Transcript - Episode 72: Natalie Eilbert

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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Mike Sakasegawa: Hey folks, real quick, I wanted to mention a brief note about the show’s Patreon campaign. As you probably know, this is a completely independent show, I do all of the show’s editing, booking, and so on. Up to this point, subscribers to the KTCO Patreon have gotten early access to each episode, plus extra entries into any giveaways I do. Well now I’m going to start offering some subscriber-only bonus content. This week, I have a special bonus recording in which Natalie Eilbert reads a new poem of hers, “It’s a Girl.” If you can spare just $1 per month, that’ll get you access to that reading, plus all the other subscriber perks, plus my undying gratitude. OK, on with the show.


Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 72. Today’s guest is Natalie Eilbert.

Hey there, folks. Today’s show features a conversation with poet Natalie Eilbert. Natalie is the author of the poetry collection, Swan Feast. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Granta, The New Yorker, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, jubilat, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2016 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin–Madison and is the founding editor of The Atlas Review. Natalie’s most recent collection, Indictus, was the winner of the 2016 Noemi Press Prize and was published in January of this year.

I read Indictus about a month after it came out, which would be… six months ago now? And I’ve been thinking about it more or less ever since. This book, it takes an act—or rather several acts—of sexual violence and makes of them something that embodies that trauma in a way that I’ve never been able to fully articulate. It’s intense, and immediate, and just breathtaking. In the Chicago Review of Books, Peter Myers wrote “Here and throughout Indictus, Eilbert’s speaker swings between supreme agency over a wholly malleable world and mere object, hole, passive receiver. These opposing modes strain against each other and threaten to fly apart. But the rhythmic drive and unrelenting sense of urgency that undergird Eilbert’s poems holds them together, just as centripetal force holds bodies to the walls of a Gravitron—one is afraid to stop reading at the risk of flying off into space.” And the poet Morgan Parker said “I will not say that Indictus is brave, or necessary, or fierce, or any number of coded adjectives used to describe work by women; words used violently: to dismiss, hush, step over. I will not laud Eilbert for her trauma, her deft vulnerability. Instead, I have removed all of the Homer from my bookshelves, and Dante, and Milton and Holden Caulfield, too. I trashed them all. In their place, Natalie Eilbert’s epic Indictus, the only journey of tribulation and discovery that I regard as true heroism.” And, speaking for myself, I have to say: this book was an experience.

Now, if you’d like to get a copy of Indictus for yourself, I’ve put some links in the show notes to where you can buy it. I’ve also put in a link to Natalie’s Patreon campaign, where you can directly support her poetry. And then, coming up in October, Natalie is going to be participating in the Wisconsin Book Festival, the event will be at 4:30 PM on Saturday, October 14th at the bookstore A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve put links to the festival and to the bookstore in the show notes, so do keep an eye out for more details.

Now before we get started, I do just want to give a brief content warning. The conversation begins with a reading of one of the poems from Indictus, which includes sexual violence and then the rest of the conversation does make many more general references to different types of trauma. The reading itself is about 6 minutes long, in case you need to skip ahead.

OK, if you’d like to join in the conversation, you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPoetry to livetweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Natalie Eilbert.


First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So, before we even say anything else, I just wanted to say thank you for this book. It was really amazing and I really... I'm not sure I really have the language to express how much this book affected me—

Natalie Eilbert: Mm, thank you.

MS: —but it was really a meaningful experience to me reading this book and I was wondering if we could start with a poem?

NE: Absolutely. Yes. So thank you so much for saying that Mike. It's been quite a journey. So yeah, I will begin on a doozy. And with that in mind, there is a content warning for listeners: it involves sexual assaults and violence. So I figure if you need to put this on mute for about two minutes, that's fine. But otherwise, here we go. And it'll be pretty obvious as soon as we begin. Okay.

The Rapist Joins AA.

Received an email, formally written.
Was sorry for that night all those years ago. Signed sincerely.

