Interview with 2017 LHP Poetry Prize Winner: ABIGAIL CHABITNOY!

In our most recent installment of the Locked Horn Press Spotlight, LHP editor Amanda Fuller chats with the captivating Abigail Chabitnoy about the inspiration behind her LHP Prize winning poem "Executive Order," history, place and how the element of water influences and shapes her work, and, of course, what she locks horns with! Want to know what a "creeper" is and why it fascinates her? Read on!

AF: Thank you so much for contributing a couple of seriously fantastic poems to LHP’s Poetry Prize for our forthcoming anthology Read Water: An Anthology (2018).  How is water an element important to your poems or poem making? Can you tell us what compelled you to write the LHP Poetry Prize winning poem, “Executive Order”?

AC: Water has been an image that has haunted me since my very first poem, in the second or third grade. I think it was a concrete poem, either about drowning, singing, or swimming under water, and was shaped like a whirlpool, like I imagine a child might draw the Charybdis in The Odyssey. I remember in that poem the simultaneous approach of fear and awe towards the sea. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and only went to the beach once a summer, but I was always afraid of how strong the waves were, of rip tides, and always, perhaps irrationally, of sharks. And yet I love to be on the water. In a boat, on a paddle board, in a kayak. I typically stick to lakes, safe water, out of situation (I now live in Colorado, still landlocked) but also out of nerves. Even as an adult, I dreamt of creeper waves before I knew they were an actual thing. But my great-grandfather was from an island in the North Pacific sea. My ancestors are from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. He was taken from his home on Kodiak to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1901, and died around the time my grandfather was born. None of us have made it back to the islands yet (though I’m hoping to this year), and we grew up with just the story of our family name, an orphan, and an island.

I’ve been thinking about my family’s history a great deal lately. My first book, How to Dress a Fish, which will be published by Wesleyan later this year, is largely concerned with story and history, who gets to tell which, how the story changes speaker to speaker, reader to reader. And I’ve always been interested in traditional stories from other cultures, especially Unangan and Sugpiaq (Aleut/Alutiiq) stories my ancestors might have known. The winds on those islands have been described as so strong no man could walk against them. Recently I’ve been interested in what stories can offer in the age of #45. I wrote “Executive Order” after the inauguration, as government websites went down and rumors circulated of cuts to government personnel and departments. I worried how one man working alone along such a singular course of value assessment might hang us all up to dry. I worried about what other threats might persist even if we could find a way to negate 45, how long we can collectively fight climate change before we change tactics, prepare to brace ourselves against impact. Creeper waves, after all, are a real thing, and the water’s getting higher.

AF: What, if anything, are your concerns as a poet? Similarly, because Locked Horn Press is interested in exploring spaces where conflict exists, what are the issues, or where are the spaces, with which you “lock horns”?

AC: I was a reluctant poet before grad school. I wanted to be a fiction writer, but more along the lines of Borges and Italo Calvino. I was interested in the stories that acted like poems. That is, I was interested in language, in how something was said as much as what was said. When I first began writing, I was just interested in a good story, a good escape. I didn’t watch the news if I could help it. I volunteered when it was convenient, or would look good on an application. It was easy enough to look away, or rather, to simply not look. Needless to say, this early writing was terrible. It didn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t get past the details, the way a simple edit made a sentence mean something entirely different, made a sentence more even. So I began to look at details and how they interacted, what those details suggested about larger ways of seeing and being. I began to pay attention. Poetry has provided me with a medium in which to spend time with these details, with my concerns. Lately those details have been largely about identity—who gets to identify in what way, in the company of which others. How that identity gets changed in translation, in the telling of the story if you will. Relationships personal and impersonal, understood and misunderstood, local and national. All to say, it matters what stories get told, how they get told, who gets to tell them. I’m interested in the stories we tell young girls—and boys—about what it means to grow up in this country, to be successful in this country, to be a person in this country. I’m interested in how we tell our history, how the schools I attended would argue it’s an objective narrative. Maybe some “facts” are alternative after all. I’m interested in how the way in which we frame the story closes doors we might need to reopen. I’m interested in what other languages have to say about how we see the world. Now, partly because of my work, I read the news every day, as much of it as I can stomach, and I need to know there’s a way of facing each new horror, a way to act, a way to go forward with hope. A way to take a step back, take a breath, and come back to this problem of living. My husband looked at my Facebook newsfeed once and said it was no wonder I always felt like the sky was falling. We tend to surround ourselves with the same kinds of stories after awhile, and they can set us in a rut. I’m trying to use poetry to turn that rut into a furrow for growing.

AF: As we are always interested in the diversity of poets’ lives, can you talk a little about your work with indigenous communities? How does this work influence your writing /writing life?

AC: As I mentioned above, my great-grandfather was sent from his home on Kodiak, Alaska, to the Carlisle Indian School when he was 15 years old. His parents had just died, and it seems an aunt sent him with a priest who was traveling through. He didn’t go back to Alaska when he left the school. We don’t know if he could if he wanted to. We don’t know if he wanted to. He stayed in Pennsylvania, married a local girl, got a job at a factory in the very white, largely affluent Hershey, Pennsylvania, and had a couple boys. I know those boys were called “half-breed” as kids growing up in Hershey, and I know my grandfather drank quite a bit. When I was growing up, I knew—or we thought we knew—our last name meant “salmon-fisher” and stemmed from when the Russians came to the Aleutian Islands and started giving everybody different names. But that’s about it—and the translation we had, it turns out, wasn’t even accurate. It was the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that really put me back in touch with my great-grandfather’s culture, and I’m still very much in the process of learning. Of listening. And of wondering why I never heard more of these stories.

