IN CONVERSATION WITH
VI KHI NAO
Cornelia Barber is a New York writer. In her dual writing and healing work she investigates lineage, intimacy, race and the psychic and physical ecologies of people, plants, places and animals. Her Chapbook Unconditional is out now from Dancing Girl Press. Her work can be found in Prelude, The Felt, Berfrois, Fanzine, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Entropy, Weird Sister and more. Her poem Pink Metal won the Luna Luna Magazine poetry contest on the theme of "Death", and her full length manuscript Of Mouth And River was nominated as a Tarpaulin Sky book award Semi-Finalist. She is an editor at Queen Mobs Teahouse. You can read her blog Poetry Rituals.
VI KHI NAO: How long did it take you to pull this collection together? Can you talk about its process?
CORNELIA BARBER: I started writing these poems in 2014 about a year after I graduated from Bard and had just moved back to New York City, to Brooklyn. I was reading a lot of feminist texts, like Gillian Rose, Kristeva, Bell Hooks, and contemporary New York poets—like Sampson Starkweather, Simone White, Fred Moten, Cecelia Corrigan, Melissa Buzzeo—and going to readings at Berls and The Cake Shop and Mellows Pages. I’ve been editing it on and off since then and am so happy it’s out in the world now!
VKN: I am happy that it is out in the world too, Nellie! How do you desire the world to respond to it? What kind of conversations do you want the world to have with you?
CB: As much as the world—or at least some of it—is shifting towards a new ethos of holding up voices that have been historically marginalized there is still a lot more work to do. I hope the book helps to give people affirmation in their own work. And to open up their own vocabularies around issues that stick inside them—love and loss, the earth, race, education, identity...there’s no reason a little chapbook should be less influential than a huge institution...HD’s little book Notes On Thought And Vision completely changed me. Whether you’re an artist or not we all have to start looking outside the institutions that may or may not give a shit about us to see that writing and making art, even if you’re not a “writer” or “artist” is always a tool for growth and confidence. Also, like anything I want to be challenged to write more, go deeper and challenge others to do the same.
VKN: What marginalized voices did you have in mind?
CB: In this text I’m specifically talking to young women, and femmes, teenagers who are dealing with their changing bodies, high emotions, problems with intimacy and family—and so many of us deal with rape, domestic abuse, and violence from the outside from people who hate us or want power over us. Then we get to be in our early twenties and we have a worlds worth of trauma on our shoulders, plus the violence of the everyday, plus the ordinary of the everyday (paying bills etc..). It’s a lot. How are you supposed to love yourself through all that? I so want young people to feel loved.
VKN: If poetry is a great coping mechanism for this, a great outlet for the pain of our today’s youth, what other actions can we take as writers and poets to help make others feel accepted and loved? I don’t know if I think protests are an effective tool for this. What do you think, Nellie?
CB: I think first of all we have to understand that all the issues in the world are connected; they are interdependent. Colonization and climate change and the Trump era or whatever you want to call this shit-storm, aren’t separate. But, each of us has our own specific work to do. I’m only 26, still figuring out what that work is, what it feels like, who it’s for...but I know I can’t do it all and that no one person can. There is a lot of healing to do. I used to think that the healing would come before the doing, but more and more I understand the healing has to come with the doing, that they’re connected. Collective healing and collective action are connected, so maybe protests aren’t your thing, but there is teaching, gardening, volunteering, tutoring, donating, getting a law degree or an environmental policy degree, becoming a therapist or social worker, helping out your friends...there are so many things we can do to help each other.
VKN: I hope your optimism is contagious!
CB: Haha. I’m an optimistic skeptic.
VKN: Your father recently passed away this May. I am sorry for your loss. The birth of your chapbook emerges at the corridor of your father’s death. You mentioned him in your poem, “Future Self.” Can you talk about him and your relationship with him in your writing? What was he like?
CB: Thank you. I can’t believe he’s not here to see it. In tough moments it makes me want to throw up. In lighter moments, it’s okay. He is here, somewhere, maybe in the chapbook itself. The day he went unconscious I read that poem to him. It was the last poem he ever heard. He loved poetry. He was a political theorist and writer and people know him as this passionate, wired public intellectual with a lot of rage and zest. That’s true, but he was also gentle. He wrote poetry too as a young man. He was sensual and complicated. Once he bought me a pink rose quartz and we had dinner and whiskey and talked about death and spirits. He wasn’t religious, but he was deeply spiritual. I want to talk to him right now and ask if he thinks this interview is going okay. He is in all of my writing. I hope he is never not in all of my writing.
VKN: I am sure he is very proud of you, Nellie! Thank you for telling us about him. Is his work similar to yours? Do you have a favorite poem by him that you wish to share?
CB: He didn’t write any for public consumption! And no I don’t think it’s similar. However when he got sick I started reading his journals from when he was my age which could be my journals. I love journals of young visionaries. Anais Nin, Njinksy, Marx. His journals are like theirs—the confusion, contradictions, traumas, romance, brilliance behind who they will become.
VKN: What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?
CB: Chocolate!! With rainbow sprinkles.
VKN: Will you break down a poem for the readers? Your poem titled, “Full”? Can you break the poem line by line of your process of writing it to help readers understand how you unravel as a poet and narrate things, hidden metaphors and innuendos, we wouldn’t know if we were not Cornelia Barber or a critic of poetry.
CB: Cool I love that!
