Suelo Tide Cement, winner of the 2017 Nightboat Prize for Poetry. Vega-Westhoff works as a teaching artist with Just Buffalo and Geneseo Migrant Center and as a movement instructor with The Bird’s Nest Circus Arts. Her work has appeared most recently in P-Queue, The Bind, and Words Without Borders.
Her poem “Never alone” appears in the twenty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “Never alone.”
A: In its simplist:
Parenting / tending
Shift time of present/ce
A list of failed/uncompleted/imagined doings
This poem began on Sept 3, 2019 as a letter of gratitude to youth ecojustice activists (and in the lead-up to global climate strikes), and as a culling of ideas for potential poetry workshops with Just Buffalo, and as a desire to invite others to walk backwards around Hoyt Lake on the equinox as somehow an act of solidarity alliance desire ritual undoing/entwining—
In its iterations of connections and resistance…Scajaquada Creek (Scajaquada Expressway), place in water land neighborhood cut from…the waterbeing (thinking of Stephanie Heit’s wording now) closest to where I live and one I am trying to get to know still under and above ground cut off from headwaters bubbling private corporate property undoing of property
Inquiry into place placing
Contaminants inside our bodies and all beings
Wild rice’s home in relation to pipeline
Cecilia Vicuña’s tit chant
Conditions of parenting: “poetics of interruption”
Added to instead of closed
And the title now seems beyond the parental call for alone time and children’s book references (so many), also as awareness of connection being with (beings making body, for instance). In one book, all the people line up waiting to help care aid tend if only asked
Is the poem an asking
Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: Almost all the poems I’ve been writing have been long bursts. How does that compare to breastfeeding and co-sleeping? I’ve been working with duration, language development, naming, sound attention/revelation/interrogation. I have a desire to be clear and honest. This poem seems to be a meeting place.
This week I had the pleasure of gathering with others virtually to attune ourselves to land acknowledgement through movement, a collective of instructors TRY/ING (a Movement Research MELT workshop), one speaking of soloing as dancing with (place, ancestors, and and), saying then “we’re never alone,” and it was a reminder of being with and an echo, learning together, and offering, shifting, attending to needs, during this week that is a jolt in assertion of country.
I’ve been embroidering since my paternal grandma contracted COVID during an outbreak at her nursing home. It is teaching me rhythm, patience, pattern. I’ve been imagining quilts, embroidered books, an abecedario of place for my child, maps of this (Niagara) watershed and the watersheds in which I’ve lived.
I’ve been working to raise an antiracist child. And bilingual, though it’s been harder in this pandemic and also since my child responds in English, replaces words said in Spanish with English.
Writing letters, making calls, listening in the background. I’ve been trying to transcribe my maternal grandma’s poems to send to her, collate. Translating Edison Simons’s poetry is on pause but percolating. Wanting to cite readings, lectures, performances, and workshops, without replicating extractive practices.
Q: I’m curious to know how parenting may have shifted the ways in which you write, or think about writing. Obviously, those first few months suck the energy and attention right out of you, but you seem to still be managing some creative possibly during such times. Do your days with a small child shift the ways in which you think about writing? Are your poems changing in response?
A: Thank you. Managing, shifting, resting! Uff those first months! What if we all shifted in care and attention, societal responsibility.
To do something, something else doesn’t get done. This is still the case with a two-year-old. Need to choose carefully. Attend to spoken and bodily language. Joy of communication received.
“The conditions of the work are the work” is a quote from my partner remembering a class with Myung Mi Kim. Syllables, gestures, context, the layers or constellations of a word, as fountain shifts from bubble, fuente, agua. What is uncovered when listening closely validated who are you listening to closely who can you listen more closely to. What pronouns and articles do you say/read/use for people, animals, plants, snow. How does that shape relationship.
Q: Perhaps this becomes a good moment to ask about translation: how does your work with translation interact with your own creative work? Do the two sides interact, or are they part of a singular consideration towards writing, reading and creating?
A: Thank you for this question! I love translation! And I find this question impossible. So many bubbles to surface. They happen at different times, absolutely interact, and must be part of a singular consideration. It is very beautiful (and a huge responsibility) to be a guest in someone else’s words, storying, considering what can be stretched, internalizing forms and voices, music, play, origin references reorganizing thought. Most recently I’ve been living in the words of Edison Simons (Panamanian poet, translator, and visual artist; born 1933, Colón, Panamá – died 2001, Paris). His work is tectonic, palimpsestic, durational, translingual. I encountered a portion of Simons’ poem “ODALBROWN” displayed on a wall at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Panama City in summer 2018. I was there (in my second trimester) to visit family and share my book Suelo Tide Cement. Immediate affinity!
