by Somayeh Shams
Nimrod was happy to publish the work of poet Noah Stetzer in Mirrors and Prisms: Writers of Marginalized Orientations and Gender Identities, our spring/summer 2015 thematic issue. One of our fiction editors, Somayeh Shams, interviewed Stetzer this spring about his new poetry collection, Because I Can See Needing a Knife (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016).
Somayeh Shams: Noah, you have recently published a beautiful chapbook entitled Because I Can See Needing A Knife. In each poem you write about living with AIDS, its consequences on the body, and how it changes one’s relationship to the body. The book is also about love and family, which turn out often to be the lifelines of your poems. Tell us a little about the process that shaped this chapbook.
Noah Stetzer: Thank you for such kind praise. This book would not have been possible without the great people of Red Bird Chapbooks, especially Eric Hove and Sarah Hayes. At the time these poems were being drafted I was immersing myself in any information I could find about HIV in general and my diagnosis specifically. I was seeing doctors about every nine weeks and so my own body was very much a front and center topic—one that you can see reflected, I think, in the book. At the same time, I was seeing in my face the striking resemblance I have to my father when he was the same age. And because of the seriousness of my diagnosis and the critical infections that landed me in the hospital along with the natural order of things as a man gets older, I was certainly facing issues of my own mortality. I began digging into where my father and I are the same and where we are not. Growing up gay made me think we were more different than we actually are and the book, I think, shows my coming back to that again and again—finding I am in fact my father’s son.
S.S.: In your poems you often make use of liminal spaces. By that I mean spaces that are places neither of departure nor of arrival, and which create panic, like in your hospital moments or in “Intruder.” In this poem the speaker, who assiduously keeps track of their medicine, realizes that they are missing pills:
[ . . . ] and so now I’m worried if one missed pill might be enough, like maybe a line of a crack has surfaced along the side of my face, where something’s just a little broken or starting to break. Because last night the knife went missing, or at least that’s when I couldn’t find it, the knife I noticed missing after dinner when I went to load the dishwasher. No big knife in the sink, not the knife drawer, and nowhere else in the kitchen and my first thought was it was in the hand of an intruder, all in black behind the closed guest room door waiting for a moment, like now during the empty afternoon, when my guard is down, and I’m alone in the house. Someone holding the missing knife, making no noise, not moving: all night [ . . . ]
Do you intentionally let liminal spaces inhabit your poems, take control, and make the reader feel the powerlessness? Or does it happen naturally?
N.S.: My first thought upon reading the word “liminal” is my affinity for “in-between” places: airports, Laundromats, and driving alone in the car. There is something soothing for me in these places where I am not expected to inhabit a role, I don’t feel an expectation to be someone’s idea of me. I feel like my head is quietest in those places. I am attracted to those places and so I place my speaker there again and again—it’s as if in that space I can see more clearly and hear my thoughts plainly. The static of what we are supposed to see, supposed to hear, supposed to believe gets pulled back and what’s left are these encounters and lyrical moments that occur in my poems. So I guess you could say it’s both intentional and natural. As I think a little more about this, there is something very freeing about the powerlessness of liminality: less risk of making a mistake, of not living up to expectations, of choosing wrong.
S.S: When I arrived at the other end of your book, the other side of the diagnosis, I felt changed by the journey. In your second to last poem, “Dusting,” you write this heartbreaking and brilliant line: “about an awful kind of waiting, cause we both know you’re the driver & I am the dog.” Can you elaborate on how you decided that this poem needed to be your second to last in the book? And perhaps talk a little about this last line and the “you” in it?
N.S.: What surprised me about “Dusting” was how many elements of the other poems informed it: the car, the hospital, and the snow. Its placement in the book was important to the arc of the poems because it has a latter-day feel to it, especially in how the speaker appears to have regained some agency. About that last line: I found myself with our dog Jack, who was diagnosed with lymphoma, and I was driving him to the vet’s and urgently looking for an answer I wanted and not the crushing answer I was getting. And in an arresting moment of clarity I realized that I was doing a thing my husband had done with me—and I came to know how helpless he must have felt—and in a moment of empathy I realized a kind of helplessness he must continue to feel in the face of my diagnosis.
