In Conversation with Vi Khi Nao
Nichole Goff graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2016 with her MFA in Poetry. She is a former assistant editor at Action Books and a current editor at Spork Press. Her chapbook Aluminum Necropolis was released by horseless press in 2016. She currently resides in Tucson, AZ. In this conversation, she discusses the innate power of monotony, military bases, buffelgrass, and mortar and pestle.
Vi Khi Nao: The title of your chapbook is taken from one of your poems. When I think of this title, I think of necrophilia, except your title made me think of an aluminum material making love with a corpse. It’s a beautiful title and fitting with the aircraft logo on your cover. Could you tell me a little about your title selection?
Nichole Goff: I love this take on the title! I think there is a lot of interaction—sometimes of a sexual nature—between life and death in this book. A lot of this book is based in the landscape of the desert where I grew up. The “aluminum necropolis” I’m speaking of, in a geographical sense, has to do with the airplane boneyard in Tucson, AZ. It’s the largest collection of retired and defunct military airplanes in the world. There are literally just acres and acres of these carapaces, and you can drive through the center of the place where they’re located and stop and look at them outside the fence. Anyway, I feel like this title brings together the “life” I associate with these airplane bodies, the childhood memories of these things and how they’re ingrained into me as part of my home, and the death that I feel hyper-present when I’m around them; the death that they ultimately represent as weapons of war.
VKN: This brief collection is a deft testimony of your ability, like a bold risky pilot, making seemingly perilous moves across the vast, un-surrendering sky of your language: you navigate us through some of the most “banal” events of life, yet with quick literary maneuvers of misdirection (like a quick drop after acceleration), you are able to take us somewhere else filled with both horror and beauty entirely. What pilots or texts help you navigate the world of literature and military? Can you talk about your father and his influence on your work?
NLG: That’s a good question! I think when I was writing these poems, they were very much something that was a diversion from what I typically write. The engine of inspiration for these poems was taken from many different places, but one I can distinctly name was reading the work of Raúl Zurita. Especially his books Purgatorio/Purgatory and The Country of Planks/El País de Tablas. I would also say I was inspired by the work of Alice Notley. Her book Culture of One is so location-oriented (she’s a Sonoran Desert poet, too), and her heroine journeys and narratives are incredibly ornate and powerful. These two authors were certainly navigating the desert monsoons with me while I was writing these poems all holed-up in the Midwest winter.
My father has an immense influence on my work. I think that coming to terms with my personal beliefs and value systems and how drastically they differ from that of my family was much of where this work came from. The apparition of “the man” in the poems involving my childhood memories (the man who begins to materialize more and more as a real being who does harm, and who orchestrates some of the pain and painful realizations in this work) was largely a projection and symbol of me coming to terms with the masculine, militaristic, “normalized” violence I grew up with.
This is not to say that these poems are coming from a place of personal abuse, because it is quite the opposite. I love my father and family immensely. I’ve always had a healthy relationship with them. But the fact is that my father (and now my brother), as being part of the military, are enacters of violence and the U.S.’s rebranded version of colonization. Violence was normalized for me as a child because it was seen as necessary for peace. A lot of the tension in this poetry comes from the fact/realization that the peace and comfort I experience and that I grew up with is due to the fact that violence against those who are deemed situationally worthy of violence (whomever the U.S. is at war with, both inside and outside of the U.S.) are considered “killable” for the “greater good.”
There was a lot of horror to this realization, because at the same time I experience immense love for my family. But I also find the normalized violence of the United States to be morally repugnant.
VKN: Speaking of horror, military colonization, and of already pre-existing violence, the most difficult poem in your collection to swallow came from poem titled "1445"—it opens directly, "The man unloads his assault rifle into my uterus"—what a way to open the poem. I have also heard you read this poem at Notre Dame, but to see it exists on the page carries an ontological weight that defies endurance, how did this poem come to you? After all, this poem has the ability to give birth to annihilation (babies on the rack). Can you talk about the difference between sonic violence vs written violence? (When I think of sound—I think of a weapon being unloaded or of bullets pulled into being. And, when I think of words on the page—I think of torture, of leaving scar marks on the body of the page—what is your relationship to sound and text? How different they are from my own vision of them? And, does knowing the difference between the two help you shape the body of your poems? Or does some arbitrariness govern the birth of your imagination?)
NLG: I think that sonic violence in the context of these poems comes from the way that they are broken up, and how that translates to them being read aloud. The spaces in these poems that separate the words and lines in seemingly strange places act as sort of sonic “stunting”—when spoken, my goal is to have them sound perhaps a bit awkward. As if they are limping along, injured. I also think that, along with the titles, this “limping” has the tendency to sonically turn into a kind of lull or monotony. This is especially true with the numbered titles. They tend to run into each other. Just as violence becomes something indecipherable after a while, with no beginning or end and only arbitrary human markers (the time titles, dates of war beginnings and endings, casualties counted) to try to apply sense to the monotony.
I think written violence in the context of these poems is also happening within the strange breaks and blank space. The spaces act as gaps in memory, bullet holes, stab wounds, marks in the landscape where another bomb was dropped. And yet all of this, because of its consistency, is simultaneously mundane.
