An Interview with Billie R. Tadros
Billie R. Tadros is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Theatre at The University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where she lives with her wife. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and she is a graduate of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University. She is the author of three books of poems, Graft Fixation (forthcoming from Gold Wake Press, 2021), Was Body (Indolent Books, 2020), and The Tree We Planted and Buried You In (Otis Books, 2018), and three chapbooks, Am/Are I (Francis House, 2020), inter: burial places (Porkbelly Press, 2016), and Containers (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day Series, Black Warrior Review, Bone Bouquet, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Lavender Review, Whale Road Review, and others.
Jon Riccio: I’ve admired your prolific output since reading The Tree We Planted and Buried You In after you signed my copy at AWP ′18. My favorite aspect of Was Body is the manner in which you group its poems, not unlike bodily systems, resulting in an organic foundation that elevates already outstanding work. I’m captivated by repeated references to puzzles, holes, and skeletons—“Holes like the ones in your cartilage open / to constellations to fill, as with your earrings— / opaque, pearlescent.” and “Run the words together—sex, pectin—as in / that which binds. (The skeleton.)” are two examples that resonate with the title. “I take a quiet photograph: the curvature / of your neck, break it with parabolic cuts / into puzzle pieces.” (“Piecemeal”) is quite beautiful, anatomy reduced to interlocking fragments. How does this trio scaffold the collection?
Billie R. Tadros: Around the time I was writing many of the poems in Was Body, including the two you’ve quoted here, Jon, I was reading C.D. Wright’s Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil, and in a lot of ways that text—part theory, part manifesto, part memoir-in-verse—gave me language to consider and articulate my own poetics in this collection, a poetics that at the time I was describing as a poetics of absence and haunting. Let me quote Wright here to start:
And we who are nothing, along with everything we have known, which is nothing, have learned to listen so deeply, we have learned to say it with silence our native tongue; with a fluency that distributes both sound and light just so, until there is no horror vacui left in us. The unfathomable emptiness, negation, loss, absence have themselves become filling if not fulfilling.
If horror vacui is a fear of empty places—or of leaving empty places—these poems are formed where and when “there is no horror vacui left,” where and when “[t]he unfathomable emptiness, negation, loss, absence” are “filling if not fulfilling.” Was Body’s puzzles, holes, and skeletons represent all of these filling, if not fulfilling, and haunting, absences. The speakers in these poems seek to inhabit, and even create them, to inhabit their own haunting. While poems like “Associations with acid” and “Piecemeal” do this in content, other poems in the collection do this in form—as with the series that emerges from “Again-running,” a poem I’ve described as remembering something by forgetting itself, piecemeal. It begins as a prose poem, and then I gradually erase it throughout the book in two more iterations, “gunning,” and “un.” Thinking some more about skeletons: In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde argues that “[p]oetry is not only dream and vision,” but also “the skeleton architecture of our lives.” If I think about “skeleton architecture” as informing both the form on the page and the being of the embodied poet, I have to identify the importance of spaces in that structure: the holes are as important as the bones and articulations that constitute them.
JR: Each of your “Fun House Mirror” sonnets are accompanied by a command, glass-inherent— “Invert,” “Refract,” “Warp,” and “Fray.” From its volta on, “Refract” admits
but there’s no point of—origin, exist—
just ever-arcing and the ricochet
of your body against its fiberglass
walls, flexion, flight contained in chrysalis
form, you are your own entrapment kiss.
What inspired these “Mirrors,” and, do you see vitrification metaphorized in Was Body?
BT: For me these poems consider not so much the process of mirror-making, but, rather, the speaker’s perceptions and interpretations of what she’s seeing through mirrors. In some of these there’s more vitriol than vitreum, more vilification than vitrification, though through (self-) reflection, I think this speaker comes to realize that her perceptions and the story she’s been telling herself about both the “you” in these poems and herself are flawed.
JR: I delighted in “Ride Ticket” where
I tell you I am carnival dreams,
I am carnivorous and you dangle
like dried meat from the top car
groaning metal, salt rises to the skin
of your thin arms, cures.
