The Colorado Poet, Issue #30, Winter 2022

Abigail Chabitnoy on Poetry and  How To Dress A Fish

Interviewed by Kathryn Winograd
Abigail Chabitnoy’s first collection of poetry, How to Dress A Fish, won the 2020 Colorado Book Award and was a finalist for the Griffin International Poetry Prize. Chabitnoy, a Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, is an alum of the Colorado State University Creative Writing MFA programHow to Dress a Fish, published by Wesleyan Press, was Chabitnoy’s master thesis. Chabitnoy mentors for a number of writing programs including  the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA and Lighthouse Writers

Winograd: Well, I’m going to jump right into the structural make-up of your book, How to Dress a Fish. As I was searching for the exact terminology for some of your typographical effects, I found links for “How to format your poetry manuscript” or, I like this one the best, Poetry Styles And Formatting That Make Editors Cringe. To be fair, most of the “instructions” were general and common sense, but given the wild formatting of your poetry manuscript, I imagine whole cadres of editors not just cringing but in catatonic states after viewing the remarkable landscape of your book.  Can you discuss the “formatting” of your book and how you made the move from the “sanctuary” of traditional poetry?
Chabitnoy: I had to laugh when I read this question, because when it came to the publication process, I did somewhat regret not thinking through some of the practicalities of my decisions—long lines that couldn’t just be broken when they reached the right margin, but also in terms of some of the blank spacing between the untitled poems that float on some of the pages. Some of the best advice I got from a mentor after the fact was to remember that while we submit files that provide 8.5x11 pages, books rarely come that size. I was also glad I didn’t pay much attention to these practicalities in the book’s development because I had freedom to put the poems’ needs first.
Much of the spacing came naturally. I typically compose poems by pen and paper, and prefer unlined pages. This allows me to really feel the white space as a part of the composition; a presence, rather than the absence of text. Gaps in history, in documents, in understanding, in language, in memories, in willingness to speak or reveal all the “skeletons”, and the act of composition, of the poem’s unfolding in real time as I found the language, largely directed placement on the page. In other cases, the form of the poem itself dictated certain choices. For example, in the erasure poems, rather than suggest a wholeness I was denying, I left space for words I removed, to leave evidence of that imposition and violence.
The grocery list poem was typeset as I had written my notes out in real-time on a phone conversation with a cousin, in my car, without anything else to write on. I wanted to capture that collision of discovery and questioning and unpacking of historical and familial accounts with the daily. Or where there are boxes where photos might have gone, while I did have more photos than I ended up putting in the book, I wanted to preserve space for all the photos we were missing. Because the narrative was so messy and full of holes and arbitrary listings, I wanted the formatting of the poems to reflect that assemblage.

Winograd: I love how you so purposefully use white space, absence, and the arbitrary in poetry. In addition to your powerful use of typographical effect, you create this dizzying collage of poetry form: visual image, strikethrough poetry, found poems, form appropriation, historical records, newspaper clippings, footnotes, figures, transcriptions, and traditional verse. Some poets feel lucky just jotting down a few short lines that contain an image or two.  How did you come to the diverse “containers” of this book? Did you start with the “outside” sources for your poems or did the writing of your poems lead you to research and then to the discovery of the essential “ancillary” material for your book? 
Chabitnoy:  I initially fell into this work partly unintentionally. I’ve always been drawn to myth and surreal narrative. I didn’t actually think I was interested in poetry at all until I read Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and realized poetry allowed me to play with narrative in nonlinear ways. I found my poetry workshops much more amenable to this than my fiction workshops.
I have an undergraduate degree in anthropology. My default source for inspiration usually involves reading widely, either narratives from other cultures, or outdated (and thus horrifically and naïvely problematic in their underlying racism and Eurocentrism) histories and ethnographies. I was struck while reading Navajo stories in graduate school that I should learn more of my own Alutiiq heritage. What motifs were frequent in Alutiiq stories?
I remembered that the Carlisle Indian School records had been digitized, and recalled my dad saying a cousin of his had shared a family genealogy someone in Alaska had prepared. On a trip back to Pennsylvania, my brother told us all that Chabitnoy didn’t mean “salmon fisher” in Russian—which was just this small bit of family lore, on the one hand, but such a huge part of what did connect us back to our family in the Aleutian Islands. My dad talked about a whole island where we were related to everyone—or someone mentioned such an island. Right? The more I started trying to recall, then follow up, led to an unfolding of an entire history of Russian colonization that I hadn’t learned anything about in school. I barely learned about the Carlisle Indian School, though it was less than an hour from where I grew up.
I’ve always been a morning writer, and when I woke up and didn’t know what I was writing, I’d read. Before I knew it, I had too many pages for a single poetry manuscript, and yet a lot of those Carlisle documents and problematic histories became integral parts of those poems.
Winograd: I found that your book follows the best models of poet laureates such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Natasha Trethewey, moving between personal and historical narrative, poetry and prose. Family stories become revelations of cultural, historical, and universal stories, illuminating the lives of us all. Your switching between the personal and historical seems easy, yet it’s not. What advice would you give a young poet wanting to enlarge and deepen their own poems?
Chabitnoy:  Oh goodness, thank you. I did certainly read a fair bit of Trethewey’s work, among others, as I was writing this book. Read. Widely. Figure out the questions you’re asking in your poems, the themes and subjects you’re interested in, and then read everything you can about them. Look for patterns. Look for threads. But remember too where you are writing from. Remember to account for your own positionality.
Patterns and threads are a large part of what I explore. I’m not sure how much of that comes from a personal neurosis, a need to establish value or consequence or significance, etc. As though it’s not enough to tell a story in verse without there being a larger narrative, an “aha” moment of sorts. Lately I’ve circled back to re-examining this demand I make on my work. But reading and research have always led me from the outside to internal revelation and discovery, rather than working from the personal outward.

