11 minute read

From the Horse’s Mouth

a conversation, with Bryana Joy, about the hidden power of the letter “O” and the auditory space we grant birds.

IHLR: Thank you for talking to us about your winning poem, “Summer of the Oystercatchers.” We’re so happy to have the opportunity to expand upon your genesis statement. We feel like many will read this poem and recognize the current state of the world—all of the loss and our anxiety in the losing. How do you feel current events informed this poem and will perhaps continue to inform our reading of it?


JOY: Although this piece doesn’t reference current events in any direct way, it is from start to finish a pandemic poem, and I always think of it as such. It’s easy to forget, I think, the eeriness—the quality of horror—that was so much an element of those early pandemic days. In England, where my husband Alex and I were living at the time, the world seemed to fall almost completely still for months. Grocery store aisles were bare, and businesses were hastily shuttered and deserted with promotional signs still dangling in the windows. It was a startlingly apocalyptic scene. Surgeries, cancer treatments, and other quite serious health procedures had to be suspended. I recall stepping out for a walk on campus one evening and not hearing so much as a single automobile. What’s more, folks were enduring unusually traumatic separations from loved ones. In Italy, bodies were piling up outside the morgues, and people were stuck in quarantine with the corpses of family members. All over the planet, couples were dying in isolation without being allowed to

say goodbye even to one another. Alex and I, living an ocean away from our families and friends, and confined to a tiny studio apartment, were working hard to keep our spirits up and be there for one another, but I think there was always a nagging dread at the back of our minds: What if we get separated by this virus? What if this is our last week/month/ year together? And those questions followed us around throughout the whole spring and summer of 2020, shaping the nature of our interactions and making each day feel sort of terrifyingly beautiful—because we didn’t know how long we had. And, of course, we still don’t, because no one ever does know that.

IHLR: When we first read this poem, we were drawn to the singular “O” at the end of the fourth stanza. This “O” is hard to find in contemporary poems but evokes a unique yearning and exclamatory sonic moment that we found so satisfying. Could you talk about your choice to use “O” in this poem?

JOY: Absolutely. The “O” in this poem is of particular importance to me since it marks the transition by which the speaker passes from relishing the unique beauty and camaraderie of the oystercatchers to lamenting a particular instance of their transience. I wanted a transition word that could bear the weight of immense, shattering grief, and I see the singular “O” as a distinctly different word from the more common “Oh,” which is visually, if not always auditorily, softened by the addition of the “h” and brought to a natural close. To me, “Oh” is a word with a definite end, but “O” is more unlimited—a sound as opposed to a word. I think it invites the possibility of something like infinitude, a grief that reverberates.

IHLR: We loved the strangeness in parts of this poem, specifically the lines where you personify the oystercatchers by noting “their gorgeous lips” and “beautiful mouths.” Could you talk about the choice to humanize these animals?

JOY: I’ve been interested in birds, birding, and ornithology since childhood, and that interest has grown exponentially over the past several years as I’ve developed fond rela-

tionships and associations with local communities of birds both here in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley and in England. When Alex and I were living in lockdown without any other human interaction, it was of course natural that the wildlife we repeatedly saw on our daily walks should take on expanded personalities for us, and I certainly wanted the poem to reflect the strong personal attachment I felt to this pair of birds, whose ardent connection to one another aroused all my sympathies at a time when global events made connections between living things seem especially frail.

But, perhaps of equal significance, birds have recently also begun to fill a symbolic role for me in my exploration of a subject that has been tough to examine and tougher to speak up about: women’s liberation. I’m a third-culture kid who grew up in Turkey, and my childhood and young adult years were shaped by my involvement in and adjacence to Islam and conservative Christian evangelicalism (both white and otherwise). Although I don’t believe religion is necessarily the primary source of the global phenomenon of gender apartheid, the subjugation and abuse of women can be particularly insidious and pronounced in conservative religious circles, and these abuses have touched my life at multiple points. Over the past three years, I’ve spent a significant amount of time and emotional energy studying and processing how norms for gender socialization push women toward silence and dependence. Rather unexpectedly, in my attempts to give a creative voice to my findings, I’ve noticed myself turning again and again to bird imagery as a kind of counterweight to the suppressive gender expectations women around the world tend to labor under. I’m drawn, for example, to the independence implied by wings. And I’m absolutely fascinated by beaks and birdsong, and the way birds are permitted and expected to make noise, to take up auditory space—behaviors that are so often discouraged in women, especially in religious circles.