S.S.: “Use” is the last poem of the book, which you are kindly sharing in its entirety with our readers:
Stand me up naked in the carport and go at my legs with Brillo pads
and Comet cleanser: go ahead and draw blood if you think that makes a difference;
I’ve soaked myself in Drano baths and picked at scabs along lips,
but this won’t come out. Use my blood-stained toothbrush to scrub
my toenails with your thumb pressed hard against the cold hose nozzle;
unfold a stepladder, climb up and frown at the grime on the top of my head,
pour uncut bleach to peel it clean, and wipe down my dirt-stained back
with ammonia-soaked socks. Do you think I haven’t scoured
with vinegar and Arm & Hammer inside my thighs, up under my legs,
to get clean? Your left hand grips my shoulder, while your right
fills my mouth with Boraxo soap. Push in close with stinging water
so the thin skin inside my armpits tears, press it into my ear so grim
rivulets rush out; while I watch a moth flutter against
the yellow bug light, the shadow stuttering along the ceiling and the cement
where water runs dark now into the yard––and still black sickles
will smile along each fingernail. I’m loaded up and shot through, a weapon
armed without a timer; bend me over at right angles, hold my leg
and rinse my teeth, hook your fingers in my mouth, and graze my hair trigger tongue.
I’m still a gun pointing down the driveway.
I was lucky enough to get a signed copy of your chapbook in which you signed:
“SILENCE = DEATH
and so we keep writing.”
Can you tell me more about those powerful words? What they mean and how they connect with your collection and specifically with “Use”?
N.S.: “Use” started as a response to the use of the term “clean” to denote someone who is not infected with HIV. “Are you clean?” gets used a lot, at least in gay circles, especially when negotiating sexual encounters. And so I was tackling that idea, exploring the actual connotations of clean, and pushing against its usage in this way. It’s interesting that you asked about this poem in relation to the inscription I wrote in your copy. The tag line SILENCE = DEATH came out of the urgent need of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. It was introduced with a manifesto that among others things declared silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people . . . must be broken as a matter of our survival. And so the slogan became a shorthand to stand against the social norms of “we just don’t talk about those things” that were muzzling discussions of safe sex and by extension sex between men. It was also a direct counterattack to the inaction of the government and the real silence from the president at that time (Ronald Reagan wouldn’t mention the word AIDS in public until 1985). That sentiment, that SILENCE = DEATH, is one that I lean on again and again in my work. When I am afraid of content I want to explore or worried that a poem may be too graphic in its depiction of the realities of my AIDS diagnosis, I think on this slogan. And so to come full-circle back to “Use,” this poem is one where I embrace this idea of saying out loud a counterattack to those who use “clean” pejoratively. And to also send a warning.
S.S.: Do you feel, then, a kind of urgency in your work? And a pushback against it needing you to push right back?
N.S.: I feel an urgency because of my diagnosis—because of the serious nature of the opportunistic infections that landed me in the hospital and the critical numbers that accompanied my HIV diagnosis (taken together they indicate a diagnosis of “AIDS”—and although that signifier is falling out of use to its broadness it was/is applicable to my symptoms). My doctors have done herculean work to stabilize my infection—achieving and maintaining an “undetectable” amount of virus in my blood—but I still experience the co-factors that accompany an ongoing HIV infection. And so I feel a race against the clock in my work that I feel acutely in my life: pushing to say what needs saying.
Since the hospital, it has been disorienting for me to accept a lack of ownership over my body: doctors apply their treatments, gay men (both HIV-positive and HIV-negative) fit me with their boundaries, governments impose their statutes, well-meaning friends & family impress upon me their expectations—as the result of this biological infection. If I am pushing back against anything, I am pushing back against various parties that behave with a sense of ownership over my (infected) body.
S.S: What are you working on now?
N.S.: I’ve been invited to read in support of the chapbook—so I am doing that. And I participate pretty regularly in The Grind Daily Writing Series (full disclosure: The Grind comes out from the Bull City Press community, where I am an associate editor), which, just like it sounds, asks each writer to produce a draft every day. I like it because we never give feedback to one another; the series sets up public accountability to get work done and, like with 750Words.com a few years back, I flourish with deadlines. That work has helped as I continue to tinker with and shape a full-length manuscript of poems.
Noah Stetzer is the author of Because I Can See Needing a Knife (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). His work has appeared in various journals including Bellevue Literary Review, Nimrod, Green Mountains Review, Chelsea Street Station, and as part of the HIV Here & Now project. A graduate of the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, Noah has received support from both the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Writers. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Noah now lives in the Washington, D.C. area and can be found online at noahstetzer.com.
Somayeh Shams is an Iranian-born writer and a graduate of the Warren Wilson M.F.A. program. She has been a fellow for the Hedgebrook Writers in Residence and a merit scholar at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She serves on the editorial board of Nimrod.