When I was writing these, the written violence came first. The sonic violence second. Though perhaps they were born at the same time… (Oh what a contradiction these sentences are! Ha.) Poetry for me, like performance, is often felt within the body. When it comes into being it comes from the similar place I feel from when I sing or dance. These poems are really a piecing together of childhood and adulthood, and the breakage of value systems within those two realms. Thus, the breaking of these lines was something that felt innate to me. My poetry is always, in some sense, a translation of “soul-things” onto the page. What does Lorca call this? Duende?
VKN: Moving away from who is born first, gun or bullet; sound or written, if your poetry were a dog, what kind of dog would it be? And, why? And, could you depict what your writing ritual is like? (Do you write everyday? What is on your writing desk? Do you have a talisman that helps you go places?)
NLG: Ha! I think if my poetry were a dog it would be a Bull Mastiff. A big dog with a big presence, but also lots of flesh to hug and cuddle.
My writing ritual typically necessitates a drink, a snack nearby, and being somewhere I can focus and concentrate without distraction. I like sitting myself in my bed and making a little nest for myself out of my blankets and clean (unfolded) laundry, and listening to music so loud that it drowns out the outside world.
My talismans vary. I have a ring made from a deer antler that I enjoy playing with while I write. I also like to burn a candle next to my bed.
VKN: Who is your Amelia Earhart of Literature?
NLG: This answer changes depending on the day. I would say—Plath as my great grandmother Earhart. But also Marosa DiGiorgio, Lara Glenum. It depends on where we’re navigating to.
VKN: If Lara Glenum were to blindfold you and ask you to arrange your body parts on her writing table, which body part would you place before her? And, what would you bookend as last? In the same vein, Glenum once wrote a poem about using a rib as a place to hang a tea mug (?), what body parts would you like to use for domesticity?
NLG: As for body parts: ovaries first, brain last. There’s some kind of message here about writing with one’s “feminine” intuition (however that may be interpreted). I like to think of my eggs and their little life cycles as my own kind of fount from which to draw poetry. In addition to intuition intellect is important, too.
Body parts for domesticity: my hips as a mortar and my teeth as a pestle.
VKN: Re: your response to body parts for domesticity is very beautiful. I view the epiglottis as the swingset of “ambivalent beauty” and I would put that body part first for Lara Glenum and Plath writes that “Dying is an art, I do it exceptionally well”—so if there is something you could do exceptionally well, what would it be? And, please tell me about Marosa DiGiorgio. I know nothing about her.
NLG: This is perhaps so unrelated to everything we’ve been discussing, but if there were something I could do exceptionally well, it would have to be weaving/dress-making. My great-great grandmother on my mom’s side of the family is famous for making baskets from collected materials, as well as making dresses (she was Yurok). I read this book about her in my parents’ house the other day about how she spent three years making a dress out of shells. She did this for each of her three daughters, thus spending nine years making these gorgeous, heavy, ornate dresses. My grandmother still has hers and I get to see it when I visit her.
Marosa DiGiorgio was a poet I first read a few years ago. My experience of reading her poetry was one of those situations where I read Diadem (a book of her selected poems translated by Adam Giannelli) and immediately felt I had been gifted something necessary that had been previously missing from my life.
Much of her poetry was, I believe, inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—a girlhood journey narrative I identify strongly with. DiGiorgio’s connection to nature and family and magic and violence just pushes me to awe every time I read it.
VKN: Thank you for telling me about DiGiorgio. Will you break down line by line your poem “2130” for us. I love it when poets/writers micro-analyze their own poem so that the readers feel like someone is holding their hands and they do not feel the need to draw from their own internal resources or do research in order to appreciate or read or understand a poem or so. (You can talk about some of your word choices such as “wisps of mustard gas” or “buffelgrass poised to alight” or anything we would not know if were not Nichole Goff).
NLG: I would love to break it down. This particular poem is very location and memory-heavy. The moon in these poems often acts as something that illuminates my memories, something that animates the previously inanimate, and as something that reveals the violence in the mundane. “Lumes” is a shortened version of “Lumens”—a term used in the military as a measurement of light. My father used this when flying in C130s, the plane that he was last a flight engineer for before retiring from the Air Force.
The families in “dulled down pueblos” here are the families occupying the desert landscape. Tucson is a sprawling, beautiful place. Many of the houses here are designed as “pueblo-style.” It’s a very southwest design in which the houses are squared instead of steepled (another adaptation of the designs of previous cultures in an appropriative fashion). Anyway, the moon illuminates this sprawl/repetition. This repetition is especially present on the military base, in which the houses are designed to blend in with the dirt of the landscape.
The “bowling alley,” the “commissary navels,” the “sanitary paper,” are all parts of my childhood, but also military life in general. I have been to numerous military bases throughout my life and they all have these things built into them.
Where the illumination of the mundane becomes malicious is toward the latter part of this poem. The illumination is something that hurts, I think. The light shows the cracks in things. The boneyard, again, is a site of death. Dead airplanes. Planes that have contributed to the deaths of humans. The illumination is also a part of the harsh and unforgiving vegetation of the Sonoran desert landscape. The plants and animals here are intense and all about survival, to say the least (did you know that Horned Lizards’ defense mechanism is to squirt BLOOD from their EYES? What?!).
The moon here always threatens to illuminate, to light things on fire. Buffelgrass is an invasive species in the southwest that has been the cause of many wildfires. This fire is something destructive, yes. It’s something painful. You’ll prick yourself on all the plants and animal teeth of the desert. But the illumination, the burning (the knowledge of how our experiences, how our existences are tied together), is also a purging to make way (hopefully) for something new.