Only a full body
can discern a baby
Thinking here about my abortion. That feeling of fullness, hormonal, physical, psychic that comes with being pregnant. I guess I was thinking how do you know you’re pregnant?
or, romantic collections
sewn up into the liver
The way to creating the fetus, the romance, the fucking, the rape, however it happened “the collections”
“the liver” in chinese medicine is the regulator of emotions good and bad, thinking of a Donna Haraway-Esque cyborg woman, sewing her back together with these romantic experiences all inside her womb, making a fetus, the liver figuring out what to do with it—also thinking of the great Archi Shepp song sung by Jeanne Lee “Blase” which my friends and I listened to nonstop in college “You tilt my wound till it runs/you shot your sperm into me”
I want to be a thousand
stars and collide with you
Getting out of the body into the universe, post abortion feelings
when I drink too much
it aggravates the liver
Acupuncturist telling me not to drink so much it’s fucking up my liver
I would like another
and another, not to replace you,
but to withdraw into the pantomime
feeling of our heat, and to draw out
the stars from my blood
I used to be a big drinker. And I drank so much for the heat of it, the drama, the rush. Mimicking the sensations of pregnancy or some perverse version of it. I don’t think I did that consciously. Also “the stars from my blood”, I didn’t want the baby in the universe I wanted the universe inside me. Or the stars were in my period blood, leaking now.
placing them securely in a petri dish
and serving them up for soup
I’ll make it with carrots and rose buds and vermicelli
and cut them carefully
and raw chicken
One of my favorite books of all time is Jeanette Winterson’s “Written On The Body”. There’s a scene where the narrator watches her beloved, who is making her dinner, lick the spoon. It is incredibly sensual. I thought about that scene in tandem with the sterility of medicalized female bodies “the petri dish” and our bodies as “raw chicken”.
in the end there is you and I
placating and navigating our separation
My body and this abstract fetus/baby/nothing body that meant so much to me and so little at the same time.
the stars taste so yummy,
wash off the blood and spit in the pot
Repeating universe, body, blood...digesting my own period blood...the violence of abortion
the body eats and sates and is content
in its fullness, spots the cell, in utero, who
sings softly and feeds, who deciphers a language
Back to how do you know you’re pregnant? And also how does the thing inside you feel? What is it doing?
the language of the mother
the romantic body of stars,
of uterus and liver
colliding in heat
Build up of all the previous stuff, wanted the reader to feel the drama, like being drunk or pregnant
I want to collect for you
all the flowers I have ever met
and place them gently
on your grave
because I forgive myself
you little animal
I was so angry at myself for so long after. I punished myself for so long. I let people take advantage of me and hurt me because I was angry. I wanted to forgive myself, to let go, so other people could do the same.
we sip the broth
we are sad
we’ve grown up together
your death and my life
you little stone
I would be a different person without that animal inside me. It gives me hope about my dad too. Grieving him. That one day it will be okay.
colliding in the atmosphere
blue and pink and purple and green.
One day I will die too. And through a different perspective, maybe a less humancentric, time centric one, we’re all already dead. Life is short. And a piece of something much larger. I’m already in the universe with them.
VKN: Ah. I understand. Speaking of abortion, having been through one of the hardest in life, what advice would you give girls and women who experienced abortion for the first time? What do you think is the most compassionate, tender way to give support to these girls and women? If you could go back into the past, how would you have liked your experience with abortion to unfold? What kind of psychological, social, civilizational, physical support would you like from yourself and from your community?
CB: I actually wrote an essay on this you can read on Entropy! But also, I think each person’s experience of it is totally different. Unique. And should be honored that way. There is no right or wrong way to feel. I made the right choice. Even if at the time it didn’t feel much like a choice. I wish we could talk more openly about all this, I really do. Guys should learn about abortion because they are affected too. Men should learn about periods and hormones and blood and sex and rape and vaginal issues and hormone replacement therapy and body dysmorphia and all the things that the rest of us have to learn about because we experience it every fucking day.
VKN: Perhaps a course of such could exist and educational board members can introduce it to the curriculum where high school students are required to know like algebra or social studies.
CB: Yes exactly. If only. There are great health teachers out there. But they can only do so much within bureaucratic limits.
VKN: What was the hardest and easiest poem in this chapbook to work on for you?
CB: Ah! “If You” was the hardest. It needed to get written. But I was still editing it last week! And “Barbies” just came out I think I edited it maybe twice right after I wrote it and that’s it.
VKN: What are you working on right now?
CB: I am working on a new chap-book that follows the physical ecologies of the NYC I grew up in, that my dad grew up in...and through those ecologies follows my healthy body and his sick body. But honestly it’s more of a manifesto about a femme-future green city and the death of the patriarchy. Also, continuing to edit my full length manuscript Of Mouth And River.
VKN: Is there a painting you couldn’t live without?
CB: My friend Ella Belenky is a phenomenal artist. I went to her studio to look at her work and ended up falling in love with a painting. She finished it up and dedicated it to me and now it’s hanging in our living room. It’s called “Waving”. I wave to it every morning. You can see it on her Instagram!
VKN: Checking her art out online. You are right. Her work is beautiful. What do you love about her work?
CB: I love that she manages to get so much specific emotion out of abstraction. “Waving” is so joyous! Others feel haunted to me. Like ghosts live in her paintings. I can feel her past lovers, and the sky, and the small town she grew up in all living inside her work...
VKN: Do you like living in Brooklyn?
CB: I’m honored to live in Brooklyn.