In my poetry and in my work with indigenous communities, listening is a critical prerequisite. I’m a research and marketing associate for a Native-owned consulting company that primarily works to support tribal self-determination initiatives. Sometimes this means facilitating meetings and consultations between tribal representatives and military personnel. Sometimes this means doing research on pipelines and electric plans and blogging about electric utilities to try to determine available courses of action so that the appropriate leaders might make more-informed decisions about what best meets the needs and priorities of their communities. Most days I feel like an event planner, or wonder how I landed as a technical writer in a field in which I have no prior knowledge or experience. But my favorite days are when I get to meet people—consultation meetings where both military personnel and indigenous representatives are present, or trips out into the field with the original stewards of those lands. That’s when I get to hear everyone’s stories—the good, the bad, and the prejudiced. The hardest part, as it’s usually the first impulse, is to recognize that these are not my stories. But they are windows I was allowed to look through, and if I look closely, my own reflection is in that glass as well. These stories offer me entry points back into my own life and experience, offer frames that I can in turn offer others, hopefully, to show themselves back again in less fixed light. I think poetry is similarly a sustained act of listening.

AF: Are there any poets who come to mind, or books that come to mind, as having been especially influential to your work?

AC: Calvino and Borges really inspired me to pursue writing in my undergraduate studies. (I was originally an anthropology major.) Ben Marcus’s The Father Costume and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red warmed me up to the idea that I could pursue stories and poetry (and anything in between), though it was my professor, the poet and translator Michelle Gil-Montero, who finally pushed me through the door via MFA program recommendations, and my soon-to-be mentor Dan Beachy-Quick’s reading in New York City that sealed the deal. I’ve also very frequently returned to Jean Valentine and Alice Notley.

When I was writing my first book, Camille Dungy’s Suck on the Marrow was influential, as was Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller. DG Okpik’s Corpse Whale first gave me the idea to explore the Alutiiq language in poems. And I always return to Sherwin Bitsui’s work when I feel like I’m not paying enough attention to images in my own poems.

AF: What gets you out of bed in the morning; in other words, what inspires you, encourages you to keep going, writing, moving, etc.?

AC: Hmm, a kind of masochistic compulsion? (I’m kidding. Mostly. I think.) The MFA program was wonderful because of the flexible schedule it provided, but before the program and since graduating, I typically have to get up at 5 to squeeze in time to write before the day begins. But I don’t think I could not write. On the one hand it seems especially hard these days because there’s always some new crisis or injustice in the news and it can get a person down. It takes more digging to find the positive stories. Or to find a better angle for the negative stories, or to make space for something better out of those stories. But that’s something poetry has provided for me lately, a tool to process the news and the narrative and to find an angle in, or rather out of the fatalistic to a narrative that at least attempts to approximate something like hope, hope for a transformation if not a simultaneous silver lining. How we frame the narrative can have a tremendous impact on how we’re able to move forward and face each day. I also think poetry offers a space for conversation and an opportunity to slow down and pay attention, both of which are frequently missing in the course of my average day unless I take the time to participate through writing.

I think, especially after grad school, it’s incredibly easy to stop writing. No one’s checking in on you or your work. No one’s holding you accountable. But the same is true of living an engaged and present life. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to social injustices or communities impacted by war or climate change or historical trauma (if you’re fortunate, that is; for many there is no choice). It’s easy to remain transfixed on one’s own immediate needs and desires, to not pay attention or participate in the bigger picture. It takes a conscious and sustained effort to meaningfully engage in today’s overwhelmingly digital and anonymous (yet simultaneously global) world. For me, engaging with poetry is how I engage with others. It’s how I hold myself accountable. And, of course, I am fortunate to still be in touch with a wonderful community of friends and mentors—Dan Beachy-Quick, Camille Dungy, Joan Kane—who do to some extent hold me accountable simply in their support and encouragement of my work. That community is so important.

AF: And finally, are there any books or poets you have read lately that you loved, or would like to tell us about?

AC: It still seems so recent to me that I consciously decided to submit to poetry that I never feel well-read enough, and my pile of books to read is taller than my pile I have read. But books I’ve read lately that have left me truly floored are Joan Kane’s Milk Black Carbon and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. Talk about books that are doing the work of demanding engagement, demanding to be heard. I believe Sherwin Bitsui has another book on the way, Dissolve, which I’m really looking forward to. I just picked up Michael Wasson’s This American Ghost, which I’m excited to read after hearing him read a couple poems [at AWP] in Tampa. And I just had the privilege of reviewing Jennifer Elise Foerster's latest book, Bright Raft in the Afterweather, which I highly recommend.

I’ve always been interested in work that bends genre as well, and recently picked up Bianca Stone’s Poetry Comics. I’m really interested to see more works that create room for experimenting with image and text. Honestly, lately I’ve been reading more graphic novels than poetry. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther, of course. But also Saga and The Wicked + The Divine. At the end of the day, I’ve always been obsessed by story.

Abigail Chabitnoy earned her MFA in poetry at Colorado State University and was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Nat Brut, Red Ink, and Mud City, and she has written reviews for Colorado Review and the Volta blog. She is an enrolled descendant of the Koniag Corporation and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, Alaska. She grew up in Pennsylvania and currently resides in Colorado, where she is a research associate for a consulting firm specializing in supporting indigenous self-determination. Her debut poetry collection,  How to Dress a Fish , is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in Fall 2018.

Abigail Chabitnoy earned her MFA in poetry at Colorado State University and was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Nat Brut, Red Ink, and Mud City, and she has written reviews for Colorado Review and the Volta blog. She is an enrolled descendant of the Koniag Corporation and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, Alaska. She grew up in Pennsylvania and currently resides in Colorado, where she is a research associate for a consulting firm specializing in supporting indigenous self-determination. Her debut poetry collection, How to Dress a Fish, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in Fall 2018.