Deleted the email. Went to my Trash. Deleted it there too.
Looked to my History. Deleted my History.

Focused back on those kitchen lights. Beaming grease. On the man.

Was the only night I ever drove drunk. The dark was not God’s back turned away.

Drove slowly, imagined my car reeling home on a thick yellow string.
The machine I now carry also imagined this thick yellow string.

Parked delicately in a diner parking lot. Was worried an idle car
on a shoulder might spark interest. Was a very smart girl.

Walked to the back of the diner. Practiced a quiet retch to alert no one
of any trouble.

Let the poisons spill out of me with grace.
When no new liquids came, knew I was empty. Black hollows there

like a wet dead possum in snow.

Deleted the liquid. Deleted the snow.

Did not wait a moment longer before pulling myself back to the car.

Must have been I was a very dumb girl. There was an exit could have tried harder
to find. Friends all in the next room. Could have screamed.

When he pulled away had said sorry quite sincerely. Left him crying there, my name in his mouth.

My curse to him was that I did not speak.

Silence is a hold that sucked hard to take him. Sucked so hard
his skin ripped from the bones in his face. Sucked so hard
all his great big dogs died of cancer. Sucked so hard
they pulled the overdose out of his stomach, stuffed

charcoal down his throat instead until he couldn’t stop himself
from shitting on the doctor’s table.

Sucked so hard his love for a woman became the charcoal inside him

that forced him to uncontrollably purge in public

until his love for a woman became hate for a woman.

Sucked so hard he never even had a father. His mother a cat sick with worms
they had to put down.

Sucked so hard his back gave out, his herniated disks a little Greek choir.

That pain will only ever occur to him.

That the dumb little smart girl will find him there for years after watching him crawl.

Never spoke to anyone about this letter, the amends that must have been hiding

between his naked unwieldy body and the open kitchen door.

When the road was a line letting me follow it home.

Of course it rained.

Turned the familiar left onto my street. Parked the car in that night.
The dark was not where a deer concludes.

The dark did not instruct
on how to remove the bruises from my dumb little smart girl breasts.

Deleted the breasts. Deleted the night.

And so arrived home safely.

MS: [exhales] Wow, um... I think I may need a second.

NE: Yeah, me too.

MS: Wow. Um, so, I remember right after I finished reading this book, I tweeted something like that this book had kind of fucked me up only not "kind of." [laughs]

NE: Yeah. Yeah. "Not kind of." Yeah. Me too.

MS: Yeah, I bet. Right before the show you had mentioned that you never really read this poem in front of people and I was just wondering if we could talk about that a little bit.

NE: Yeah. It's interesting about this poem, obviously it... I would say of all the poems in the book, it's the barest in terms of assaults. I actually am very specific about not saying or mentioning the word "rape" really anywhere in the book. I did not want that to be the word used. I wanted to create the ghost of the trauma. I wanted to give a sense that the trauma was more stereoscopic, everywhere around me at all times rather than this specific word that pinpoints such a certain violence.

MS: Mm.

NE: Because for me, of course, sexual assault and rape, that of course is the utmost peak of violence. But for me the real violence happened in the nonviolence of after. So the idea that this poem exists and represents some portion of the book, it's important and powerful for me that this book is present. But when I'm in a room with people, I don't know those people and it's not to say I don't appreciate their presence in the room, but I don't know who they are and I don't know if it's safe.

NE: So there is this worry that I need to keep this poem particularly secretive, in the same way that I kept the specific narrative of my trauma secretive.

MS: Mm.

NE: Yeah, so I don't really read it that often in public. The few times I have, I kind of read the room and it felt right. It also had depended on with whom I was reading, and I think that that definitely changed the course of how I configured my space. So if I was reading in a room where all the other readers were interested in—and not just interested but obsessed with a story that reclaims a narrative, that's a time in which I would want this poem read. But again, it's not as much about my fellow readers as much as it is about just who exactly is in that room.

MS: Mm.

