Interview by Taylor Edmonds
“Inspiration is useful, but the routine is vital… Weekends are dedicated to my creative work, and I guard that time closely. Mornings are for revision and research. Afternoons are for first drafts and experiments. Evenings are for friends.”
Learning to Be Flexible
When I could not do full splits, the ballet instructor put her hands on my shoulders and shoved downward, forcing away the inches of space between my thighs and the wooden floor. She moved along the uneven line of tiny tulle-trimmed bodies, cracking hips open and straightening legs. There was an unsettling efficiency with which she taught us this lesson in flexibility and rejection of boundary; with each torn muscle we learned of the violence of being sculpted into something beautiful. One girl, a chubby blonde with dangling earrings and a faded temporary tattoo of a heart on her arm, began to cry. I heard a tense recognition in the voice of my teacher as she comforted her: I know, it hurts. I know, I know. Our throats tight and cheeks dried, we stood up and hobbled to the bars to begin drills: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, relevé, higher, higher. The mirrors lining the walls multiplied us into a shifting, taffy-pink horde — twenty children split into hundreds of fettled limbs. And when each of us was handed a ribbon and told to do whatever felt right, no one sat down to rest. We heard the gentle hum of the music and twirled through the air as if we weighed nothing, drowning pain in the desire to be pointed out as someone worth watching. Each girl set her face in an expression too womanly and began to paint with her limbs and length of fabric.
The poem explores the relationship between beauty and pain, for women and girls especially, and there’s this very visceral violence on the body. Could you tell us some more about this idea in the context of the poem and ballet?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much harm I’ve done to my body through habits I learned from women and girls around me as I was growing up. Of course, these practices, such as excessive exercise and severe food restriction, are often adopted in response to the stresses of existing as a woman in a patriarchal society that prioritizes Eurocentric beauty standards. The heart of this poem is rooted in anger at those who modeled unhealthy behaviors for my younger self, as well as in the sadness of recognizing that the women and girls around me were simply doing their best to succeed in a world intent on policing their femininity and bodies.
In the poem, an obvious example of harmful behavior modeling comes from the teacher, who pushes her students through the pain of their muscles’ natural resistance to overextension. However, perhaps more important but not explicitly present in the poem, are the mothers and aunts and grandmothers and other caregivers who allow, or even encourage, the children to enter an environment that will teach them such dangerous lessons.
As an art form, ballet is situated at the intersection of several concerns: the body, gender, tradition, and beauty, among others. Ballet is also famously hard on the body, especially the feet; it is not uncommon for ballet dancers to experience repeated injuries. Knowing this, it seemed ballet would be the perfect backdrop against which to examine the complicated relationship between beauty and violence that girls must confront at an early age.
What was your process in deciding the form of this poem, why did you choose to keep it as one stanza?
I think most poems find their own form as they’re being written and revised. This poem came to me as a single stanza in the initial draft. I did, briefly, toy with the idea of breaking it into couplets, but soon abandoned that experiment. It feels right, to me at least, that a poem concerning an art that is dually fluid and rigid would be presented as a single, flowing block of text.
I’m interested in people’s different writing rituals and routines. What helps you get inspired and start a new piece?
Often, consuming media offers the initial spark for my poems; this poem began after I came across a video of a cheerleading coach forcefully pushing one of his athletes into the splits while she cried and resisted. When I’m actively looking for inspiration, watching a film or reading someone else’s poems usually does the trick.
I’m also a huge believer in movement as a portal into the creative headspace. If I’m feeling like my brain is empty, I’ll listen to music and take a long walk or pace around my apartment. Something about the rhythm of my steps allows me to hear what sounds I want from a poem before the words come to me.
Obviously, the search for ideas is secondary to having the discipline and will to sit in front of the empty page or the blank Google doc and do the work of weathering false starts. Inspiration is useful, but the routine is vital. During the work week, I read and write daily, but minimally, as my job requires my attention from 9AM to 5PM. Weekends are dedicated to my creative work, and I guard that time closely. Mornings are for revision and research. Afternoons are for first drafts and experiments. Evenings are for friends.