What the “Fun House Mirror” pieces do with form, “Ride Ticket” does with I and you—“I no longer know your given / name, shriven, I node-linger / in this trellis.” later inquiring “How does this fireworks show read to you / at your pinnacle, pine tree angel.”
After “Ride Ticket” I jumped to Mark Doty’s “Paragon Park,” its opening lines a triumph of amusement-world building—
Across the highway’s a city beach;
I’ve never seen so many radios
and tattoos in one place, and everywhere
the self-conscious strut of teenage boys
parading. But the arcade fronting the sea
is cool, and almost outside of time:
plaster fortune-tellers in glass cages,
machines to test one’s strength in love
by the strength of grip.
The timelessness of Doty’s passage is simpatico with “Ride Ticket’s” closing—“Your poetics of endlessness is bound / by a lever, I pull you pull out and stop.” Arcades and carnivals are but two fantastical locations on the writer’s axis of settings and relationships. What texts would be on the syllabus you create for a poetry class called Love & (Not Your Everyday) Places?
BT: That’s a class I’d love to take as much as teach! The first few poems that come to mind are a series of “Love Poem[s] to…” that form the first section of Catherine Pierce’s first book Famous Last Words. I often introduce these to beginning writers/readers of poetry because they disrupt assumptions about what a “love poem” is—titles include “Love Poem to the Word Lonesome,” “Love Poem to the Phrase Let’s Get Coffee,” and “Love Poem to Doo-Wop.” The images in the first of these, “Love Poem to Sinister Moments,” evoke Pennsylvania landscapes in particular: “You are the dead swan / floating in the Susquehanna,” the speaker says first, and then, later,
the gunshots I mistake
for celebration: Lancaster
cornfields, and behind them,
Three Mile Island, smoking
against purple horizon.
And these both are and are not your everyday places: the poems defamiliarize these landscapes, haunting them and inviting the reader to acknowledge the ghosts. In “Love Poem to America,” the speaker says, “In bed, / you fell me like a redwood,” the vulnerability and violence of love, of eros here implicit in the landscape itself as metaphor. This is something Savannah Sipple does beautifully as well, in her debut WWJD and Other Poems, whose loves and everyday/not everyday Appalachian places haunt and eroticize a different region of the country. In “Jesus shouts, Amen!” the speaker limns queer love and self-love and a love of/for a place that has both disenfranchised her and called her home—and Sipple manages this gorgeously in a compact poem whose intensity moves from climax to prayer in its last three lines:
…She holds me, locks her arms and legs around me,
holds me close, even when I cry. My body is a holler I’ve tried to escape
time and again, but now, with this woman, I am home.
There’s so much to admire in these lines, including all of the work that word “holler” does in evoking the landscape and the body-as-landscape while also echoing the speaker’s cries.
In some ways, maybe I’m now imagining a class that’s more like Love As (Not Your Everyday) Places.
JR: Your “Associations with…” series highlights acid, opal, erasure, and tulle. It’s as if the parentheses in “Associations with opal” are doing their barrier best to keep the previous poem’s “acid” from harming linkages, “(Think essence, think descent.)”. These and the majority of your “Phantasmagoria…” cycle—“You unzip your rubber / suit like butterflied / lobster tails.” (“Phantasmagoria: peel peal appeal”) are some of the collection’s shortest poems. What qualities of smaller works, when firing on all cylinders, cannot be duplicated in larger poems?
BT: Looking at “The Philosophy of Composition,” I think Poe’s somewhat tautological response to this question is that “the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect—this, with one proviso—that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.” I definitely don’t cleave to this as any sort of absolute poetic truth (there’s no shortage of long poems that sustain their intensity), but maybe Poe’s claims that poems serve to “intensely excite” and that “all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief” do apply to some of the shortest poems in Was Body (and to the brief, intense romances they mythologize). What I think is also significant about many of these poems, though, is that they’re playing with echoes—rhymes and homophones in particular. I think that this kind of wordplay has a limited semantic duration, and taking the echoes beyond this duration results in the overdone pun, or the overextended metaphor (both of which I’m occasionally guilty). Letting this wordplay play out but not overplaying it requires a poem of a shorter length. (There’s something beautiful about the stone that keeps skipping beyond the vista. But there’s something impactful about the one that skips twice and then abruptly sinks.)
