by Jennifer Elise Foerster | Guest Editor
Abigail Chabitnoy earned her MFA in poetry at Colorado State University and was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow. Her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, LitHub, and Red Ink, among others. She is a Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, Alaska, grew up in Pennsylvania, and currently resides in Colorado. Her debut poetry collection, How to Dress a Fish, was released in 2019 from Wesleyan University Press.
J: How did you come to poetry? I’m always interested in hearing poets’ poetry-origin stories, if you have one you’d like to tell.
A: Quite by accident! The first thing I remember telling my dad I wanted to be when I grew up was an author—I was going to go to college to study “authorism.” But I always assumed I would write fiction. I suppose what I love most about poetry is its myriad possibilities for how to tell a story, which in hindsight I’d begun exploring my junior and senior years of college. But it wasn’t until I started pulling together my application for grad schools and asked my undergraduate mentor for advice and recommendation letters that I gave poetry serious thought. My mentor, the brilliant poet and translator Michelle Gil-Montero, told me she would write my recommendation letters on the condition that I also apply to poetry programs. My “fiction,” it turned out, was really more of a series of extended prose poems lacking all traditional structure and devices, which drove fiction workshops mad but was happily tackled in my poetry classes. I remember my first semester at Colorado State University sheepishly admitting the arbitrary nature of my line breaks in my portfolio. As soon as I allowed myself to consider my work as poetry, of course, it made complete sense. I was drawn to anthropology in college because I liked having the opportunity to engage with other cultures—particularly their storytelling traditions. I was always drawn to alternative ways of considering a problem, of telling a story, of passing on knowledge. Poetry, I found, offered exactly the kind of multiplicity I felt necessary for engaging meaningfully with this life and those I share it with.
J: I am astonished at each return to your debut collection, How to Dress a Fish. The ambitious, complex artistry of the book is realized with such delicately tuned attention. The book begins with a poem entitled, “Family Ghosts” and asks, “Is this the shape these things should take?” How did you find, or begin to find, the shape of the book?
A: On one hand, I feel like I very much fell into this book. Of course, looking back, it was inevitably what I always needed to write. As I said, I’ve always been drawn to other cultures’ stories, as well as fantasy. I was accepted into my first undergraduate writing workshop on the basis of a fantasy story I’d written—and on the condition that I never write fantasy again! But I suppose I was looking for the breaks in an otherwise practical, nonmagical, humdrum façade; only I didn’t know how to make the various images and motifs speak to something deeper, something necessary. I would come across a concept that intrigued me in another indigenous culture but know I had no access to write about it and that I could not understand its full significance. That was all I needed to realize the opportunity I had through poetry to really dive into my own heritage. I realized I could use my graduate studies not just to learn about poetry, but to learn my language, my history, my stories. I’ve always been a copious note taker and love doing research. Taking another text, Dennis Tedlock’s Finding the Center, which sought a way to notate Zuni oral narrative poetry in a form that would reflect the performability of their traditional telling, as my starting point, I began to give shape to my own work. The complexity of my relationship to my heritage, however, insisted that I continue to question that form and my motives at each step. Stories were told, then told again, and again, not necessarily in succession, or in replacement, but through accretion, as waves upon the shore. The Native Hawaiian writer, Kristiana Kahakauwila, speaks about the ways in which exterior, physical patterns in our natural and cultural worlds can provide patterns for our own interior storytelling, and I found this to be true as I wrote from the perspective of one at once descended and removed from a water-based people.
J: There is a multitude of voices in these poems: voices of family, of the narrator, of history, voices lost in the concealed and dismissed histories that your poems invite to return—how do you work with these voices? I imagine you deep in research and documents, listening in the erasures. Do you have any practices or methods to help organize all of this material? The poet, Eleni Sikelianos, told us in a class on Documentary Poetics, to be careful not to become overwhelmed. It is so easy to become overwhelmed by this kind of work.
A: Indeed it is! The only advice I can give is notes, notes, and more notes. When I was making my final edits to the book, I wished I had more of a system of working through the research—though in most instances, muddying the waters and failing to properly cite in the manner of a Western academic text played nicely into the larger conversation of the book. Even as I’m working on my second book, I still find myself returning to some of those notes and sources. I have an entire shelf of resource books, many on Alutiiq culture and history, Russian and otherwise Western colonization, storytelling traditions, etc., that I collected while writing How to Dress a Fish that I haven’t even cracked open yet.
J: How did you know when to stop researching? Or rather, how did you know when the research and source material for How to Dress a Fish was “enough”?