NE: The first time I ever debuted this poem was a very strange evening. It was actually for the Couplet Reading Series that Leah Umansky does and—I think she was just on the podcast—

MS: Yeah, she was. [laughs]

NE: Yeah. But so, I debuted it there and a number of factors went into my choice, the first being that I wanted to and I felt a real compelling urge to do so. I was reading alongside poets like Cate Marvin and Deborah Landau and I was feeling quite vulnerable and also aligned with the female energy in that room.

MS: Mm.

NE: So I thought it will be a great idea to read it. So to really psych myself out to the possibility, I only printed out three poems and this was one of them.

MS: Mm.

NE: But then I got to the reading itself and none of my friends had made it. They couldn't—and it's no one's fault, but nobody I knew was there and it was horrifying. I had no friends whatsoever in that room. I had no—none of my family, you know. So... And then eventually someone did show up, one friend did show up and I barnacled onto him, like if I didn't I would float away into the ocean forever.

MS: [laughs]

NE: So I read it and it was received pretty well. I needed to go outside and cry afterwards for a long time.

MS: Mm.

NE: But I remember whoever read after me—and it wasn't Cate or Deborah—they were like, "Well, I guess we're going to have to start on a happier note."

MS: Eesh.

NE: And I felt really, that was so condescending to me.

MS: Jesus.

NE: Like, "Oh really? I didn't realize that we were here to entertain you." So. [laughs] Anyway, so then I decided I wouldn't read from it anymore unless I felt really comfortable with the people surrounding me. So yes, that's a very long explanation for the history of reading this poem out loud.

MS: Mm. My god, that's... [laughs] Wow, I don't even know what to say about that.

NE: Yeah.

MS: There's something about what you were just saying about reclaiming a narrative—

NE: Yeah.

MS: —that, you know, in thinking about this poem and what it does and what the narrative in the poem itself is.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: You know, the title "The Rapist Joins AA."

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: And, you know, obviously—and you make reference to making amends in that.

NE: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.

MS: I think something that maybe a lot of people who haven't experienced trauma don't necessarily realize how the act of—even something like that, in the abuser's mind, trying to make amends—how that in itself can also be an act of violence.

NE: Mm.

MS: And of trying to take that narrative back for themselves and—

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: —and turn it into some sort of redemption for themselves. How that is also an act of violence.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: And this poem really steadfastly refusing to allow that reclamation, it's potent stuff.

NE: Thank you. Yeah, I like what you're saying there, and I think that there's such a sine curve to trauma. Like it just always feels like it's almost done and that it isn't. So I think there is something to the idea. I play a lot with gestures of forgiveness. I take it back. I give it. I know that to forgive is not exactly what I'm after, but I'm meditating on the idea of forgiveness. I don't forgive and that's something that I'm using a lot in these poems. I can look at a situation that happened a long time ago and I can see that the other person was a human being. I can see that. I can see that maybe someone was a reckless drunk. You know, I just finished reading The Recovering by Leslie Jamison and it's an amazing, amazing book. I sort of, in those rare moments—really, it's a book that as soon as I finished, I wanted to start again from the beginning, even though it's like this 450-page-long book. But there is something—you know, at some point in Raymond Carver's past, with his first wife, he at a party hit her over the head with a wine bottle and almost killed her with—he broke an artery and... And she stayed with him and they continued to love each other. I understand what being desperately reckless means and I know that we are capable of mistakes as much as we are capable of forgiveness. This poem is not concerned with giving that forgiveness, because—you know, most of the word "forgive" is "to give," right? And so I did not give it. Instead, I wanted the forgiveness to look a lot like pain, and I wanted the forgiveness to be a wish for and toward utter, abject despair for this person. You know, in a kind of penance quality. Because I think there is something really impressive and beautiful about the idea of making amends. I think that we all should with the people who we have hurt. But I don't know if amends is the way to go when you have physically violated someone like this. I think it needs... I think that the person that does that violence needs to never, ever, ever be in touch with the victim. They need to go far away and serve their time. You know, they didn't go to jail for it, but they have to leave me alone. And... So that's, I guess, some of what this poem is doing. Another thing that I was interested in this poem, that has to do with forgiveness and has to do with a reframing of agency is—I don't know if you noticed, but I removed a lot of the more active pronouns from the poem. A lot of—and when I say active pronouns, I mean the subject to most of the verbs. At the beginning of sentences, it has been stripped of an "I." And I did that because I didn't feel I had an "I". I had a "my" and I had the object of myself which I had to carry with me, but I didn't necessarily have an "I" to begin with. So I was trying to create a sense of my trauma and my body as a reversal. And the idea that forgiveness is also a reversal of the incident. You know, it's like being made to forgive, being made to... Being put into that position of emotional labor is an attempt at reversing an irreversible experience. And I resisted that very much in the writing of this. And, you know, in the actual events of what inspired this poem.

