Nomi Stone Biography
Nomi Stone's first book of poems, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly Books, 2008) chronicles her time living in one of the last cohesive Jewish communities in North Africa. She has a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford University, and was Fulbright Scholar in Creative Writing in Tunisia. Stone is currently a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Columbia University. She has received poetry fellowships and grants from the Vermont Studio Center, and the DC Commission for the Arts and Humanities.
Fliegel: From the notes, I infer that some of the poems were likely written during your journey, and others when listening to tapes after your return home. Some experiences might give us a poem or a few, but yours sustained you through dozens. Could you describe the process of composing this collection of serial poems—how you maintained focus on your subject as you worked to create a manuscript, and over what time frame? Also, have additional poems about Djerba materialized since publishing Stranger’s Notebook?
Stone: The “notes” in the book constitute a meta-notebook, the trace-structure of the journey to the island of Djerba. My own notebooks in this period were teeming with abundance: scrawls of Arabic vocabulary; phone numbers; notes and names of the townspeople; maps of the village market; recounted rituals; recounted crimes. The interviews I recorded later also jostle with surplus: there is the crack in the woman’s voice just before she slips an opulent red wedding garment out of a chest she hadn’t opened in decades: the tiny tassels and bells across our laps, the fact of the wind in the acacia trees that day. The “From her Notes” sections are whittled down from all that abundance into the small, odd haiku-jewels, handfuls of that which I could carry home.
You are right that the poems were culled from the notebooks and the recordings at different times. I wrote the first draft of Stranger’s Notebook while I was in Tunisia in 2003-4 in two mad, joyful entirely solo writing retreats, each of which lasted two weeks. I spent the first one in Korbus, on the Tunisian coast, and the second one in Ayn Dirham, the forest on the border with Algeria. After my year writing poetry in Tunisia, I spent the following two years at Oxford, getting a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies. In this period, I wrote my Masters thesis on Djerba and honed Stranger’s Notebook, which I finished revising in 2007.
I typically write serial poems. In fact, a book for me is in some ways, a single long poem. I am interested in entering a particular lyrical and conceptual cosmos at great length. Typically, the arc of the book of poems is inseparable from an academic research itch and the momentum lasts for at least five years. I finished the Djerba project (book of poems and academic publications) in 2008. In 2009, I began a new project, which I have been working on ever since. I am writing about pre-deployment exercises staged by the US army in mock Middle Eastern villages in deserts and forests across America. The army employs Iraqi and Afghan role-players in these uncanny spaces to theatricalize war for the training American soldiers. I speak Iraqi Arabic dialect and have spent the last few years with the role-players and contractors and soldiers, moving back and forth between the hollow houses in the simulated village to their “real” lives. I am writing a book of poetry about these simulations. I am also writing a dissertation, and hopefully an academic monograph and a book of non-fiction on the same topic. The poems are always first and always the source and soul of these journeys.
Fliegel: You reference ancient texts in Stranger’s Notebook—from Homer’s lotus eaters to the Zohar and Luria’s Kabbalah. How do believe your work as a cultural anthropologist informs your poems in this collection? Additionally, how would you examine your own poems as historical cultural documents?
Stone: One of the early poems in the book describes the impetus behind the journey as an “itch/ a whiff. Someone else’s memory came/in.” This tug rowed my body and senses elsewhere— into another daily, one structured and haunted by particular texts and rituals. The ethnographic thereness is of course important, on some levels; and as cultural documents go, this collection provides a portal into one Tunisian village in 2003 as seen by a scholar on the outskirts. Certainly, I was reading very deeply in tandem with experiencing the place. I delved into the histories and lores of North Africa and this particular island and its inhabitants as deeply as I could: the Romans, the Phoenicians, the Barbarossa Pirates; the legend of the group of Kohanic Jews, the priestly caste, arriving on the island bearing a fragment of the fallen Babylonian Temple; records of the commercial relationships between the Jews and Muslims of the island; the cross-pollination of ideas across the seas; the spread of messianic fervor into the Jewish communities in the region; and perhaps, most importantly, the mystical documents and their parables of brokenness and repair, which ghost through the book: the Zohar manifested almost like a talismanic object in many of the rituals I was observing. But ultimately, this collection is much more a book of poems than a cultural document. Djerba is said by some to be Odyssey’s Island of the Lotus Eaters. The reference was deliberate, an invocation of that story which was part of Djerba’s mythology. But most important is the poem as poem: that poem, its colossal flowers, their cups twitching with pollen; the electrified sky, razored into triangles by the branches; the gorgeous but at times almost dumbly malevolent mirroring between the sea and the sky, half-collapses the world with the inscape. For me, the work of the poem is this: a convergence point between my interior colors and affects and the world. The phenomena of the world populate and rejoice the inscape; the inscape redazzles and reconfigures the world. I am saying, with this poem, that the island of Djerba both makes my heart beat fast and slow; entraps and woos and lulls and haunts me. I am saying its nectar is as much dark as sweet, and as much sweet as dark. That is why, in the end, I write poems.