IHLR: We noticed that this poem hinges on its sense of place—a lake, the buildings the oystercatchers call from, the oystercatchers themselves—and you note that this poem draws upon your time in an unfamiliar place. What is the importance of place in your poetry—in

this poem and in others? How do you think place changes how we immerse ourselves in poems and how we read them?

JOY: I’m glad you brought this up, because place is certainly nestled right in the middle of my creative impetus, and it’s a subject I’m always excited to explore. My life has been shaped by travel and relocation since childhood, and as of this writing, I’ve lived in seventeen different houses on three continents. When I was a young teenager, I remember telling a friend I was pretty sure I had more strong attachments to places than to people, and that may still be true—not because I don’t cherish my connections with human friends and family, but simply because the number of locations that have left lasting marks on the course of my life is unusually high for someone my age. I wouldn’t trade my wandering history for anyone else’s deeply rooted existence, but one reality about cross-cultural living is that you end up with these deep wells of yearning sort of drilled into your psyche. Everywhere you go, you find yourself almost unbearably hungering after some other place that you’ve left behind. And then there’s this persistent inability to properly “belong” anywhere. In each place that homes you, you’re a newcomer, struggling to decode new norms and new rules for social engagement. For me personally, poetry has proved an effective outlet for managing some of these tensions: it allows me to imaginatively immerse myself in my memories of a particular place and actively honor its impact on my understanding by figuring out how to share it with readers who know nothing about it.

In 2018, I began writing poetry about my childhood and teen years in Turkey as a way of telling the funny, sad, joyful, and highly irregular stories that were eating me up inside because their dependence on places so unfamiliar to my American friends made me feel I had no way to share them. I wrote poems about my life in the remote Black Sea village of Belen Köy. I wrote about the details of Turkish holidays and wedding customs. I wrote about the beautiful and the terrible things I had seen: the fruiting orchards of golden light, the fountainous hospitality of neighbors, the cruel misogyny, the crushing poverty. I wrote about mandalinas. And seeing these poems published in ten different literary magazines and online journals over the past three years has not dissolved but has certainly mitigated the

sense of loneliness that came from carrying unspoken stories around inside me. I know my poetry isn’t going to be able to supply my readers with a fully immersive experience of the unfamiliar places I’m writing about, but I hope my writing conjures an inhabitable place of some kind in their imagination, even if it’s not exactly the place that exists in the real world. And I know that my fervent love for my own places has certainly expanded my capacity to “enter” the places other poets open up for me with the strength of their words.

IHLR: We love the ending lines of this poem, and their stern and unwavering tone: “I am / not going to accept any answer.” What does this line mean to you? Why did you choose to end on this firm sentiment, rather than perhaps something more hopeful or comforting?

JOY: I admit the ending has something of a bleak quality about it, but I think I must put in a word here for the hope that can be specifically implied by some of the bleakest language. For example, I am terribly fond of Dylan Thomas’s infamous villanelle, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and I confess I derive something rather like hope from that great poem’s feisty rejection of death: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Thomas’s speaker enjoins his dying father. While this command certainly sounds like a bitter exercise in futility, I find something gemlike and inherently meaningful in the sense of wounded outrage with which humans tend to confront annihilation.

In the final stanza of my poem, my speaker (who is me) wrestles with some of those daunting why questions that so regularly trouble the human experience. However, instead of settling on an answer to either lament or take comfort in, she chooses to resist framing the question of life and death in why terms. I have a strong antipathy toward existential “quick fixes,” and I feel that many well-meaning attempts to ease the agony of human loss in the face of death serve only to subtly undermine the value of our connections to other living things. Comfort which implies that our loss was not truly shattering, not truly disastrous, is cold comfort to me, and my speaker wants to honor the significance of love by refusing to treat death as an acceptable outcome. I think this can mean different things to different folks, but for me personally, it means hope.

I am, all told, a Christian, although I increasingly feel the need to attach a disclaimer to this avowal given the highly ungenerous behavior, attitudes, and beliefs that have become associated with my creed. In recent years, I find myself speaking not of “Christianity” but of “Christianities,” as the singular word is an umbrella under which folks gather who would not be able to find even one statement of values on which they can agree. But I digress. At its core, my Christian faith is predicated on the story of Death getting mystically trounced by a God who puts on human skin and fragility in order to share in the sufferings of humankind. Christians have historically interpreted the significance of this story in different ways, at times placing emphasis on global renewal and at other times placing emphasis on the resurrection of the body, but one idea that has remained more or less constant is the old Christian image of Death as permanently worsted in a match with the Divine. And this image certainly permeates my approach both to living and to art.

—SARA RYAN, column editor