Catapult Instructors “So if I am a tender writer… then my poems should be everything that I am.”
Leah Johnson interviews poet and classes instructor Angel Nafis on community, process, and writing in and outside of an MFA. (Even though advice is whack.)
Leah Johnson: The last week of September, you went on a writing retreat with some of our favorite contemporary poets. So it feels appropriate to me for my first question to be about writing in community. What does that look like for you?
Angel Nafis: For me it varies. Because I live in New York, I live near a lot of writers, obviously. And because I live in New York, there are always writers passing through here. I would say that this is a place you can live where you don’t have to make plans to see anyone who doesn’t live here, because people just cycle through. So there’s the relaxed, just kind of run into people vibe. And I find that because of the internet, you can also feel very close to people who perhaps don’t live in your proximity. But I feel like all the shit that I just said often leads to very lovely, but unintentional community. Because you’re like “Oh, we’ll both be at this thing! We should, like, grab something before or after.” Or you might not even know who’s going to be there, and you see them there and you’re like, “Oh! You’re at this thing!”
So I guess, coming off this writing retreat, that was really lovely. For many reasons, but one of which because it felt like a more rare, intentional space. Like we—none of us—none of us live in the same city. Hilariously so. Like, Kaveh lives in Indiana, Hanif lives in Ohio, Saf lives everywhere and is never there—I think she’s technically based in DC, but she bounces around because she tours a lot. And then Fati , I think, technically lives in Los Angeles. And I still live here. So that’s like, you know, as disparate as you could get. And we just were like, “We should just do a retreat.” And we were just saying that in the group chat we have.
And I think it was great because Kaveh taught a lecture to us, like, one of his lectures he did at the grad school that I go to . He did a lecture—but I wasn’t there though—so he did it for all of us. And then Fati did, like, a workshop on, like, screenwriting. Like how to write a pilot for a TV show, because she’s also the writer for Brown Girls —which is a web series that got picked up by HBO. And we all also did like two full rotations of editing everyone’s work.
And that’s, like, quite a bit of shit to do in like two days. You know? And that happens rarer.
This is a long-winded way of saying that writing in community can sometimes just look like writers in community. But I think this weekend—and I hope more often—it can feel like writers writing and creating and sharing ideas in community.
It’s different being able to ask your homie or your colleague or whatever 30 of the most personal questions about their process… If you can, you should: make intentional time to explicitly learn and explicitly commune with your peers that you fuck with.
So how—if you recognize this in your own work—do you cultivate community in your writing?
Wow. I don’t know that I do. What does “cultivating community in writing” mean?
I’m glad you asked, because this is a sort of back door way for me to ask about “Woo Woo Roll Deep ”. You read at Sarah Lawrence PoFest this past spring. And I was in the audience, sitting beside all of my—and there’s not many of us—queer, poc friends in a row. And we were all just looking at each other, cheesing super hard, holding hands… It was just like, ‘Damn, somebody gets it. This is so intimate, this is a look into what community looks like for us here in this space.’ So I guess what I’m wondering is how you consciously cultivate that type of tenderness for your community?
My friend, my sister, Morgan , doesn’t have any hard lines in between a tweet or a text or something that’s in a poem. She’s not precious about where her poems and her writing comes from, and I think I learn a lot from that mode of collecting. Where, like, the everyday ephemera, all of the things that are happening—and the internal ephemeral, the things that you’re thinking—are fair game for what you’re writing.
So if I am a tender writer—sometimes funny, angry, messy, sensitive lady person—then my poems should be everything that I am. And I think that I try to not have thick or tall walls in terms of what, when I’m in my making space, when I’m writing, that’s not when I’m editing. Like “No, I can’t say that” or “No, I shouldn’t say that” or “No, that’s not poem-y.” Everything is fair game. And when I edit, that’s the moment to sift out shit, if it should be sifted out. But oftentimes, more than not, it’s just the tenderness of your life is present in your poems when you just allow it all to come in.
