Leona Sevick was my classmate in a summer writing workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown two years ago. The workshop, led by Martha Collins, was called Writing Difficult. All that week, Sevick brought in poems that probed the unspoken violence in everyday life, be it the silent rage between an estranged couple or racialized encounters at a Korean dry cleaner.
I was delighted when I heard that Sevick’s first collection Lion Brothers won the 2017 Press 53 Award for Poetry. It’s a stunning book that moves between the intricacies of familial relationships and the larger world of neighbors, friends, and even news reports. In these poems, Sevick examines the gulf between what we want and the roles we are expected to inhabit.
Sevick is provost at Bridgewater College in Virginia. I spoke with her over the summer. – Teow Lim Goh
Your book Lion Brothers is named for the factory where your mother, a Korean immigrant who is not fluent in English, worked. How did your mother’s job shape your family life?
My clearest childhood memories of my mother revolve around her goings and comings. We would see her in the mornings as she prepared for work and then briefly in the evenings when she would return from work, cook and eat, and then retreat to her room to sleep. She slept more than anyone I’d known then or know now. At the time my father and grandmother explained to us that factory work was difficult, that it was physically grueling and that because of it she was exhausted all the time. Today I realize that she was also depressed. The men and women who worked at the factory were rough. In the twenty-five years she worked there, she calls only two people her friends. It was a difficult life for her, but it also shaped my work ethic and my brother’s. We had responsibilities at home that many of our friends did not have.
In the poem “Gun Safe”, you write:
It’s a dangerous gift, knowing
what others want. Not the things
they say they want, but what is hidden
in the dark, deep pulse of blood, tucked
into the heavy folds of muscle and
complex valves where no one ever looks.
Your poems look at these complex valves of family life, delving into spaces that many of us dare not even approach. Where do you begin writing these poems?
My poems always begin with some tension or conflict I’ve been rolling around in my mind for years. I work at them like we work out splinters. I’ve always been interested in the manifold ways people conceal their desires and fears and the ways they hurt people they love in the process. It’s an exhausting business, this hiding of who we are or what we want. I’m interested in probing those places with words, laying them bare in the hope of acknowledging them and then moving past them.
Which poem did you find most difficult to write?
While you might think that some of the more emotionally charged poems were the most difficult to write, I have to say that “Amnesty” was the most difficult, and not for its subject matter. This poem was, in fact, the very first poem I ever wrote. In 2009, when I first began writing poetry, I was a Willa Cather scholar. I was writing articles and thinking about putting a book together, but my heart was not in it. I admired Cather above all as an artist, and I longed to feel the things she felt as she was creating something. Still, I suffered from some anxiety of influence, I suppose. I had never taken a creative writing class, not even as an undergraduate, and I could never imagine myself writing anything someone else would connect to. The beginnings of “Amnesty” appeared on a napkin at a restaurant where my mother and I were dining. I brought that napkin home with me and tried to shape it into a poem. It took weeks of rewriting, but once it was finished I felt the kind of satisfaction I’ve never felt in my work. I had put what was in my heart and brain onto a page so others could feel it, too. I was hooked.
Guns play a role in many of these poems. You write, “I never want one in my home; / we should live without one / because others say they can’t.” Yet guns pervade the speaker’s life. And it’s not just the men; when her mother attempts to leave her husband, she goes back to the house to collect the guns. It strikes me that there is a fine line here between violence and safety. Can you talk about this?
I often tell people that my relationship with guns is ambivalent. Having grown up in a house with handguns, I learned at a shockingly young age to handle them. My father was a policeman, but he was not a lover of guns. He was no collector; he did not admire them for anything beyond what he considered utility. For him, a gun meant protection for himself, his family, and the people he served. When you grow up thinking of guns in this way, it’s difficult to imagine your life without one; it’s like getting into a car without putting on a seatbelt. Still, the lessons of gun violence that pervade our society are amplified when we become parents. I don’t want my children to feel unsafe when they navigate the world without a handgun. I’ve learned myself how to ride without a seatbelt.
In a number of poems, you write in response to the news, whether a report of a mother beating her child senseless or the Brock Turner rape case. Where do you begin writing these poems? What can the news, which is often sensationalized, tell us about our lives?
The news as it is broadcast through every kind of social media can be overwhelming. I sometimes try to limit my engagement with it, but of course I fail. I never want to lose my sense of empathy in sensationalized cases, which can happen when they come at us too fast and too often. What makes these cases sensational is often their extreme quality; we cannot imagine ourselves embroiled in such shocking events. And yet, there is always some seed of small truth in these cases that speak to our lives directly; fully realized, these seeds could be us. This is where my poems begin.
Natasha Trethewey has talked about her ruthlessness as a poet; in her poem “Elegy,” she writes that she took notes for an elegy to her father on a fishing trip with him. Many of your poems exhibit this ruthlessness; in one poem, the speaker says of her husband on a ladder to repair the garage door, “I almost wish you wouldn’t fall.” For many people, it is difficult and even dangerous to express such sentiments so publicly. How do you navigate these demands of art in your life?
Like all writers who engage very personal subjects, I had to decide some time ago how much of the truth I was willing to tell. The things that are most difficult to express are what readers connect with most. I mean to be fully honest with my readers; it’s what I expect from the poetry I read and what I want my readers to expect from me. It’s a kind of life mantra, this honesty at all costs, and it has affected some of my relationships. Having come to writing somewhat late in life, I’m willing to take this risk.
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