On “Belly to the Brutal”

Interview / Jennifer Givhan

Jennifer Givhan

Edi­tor Lau­ren Brazeal Garza: Jenn Givhan was kind enough to offer an account of her her wrench­ing and often heart­break­ing fourth book of poems, Bel­ly to the Bru­talDur­ing our inter­view, Givhan gen­er­ous­ly touched on ideas of moth­er­hood (and how it changes time itself), gen­er­a­tional and car­ried trau­mas, what it means to be haunt­ed, and the process of writ­ing as a means of spir­i­tu­al survival

Your most recent col­lec­tion, Bel­ly to the Bru­tal, explores ideas of lin­eages of trau­ma and how trau­ma can be inher­it­ed. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to speak to this impor­tant top­ic with­in the col­lec­tion and/or indi­vid­ual poems?

When I was a new moth­er time didn’t make sense. It stretched, it stuck. It grew pon­der­ous. Heavy at times. Gauze thin at oth­ers. Moth­er­hood is a time machine. Now that my chil­dren are teens, I feel the weight of their mat­ter pulling me, stretch­ing the fab­ric of space­time toward their cen­ters of gravity.

Root­ed in my Mex­i­ca cul­ture, my work explores cycli­cal exis­tence, empha­siz­ing the intri­cate rela­tion­ship between women, chil­dren, nature, and the spir­its that inhab­it spaces between time and language.

All of these hid­den or under­bel­ly expe­ri­ences speak of what trav­els through the cells, the inner work­ings, what’s in the DNA, what we pass on in the unspo­ken as well as stories.

My work delves into the unspo­ken, the omit­ted and for­got­ten, the buried and record-struck. I’ve long advised writ­ers to say the damn thing—and I try nev­er to shy away from the unsayable. Secrets in our house and my mother’s house and her mother’s before that meant a girl­child harmed and I’ll nev­er abide by keep­ing things hid­den that need to be blood­let and the poi­son pulled out. I’ll nev­er be shamed or harassed into silence. And yet—we can make omis­sions as writ­ers for the haunt­ing spaces they cre­ate in their wake—the sense that what once lived there has moved on—narrative, mem­o­ry, or pain. Louise Glück says that “delib­er­ate silence” is “anal­o­gous to the unseen… to the pow­er of ruins… [which] inevitably allude to larg­er con­texts; they haunt because they are not whole, though whole­ness is implied.” Some­thing of their spir­it is still intact in the work. The ruins of what might have been linger. Even that which stays buried can be redeemed. 

All of this relates, for me and my poems, into what we car­ry through the DNA. Wounds through the womb.

Our genet­ic mem­o­ry car­ries tales of trau­ma and tri­umph, passed down from our antepasa­dos, con­nect­ing us in ways both tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble. Sci­en­tif­ic rev­e­la­tions sug­gest we car­ry trau­ma in our genes, echo­ing our ances­tors’ expe­ri­ences. The lan­guage of our lin­eage can bind us to our past for bet­ter or worse, as San­dra Cis­neros and Glo­ria Anzaldúa have expound­ed in their sem­i­nal works. For some, soci­etal dis­crim­i­na­tion against ances­tral lan­guages has led to cul­tur­al dis­con­nec­tion and rootlessness.

The fact that we actu­al­ly car­ry trau­ma in our DNA haunts me. It expands hor­rif­i­cal­ly like an imag­i­na­tive bomb in my brain… to think of all the world’s hor­rors with­in us, claim­ing us, and not let­ting us go, and that this is cel­lu­lar, in the blood…

But there is a sav­ing take­away. As soci­ol­o­gist Avery Gor­don in Ghost­ly Mat­ters argues: “The way of the ghost is haunt­ing, and haunt­ing is a very par­tic­u­lar way of know­ing what has hap­pened or is hap­pen­ing. Being haunt­ed draws us affec­tive­ly, some­thing against our will and always a bit mag­i­cal­ly, into the struc­ture of feel­ing of a real­i­ty we come to expe­ri­ence, not as cold knowl­edge, but as trans­for­ma­tive recognition.” 

The key word here is trans­for­ma­tion. When the ghosts of our past or our ances­tors’ pasts come to us, in means that some­thing needs to be done, some­thing needs to change. 