A: Ultimately, I had help from my own teacher, the poet, Camille Dungy, in realizing a stopping point—or else I’d probably still be writing it! But as I’ve moved on, and as I’ve considered what it is poetry is capable of, what it is poetry can and should accomplish, and how to begin the whole process again, I’m realizing that this research isn’t a short-term task to be completed. Like reading poetry, it is a space in which to dwell. My poetic practice can be described as one of accretion, of finding patterns. And it can be overwhelming at times, but I’ve found the trick is to just keep working, and to dwell, to be present, in the work, rather than let oneself look too far ahead at the “bigger picture.” I’m searching for the whole through the pieces.
J: The story of your great-grandfather, whose photograph opens the book’s first section, is a strong undercurrent of the poems. What led you to begin to uncover your great-grandfather’s story, and for those unfamiliar with the book, can you tell us a little bit about his story?
A: My great-grandfather was sent to the Carlisle Indian School from the Woody Island Baptist Mission when he was 15 years old. After he left Carlisle, he remained in Pennsylvania, finding employment at the Hershey Factory and marrying a “white girl.” (That was the quote in the Lebanon newspaper: “Indian marries white girl.”) He died shortly after my grandfather was born, and besides rumor that our last name, Chabitnoy, meant salmon-fisher in Russian, that was mostly all I knew growing up. My father was a graduate student in Washington D.C. when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed and looked up Michael’s Carlisle student records in the National Archives in order to register as a shareholder with the Koniag Corporation. (There’s not enough room to go into ANCSA here, but to sum up briefly, when oil was found in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, Alaska was divided into 12 regional corporations responsible for the management of funds and lands negotiated in exchange for future land claims, thus opening up the remaining public lands in Alaska to oil development.) It wasn’t until college really that I began to look into what it meant to be Alutiiq, and not until graduate school that I really had the time and capacity to dig into the research. I didn’t really know where to begin until I learned Carlisle’s records were fully digitized. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I ran cross-country meets in Carlisle, but knew nothing of the atrocities committed there. The way I heard it, Michael was an orphan, and Carlisle was an opportunity for a better life. We hardly learned about the indigenous peoples of Pennsylvania, and certainly didn’t learn about the Russian colonization of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. When I began looking into Alutiiq narrative traditions, I realized it was impossible to separate these stories from Western notions of history. The more research I did, the more questions I had, the more the narrative was complicated, the waters muddied. I’d never liked learning history in school—too many exercises in rote memorization, too many names, dates, and facts to be recited. But what I realized when I was free to learn history on my own was that history too is subjective, and what often gets lost in the curriculum is the story. I wanted to make these stories accessible outside of Kodiak, both for others who had been displaced, and to draw attention to the wider narrative of our national understanding of history and its flaws. There are so many historical narratives we hold as sacred and beyond questioning that we forget they’re just that—narratives, told from one perspective. What Russian historians called “strategic military victories” were in fact massacres as experienced by the Alaska Native peoples they enslaved. I think especially in today’s socio-political climate, it’s important to recognize the multiplicity of experience, history, identity—as well as the patterns.
J: How to Dress a Fish engages with archives—photographs, historical documents, family records—and to me has the shimmering quality of a palimpsest. I think of H.D. and her conscious revisioning of history by superimposing places, stories, and mythologies from the deep past onto the present. She wrote in “May 1943”: “I mend a break in time.” I understand this statement as an address to poetry: that poetry can inhabit the gap between present and past, a gap that hinders us from understanding ourselves and our world. How do think poetry can transform or reinscribe history, if at all?
A: Oh, I love that—and it perfectly captures where I’ve been, lately, with my relationship to poetry and the broader world! I hadn’t read much H.D. prior to or during grad school, and I have only very recently discovered how similar my pursuits are, so I’ve been collecting her works as I dive into my next project. While writing How to Dress a Fish, I was very much obsessed with getting my hands on everything by Alice Notley. Over the larger course of her work, and especially in Alma, or the Dead Women, I found a lot of this layering of history/current events, personal experience, and story, and this became influential to the making of my book.