MS: Mm. It's such a... You know, I don't mean to compare my experiences with your experiences.

NE: Please, yeah.

MS: But I think, just knowing what my own traumas in my life have been, and that, you know, there are ways in which the abuses that I received when I was young have sort of echoed through the entire rest of my life.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: And are never actually going to go away. That, like you said, that these are irreversible things.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: And the idea of forgiveness in that context—and of, what does it even mean to make amends for something that can't be changed? You know, that it did happen and it's going to be with you for the rest of your life. For me, I've tried to come to a point where I can have a certain amount of empathy for the people who traumatized me when I was young.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: I can understand what they must have been going through to feel like the only thing that they could do to feel some sense of power or control in their lives was to abuse someone less powerful than them.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: But to be able to feel that empathy isn't the same thing as saying, "I forgive you. It's okay that you did that." You know?

NE: Yes, absolutely. You can... I have my problems with the word "empathy," but I think that often survivors and victims of abuse and violence, whether that's sexual or racially inspired them or anything gendered, any kind of violence inflicted upon us, the onus tends to be the victim to, in a way, empathize with what happened, to say or to understand how that situation was so nuanced. Right? And so it's a lot of acrobatics for the person who has already gone through irrevocable harm. Whereas, you know, this word—while you were talking, I was thinking more about the word "amend" and I started to think about, in the same way that "forgiveness" is "to give," "amending" is literally mending something. But not mending it toward... How do I put this? Not mending it toward anything but creating a barrier. You know, there's this almost sense that you're mending—you know, I'm thinking of Robert Frost, "The Mending Wall," where he's talking about in that poem that good fences make good neighbors and this idea that you can barricade yourself with a mending wall is not the same as understanding what you've done. It's a way to completely isolate what happened from who you are, when I think the thing that needs to happen is the opposite: a total immersion into that violent person. And I think that a lot of people have issues admitting and owning their mistakes and that's, you know, completely quotidian, lower-stakes issues to the highest crime.

MS: Mm.

NE: I don't think we are as a society trained to have any grace with our mistakes and it leads to worse mistakes. We go into the snowballing of fumbles and the idea that when we make a mistake, our immediate go-to is to ask forgiveness from the other person. It doesn't make that a learning experience at all. It renders it done, it seals it up. It says, "I did this, and I did this to you. Please, I need your forgiveness." But it doesn't correct it. It's not curative in the gesture of repair, right? Like you're not... You don't become a better person when you ask for amends. You're just getting permission to move on. And I don't think that's the point. I think that one should dwell and sit with that mistake and really see where they end up with it because, as you were talking about, there's a limit to what the victim or survivor can do because we're reeling constantly from the trauma, which is never over. It just permeates differently at different points in our life. Um, yeah. So that's what I'll say about that. It's like 11:30 in the morning and I'm like, "All right, I'm ready to talk about these very, very heavy things." I love... Anyway.

MS: [laughs] Yeah, it's only 9:30 in the morning here and uh...

NE: Oh, boy. It's better than a cup of coffee, right?