In our poems, as in our lives, we have the mar­velous abil­i­ty to trans­form real­i­ty, as well as to see the trans­for­ma­tive real­i­ty that already exists (around and with­in us). 

So while our genes car­ry our Ancestor’s trau­ma, we must also be echoes of their joys. I have start­ed try­ing to cap­ture this in Bel­ly to the Bru­tal, but I sense the next jour­ney of my poet­ic path is to keep cap­tur­ing the joy onto the page.

In this col­lec­tion, ideas of wound­ing, being wound­ed, and the wound are woven in almost every poem in this col­lec­tion. These man­i­fest both as phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and spir­i­tu­al injuries. Can you speak to how this theme developed? 

As writ­ers, per­haps more than aver­age folks, we like­ly have a deep, abid­ing sense that in some way, we’re already all bro­ken. Or, we’ve all been bro­ken at some point. And that the nar­ra­tives we’re writ­ing and revis­ing and recre­at­ing in our poems draw from that foun­da­tion­al frac­ture. As Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack in every­thing. That’s how the light gets in.” 

In my poem drafts I tend to write the same beat­ing heart over and over. Cheryl Strayed calls it the sec­ond heart and writes about get­ting down on the floor to pull this sec­ond heart from one’s chest onto the page. I think of “The Two Fridas” by Fri­da Kahlo, each with a heart, one broken. 

Tony Hoagland calls the flood sub­ject or foun­da­tion­al frac­ture one’s “myth­i­cal wound.”

Kim Addonizio writes in Ordi­nary Genius, “I had dis­cov­ered the thing I want­ed to keep close to me for the rest of my life, and if I did that, my tute­lary spir­it would watch over me, would teach me what I need­ed to know… This is your genius: your own pro­found desire to write.” Desire will only get us so far. It’s when we put our “ass to the chair,” she says, that our demons will show up. The demon, then, for some of us, is what­ev­er holds us back from writ­ing the thing we’re meant to write. That keeps us scrub­bing floors both lit­er­al and metaphor­i­cal rather than sit­ting down at the key­board and, as Hem­ing­way famous­ly said, bleeding. 

Addonizio’s demons res­onate with my own, which spew ven­om in my ears, even after pub­lish­ing five full-length col­lec­tions of poet­ry and two nov­els; my demons taunt: I’ve been writ­ing the same damn poem over and over—I should be more polit­i­cal. No, wait, I should real­ly be more per­son­al. But some­how uni­ver­sal, and not nar­cis­sis­tic. I’ve been accused of con­fess­ing. I should be more eso­teric. I’m lost. I’m floun­der­ing. I can­not scratch my way out. To hell with it, I give up.

Except, for me, giv­ing up has too often meant more than nev­er writ­ing again. 

So writ­ing has been survival. 

I must con­tin­ue writing. 

And what almost invari­ably comes is my deep myth­ic wound, in what­ev­er form: Heart­break that stems from my first love hav­ing a baby with anoth­er young woman—when I’d lost our baby to miscarriage. 

No mat­ter what else I write. The myth­ic wound often finds a way of needling itself through. 

I’ve healed again and again. I write myself into heal­ing again and again. 

But the sec­ond heart that con­tin­u­al­ly needs excis­ing every time I begin a new project is this: I want­ed to become a moth­er and couldn’t. And then I could. 

After strug­gling for years with infer­til­i­ty, I adopt­ed my son when I was twen­ty-three years old—this was sev­en years after the trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences at the Clin­i­cas de Salud with my high school boyfriend. 

In my life, I trans­formed my reality. 

Lat­er, I wrote a nov­el about a young woman who gives birth to a stillborn—and then comes to believe that a baby doll she names Jubilee is the daugh­ter she lost. The sto­ry was inspired by Reborns, dolls that are cre­at­ed to look just like “real” babies, and that can be cus­tom ordered to look just like chil­dren who have grown up or passed away; they are “reborn.” Reborns fall into the uncan­ny val­ley and are often described as “creepy,” though I see them as a beau­ti­ful transformation.