Fliegel: Marianne Moore said of Williams that his language was so simple that even cats and dogs could read it. Aside from the occasional Hebrew or Arabic, the language in Stranger’s Notebook is relatively “simple,” yet you craft many beautiful, surprising moments using juxtaposition and enjambment, such as “…then plant them deep/inside what the sky might allow” (“End of Time”) and “Make no mistake, you leave the body/only through the body” (“Many Scientists Convert to Islam”) and “There is a city/beneath this city beneath this,/all by the sea” (“Dancing in Ashqelon”). As a poet, what are your thoughts about diction—where and how do you look for your words?
Stone: I wanted to find registers in language to represent the theological and mystical, the mythical parables, as well as the lived daily, its awkwardness and its hopefulness, its texture of voices. Each mode required a different well of diction; still, I sought to animate the book as book through echoes and recurrence — the bareness of the landscape, the blue in the poems’ cells, the flash of gazes, an affect of longing and displacement.
A brief foray into how I thought about the various language registers. The cosmological poems (found especially in Part 1) are governed by a desire to arrive at the bones. I wanted the language to mimic the marrow-blue that slices through the keyhole in one of the poems: “as clean as a stab.” I thought much of blades, of jewel-cutters, of imageries of mysticism—a cosmos swirling with recoverable shards—that were important to this community. The poems that engage more implicitly with the daily and voices in the community require a different register: for example, the curiosity and opprobrium of the teenage girls of the village: they became a sort of chorus within the book, always following me, but at a distance. They form a needling chorus: “Who are you,” they want to know. “What is America like?” “Do you know Tom Cruise?” “Why did you come here?” “Who’s daughter are you?” “Who do you think you are?” “What do you think you’re doing here?” They query the presumption behind the project; they refuse an easy answer; they make me aware of the space I occupy; my language turns into elbows and knees.
Opal: I'm curious about your poetry's connection to the tenets of mysticism (you mention the Zohar in your introduction) specifically something like Via Negativa in which the most profound experiences or presences can only be described through negatives, absences, and silences. In the poem "The Fall of the First Temple, 586 B.C.E., Jerusalem" you write, "Now, // they must learn to make / a meadow a temple, an act or an absence of / an act, a temple. Weeping they become / their altar." How does absence interact with your poetry, both conceptually and formally, when dealing with a subject that has profound loss at its core?
Stone: These ghosts you mention drive the book, both conceptually and formally. An itch that traversed this project was this question: why is it that lamentation over land continues to suffuse both the community’s rituals and daily conversations when that land is now a nation-state to which they have access? What happened when a messianic attachment was filled with political and territorial content? Did this new activated politics create an estrangement to the country they had lived in always? The majority of Djerban Jews migrated to the State of Israel after 1948 and 1967; however, logics of lamentation remained deeply embedded in the lifeworlds of those who stayed. Meanwhile, the elsewhere of Israel animated the most mundane things: the Israeli national anthem was the ring tone for many cell phones; satellite television played in Hebrew; and although Arabic is the mother tongue of the Jews of Djerba, they learn Hebrew in their yeshivas and switch to it when Tunisian Muslims are in proximity. That is, an absent present that was still somehow perpetually absent, ghosted this village.
I realized in this period that the mystical book of the Zohar was everywhere: on Sukkot, the harvest festival, the book is propped up on a tiny suspended chair for the Prophet Elijah, to usher in the messianic age. When a baby is circumcised, the Zohar is read until dawn. I became fascinated by this text, and in particular, in the Lurianic mystical imageries which spread through the region in the 16th century and onward. The imagery of the “shattering of the vessels,” the tumbling of shards of light through the cosmos, was for me a possible animating parable—a way to think about how this community framed the world. This logic imagined an originary wholeness, an orb of light, that was then dashed to pieces: these shards of light swim through bodies and trees and planets. Within this paradigm, their assembly is possible, through social justice, through prayer, and through ritual.
The poems work conceptually and formally through these cosmological orientations. For example, the shortest poem in the book, “Time Ends.” It goes like this: “Miracles are hungry. Stars open and shut across/ Stratospheres. Stars open and”. Formally, the poem seeks to enact a pang within the cosmos itself for the ingathering of those shards, via the use of lineation and absences: the first line begins with the flickering on and off of the stars, yawn open into the second line into the vast space with the “stratospheres,” followed by the last clause, “the stars open and”—formally initiating a gulf of possibility in the self and in world, refusing a bracketing end term.
Opal: Your use of sound is subtle - or at least it doesn't appear to be the engine that drives your poems. This said, what do you find driving your formal decisions: line lengths, stanza breaks, general arrangement of the poem on the page?
