us? beautiful / prepared for our own demise; relieved to be small...; nothing is stopping us
By: Ash Good
us? beautiful / prepared for our own demise
Vanport, Ore., Sept. 26, 2020
In “us? beautiful / prepared for our own demise,” the lines “and this is all true,” “for a while we live that revolution,” “follow both of them in riot gear,” “no stopping now i say” and “it hits me before it hits me” were drawn from generative workshop collaboration with Andra Vltavín, Emily Dempsey and Rhonda Nichols.
relieved to be small in a wave that
will never relent
I touch my own skin, and it tells me that before
there was any harm, there was miracle.
—Adrienne Maree Brown
nothing is stopping us
Ash Good is a queer & non-binary poet, designer & activist in Portland, Ore. They are co-founding editor at First Matter Press (a 501c3 nonprofit), curator of Bloom open mic & a reader for Frontier Poetry magazine. Ash is the author of four collections of poetry & their work most recently appears in The Timberline Review, Not Very Quiet & Rise Up Review. www.ashgood.com
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
I wrote many (heartfelt but certainly embarrassing) poems as a kid and teen—that went on and on far too long, always in rhyming four-line stanzas—usually with a flashlight under the blankets far past “lights out.” I quit creative writing for many years after some (tragically misunderstood) feedback was scrawled in a notebook margin by a high school teacher, and throughout college I focused solely on academic writing for art history. I returned to more personally expressive writing in my mid-20s, and I’ve abided by a growing obsession with poetic craft in the decade since.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
As I started reading more, Rainier Maria Rilke’s “I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone” was one of the very early pieces that hit something within me about the potent potential of the poetic landscape. Especially the lines: “I want my conscience to be / true before you; / want to describe myself like a picture I observed / for a long time, one close up, / like a new word I learned and embraced, / like the everyday jug, / like my mother's face, / like a ship that carried me along / through the deadliest storm.”
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
My favorite poets will always be those closest to me in writing community who astound me on the regular (special love for Andra Vltavín, Holaday Mason and all the rest of you who know who you are). In terms of poetry giants or surely-will-be-giants that so many of us adore, I’m reliably struck by Ellen Bass, Ocean Vuong, Ada Limón, Joy Harjo, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Natasha Trethewey, Rilke, Rumi, Mary Oliver, Adrienne Rich, Donika Kelly, Danez Smith, Noah Falck, Kim Addonizio, Caroline Forche, Timothy Liu, Rita Dove, Toi Derricotte, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amy Gerstler, Eloise Klein Healy, the list goes on—
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
My generative and editing processes are both grounded in community. I generate fresh writing regularly in group circles (space kept very deliberately separate from editing or workshop space). Generative time is meditative and soft: we often read poems aloud as prompts, words are invited to the page with no judgement, I write by hand, and writers are invited to read their raw writing aloud just as it flowed to the page. I’m indebted to Dawn Thompson of Portland Women Writers for introducing me to this powerfully healing type of container. The free writing I generate will almost never be a finished poem for me, but it’s somehow very important to sound the words for the first time right in that present moment to honor something sacred about their origin, the creative channel.
I’ll let my free writes sit for a while, then when I’m moved I'll begin to pull lines, images and themes together into poems—a bit like a massive collage project. This alchemical construction portion is a rather intuitive, solo part of my process. Then, once I feel like I have gained some space from the formed but in-progress poems, I’ll take them to workshop or read them at an open mic to gain data on others’ responses. I never workshop or perform a piece that I’m still feeling very protective over or tender toward, it’s not yet the time.
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
Form tends to unveil itself over the course of a manuscript for me. So as early poems in a project begin to accumulate, they might not be in their final form yet, but it will become more clear what their form(s) are as the entire manuscript comes into focus. I’ve written three full length collections and two chapbooks, and each project has revealed their own specific desired forms (and voices for that matter).
These three featured poems are from us clumsy gods (forthcoming from What Books Press in October 2022). In the course of working on this collection, the themes I was playing with in the poems began to deeply impact the form. The work is concerned with this intense period of time we’ve all experienced throughout the pandemic. My loves and I found ourselves in a transit of life that stripped away normalcy, upended stasis and demanded we peel back layer upon layer of identity—What is our relationship to a just future? To authority and power structures? To our bodies as vehicles of dissent, pleasure and creation? Furthermore, to the land under these streets we were protesting on? To water and our natural resources? What does it mean to be radicalized? How are our nervous systems connected to Earth’s nervous system? How will we love a world simultaneously unraveling and knotting itself? Can we hold complex, often polar, ideas and beliefs, sometimes even within our own affinity groups and families? Just what does it take to thrive as both messy humans and awake beings at the same damn time?
In life and while writing these poems, I became consumed with this both/and space—this caesura—this breath demarking no/space between real/imagined, past/future, nature/culture, ghost/embodied, you/me. Fascination with threshold compounded when three of my closest elders departed Earth over 2020 and perhaps the biggest slash emerged: here/not here. The slash becomes relationship. The slash shapes my craft and language in fresh-to-me ways—a tool for breaking but also generating energy. In this process rigid poetic structures are emerging that somehow gift more freedom on the page.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
Trust what stories you are being pulled to tell, with as little judgement as you can muster. Read poems aloud as much as you can. Read aloud some more. Find folks you enjoy who also have stories to tell and write together. Sean Thomas Dougherty wrote some wonderful words that always right hook and KO my own imposter syndrome inner critic, tape them up somewhere: “Why bother? / Because right now, there is / someone / out there with / a wound / in the exact shape / of your words.”
What is your editing process like?
I try to ensure my editing centers efficiency of language (I don’t want the reader to have to hold a single thing more than necessary) while keeping the poem true to the bones of the generative writing that originated it. If a poem loses the energetic impulse of why I wrote the first versions of those lines to begin with, I’ve certainly over edited.
Workshop feedback from fellow writers is integral to me. I think a lot of young poets are scared of workshop because it’s viewed like this ultimate space where your poem will either be deemed GOOD or BAD. Neither of these labels are actually helpful to craft, and a useful workshop will never concern itself with this kind of petty, destructive discussion. What a worthwhile workshop space can do is help you, the poet, gain information about how your intentions land in other thought universes. This is invaluable data to any editing process.
In workshop community (or whenever I’m personally giving feedback on a poem to a poet) I enjoy using a discussion framework of the Gold, the Gift, the What If’s and the Nitpicks. The Gold is the single standout thing you notice about the poem—this may be any single thing about the poem that is gold star worthy to you—a potent line, an energy threaded throughout, a choice in form, etc. The Gift is the poet’s message or point reflected back to them in your own words—hearing others briefly summarize this back to you about your poems is always so useful! The What If’s are any big questions you’d like the poet to think about: e.g. What if the stanzas were a different length? What if the tense was changed? What if a particular part was expanded or added to? What if something was cut? The Nitpicks are the small things that don’t really need time in discussion but the poet might want to know about them—misspellings, grammar considerations, punctuation, consistency, etc.
One-on-one coaching is also extremely important to my editing process and a number of poet-coaches have been instrumental to my growth (thanks especially to Lauren Hilger and Neil Aitken). I also coach other poets/writers. I enjoy thinking of the writing/editing process as a one hand up, one hand down practice that ultimately enriches the literary community at large.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
First, it just works. Second, the puzzle fits together so snuggly that if you try to change anything about it in one place, it will break somewhere else.