MS: Yeah. And I'm already crying a little bit. So. [laughs]

NE: Yep. Yeah, same. [laughs]

MS: One of the things that I was thinking about as I was reading your book was... This might kind of sound like a sort of simple or obvious question—and I hope it's not—but one of the things that I was thinking about was: why poetry? Only in so far as—what I was thinking about was, you know, over the past year or so I've read a lot of short stories, for example, that deal with different types of trauma and I've read a lot of essays that deal with different types of trauma, whether they be sexual violence or racial violence or any number of other things. Right? But it seems to me that even though I've gotten something powerful out of many of those other things that what I got out of reading these poems with something very different and so the choice to make poems about these instead of some other form of writing or art seemed like something that I wanted to explore a little bit, you know?

NE: Hm. Mm-hm. Yeah. That's so interesting that you asked "Why poetry?" And especially in thinking about the ways that we keep or transmit or transfer pain, very, very deep pain. I think, you know, I don't mean to be the ass who quotes herself, but—

MS: [laughs]

NE: —it reminds me of something I said once. Oh God, it's gross. Okay.

MS: [laughs]

NE: But I had a poem a few years ago in The New Yorker—I already feel like an asshole. Okay. I had a poem a few years ago in The New Yorker called "The Limits of What We Can Do." And I think my favorite line in it is, "I like poetry because there are no miracles in it."

MS: Mm.

NE: And I'm not often one to say "my favorite line of mine," but it is a line that after I wrote it, I thought, "Oh wait, I actually believe that." Which isn't to say that I don't believe the things I write in poems, but sometimes you just surprise yourself with how genuine and sincere a truth can really be. But what I do like about poetry is it doesn't come.... It comes to the rescue in a very idiosyncratic way. Again, it's not corrective or curative, but it simply lets you navigate something. And after it's written, there's still the entire periphery of what you didn't say, which is part of what my book's title has about it. Indictus is a Latin root that means essentially "to speak the unsaid," and the unsaid is also poetry. That silence, that blankness on the page is a dialogue with the actual words. They're in a constant dance, I think, the words and the blank. And that's something that very few other genres can say for themselves. I mean, I think that plays can, to a point. I think that some flash fiction can, for sure. And I think there's a lot of links actually between poetry and short fiction with that in mind, right? You're sort of being dumped in the middle of something when the poem begins. It's so interesting because I've been in revising mode and I've been working on this poem about heartbreak and I spent so much of the first six lines of it talking about the moon and—you know, poets can't not talk about the moon even when we don't want to. There it is, we're just suckers for it. But I realized yesterday, I woke up in the middle of the night and realized that the poem actually begins with this pretty raunchy sex scene. It's not raunchy, but it's raunchy for me.

MS: Mm.

NE: I'm like, "Oh my God. My goodness." I'm beginning a poem about enthusiastic consent and there's something like, "Oh wow, that's empowering." But I realized that the poems behave their best when they are unruly and poems are their best when they don't offer more explanation than they need to. And part of the specific explanation that a poem permits has as much to do with the failure to explain. And I think that poetry is as much about failure as it is about, say, success or coming to the right word.

MS: Hm.

NE: There's Dickinson—Emily Dickinson says, "success is counted sweetest by those who never succeed." And there is something really beautiful about the idea that a poem will never succeed. The poem will have a miracle. There will never be an intervening light within the poem that guides in the right direction. I mean, maybe for Keats that was true, but I don't think that a lot of contemporary poets are interested in that guiding light. I think they're interested in the darkness that has put us where we are. The darkness of this century is the darkness of last century. And to say that a poem is—you know, again, thinking of Keats—about the truth and beauty is actually the biggest deception, right? It's a deception to say that a poem is about truth and beauty. The poem is the lie of that. And I think that a lot of contemporary poets are not interested in lying anymore about the ease of truth and beauty, or even the complexity of truth and beauty. I think we're really into the... Not lies and ugly, but kind of. I think we're interested in navigating a world in which the landscape is riddled with our messiness, our mistakes, our lies, our... The things that we have inherited as individuals and as a collective. So because of that, I think that the poem is right for me. I think that the poem is something that is disciplined in very specific structural ways. And because of that, we can mess it up. We can take those fine edges and make them more rough-hewn or even all over the page, scattered. But I don't think anymore we can pretend that poetry is about something bursting from our bosom into the pasture. We can't burst from our bosom into the pasture when we have children locked in cages, and have always had people locked in cages, and have always committed unspeakable horrors to other people. It's a lie to pretend it's beautiful. So I think the poem is very good at showing these small threads and key holes into that ugliness and into the grimness of, yes, truth telling, but also synthesis.