JR: Our next ‘system’ is the “Variable…” poems, “x admits light.”, “x emits light.”, and “x remits light.” Food and drink feature prominently—“Olives remind her of whaleskin, / and so the diet is song.” (“x admits light.”), in addition to “The pitcher of house ale she ordered for us / to share and the suburban medium / who claimed to know my father.” (“x remits light.”) and
Bell of her wine glass, aptly formed
as the well of her chapped mouth
gasped open, the similar expulsive
shapes of climax and purge. (“x emits light.”)
The titles and material made me think of those clips where someone takes an X-ray of a person eating or imbibing, while mediums claim a radiance-vision of their own. The lower right-hand corner picture on your website is, I believe, of an X-ray.
I’ve had X-rays on my mind, having just read Karin Roffman’s 2017 biography of John Ashbery, The Songs We Know Best, which reveals that his maternal grandfather was a scholar of this technology. If we were to X-ray your poem-making process, what would we see?
BT: It’s an MRI image of my knee on my website, yes! (This self-portrait is admittedly a bit navel—er—knee-gazing.) In some ways, I think MRI images of the writing process (as opposed to X-ray images) would reveal even more intricacies in their cross sections, the soft tissue of poetics. Arguably all of my book projects originate from wounds, the kinds that are difficult to see in an X-ray image—the bone’s intact, and the arthritic narrowing is subtle, but an MRI will reveal the arthrofibrosis in the joint in low signal intensity lesions. I’m generally pretty resistant to the notion that writing is cathartic, maybe because catharsis suggests elimination. If we’re talking about a poetics of absence and haunting, I’d say that my process isn’t a purgation, but, rather, a release that’s a little less clean, and then a living in that space that remains—the surgeon debrides the scar tissue, and I live and write in and through the body cavity, the continually narrowing joint space. That metaphor serves pretty well to represent the role revision plays in my process as well. My response to first drafts isn’t unlike the body’s response to trauma: there’s swelling and pooling—in short, necessary excess. And then revision is sometimes like icing the poems, calming that reactive response. Sometimes it’s reconditioning the surrounding muscles, or reconditioning the poem to remember (re-member) itself proprioceptively within the context of a larger project. And sometimes it’s operative. Surgical.
JR: I’m awestruck by the quintet of “Nude with… /“Nude dis(as)sembling…” poems because you pair the body as painterly subject with hailstones, flowerpot, puzzle piece, circular saw, and fire escape. “There is a coil of bungee cord / behind her as though someone / pulled the ice from the sky.” (“Nude with hailstones”) is a brilliant combination of nature and ′90s fad that musters on. I was so happy to read
The skeleton is just framework
or what-remains you can hide
you can can it there is a very
large receptacle at the bottom
of the ladder. (“Nude dis(as)sembling a fire escape”)
as it made me think of Stein’s deft hopscotching in Tender Buttons. I drew a suitcase on the page of “Nude with puzzle piece” because the words in your poems are arranged tidy and ornate, technique adjacent wonder. How did you find the time to produce as many chapbooks and full-lengths along your journey from PhD student to assistant professor? As well, what are the ‘contents’ in your academia suitcase?
