Aekta Khubchandani interviews J. Mae Barizo about her new book, Tender Machines (Tupelo Press, May 2023).
Aekta Khubchandani: Your book, Tender Machines braids motherhood, ancestry, race, and desire with distance, movement, love, clouds, and light. You’ve mentioned that this book has come together over a span of two decades, while witnessing the 9/11 attacks and the pandemic; still the sonic landscape is coherent. How did you go about composing the book? Were there rituals or daily practices you turned towards?
Mae Barizo: When I started writing some of these poems, when I was still a student, I didn’t have the foresight to know what they would become. I was simply writing to seize the impossible moment, the nostalgia for a normalcy that I had taken for granted. As I considered love and disaster, the poems were my only way of speaking from the solitary, cloistered spaces I found myself in. The domestic and the surreal interweaved on the landscapes of the body and the city, which in the work became almost inseparable. I wrote in airports and offices, on park benches and libraries. I didn’t have a ritual except that usually I had to be silent for long periods of time, imagined or remembered music swimming around in my head.
AK: I observe a resistance to reveal much about the narrator, or even the people in the poems. The narrators seem at a distance from the poems, but there is also precise detail and crisp images, allowing the reader to insert themselves in the universe you’ve created. Can you talk about your stylistic choices and preferences in writing these poems?
JMB: It’s funny that you say that because I feel these poems are so much more vulnerable than the ones in my first book, The Cumulus Effect, where the narrator was veiled by theory and language. I didn’t feel distanced from the poems, but there existed, always a personal, physical distance from loved ones—a woman at a window looking into other windows or at the chaos of the streets below. As a classically trained musician, the two things that have shaped my poetic sensibilities are an almost ascetic-type discipline and a tendency towards formality. I’ve always been seduced by form. I’ve used forms like the sonnet as a container, a room where I could feel liberated despite its restraints.
AK: The opening of the book is populated with women, starting with the book dedication— “For my mother, my sister, and my daughter” followed by an epigraph from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and the section, “the women”. Desire and ache are etched in these poems. How is it for you to write from this lens of desire without feeding it?
JMB: I feed desire daily. And part of that process is writing the poems. In the poem “Survival Skills (Small Essay on Extinction) are the lines: The longer desire takes to find an outlet the less it can be contained.
When one harbors desire, it feeds on itself, grows.
AK: I mapped the sun and images of light in your poems as a consistent, emotional register. Phrases like “always queering/ towards the sun,” (from “The Mothers”), “The light is getting longer” (from “Sunday Women on Malcolm X Boulevard”), “my/ skin beneath the sun of my ancestors darkens…” (from “Woman Contemplates Her Complicity), “Thinking of bandaged/ light,” (from “Astronoise”), “gold teeth of the sun” (from “Jetlag), “Sidewalks and sun/ as it struck them” (from “View from an Apartment”), “a room of undiluted sun,” and “those sunrises with your hand…” (from “Morning in a City”) chalk the poems in the book. What was it like to use the sun/light as a marker in the making of the book?
JMB: It’s ironic that you’ve called me out on that when I’m always telling my students how difficult it is to write about light. So often it’s too abstract, too obvious of a metaphor. But it’s our muse, isn’t it? I think of the light in Linda Gregg’s and C.P. Cavafy’s poems, how unobtrusive it is. “Beside the window the bed; the afternoon sun used to touch half it,” he writes, a sentence suffused with such a quiet nostalgia.
The subconscious impulse to use light as a marker has, of course, to do with time. Light is how we mark the ephemerality of time; how ungraspable it is, how it escapes us when we are in love. “Lux Aeterna” is the poem in Tender Machines that most exemplifies this for me.
AK: In your first book, The Cumulus Effect, the narrators in the poems were often blurred. To me, it was like seeing the narrator’s reflection in water but never quite getting to really know them. In Tender Machines, the narrator is more visible if not fleshed out. Can you shine a light on the journey of this transition in context to the narrator’s visibility?