Stone: My poems in this collection are driven most by the momentum of the line-break, as an edge to find tension and beauty against. They are engined by the singing of the thing-itself: I want the poems to be pared down to pure thingness and pure color. I do not want a speck of dust, a single extra term. I want “blue” to burn through; for “honeysuckle” to ache all the way to your funny bone; for the “stone” to act as a tunnel of light.
Opal: Personally, I found your introduction to Stranger's Notebook to be beautifully written. It's obvious that you are a gifted prose writer as well as a poet. What makes you choose to make something into a poem and not, say, an essay?
Stone: Thank you. I am presently grappling with this question a great deal in my new manuscript on the pre-deployment simulations, which act out the Middle East on army land in America. To this end, my next book is extremely hybrid, blending together poems, passages of lyrical prose, and theater scenes. In this new project (I have now done two years of preliminary fieldwork and two years devoted full-time to fieldwork observing the war games), there is so much buzzing, haunted, and glorious abundance that form is now mutating to accommodate it. Still, the book remains a book of poetry. What I am working through now is enabling each piece in the new book to be entirely a creature of its own, not forced into an ill-fitting form. Some of pieces in Stranger’s Notebook, written already ten years ago, might have been better suited to prose. In my current manuscript, prose suddenly unthreads, falls into another step, breathless, vertiginous, becomes poetry.
Price: At times your manuscript plays with the spacing of poems--sometimes just one on a page, sometimes multiple poems--is this a choice on your part or on the part of your editors? And--how did you decide which ones to place on the same page?
Stone: The spacing was my choice. The repetition of titles and the multiple poems on the same page, seek to create the immediacy of the notebook. Additionally, they invite the reader into my obsessive inhabitation of a particular cosmos, its world of echoes and rules. Come in yes, and stay in. This formal choice is even more pivotal in my new work on the simulations. I want a reader to dive into the book and be held by the throat by the book.
Price: One of my favorite poems is "Trapped on Djerba, Island of the Louts Eaters" for its veiled imagery that would not connect to the Odyssey had it not been for the title. What are your thoughts on explicit referencing in poetry whether it be for aesthetic decoration or for contextualization? Did the poems in earlier drafts apostrophize to Homer more directly or did you come into the poem knowing that you wanted to hint at the poetic tradition?
Stone: See question 2.
Lizakowski: Can you explain the process of transforming from an anthropologist into a poet?
Stone: [Combining questions 9 and 10 into one answer]
I was a poet first.I have been writing poems since I was six years old.That old adage tells us to write what we know: I wanted to enlarge my knowing; I wanted to unmoor my mechanisms of seeing.My ethnographic pursuits and my choice to become an anthropologist are my ultimate offering to my poems, as well as to my life.I went to Djerba on a Creative Writing Fulbright to write poems.I was already inspired by the place before I arrived.After Djerba, I did a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies, realizing that there was much more reading for me to do, in order to do justice to those poems, and to the complexity of that place.It occurred to me only later that what I was doing in Djerba—without the conscious methodological tools, without access yet to the genealogy of scholarship—was a first stab at anthropology.
Lizakowski: In the poems “How We Recognized Our Longing,” “Jerusalem”, and “The Sabbath,” you use tradition and religion as leitmotivs. How are tradition and religion important to the 21st century people that you met in the Middle East and North Africa?
Stone: See question 4.
Davis: Your ruminations always seem to appear in relation to specific scenes, settings, conversations, and various (expertly captured) moments – did this capturing begin as a journal, a diary? as nonfiction through a poet’s filter to discover itself as a poem down the road? or did the poems appear in the moment? Specifically, do you attempt to capture mid-moment, do you take notes, or did these poems appear upon reflection?
Stone: See question 1.
Davis: There’s more of a project here than with most books of poetry I’ve read – more history, more backstory, which is woven into the work, fuels the work, and in many ways is the work – was poetry, in your opinion, the only way to capture the complexity of the environment? the best way? Could the combinatory of literary control, resonance, and charm (as in The Girls and First Day of School (p.18)) have been accomplished through any other form?
Stone: See question 6.
Davis: The breaths you take both formally (spacing/form in many of the later poems), in sentiment (Saturday Twilight, Where), and in structure (Outside of Time: “breath. Enter here,” and “Listen. Your breath / held”) leave the reader satiated after a long, exhausting journey… what is your current relation to religion as it pertains to the experience? You returned from the rush of the voyage to the rush of interpreting and collecting, how has your attitude since changed, if at all, now that you’ve had time to step outside it.
Stone: I love this question. I remember a craft talk at Squaw Valley given, I believe, by Li-Young Lee, about the breath. He spoke about the heady vertigo, the breathlessness of the long, long line tipping forward—the sensation is tumbling; it is prophetic. And then there is the work of the short jolts of lines, which create a different kind of breathlessness. They both help to create the ecstatic experience within the poem. I would like my books to do a great deal of work with the breath; to be gripped by a certain intensity, a nowness, a doorlessness; and then to, as you say, create sudden moments of satiation and release, leaving the body of the book and letting what happened there inflect the body of the world.