Interview with Divya Victor on CURB

Divya Victor’s latest book, CURB is now out with Nightboat Books! In this edition of Sticky Fingers, Victor reads a poem from the collection, “ARBOR/ARDOR” and then talks with Editor in Chief Dorothy Chan about this stunning book.

Dorothy Chan: I want to begin with the lyric. These ending lines from “Settlement,” the book’s opening poem keep sticking with me: “for this emptying of history / for this sternum rent in two / for this conscience as quiet / as the snap of a wishbone / sucked white.” Again, that “snap of a wishbone / sucked white”—wow. 

For you, how does the lyric of poetry tell a story? I know this is a super broad question, but I admire the ways in which the lyric functions in CURB, along with how the lyric works with the hybridity and poetry of witness in this collection. I admire the juxtaposition of the lyric with the coordinates in the upper right corners of some of the pages. I also think the lyric further brings the multiple violences in this book to light even more—it’s the lyric that gives the reader hyper awareness. It’s the lyric that also elevates the speaker’s voice and urgency. 

Divya Victor: For me, the lyric offers a clarification of positionality—“this is where I am seeing from; here is where I am standing while you hear me”— and a declaration of focus, a narrowing of intention. I often begin by rehearsing arrangements of diction, sensation, argument, and images well before I eventually succumb or rise to fixing a lyric mode to that poem. I almost never know, in advance, that a poem is emerging “from my point of view.” Only after I have understood what I am constructing do I position myself in relation to it. That is when a lyric voice becomes the skin forming around the muscle of a poem’s argument. And that muscle will keep wriggling out of various voices, exuviating, until it finds one that is so snug that it feels slick and viscous with birth. But, of course, a poem never arrives with a voice—it has to find it, often after desperate searching. 

DC: Speaking of hybridity + the poetry of witness, I’m really struck by the use of white space throughout this book. Could you talk a bit about that? A specific example that comes to mind is “Curb 4,” which opens with an anaphora of “of gray” on the left-hand column, followed by gray as “a pigment.” 

DV: Poems make noisy marks on whitespace. When I am composing, I am wrangling a tenuous and tense relationship with whitespace. This wrangling produces a durational charge for the language, controls lineation and modulation of volume. It controls texture or density, shapes my maneuvers through pacing and rhythm. I often map these out as a sketch before I begin, working out zones and columns on grids, working out recto-verso relationships between stanzas. As you’ve noted, CURB sustains both lyric and documentary forms, and even conceptual elements, in the same poem or series. For instance, the coordinates at the dog-ear corners of the page show the reader that I have spent time recceing the location I am writing about—and I used Google Satellite for this, a bit obsessively. Or, I make use of quotations from law enforcement officers in “Blood/Soil” to show the reader what I am metabolizing in order to structure a poem about police violence. When I am actively making use of the whitespace, I am ‘showing my work’ the way we do when we are solving math problems and are marking the margins in pencil. I use the total terrain of the page to disclose an arrival to a conclusion. In these instances, whitespace becomes a disclosure of labor, a stage on which I am performing the saccade of my attention to documentary materials.

DC: I love how many notable quotes frame CURB. I want to now highlight the opening one from Michel Serres’ The Five Senses: “Through the skin, the world & the body touch, defining their common border (edge). Contingency means mutual touching (common tangency).” 

I’m so fascinated with how this quote is used to frame the collection, especially since Serres’ argument is how we cannot divorce ourselves from bodily experience. There’s also a relationship between bodily touch and the sensory and how divorced we are as a society from humanity. It’s like when we forget about the “mutual touching (common tangency),” we then reduce people to less than human beings. I think about the sterility that is brought out in this collection, for instance, early on with these lines: “at the consulate, the line / for birth certificates is the line / for death certificates // was the child born beyond a boundary.” 

Can you talk about this juxtaposition between the sterility that’s brought out in this collection, coupled with the human touch that is desired? I’m thinking too about the speaker’s experiences in the section, “Petitions (For An Alien Relative),” along with her own pregnancy. 

DV: I love that moment from Serres! I love the way he insists on the relation between physical and emotional touching. Skin is a cultural site and a subjectivating zone of relation, rather than some kind of passive casing or canvas. All the thinkers of the skin’s as an edge fascinate me—Roland Barthes’s writing on cuffs, ankles, lips; George Bataille’s thinking on eyelids as edges of the subject; Didier Anzieu’s “psychic envelope”; Fanon’s skin as mask. In CURB, I was interested in how we touch through the skin—meaning, how we relate as enskinned bundles of desire, prejudice, longing, distaste, nostalgia, hatred, fear. Our skins tell us how we are feeling constantly—we blanche, or prickle, or sweat, or tremble, or blush. They are eloquent surfaces and they only turn less loquacious in death. And even then, violent deaths tell a story through bruises, suppuration, and gashes. In this way, the skin is the inversion of the legal document— our papers turned inside out to show the veins and sinew dangling and still clutching to life. 