JMB: It’s remarkable that you read both books so deeply! You’re right. As I mentioned earlier, The Cumulus Effect, is more based on theory and conceptual frameworks like the Method of Loci. The writing of these two books was very different as well. The Cumulus Effect was written mostly in the span of a year, and many of the poems were written after living in European cities over the course of one summer. Tender Machines, on the other hand, spans two decades. The poems are less peripatetic, many of them are set in the shifting landscape of Manhattan, a portrait of a city during the time period between two monumental events, 9-11 and the pandemic. The city becomes a character, the narrator considers desire and disasters, the impetus and aftermaths. Time allowed me to process these ruptures, in both the self and the city.
AK: Your use of em dashes in the book feels like a stab into the physical space of the poem. The book also includes poems without titles, sonnets, and play with couplets, tercets and negative space among other things. Pause and movement are both rooted together in these poems. How do you draw a balance between these juxtapositions? What energizes the landscape of poetry for you?
JMB: I love that! That an em dash is a stab into the physical space of the poem. Poetry is an exploration. Poems can be fiction, inherent in the writing process is also a sense of play. Since these poems in Tender Machines were written and revised over a number of years, I was able to see how form took on a life of its own, though the sonnets, tercets, minimalist couplet and other formally-restless configurations. These interrogations of form and structure “energize the landscape” of the poem, as you so eloquently put it.
AK: The poems in the book lean towards tenderness despite the intensity and gravity of subject matter. How did you go about structuring the book?
JMB: I don’t think about tenderness as a matter of structure but rather as an emotional framework. Isn’t it something we all long for—even in moments of great upheaval and amidst the gravitas of mortality. Tenderness exists in many different kinds of relationships, but it’s often reserved for those we love, even for those we love briefly. And it is momentary, isn’t it? It’s not necessarily a prolonged emotion; we feel it most intently when we are in the same physical space as a person, or during periods of nostalgia. Its transitory and ephemeral quality make it more desirable somehow, yet it’s also an outcome of desire, though not a prerequisite.
AK: The line “The briefest glimpsed people are the most beautiful” from the section “small essays on disappearance” has stayed with me. In an earlier interview with FPP, you mentioned being drawn to the quality of absence and also said, “only the absence of a thing allows me to fully inhabit it.” What was it like to use absence as a poetic tool in the making of this book?
JMB: I think that is one of the main aims of the book, and especially in “Small Essays on Disappearance.” One of my students asked, why are these essays, if they are poems? I think back to the French root of the word essaier, to try or attempt, and I see these poems and the book itself as an attempt at coming to terms with the appearings and disappearings that mark our lives. What is more prescient, presence or absence? And which is easier to bear?
AK: As a multi-disciplinary artist, how do you engage with the limits of written language? Does working with various mediums and media change the conversation you’re trying to have on the page?
JMB: I don’t think the different mediums so much as change the conversations but enrich them somehow. I’ve been playing music since I was a child, and went to conservatory as a classically-trained violinist and pianist, so in all the art forms I work in there is an attempt at coming to terms with both the absence and presence of language, whether its in the written or sonic form. I’ve been commissioned to write my first opera libretto for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and my explorations in opera and theatre are ways to engage not just with the limits of written language but also its possibilities, which are endless!
Born in Toronto to Filipino immigrants, J. Mae Barizo is a poet, essayist and multidisciplinary artist. She is the author of Tender Machines (Tupelo Press, 2023) and The Cumulus Effect (Four Way Books, 2015). Her book of hybrid essays, Pink Noise, was a finalist for the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize and the 2023 Megaphone Prize. Her work has been anthologized in books published by W.W. Norton, Atelier Editions and Harvard University Press. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from Bennington College, Mellon Foundation, Critical Minded, Jerome Foundation and Poets House. Recent writing appears in Poetry, Ploughshares, Esquire, Los Angeles Review of Books, Paris Review Daily, Boston Review, BookForum, among others. Her opera on migration and climate change, DRIFT, is in development at the National Opera Center. She teaches in the Creative Writing MFA at The New School and lives in New York City.