Unbearable Desire: A Conversation with Nina Reljić
Curated by Heather Gluck
For issue 8 of Some Kind of Opening, former Editor-in-Chief Heather Gluck interviewed contributor Nina Reljić. Nina is a Fulbright scholar from London currently living in New York, having recently finished her MFA at Columbia University. She works at a literary scouting agency and also hosts the STEAMROLLER Poetry Reading Series in New York. Nina’s chapbook AGNES is currently available for pre-order with Wrong Press. It is a book about desire and isolation, about being foreign in America and being in love, and about always wanting more.
HG: Thank you for sitting down with me today. When I read “Let Me No Longer Walk Away,” I see a litany of desire, specifically the desire to change or to grow. Where does that desire come from?
NR: People have told me that this poem feels like a prayer, and even the title is prayer-like. I think it’s an amalgamation of a lot of different desires that all ultimately look inward. The poem is a desire to change the self but also to embrace the self. It’s unusual for me; I feel like all my desires are very outward-looking.
HG: That embrace of the self is apparent, especially in the last line, where the speaker wants to be resurrected, and embraced. The speaker begins with I statements—“I want the dignity of red apples”— and then starts to discuss “the speaker” as if they are two distinct entities. What inspired that meta-reflexive move?
NR: That's a great question. Firstly, it’s a lot easier to speak about yourself as if you are someone else, and this poem is a plea to the self to do things differently. It’s easier to imagine the end result of all that when you’re thinking that it’s someone else, not you, who will change. The woman at the end of the poem is a version of the speaker that has accomplished something that the current speaker hasn’t.
I remember when I first wrote this poem someone told me that although it’s about the self, the ending feels kind of gay. It’s not about someone else, but so much of this poem has to do with men—there’s a whole scene in there about a sexual interaction with a man that destroys the speaker, and would maybe compel her to redirect herself—so I think there’s also comfort in the speaker turning inward to the self and outward to the self as well, who is also a woman.
HG: There’s an outdated way of viewing lesbianism as seeking another version of yourself—
NR: Right, which can be troublesome, and there’s an issue with people conceiving of gayness as women searching for themselves in other women.
HG: That was Freud’s belief, that narcissists were more likely to become homosexual because loving someone of the same sex is an extension of loving yourself.
NR: Which is not exactly what’s going on here, but it’s not un-sexual. “Take her home” is not just about the self. There’s something there that is erotically charged.
H: I think it’s fantastic to think of the self as something split in two, and that those two halves may have some erotic charge. A love and maybe a sexual bond. I mean who can you view erotically if not the self?
NR: Even if the woman at the end is only the self and it is sexual, that's kind of nice because of that explicitly sexual scene with a man in the poem that is not pleasure-inducing. So for the poem to end on the possibility of pleasure that does not involve a man, whether it’s lesbian or autoerotic, is noteworthy.
HG: That touches on my next question. The poem begins with this litany of desire and then moves into a moment that is almost romantic—“I have wanted to get back to the boy whose hair smelled of fresh earth who was a slick love already in the making”—but which then turns violent. When you were writing this poem did you know that scene was going to appear and be a linchpin?
NR: No, totally not. This poem was very much one of those that come out in one big bloop, which isn’t always the case. I think you can feel that in the poem, because it is a bit sprawling. It touches a lot of things. I began this poem with “from the hunger that is asked of me,” which is totally contingent on what other people want, and the scene with this man also seems to be contingent on his desires, like a lot of sex with men is. So I think that was floating in the same space in my mind. The poem comes from a place of wanting to free yourself, be cut and be separate from a self that is constructed by other people. There's a lot about the body here, appetite, and sex. It feels very physical.
HG: When womanhood and heterosexuality are all about restriction, want and freedom become connected. The form definitely matches the content, hungry and yearning and forward-thrusting. It does feel like a single train of thought, and the form really reflects that. Did you write it in this prose form?
NR: Yes and no. I was in the UK at the time and we had gone to the countryside for a weekend. We were in this house and walking around and I felt very far away from everything else that was happening—including the scene with this dude that had been quite recent—and I wrote it all at once. The poem wasn't originally in this block, though I do write a lot of poems like that now. Mark Bibbins took this poem from a bulky poem of long lines to the sleek little square you see now. I loved it. I love a poem to look thick and orderly, so contained. For a poem that’s so prayer-like and far-reaching, and messy—not in a derogatory way, but in a sort of “everything all at once” way—it’s nice to have a form that arranges it. This form also gives you a lot of play with enjambment, which is not done by accident. It’s tricky, and it’s a fun challenge.
HG: It's funny you keep mentioning prayer and I keep calling this poem a litany, because that word has its origins in religion. “Litany: a series of petitions for use in church services and processions, usually recited by the clergy.” We’ve both picked up on the way this poem’s construction gives it a devotional feeling. The form also reminds me of Obit by Victoria Chang. Have you read it?
NR: I've read a few of those poems. They’re formatted in columns to reflect the way an obituary column appears in a newspaper. Maybe there’s something about death or religion as subject matters that beg for order. This poem is not unrelated to death either. The original title was actually “Tomb,” or some other word to do with burial and graves. I wanted it to lead into the resurrection in the final lines.
HG: Which is another religiously-inspired moment. This poem doesn’t mention Jesus, but many of your other poems do, like one you have published in Anthropocene that’s actually titled “Resurgo.”
NR: Laughs. My poems are actually all about my love of Jesus.
HG: I wonder if there is also something religious in the satisfaction we feel seeing something be completely self-contained.
NR: And to me this is a very indulgent poem, in that it's full of many different, borderline unreasonable wants. Well, maybe I shouldn’t call them unreasonable, but you do read it and think, God, this speaker wants so much! It’s kind of ridiculous.
HG: It is. It's an excess of desire.
NR: It’s almost desperate. There is so much that she wants, and you know that she can't have it all. It’s really nice to organize a poem like that in a way that makes it into something that can be borne by a reader. Otherwise I think it would maybe be unbearable, how much is wanted here.
HG: Even if it is unreasonable, it’s also really powerful to see a speaker want so much. It’s positive, even heartening. It’s a very alive thing to do, to want, to want maybe more than you can get. The excesses make it feel like a person who wants to be alive.
NR: I’m thinking about the last line, “half reaching for the living when something insists on resurrection what can you do but take her home.” If a person is determined to want things, pathetically, even, then they’re foreseeing a future. They’re forecasting a day when they have these things. If you're feeling dead, or however the speaker is when the poem begins, then that’s a form of resurrection. What can you do but acknowledge how alive that is, acknowledge your own desire to live?
Heather Gluck is a poet and editor from New York. She received her MFA from Columbia University. Her work is published in Palette Poetry, Beyond Words, and High Shelf Press among others. She is the Managing Editor for MAYDAY Magazine and a Nonfiction Editor at Majuscule. See more at heathergluck.com.