BT: Thank you, Jon—what a kindness to place me in company and conversation with Stein! (And “[o]ut of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle.”) Truthfully, most of my writing during those years came in productive bursts. That’s to say that I’d love to tell you I’ve cultivated a healthy writing habit characterized by daily, ritual practice, but that would be disingenuous. I did cultivate practices that were generative for me during that time, though. Some of these were formal practices: the seriality of the groups of poems that constitute Was Body is representative of the kind of inertia that playing with these forms allowed me to sustain. And during the years when I did most of the writing and revision of my first two books and first two chapbooks I was also a really avid distance runner (which was a daily, ritual practice), and I found that creatively stimulating and incredibly generative. I can’t run anymore (that’s the wound whose debridement-not-catharsis informs the form of my next book project), so now I’m trying (and struggling) to develop other generative practices that might support—and define—my poetics moving forward. And I did also cultivate a healthy and systematic (though not daily) habit of putting my work out there, submitting to journals and, once a project was “finished,” submitting it to presses and book contests. I regularly budgeted time (and money) for this, and because I was able to do that (an ability that is of course the product not just of planning but also of privilege) during those years, I often had projects at all of the different phases of the publication pipeline: drafting, revision, submission, and production. That’s not the case now, though, and I find myself questioning and having to reframe what “productivity” means for me as a writer-teacher-scholar at the beginning of my academic career and at the next phase of my writing career. (I’m hoping it means something more focused, albeit slower, and I’m hoping it means a practice and poetics that doesn’t abandon the punning and the personal but that also reaches a bit further for something greater than myself.) My poems theorize certain aspects of my lived experience—specifically, grief, mental health/illness, queerness, and injury/embodiment. I’m interested in scholarship that does the same, that examines what language and discourse do to and through bodies, and vice versa. I teach undergraduate classes in poetry and poetry writing, and I also teach literature courses whose texts represent conversations in women’s and gender studies, body studies, and the health humanities.
JR: Was Body’s “Myth…” system consists of longer poems than those we previously examined. Their titles are a mix of high diction and puns—“Myth of the sanguine temperament, or, she’s so vein” and “Myth of the phlegmatic temperament, or, the hack with it,” et cetera. These works harken to Hippocratic theory, reveling in the twists and turns of word relations—vagus / vaguest, liver / lover, hums / hominid, and ferric / ironic. This sliding of letters is something I experiment with as I’m sure other poets do, drawn to language at the particle level. Are your letter slides driven more by sound or sight?
BT: I love this question—specifically, I love the fluidity inherent in the phrase “letter slides.” And there are few things I enjoy more than playing with language at the particle level, experimenting with what language can do and how that might precede or determine what it can mean. My first instinct would have been to say that these formal practices are, for me, driven more by sound—the whole “theme and variations” series in the book proceeds largely through homophonic translation. (And “theme and variations” suggests sound by evoking musical form.) But then I turn to a poem like “Weatherglass Prayer,” which, in its adaptation of the ghazal makes a rhyme and refrain of “weeping veins” in the phrases “seeping vain,” “cheap winged weathervane,” “creeping vein,” “keeping vein,” and “deep spring vain.” The places that “vein” becomes “vain” aren’t audible, of course—“vein” and “vain” aren’t sonically distinct. They’re visually, or materially, distinct. In a phrase like “deep spring vain,” I would semantically expect the word “vein,” not “vain” at the end of the line, and the disruption of that expectation is a visual/material disruption. In the “Myth…” series in particular I think the speaker is relying on any sense she can access and represent in the language in order to make sense of this lover she’s mythologizing—and the loss of that lover. In that sense (pun always intended), I think the letter slides represent not just a slide, but a dodge—they’re indicative of a distraction tactic through which she’s trying to convince herself and her audience that while she may see/hear/smell/taste/feel, she doesn’t hurt. The dynamics of the wordplay allow her to slide letters and elide the pain of the loss, but ultimately, I think this fails in the last of this series, “Myth of the sanguine temperament, or, she’s so vein,” in that the speaker ultimately shows her hand. (And it’s fitting the speaker’s dodge fails in this poem, just like the dodge necessarily fails in the Carly Simon song the title of this poem references: “this song is [absolutely] about” the “you.”) “Excuse my circumlocution,” the speaker says, right before circling and sliding (dodging) again but then ultimately landing on the loss: “I was nervous, // it was a system. She was liver, I was lover, this was body.” And for me that last phrase, “this was body” (which inspired the book’s title as namesake) finally sits in that loss and all of the past tense of it.