I have to confess, I felt a bit lost after completing my MFA. I had more or less finished my manuscript at the same time, and it was almost too much closure. I didn’t know where to go next in my work. Meanwhile I still had literally hundreds of journal-sized pages of handwritten notes, typed poems that hadn’t made it into the manuscript, a fat file folder of articles and Alutiiq folklore, and a shelf full of unopened Alaska Native history, indigenous studies, ethnic studies, and gender studies text —and no idea where to go with all of this that wouldn’t feel like I was simply repeating myself. I started agonizing over what poetry could and/or should do, what my poetry could/should do, until I realized there was in fact a pattern to my work. One of the books on my shelf is titled Looking Both Ways; it was a companion book for the Alutiiq Museum, and was a project I had in fact participated in minorly as an undergraduate intern at the Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage. I had been responsible for looking at photos of objects and then combing through transcriptions of interviews with Alutiiq elders discussing the objects. Ultimately, I had to create digital clips to accompany the photos in an online version of the exhibit. While I didn’t realize it at the time, that was the beginning of my approach to my poetics—researching and writing through accretion, through layering, through looking for the patterns. The elders chose the title Looking Both Ways to emphasize this very notion of looking forward and creating by looking into the past, reflecting on the continuity of history and the interrelation of experiences and narratives.
J: It seems your poetics began to take shape during this historical work, while you were relayering archives to illuminate history.
A: I didn’t appreciate history in school because it was presented as a dead set of facts rather than a living narrative I was actively participating in. We talk about how those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, but how many of us really make the effort to reintegrate ourselves back into the narrative these days? I think in this way poetry can bring history back to life, so to speak—it can reintroduce us to the narrative, exactly through this act of revisioning. That is how I see poetry as continuing to be relevant, and indeed critical, to today’s society. It allows us to look again at the pieces and reconfigure them, to look at where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going, and then to re-envision a way forward. Even poems of simple gratitude are, these days, radical acts. The poet’s task is to pay attention, to redirect our distracted gaze, and I believe that absolutely means also reminding us of what is possible, not just what is or has been.
J: What were some of your most surprising experiences in the making of this book?
A: Whenever I’m asked to speak in public, I joke that I became a writer so that I wouldn’t have to speak out loud. I’ve always considered myself a shy, awkward introvert, terrible at small talk, unbearably serious, and woefully out of touch with pop culture. Even my family doesn’t really tell each other stories or call each other up out of the blue just to talk. But what I found so delightful in making this book were the people I met in the course of this journey, the relationships the book opened for me. I finally made it to Kodiak while the book was in production, and was immediately welcomed to look at the Alutiiq Museum’s resources, to converse with their experts, to participate in a language class, to celebrate in someone’s home, and to converse for hours over coffee with cousins I hadn’t known prior to arriving. My extended family isn’t that large, or at least, in terms of who we see regularly on holidays, it doesn’t feel very large. I never knew either of my grandfathers growing up; they had already passed. And by the time I began writing, both of my grandmothers had as well. So the book was in a very real way a means to extend beyond myself, to open myself up to a community, to kinship, to something larger.
J: What was one of the most challenging experience in the making of this book?
A: I would say the biggest challenge I had to overcome in making this book was my own feeling of worth and belonging. From the start I was determined to remain bound by my own and my family’s experience, and to consciously not present myself as in any way a representative of “The Native Experience” or “The Alutiiq Experience.” I understood my experience was different from others, as of course everyone’s is, and I understood that there were benefits I’d experienced, but also losses, and that some of that loss could easily be dismissed as romanticizing the past; this made me doubt my motives frequently. But the bottom line was that I felt called to these stories. I felt moved to converse with my relatives through poetry. I felt that longing for community, for story, for an understanding of oneself in the context of something larger, a piece of a whole. However, there were still several occasions, even after the book was with publishers, that I almost pulled the plug, fearing it wasn’t my story to tell, feeling like I was an imposter. Fortunately, I had mentors who were supportive, understanding, and also firmly encouraging when needed, and I’ve also been fortunate to have made connections in my indigenous community that have also reaffirmed my belonging. And I recognize that I belong in multiplicity; I realize that my identity and history are multiple, but tradition isn’t stagnant. It, too, evolves. It looks both ways. To survive, it must.
This interview and the following poems are the third in a regular series guest-edited by Jennifer Elise Foerster.
Jennifer Elise Foerster received her PhD in English and Literary Arts at the University of Denver and her MFA from the Vermont College of the Fine Arts, and is an alumna of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Writing Residency Fellowship, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Jennifer teaches in the IAIA Low Residency MFA Creative Writing Program and at The Rainier Writing Workshop. Jennifer is the author of two books of poetry, Leaving Tulsa (2013) and Bright Raft in the Afterweather (2018), both published by the University of Arizona Press. Foerster is of Euro-American and Mvskoke descent, is a member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, and lives in San Francisco.