Winograd: Your process for writing poetry sounds so much like the process of writing creative nonfiction. That journey of the unknowing that leads one, through fate or luck, to unexpected “answers” and, more often, questions. In your acknowledgement, you say that sometimes you weren’t sure what you were writing. Given today’s “genre-fluid” literary world, what is your definition of poetry and how do you see it continuing to morph in the coming decades?
Chabitnoy:  Oh, that’s a hard one. In every workshop or class I teach I feel like we’re always still trying to arrive at an adequate definition of poetry. For me, the more I continue to write, I find that I don’t approach the page in terms of genre so much as how is space operating. How am I understanding the narrative or the experience? How can I make sense of something I’ve just read or heard or a dream I’ve just had or a memory that’s emerged? How am I engaging with the images, and how can I share that experience with my readers to guide them in a similar unfolding?
I’ve never been much into prayer or meditation, and can only bring myself to journal when I’m in a rut with writing and need some excuse to wake up and get to my desk. But poetry for me fulfills a lot of those roles. It allows me space to reflect on patterns of understanding, webs of repercussions, new understandings of how to live ethically, responsibly, sustainably—mentally, physically, and communally. Because I often think more in constellations and clusters, in fragments and notes, rather than in a linear progression, poetry and its freedom on the page allows me to lay that thinking out spatially to invite readers to engage in conversation or dialogue that need not be linear or rational.
I think this ability to welcome alternative approaches to understanding makes poetry amenable to incorporating and questioning history and social norms and beliefs. It also encourages us to question what poetry can and can’t do, how, for example, we understand ways in which writing by women is most often dismissed as confessional, what it means to write the self, to extend past the self, to welcome emotional intelligence over or equal to rational intelligence. I would expect such trends to continue as we collectively realize business as usual simply isn’t working at a global or societal level.

Winograd: Given what you’ve shared with us about your work and your process for finding poems, who are the poets who have inspired you and how have they influenced your work?
Chabitnoy:  The poets I have read most closely and continue to return to are Alice Notley, Anne Carson, Anne Waldman, Joan Kane, and Sherwin Bitsui. Whether for their imagery, their approach to the line, to the page, the field of the page, their balance of the surreal and absurd and the social/political, their work continues to inspire me. I just finished teaching Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf and Katabasis by Lucia Estrada, which were the kinds of texts that are so visually and sonically stunning and left me absolutely floored upon reading. It’s hard to articulate their influence on my own work.
Truthfully, sometimes after reading works so powerful, the last thing I want to do is write—every line feels so inadequate. But at the same time, they’re so energizing and remind me of the spark of creative joy that first compelled me to write, before poetry became a daily discipline. My dad always wanted to be a writer, and thought he might make an earnest effort in his retirement, but can’t get past how many brilliant works there are to read. Reading definitely can become procrastination, but, I find spikes in how much I read between completing one project and starting another. After completing my first book, reading was especially key both for my sanity and that slow inspiration/percolation of possibilities that would become my second book and sow the seeds of my third.\
Winograd: Finally, what’s new for you?
Chabitnoy:  I recently signed a contract with Wesleyan for my second collection, which focuses on narratives of violence against women and the landscape. I’ve always considered my first collection more of a long poem interrupted by the titled poems, so I wanted to dive into the individual poem, though it’s become apparent that what I’m interested in is patterns and threads in narratives. I’m always drawn to how narratives across traditions reflect different views and perspectives. In an increasingly fraught existence, I’m interested in looking for patterns of regeneration in ruin. I’ve begun experimenting with linoleum block prints and illustrated poems. I’m interested in how fragments might be assembled under similar approaches to connectivity and entanglement. For now, however, I’m also adjusting to our new home in the Pacific Northwest with two dogs oblivious to mud, where we’re expecting our first child in March. I’m both excited and terrified!