JR: The parenthetical titles of your five “Postcard[s] Left Unaddressed” are reminiscent of directions in a movie script—“(Pictured: a shallow depression in the linens, your side of the bed),” “(Pictured: the vanity table missing its mirror),” and “(Pictured: behind the empty fishbowl)” are pitch perfect in conveying the art of gone-ness. There is an ethos to “(fishbowl’s)” starkness—
Your mom called last week to ask how I was and if I had heard from you.
I told her, Seashells, so I think she thinks you’re at the beach
because it was too hard to explain I can hear you dying
if I press my ears against the apartment walls
like they say you can hear the sound of the ocean.
especially when your ears join the walls. I think you’ve found the subject for a new anthology, the epistle incomplete. Correspondence is a late Middle English word, which I break down to cor (heart) and response. How does the heart’s responsibility factor into Was Body, particularly the poem “Epithalamion” whose section titles are both science and emotion (“epithymy” is an archaic word for vigorously passionate, whereas “epithem” is a cell-related term)?
BT: We talked earlier about letter slides and sound and wordplay, and the blood in “Epithalamion” runs in that same vein (and in vain). The speaker feigns privileging science and reason over emotion and mind over body in ways that mirror the cerebral homophonic wordplay throughout the poem’s sections, but ultimately the dodge here fails, revealing that science/emotion and mind/body are false dichotomies the speaker has constructed to protect herself from her grief. Each section is subtitled with a different word that begins with “epith-” and in the same ways that the subtitles turn and return and cycle and recycle, so do many of the lines. In the first section, subtitled “epithet,” the speaker says
I’m building a wall:
dike dyke it’s all
collapsed it’s all the same
for example, and then in the third section, “epithymy,” she says
racing like blood
flow to you your sores your
source you’re sorting
the vessels I buried
Where the homophonic wordplay in other poems in the collection lightens the tone (as in some of the “Myth…” poems), here I think it represents the speaker’s incessant grief. An epithalamion is a poem celebrating a marriage, and in this poem the speaker is addressing a woman she loved who is marrying someone else—marrying a man this speaker can’t be, in part, she feels, because she’s not a man. (Significantly, I wrote this poem a few years before the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling.) Every homophonic turn prolongs and emphasizes the emotional loss, as does every effort to rationalize and theorize this in the scientific and the cerebral. The poem’s final section is subtitled “epitheca,” which is a zoological term for a surrounding layer in some corals, and the speaker begins in the language of that anatomy, which quickly moves to the anatomy of the human bodies implicit in the speaker’s relationship with this former lover and the former lover’s marriage to someone else:
Enclose ensheath the theca fully
how you take him
how you took my hand inside
your mouth the mouthfeel
The speaker attempts that catharsis I critiqued earlier: “No longer what you know of consumption // I run my body clean,” she says. But the final image is one she describes as a “gutting,” the lover’s “chest // heaving the gentle cave // forgetting the hole.” And the speaker is inhabiting that hole now, haunted and haunting.
The poem both is and isn’t about a real woman, and the process of writing it mirrored the collapse of its false dichotomies. I began with the cerebral homophonic conceit (which was a lot of fun, by the way, reading through definitions and etymologies of words beginning with “epith-” and then diving down their rabbit holes for images and metaphorical possibilities), but ultimately the poem is, as you suggest, a correspondence penned from the speaker to the “you” that, without a response, is cut to the cor, to the core.
JR: The necropastoral moments in “Reactor”—
What happened was more like an earthquake was more like a
up, but you grew up just outside Three Mile Island where they said
they tasted metal
when the nuclear reactor malfunctioned,
are secondary to “the anniversary of the breaking,” yet a fall-out shelter is required for both (“This is what we did to feel safe.”) “Reactor” is independent of the book’s systems, more a connector than conductor, forward-looking with eyes in the back of its head. I wish my poems could do this! How is Was Body most unlike your other works? Conversely, what does it have in common with your prior collections?