MS: Well, I actually thought of like 10 different things I wanted to say about that—

NE: Yeah, I'm sorry, I'm long-winded.

MS: No, no, no, it's great. I do think that we need to move to the second segment. So why don't we take a little break and then we'll come back and do that.

NE: Great.


Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always ask the guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?

Natalie Eilbert: So yeah, I've been in a bit of an interesting place with the Internet, where I've needed the Internet for so long, I've relied on the Internet for so long for community, for catharsis, for a support system and a sort of online family.

MS: Mm-hm.

NE: And I've been finding, though, despite this beautiful world that is open to me, that I don't like what it's been doing to my brain.

MS: [laughs] Yeah.

NE: You know, like I forget that I have a body. And that's actually part of what makes the desire for the Internet so compelling is that I don't always want to exist in my body. Which is great. Like I think that nobody—I think we should just go toward cyborgs. I think that's great. Like, we can be mostly not in our bodies because bodies make for the most trouble.

MS: Mm.

NE: But I have been in a mindset lately where, because I've been feeling pretty reckless in my brain and I'm like, "Well, I need to actually feel this," instead of the almost horse-tranquilizer-like effect of social media where I can just feel very much removed from myself and my thoughts and ideas and just sort of slide down an endless feed. I've just been thinking a lot about that, especially with regard to my book.

MS: Mm.

NE: Because when it came out, obviously I was doing all I could to promote it. I was hungry for praise, quite honestly. And not just praise but any sort of shout-outs. It's such a strange idea that we write a book and then are expected to just let it die.

MS: Mm.

NE: And I've been worried about that because it's a book that's been so important to me. So I wanted to make sure it lived. I wanted it to live, which meant that I would find myself googling Indictus a lot [laughs] and I'd be—you know, anytime I got some sort of mention or retweet or tag, it was such a dopamine rush. And of course I was also—you know, occasionally I would have an amazing writer write an amazing review. I did have one incident where I had a really bad review, but—

MS: I remember that. That was, ugh.

NE: Yeah, it was very bad. I'm happy to talk about that. And that actually is part of some of me stepping away, or at least it started to inspire it. And maybe I'll get to that in a second. But the real crux of it was that I... It was so easy to ignore my own personal mess and crave these somewhat... You know, either they were really beautiful and earnest tags or they... You know, it was just like "Whatever." I don't know what I was even tagged in. But so I just found myself getting really exhausted by the sort of mental gymnastics I had to do to go between my internet persona and my actual one. Which, I don't even know what that means to have an actual persona anymore. So I was thinking like, "God, I need to actually notice my world because I feel like I'm just recycling the same information." And so I just needed a break. But I think that a lot of that had to do with the paradox of visibility, too. The paradox of having a book that's so invested in trauma and so invested in telling it. I was kind of losing my mind because I couldn't control the readership of that. And I think that started to do something really weird to my brain. That constant need for both control and validation that I'm always after in my life, but was made more so in the last few months with the book's release.

MS: One of the things that I think about with social media, even something as inconsequential as the kinds of things that I usually do on social media, when it gets attention or—you know, recently I had a thing kind of unexpectedly blow up, and that's been sort of a wild ride. But one of the things that that has sort of highlighted for me is, the things that you're saying really resonate with me about wanting both control and validation and it being such a weird rush. Another thing that I think about a lot is how when you put something out there—and maybe it's always been this way, but social media definitely seems to sharpen it—that people put a lot of expectation on you.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: The audience starts... Even sometimes when they're saying something nice, it still feels like they're asking you for something. Do you know what I mean?