I am interested in the documents of immigration processes and what remains poetic within such sterile language forms. This country fetishizes the document as a kind of ontological guarantor of presence “here,” so much so that “undocumented” or “legal” become identities. It reduces us to paper people. Any immigrant or child of an immigrant has had that moment of dissonance between their rich, fecund lives and the documents that supposedly represent these lives. We feel shocked when we view ourselves as two-dimensional passport photos, holographic visas, or marks made by rubber stamps. But this is the way the nation’s administration sees us (or refuses to, in the case of our undocumented kith). 

In “Petitions (For An Alien Relative),” I wanted to counter this gaze. In this piece, I wrote into the USCIS From-130, which is the form that we use to try and get our loved ones to join us here, from elsewhere. I was thinking about this process from the point of view of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean low-wage workers who work in bodegas and gas-stations, whose employment has been ravaged by the pandemic, just as their immigration processes have been. Filling out these forms is like playing Russian roulette with a hope for citizenship pointed at the softest parts of us. In writing into these documents, I wanted to expose the skin on the other side, to speak into the form-fields as a way of singing about the parts of us that are still clutching on to life. 

DC: I want to go back to the poem, “First Petition.” It’s such a standout. I’m looking at these lines in particular: “it is a Thursday / & no one out on this long street / looks like your mother” and the ending, “& suddenly she walks / through the passport photograph / you once stapled at the edge of a petition / to anchor her womb / to your migrating heart.” 

What role does tenderness play in CURB? Underneath everything, I think it’s crucial to go back to tenderness and human touch and familial love. 

DV: Tenderness fascinates me as a disclosure of feeling—“I feel tenderly towards you”—and as a report of a sensation— “My stomach feels tender when I press it here.” In both these connotations of the word, it suggests a way of relating to something quite tenuous, flickering. It is also a feeling I only recently accepted into my life, or began cultivating and studying as a practice. I think I must have been intimidated by it in the past—the way it blurs the edges between people, the way it softens the boundaries. It’s also a lovely verb—to offer, to give. But it is also a currency, isn’t it? “Legal Tender.” A thing we use for transactions, in exchange for something else. So, I guess I am also suspicious of tenderness as a kind of currency exchanged between the reader and the speaker in any poem, but especially poems about trauma, displacement, and racial or linguistic otherness. Because I often wonder about the price I’ve paid for that exchange—what are the assumptions that underlie that exchange? What has been gained and lost (and for whom?)

DC: Cathy Park Hong describes CURB as an “incredible collection that must be read and re-read.” I feel the exact same way. Divya, thank you for writing this incredible and important book. I’m looking forward to teaching it in the near future. What are the collections you find yourself re-reading? And how do these collections affect your overall writing and creative processes? 

DV: Thank you for thinking about CURB with me, Dorothy. I often return to reading poets who have a real commitment to research and to arranging dense layers of signification, who work with multiple Englishes or non-Anglophone lexicons, who are offering us new ways of tethering the personal to the political and then looping this tether around what remains historical in the present. When I wrote CURB, I had a row of books I kept on my desk, as talismans from elders, as evidence of folks who had laid the cool stones along the coal paths. These books were mostly by poets who have taught me how to write about really difficult matters: Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers; Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Erín Moure’s O Cidadán, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, Pattie McCarthy’s Quiet Book, and Douglas Kearney’s Mess and Mess and; Myung Mi Kim’s Commons

About Divya Victor

Divya Victor is the author of CURB (Nightboat Books); KITH, a book of verse, prose memoir, lyric essay and visual objects (Fence Books/ Book*hug); Scheingleichheit: Drei Essays  (Merve Verlag); NATURAL SUBJECTS (Trembling Pillow, Winner of the Bob Kaufman Award), UNSUB (Insert Blanc), THINGS TO DO WITH YOUR MOUTH (Les Figues). Her work has been collected in numerous venues, including BOMB, the New Museum’s The Animated Reader, Crux: Journal of Conceptual Writing, The Best American Experimental Writing, POETRY, and boundary2.

Her work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, and Czech. She has been a Mark Diamond Research Fellow at the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum, a Riverrun Fellow at the Archive for New Poetry at University of California San Diego, and a Writer in Residence at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibit (L.A.C.E.). Her work has been performed and installed at Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Los Angeles, The National Gallery of Singapore, the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition (L.A.C.E.) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

She has been an editor at Jacket2 (United States), Ethos Books (Singapore), Invisible Publishing (Canada) and Book*hug Press (Canada).

She is currently Associate Professor of English at Michigan State University.