BT: Jon, this is such an interesting and thoughtful reading of how “Reactor” and its anxiety and trauma (that “forward-looking with eyes in the back of its head”) function within and without this book. In some ways Was Body feels very unlike what I’ve been writing since I finished it about seven years ago—and I’m sure some of that has to do with the fact that although I’m arguably still the same embodied poet, I’m now a poet in a body that feels and functions very differently, to the extent that I’m able to articulate that (I’ll save that for your next question). In other ways, though, everything I’m inclined to say is different about it could also be cited as a commonality it shares with my other projects. My first book The Tree We Planted and Buried You In is a book-length elegy for my father, who died by suicide when I was sixteen. I think I thought that writing it would be cathartic, that I’d purge myself of that grief by sublimating it into a book and be done with it, but of course Was Body is still haunted by that loss as well, both in poems that specifically reference a father’s (my father’s) suicide, and in others that dance around the specter of mental illness and its impact on relationships, as in “Associations with tulle”:
…yes, you can
elegize the dying with their own
words, I’ve been wearing yours
as a veil I can’t stop
Unlike my other books and chapbooks, I didn’t conceive of Was Body as a book-length conceit, as a “project,” but it became one anyway. (What Keetje Kuipers had to say about the book: “It feels dangerous to build an entire collection around a single love affair, but Tadros is willing to take the risk.”) I’m still as fascinated by language at the particle level now as I was in writing these poems, though I think the “letter slides” in my forthcoming book Graft Fixation grieve as much as, or more than, they play. (One could say the same about the wordplay in “Epithalamion,” the most recently written one in Was Body.) What does feel evident to me in my work is that, thus far, I’ve made a practice and a career of writing and theorizing grief. These projects don’t all grieve the same object/subject, but they all grieve. In some ways maybe all living and loving is also grieving, and the elegy is certainly expansive enough for a career. (Another thing C.D. Wright says in Cooling Time: “What elegy is, not loss but opposition.” I could build a life from that opposition. I think I can sustain that kind of grief.)
JR: Thank you for your time, Billie. Your current endeavor is “a narrative research project exploring the gendered implications of traumatic injuries to self-identified women runners, and seeking to articulate a feminist injury poetics.” (billiertadros.com). I’m always fascinated by the dawn of a new poetry movement. How is it coming along?
BT: I think the “seeking to” is key in that phrase, which is to say that I can tell you what the personal implications of the project are for me, but I’m still working to articulate how they (do or don’t) intervene in larger discourses (e.g., health humanities, disability studies, women’s and gender studies) and what these interventions might (or might not) allow me to say about embodiment and how injury impacts poetics in gendered ways. Poems from the project that “runs” alongside this research project have recently found homes in Black Warrior Review and Bone Bouquet, and I’ve given the working manuscript a working title: Was Femoral, Was Femme Moral. I’ve created a persona/character named “Was” through which to theorize my questions about injury and identity in these poems, and Was, like me, was a runner who was injured in a car crash (so there’s a bit of auto-theorizing to this, if you will). The phenomena I’m most interested in exploring are the ways running was, for me (and for others), part of my performance of gender and understanding of my sexuality—and the ways that an injury that now means I can’t run is (re)defining those embodied understandings of gender and sexuality, and what I’m calling the erotics of running. As a writer and researcher I’m really interested in the mutually constructive, but also limited, relationships between discourse and materiality, between language and the body—I’m interested in articulating what I can and can’t write/right/wright and how this implicates the rites (and rights) of gender and sexuality.
Thanks so much, Jon, for your thoughtful questions and for this space and this opportunity to talk about Was Body and my work. Write/right/wright/rite on!
Jon Riccio is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Forthcoming poems appear in Otoliths, Ovunque Siamo, Redactions, and The Night Heron Barks. He was a Poetry Center digital projects intern during his Arizona MFA.