Q: With a published book under your belt, as well as various works-in-progress since, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: I write this in early March, on my laptop, gloveless, cold with the blue of Niagara River before me on Unity Island/Ga’nigö:i:yoh, a renaming of a racist name. I have just dropped off the compost and picked up library books. I have been imagining sensory bins for Lucille Clifton poems. Last night Teo wanted to make a prairie, loving the Emily Dickinson poem ending “the reverie alone will do,” a poem currently part of our bedtime routine. (I hear the sound of bison together.) My work has developed in relationship to reading, place, land, friends, and agency, actions, and more. I can recognize that sound and movement are central drivers. Chant, repetition, mistake/interpretation. Personal as political as ground. Perhaps scale changes. There was a question I had about dance in writing, specifically the three-dimensionality of aerial dance.
The dreamscape is important to me now, always, and I notice it in what I am reading, listening to, and in relation to the pandemic. Now I am back inside the car. Hands too cold. Where my work is headed is uncertain, though there are strands I am tracking. I have thought in terms of performance/dance review poems—my own and others, by way of autoethnographic writing perhaps. All the dances with soil, radio frequencies. There are works I have yet to read that seem like they may be aides—Petra Kuppers’s Eco-Soma: Pain and Joy in Speculative Performance Encounters, Kazim Ali’s Northern Land: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water—I am questioning my listening. Tracie Morris’s Handholding: 5 Kinds. Home, homing, soil health, food and farming equity, climate reparations, land back, early childhood education. As a preteen I loved stories of lucid dreaming, and I would like to engage with that in reality, in the writing. Finally, last week I listened to a talk by Dylan Robinson about his book Hungry Listening. I love the poem citation list early in Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves’s Of Forests and of Farms: On Faculty and Failure. Questions of embodied citation in a Zoom space presentation and discussion of Gabrielle Civil’s work.
Invitational collaboration rooted in love (I first wrote rotted in love).
Last summer biking in the pandemic along Niagara River I imagined a pamphlet series called The Bike Essay (simply, writings from those who have biked along waterways here, their thinking, I am curious). And an uncertain space for Movement with Water (dances/performance series/documentation?). These are imaginary now. To imagine is an important practice. Often what I seek now is rest and presence. I try to make space for that. Joy of laying down and reading.
Also too the pandemic and parenting call me to consider Iowa, all the land tumbling into the Mississippi, the legacy of tilling on poetry in English. In this space of Buffalo, as in many places, there are warnings about playing with the soil, lead count.
I want to hear many more stories from my two living grandmas. I want to sit with them, hold their hands. I want to imagine that handholding extending to the future. I want a space for saying I am listening for/to the future and what it asks. I want to shed perfection desire inscribed. I am thinking of Leah Penniman and Soulfire Farm’s work. I am watching a train cross the river coal/oil/border police on the hilltop. I am in the car, monitored, unbothered. Sun reflecting hands. I am still in the first chapter of Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands.
Did I answer the question? I tried. I may need to move to do the work I need to do next.
Formally, maybe between essay and poetry.
Thank you again for these questions.
Choreography of space. Grief. Change. Robins by the window, round. I imagine canopy coast to coast.
Q: I love how expansive your responses are to these questions! It would be impossible for any reader, I would think, not to be charmed. But reading through these, I wonder at how writing begins for you: do first drafts emerge as quickly and as seemingly-easy and expansive as these responses? I would imagine that containment itself would become an issue. How easily are you able to wrestle drafts into final shape?
A: Thank you. I do get lost. I love when there is a form a name a body to guide what follows, but mostly writing is forming nestling surprising or not along the way. I love research, and I admire research poets. The process is important but not all of it needs to be shared. What needs to be shared? When? (I am thinking of Lee Su-Feh speaking of hearing and attending to the “no.”) So much is ghost presence/activation (thinking now of Terrance Houle’s work). I tend to write yes quickly, and sometimes, belabor later. Yes. That feels true. Overwrite/rewrite? What structures are suggested by the writing itself? What do those structures replicate/disintegrate? It is snowing now. The ice on the river has melted.
I have written this answer multiple times and am writing into this one today. All of the answers that are not here are layered here, are also here. That is also something I tell myself choreographing. Today I read in José Felipe Alvergue’s scenery: a lyric: “My emotional exhaustion is an / exhaustion over the order of words. I prefer / to let them spin around. /// It is all investigation.”
Q: Finally—and you may have already answered part of this—who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: To reenergize… first it feels necessary to bring in Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Magic is Afoot” and Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” Natalia Lafourcade’s Musas, the For the Wild podcast, and the many readings and talks that have helped see me through this year. I am presently desiring/needing return to/breathing in Cecilia Vicuña, John Berger, Leslie Marmon Silko, Myung Mi Kim, Brenda Iijima, Roberto Harrison, Roland Barthes, M. NourbeSe Philip’s She Tries Her Tongue, Wendy Burk’s Tree Talks, Kaha:wi’s Blood Tides and Re-Quickening, Bontown’s Darién–Bunde y Bullerengue. I am always returning to Ela Spalding’s dancevideopoems Entre cielo y concreto. Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg’s Home/Birth. Shifting tides of course and entirely incomplete!