NE: Yeah. Mm-hm. Yes. I definitely feel that. It's so interesting to me because it almost feels like dating. Like the sense... It's not even dating. I don't even know why I said that. It's more just like if you're at, say, a bar with a friend and they buy the first round, and you have to buy the next round. It's expected that once someone shouts out something you did on the Internet that you have to then do that back. Or there's an expectation of Follow Back Friday and... I don't know, it's weird, these expectations of generosity that are built into the Internet, especially with social media, especially with Twitter. And I think it's beautiful. I actually think it's quite beautiful. Sometimes I find if I don't follow through with somebody, like if somebody shouts me out or if somebody reads me and I don't reciprocate, I carry a guilt about it.

MS: Yeah.

NE: And I'm like, "I don't even know this person" and I feel terrible that I haven't been more proactive about responding in the minutes or hours since they tweeted at me or something.

MS: Yeah.

NE: And I already have enough guilt. I carry a lot, a lot, a lot of guilt. I am, after all, a New York Jew.

MS: [laughs]

NE: That's kind of like what you do when you're a New York Jew, is that you come out out of your mother and feel bad about it.

MS: [laughs]

NE: You just, you know, it's a horrible thing that you just did to her. So—and that's real, I feel bad about that. Sorry, Mom.

MS: [laughs] Oh my God.

NE: But I don't need... I don't know, it just makes me feel crazy after a while to feel conflicted about leaving my phone home, or not looking at my phone. It's almost like when I finally lift my phone back up, I have to spend an hour checking to make sure that everything is in its place and everyone has been responded to, lest I be a person who is ungrateful or something for that attention. I don't know. I don't know.

MS: Yeah. No, I'm 100 percent with you right now.

NE: Yeah. Yeah. Okay, great. Great.

MS: One of the things this kind of reminds me of is I was talking—this was a while ago now—with a mutual friend of ours, Brandon Taylor.

NE: Aww.

MS: And he was talking about—I think this even might've been on the show—he was talking about how... That social media is this thing where there's this way in which people almost sort of expect or feel entitled to a certain... When it's a marginalized writer they feel entitled to this sort of performance of our traumas in some way.

NE: Mm. Mm-hm.

MS: And I can't remember exactly what he said, but it was like, "You won't share this, but you'll share a harrowing personal essay."

NE: Yeah. Oh, we've had this conversation for sure. Yeah.

MS: Yeah. It's like even when people are sharing it in a really genuine and sincere way, that it's like, "Yes, this is resonant and meaningful to me," that it's still... I don't know, there's something that feels kind of strange about it in some ways. Like, this was something that I was thinking about a lot as I was reading your book, about how this book is so... I mean, it's heavy, but I feel like to an audience member, there's something about the way that, as an artist, you can make a piece of work that embodies certain aspects of traumas that you've experienced, and that that might be able to help, in a very real way, an audience member's healing process, if they have gone through a similar trauma.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: And that's a powerful thing. But also that people in the audience—not everybody, but some people, and sometimes many people—can feel a sense of entitlement towards that, and can express that, especially on social media, which makes a really strange dynamic. Do you know what I mean?

NE: Mm-hm. I do. Which is kind of... It goes back to what I was saying earlier about wanting to omit the word "rape" from my book almost entirely, because for me... This book is of course for all readers, but it is specifically for people who have been and are inside the harsh winds of that trauma, right? That they're in that tundra, right? Who are just pushing ahead despite. And I think there is a need, maybe, on the part of others to get the narrative and to figure out, "Well, what happened exactly? What was that? Who did what?" So there's a need for information, which a poem is not. A poem is not information. But it also is, it's just not the information that necessarily goes into prose writing.

MS: Mm-hm.