“Woo Woo” is something that I wrote because my teacher, Rodney Jones —all praises due, shouts to Rodney—I sent him an email or something, talking about my horoscope, and I was like “But don’t get me wrong, I’m not that woo woo.” And he sent me back a one line email saying, “Hey Angel, good to hear from you. Write the ‘woo woo’ poems.” And that was it.
I never would have even thought to do that. But in us communicating, in him not know what I was talking about but being interested, the idea formed. And when I was trying to be like “What is woo woo?” Because when you’re fluent in something, you can’t see it. It’s like the air, you don’t know it’s happening.
So with “Woo Woo” it was just like, “I know what it is, I just am it.” So in trying to define what it is, the first thing that I came up with was “If you are, and if it is, then everyone around you will be it too.” That sort of gesture to having the defining point be other people creates a tenderness in that poem. Every time I say [woo woo] I’m saying I love these people, and every time people hear it, I think, the love is felt.
So I guess my answer is: I don’t change how the fuck I talk in poems. That’s just how I talk. Like, verbatim; it’s the same lexicon I use, the same rhythm a lot of the time, and the content remains the same. And I think that allows a presence, and a tenderness in my poems.
My friends, my dad, my landlord—whoever the fuck—belong in my poems because they know me, and if you know me, you know my poems.
Where does your writing or your writing process fit into your day-to-day life?
What’s your process? Deadlines. Like, if I didn’t have to write shit, who knows when things would get finished? I’m writing all the time. I really think of it as a collecting, at every moment I’m taking shit in. I have a really great memory, so I’m always clocking things.
But the actual progression from clocking to writing fully is really precipitated by deadlines.
Most of my days look like reading, and talking—I talk a lot. I talk through a lot of my poems. I talk through a lot with my partner, talk through them a lot with teachers, I’m always talking to friends about ideas. And I kind of work it out in that way, so that when I sit down I can top-to-bottom get a draft out.
One of my very best friends and mentors, Kevin Coval , he taught me most of the stuff that I know. Like the foreground of my knowledge is pretty much directly from him. And he always talked about his poems in terms of the books they were going to be a part of. So I think my mind thinks that way. Like it has a tendency to be like “Oh, I’m gonna write this poem but that’s not this book.” And he thinks in terms of projects, which I think is helpful. What you’re really saying is “I’m never done.” What you’re really saying is, “Everything I’m doing is purposeful and meaningful and belongs somewhere within the body of my thinking and my making.”
So my process doesn’t just look like me sitting down and writing when I have some shit due in five hours—although that is what it would look like. It’s never-ending. I’m always writing things down, I’m always talking things out, I’m always dog-earing my books that I’m reading. All of that is writing. All of that is part of it.
I think people are like “Find time!” and I think what it really is, is “Be realistic about what time looks like for you.”
How does writing outside of the MFA space change the way that you approach the work—if it does at all?
Most of my life I’ve been a writer. I started when I was like 14 and I’ll be 30 in December, so that’s at least half. And I wasn’t in an MFA for most of that time. So I have been blessed enough to not associate writing or having a career as a writer—whatever the fuck that means—they’ve never been synonymous with being an MFA student.
That said, I went to a really good program, and I learned a lot. Which, I don’t know if that’s true for everyone… But I think by and large I don’t hear people being like, “That was so fucked up, I learned so much, I feel like I can fuck someone up with my mind!” And I feel that way. So that is a change. I feel like I learned a shit-ton. I was already a writer, so I don’t associate being a writer with… they didn’t make me something I wasn’t. They broke me off with a bibliography that is fucking bananas, and a bunch of ideas that are fucking bananas, and a bunch of mentors that are like freakishly generous and knowledgeable and open and singular to anyone I’ve ever met before. People who are like “This is all I fucking think about.”
