filipina of me. I understand the word “American” to define not just North America or the United States’ part of North America, but the entire Spanish- and English-speaking Americas. So too then that the “laboring street” is still part of the personal experience; it informs the dark, private room.
Also: the what have I done of it. The what will I do of it. That the speaker feels, in that space, a foreigner. That it ends with its history sopping its present.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Both. It’s as abandoned and as finished as the moment in my life from which this poem was dug.