NE: But I think there is a desire on the part of others sometimes to want more and more and more of the trauma. So it kind of feels vampirical in some ways. I think a lot of times, you know, in the wake of this book coming out, people have said such unknowingly damning statements, like "This is a very timely book, because of the Me Too movement," or whatever. And it's like, no, fuck off. That's not what this is. This is not a hashtag campaign. This is not part of that. This has been something I've been trying to write since I was 18 and this has nothing to do with a movement. It's interesting because there are tons of books,I think—I'm thinking of novels right now—that really... I call it grief tourism—that really want us to feel horrible, horrible, unspeakable violations in such a showy way. Again, I don't think that that's by and large a bad thing, but I think it creates an expectation like, "Oh, you are writing about sexual assault and I don't see it in this poem as much." Or it's like the problem when—there are lots of really hilarious Amazon reviews of Moby Dick where people were like, "This is the shittiest book about a whale. There's no whale in it." And I think that that's actually true for a lot of trauma narratives as well. There's no whale in it.

MS: Mm.

NE: It's mostly people at sea. It's mostly configuring some sense of a history, or a sense of being disenfranchised, and it's not at all about whether the whale takes the Pequod down. It's about whether there's a whale at all. Right?

MS: Mm-hm.

NE: And I think that's a really important distinction for me when I'm writing in these subject matters. That I can't perform, I'm not performing, this isn't performance. And yet, the pieces that get the most retweets are those exact ones that inspire so much violence. So I don't know. I don't know what it all means.

MS: Yeah. I don't know if anybody does, my God.

NE: Yeah.

MS: There's like a million other things that I would love to talk about, but we're getting pretty close to time. There's one question that I like to close with—

NE: Okay.

MS: —and that is whether there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.

NE: Oh wow. That's a very good question. Well... Maybe this is not the most poetic answer, but I went to the David Bowie Museum—I'm sorry, the David Bowie exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum—

MS: Mm.

NE: —and I've been thinking a lot about legacy and what we leave behind. And not just that, but the kinds of beautiful work we're doing without realizing how legendary it will become.

MS: Mm.

NE: I mean, I think for David Bowie, when he began, he didn't know what was going to happen, he was just making music and being this beautiful, queer person and just putting his whole body into a place it's never been. And eventually that created a huge legacy within rock and roll. But I think when you look at the scope of someone's entire life from infancy to death, yeah, it made me realize that I could have definitely gone to an exhibit of any person and had a similar experience. Which isn't to say that David Bowie isn't the coolest person and the most talented person, but literally if that were an exhibit for my neighbor, Annette, I'd think, "Wow, look at this life." So it's just been making me think a lot about who gets a biography, who gets the retrospective and... Yeah, I guess I've been thinking a lot about that and thinking about ways that all of us are in the midst of our own retrospective age. So yeah, it was a really moving exhibit and it's kind of pushed me toward another kind of thinking as well, about legacy and personal history.

MS: Thank you. That's a great answer. [laughs]

NE: Great. Maybe it was more poetic than I think.

MS: [laughing] I think it might've been.

NE: Yeah.

MS: Yeah. Well thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it.

NE: Oh, of course. It's been such a pleasure to speak with you and I'm... I guess now I'm ready for my second cup of coffee.

MS: [laughs]

NE: I don't know if I need it though. I think I'm pretty good.



Mike Sakasegawa:

OK, so, as I mentioned at the top of the show, be on the lookout for more details about Natalie Eilbert’s upcoming event in October, there are links in the show notes to the Wisconsin Book Festival and the A Room of One’s Own bookstore that should have more information as the event gets closer—that’ll be October 14th, 2018. And do pick up a copy of Natalie’s book Indictus, there are links in the show notes for that as well.

And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find all of the show’s contact and social media info in the show notes. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, it also gets you access to our subscriber-only bonus content. You can find that at, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at We’ll be back on August 29th with a conversation with poet Ada Limón, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.

Michael Sakasegawa