And I think that kind of turned me out in some ways. And it was very rigorous. In my mind, when you reach a certain level of rigor, it’s sort of hard to turn that off. It’s hard to unring that bell. It’s like anytime someone gets me talking a little, it’s like I turn to finals week insanity. It’s like a shark smelling blood. And I think that’s what the program did. I smell blood in the water when someone brings up—
Yeah, like that!
So you did an interview with the VS podcast with Danez and Franny and in it you talked about patience in your writing: “This next book might not be the truth, but it’ll be exactly how I wanted it.”
Or just like, what it is! It’s just gonna be what it is.
Right. So what advice would you give to young writers who need to probably pump the brakes but the pressure to produce feels so present?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with producing. I think it’s tough. But first of all, nobody should be giving advice. [Laughs] You know what I mean? Advice is whack. It just is. Especially when you’re like—I have like two grey hairs. Like, bitch, I don’t have any advice. Truly what have I seen in this life to be giving advice?
I don’t know I think that…there’s nothing wrong with writing a ton and producing a ton and publishing a ton. And there’s nothing also wrong with not doing that. There’s nothing wrong with being like “I put my foot into these two poems, half of this year.” None of that is wrong.
I think it’s really like, the weather around those decisions that is what it really is. Like if you’re making mad shit because you’re in a race with someone or yourself, that doesn’t seem like a sustainable or cute look. You don’t wanna be putting coins into that piggy bank. That’s not a good vibe. It’s not gonna turn out well. There’s no way to be happy.
If you’re in a race, you don’t win. I mean, what’s the plan? You want to do what until what? But if you’re not putting out stuff because you’re not working hard or you’re not rigorous or if you’re not putting out stuff because you’re scared, or you’re not putting out stuff because you want it to be perfect, that’s also not… It’s really about the weather around your decision.
Should you rush to make a book? No. But should you be very precious about every single poem and then sort of build it up in your head like it’s impossible to live up to? Neither of those shits are great. So I think about when we were talking about writing in community that is why. It’s not like you need to write in community so you want to compare yourself to anyone, or race, or make sure you’re not falling behind.
You just look around because you don’t want your shit fucked up. So like if people around me are like, “Yeah, I write pretty often!” and like “I also go to work. And I work really hard and edit my shit.” Then why would I think I don’t need to work? It’s really just so that you can take the temperature of what is possible. That’s really why you want community. And that is really only what I can recommend.
I know we’re almost out of time, but hopefully we can answer this in a minute and thirty seconds or less: What is in your to-read pile right now?
Oh, my god. I’m not a fast reader and it takes me very long to read things. And I’m also a big re-reader. So someone can be like, “Have you read that [new book]?” and it’s like, “I have not, but have I read Brutal Imagination like 300 times! Do you want to talk about that?”
I was in grad school for so long, it seemed, and it was so hard and I had to read so many poems and I didn’t see anyone and it was just so depleting to my spirit on so many levels. Just the level to which I had to be reading shit that was just like, “What is this?” And so the minute I turned in my last shit, don’t you know I went and checked out like 10 YA books? I was just like “Bring on the fiction!” So I’m in a very narrative groove right now.
I just read Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X . And I wanted to read Emergency Contact [by Mary H.K. Choi]. I want to read There There , which is that novel by Tommy Orange. I finally decided to stop fucking around and destroying my life and read Song of Solomon . So I got that and I’m finally going to do that to myself. My friend’s book, Tommy Pico , his last one, I want to ask him for. But you know what I just read that everyone should want to read? I read it again—Aracelis Girmay’s the black maria . It’s so weird and new and strange and perfect and old at the same time. And I’m reading it because it makes me feel like I can see what I want to be writing next. Sort of like she imagines a way and a language to talk about and fill in the holes of a past she can’t know. When you’re a descendant from people whose records weren’t kept, what does it mean to have to reimagine that so that you can have historical text?
And also, just like, a lot of movies.