When I couldn’t have chil­dren, when my body wouldn’t coop­er­ate, when the lines wouldn’t trans­form into a pink cross, or when the pink cross did appear but then the bright red pop­pies began their painful stain, I made myth. I became a moth­er in my poems and my babies were alive and the blood flow­ing out didn’t mean dead

When I adopt­ed my son and I had no idea what I was doing and felt like a body snatch­er like a thief like an imposter and his col­ic-stressed body and his sleep­less-help­less body kept us both in per­pet­u­al dream­state and I was afraid always he’d wake some day and scream You’re not my real moth­er, instead, we cre­at­ed myth. We became myth­i­cal, to each oth­er. In our mutu­al need. The myth of moth­erlove car­ried us; it car­ries us still, through thick real­i­ty, through thick real­i­ty we learn each day to love. 

Whether I have a sto­ry or poem or spark in mind when I begin writ­ing, every jour­ney­ing onto the page begins for me as a plung­ing down­ward, into the heartgut or through it, and there I must begin digging.

I don’t know if the wound will ever heal. But I’ve cre­at­ed so many beau­ti­ful things from it that even if I die with this hole in my heart, it’s a hole that’s sprout­ed whole ecosys­tems that’ve fed those I’ve loved. 

An over­ar­ch­ing theme in The Account Mag­a­zine is the act of offer­ing “an account”—of bear­ing wit­ness, or car­ry­ing and offer­ing tes­ti­mo­ny. How do you see the poems in Bel­ly to the Bru­tal  inter­ro­gat­ing these ideas?

Most of my work deals with the mon­strous in some way. Bel­ly to the Bru­tal grap­ples with mon­strous moth­er­hood. Moth­er­ing through men­tal illness. 

Some­times the mon­sters don’t need our slay­ing, but our compassion—our empa­thy and under­stand­ing. Some­times the mon­sters are not mon­sters but cap­tive to the dark pow­er wrecked upon them. Some­times, they need us only to wit­ness. To see them.

This newest col­lec­tion was about extend­ing that same com­pas­sion I give out­ward mon­sters to myself. See­ing the seeds of trau­ma grown into vio­lence with­in me—and for­giv­ing myself. But first, I had to bear witness. 

And it was damn painful at times. 

Of writ­ing mon­sters, Karen Rus­sel writes of hav­ing empa­thy for them: “Poor moth­er­less thing. Look at it looking.”

I want­ed to show how even moth­ered things can be acci­den­tal­ly moth­ered into vio­lence that needs root­ing out. How machis­mo cul­ture, how the vio­lences enact­ed upon girls and women… how that can all con­tribute to unin­ten­tion­al­ly pass­ing those on as norms. And how one moth­er needs to be brave and self-aware enough to stand up and say, Bas­ta. Enough. To stop those cycles of vio­lence from repeating. 

So the moth­er at the end of my col­lec­tion births her­self anew, as Fri­da Kahlo in her vis­cer­al paint­ing, birthing her own damn self. And in my col­lec­tion, the moth­er does it when she births her daugh­ter and real­izes that she has a chance to remoth­er her­self along­side her daughter. 

In bear­ing wit­ness to my children’s lives, I was able to wit­ness, again, my own child­hood and my mother’s strug­gle from a new lens that lent me empa­thy and grace I couldn’t feel when I was hurt­ing with­in it.

Jen­nifer Givhan is a Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can and Indige­nous poet and nov­el­ist from the South­west­ern desert and the recip­i­ent of poet­ry fel­low­ships from the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts and PEN/Rosenthal Emerg­ing Voices.

Her newest poet­ry col­lec­tion Bel­ly to the Bru­tal (Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty Press) and nov­el Riv­er Woman, Riv­er Demon (Black­stone Pub­lish­ing) both draw from her prac­tice of bru­jería. Her lat­est nov­el was cho­sen for Amazon’s Book Club and as a Nation­al Togeth­er We Read Library Pick and was fea­tured on CBS Morn­ings. It also won an Inter­na­tion­al Lati­no Book Award in the Rudol­fo Anaya Lati­no-Focused Fic­tion category.

Her poet­ry, fic­tion, and cre­ative non­fic­tion have appeared in The New Repub­lic, The Nation, POETRY, Tri­Quar­ter­ly, The Boston Review, The Rum­pus, Salon, Ploughshares, and many oth­ers. She’s received the South­west Book Award, New Ohio Review’s Poet­ry Prize, Phoebe Journal’s Greg Grum­mer Poet­ry Prize, the Pinch Jour­nal Poet­ry Prize, and Cutthroat’s Joy Har­jo Poet­ry Prize.