MAYDAY’s 2022 Micro Chapbook Contest winner is Ja’net Danielo’s This Body I Have Tried to Write. The poetry editors were awed by how Danielo expertly weaves together malignant tumors (“sharp-edged stones”), the James Webb Space Telescope, 90210, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the etymology of the language of physical suffering to produce a collection that references not only the singular body of the speaker but also the very web of genetics and human connection. Danielo’s poems grapple with tension of the body as a force of danger and desire: “Who among us hasn’t wanted / to kill the sweetest thing?” An impressive demonstration of craft and music, “We are only rust-gold / & bright for so long…And we’re / so tired of sucking the sap, bark-/ parched lips making do with / sugar scraps,” we are asked to consider the body as burden, as machine, and as the “construction of time.” These poems are a collective meditation on the pervasive nature of illness, how it spreads not only within one body but among them, and how the world will not soften for our grieving—neither for the living nor the dead. This Body I Have Tried to Write compels readers to wrestle with what it means to be wholly alive and woefully fragile.
Danielo is the author of The Song of Our Disappearing, a winner of the Paper Nautilus 2020 Debut Series Chapbook Contest. A recipient of a Professional Artist Fellowship from Arts Council for Long Beach and the Telluride Institute’s Fischer Prize, her poems have appeared in Superstition Review, The Shore, GASHER, Mid-American Review, Radar Poetry, Gulf Stream, and elsewhere. Originally from Queens, NY, Ja’net teaches at Cerritos College and lives in Long Beach, CA, where she facilitates Word Women, a free, virtual poetry workshop and retreat series for women and gender nonbinary writers.
MAYDAY POETRY TEAM: In reading This Body I Have Tried to Write, we were intrigued by how the collection began to take shape. Can you tell us a little bit about your inspiration or process for the micro chapbook?
JA’NET DANIELO: I had tried writing about my cancer experience for months without much success. While I did manage to complete a few of the poems in the collection in the spring of last year, it wasn’t until I read Tumor by Anna Leahy that I figured out how to approach this topic. Soon after, I wrote “Refrain” and “This Body I Have Tried to Write” in rapid succession. “Refrain,” in particular, opened up something in me. It was the moment that all my concerns somehow came together in one poem. And it served as a road map for how to approach all the poems that followed (Write about everything all at once!). After I wrote “This Body I Have Tried to Write,” I knew this was the start of a chapbook. I also knew I had the book’s title, which gave me even more direction.
MPT: “Write about everything all at once,” that is great advice! What would you consider the spine or skeleton to the collection?
JD: That’s a tough one. The collection is so compact that all the poems feel necessary to its shape, but all bodies are both bones and meat, right? So maybe the bones would be: “The First Restraint Was the Body”; “That Episode of 90210 When Brenda Finds a Lump”; “Refrain”; and “This Body I Have Tried to Write,” but ask me this question tomorrow, and I might answer differently. My perspective of what constitutes the spine shifts with the passage of time.
MPT: What did you discover as you dug deeper into this concept of the body and bodily illness–were you surprised by anything?
JD: Yes, the fact that I’m not done yet! From the start, I had envisioned this collection as a micro-chap, but these poems took me in so many unexpected directions that I’m now working on expanding this into a full-length collection.
MPT: We are very excited to read that when you’re done! This Body I Have Tried to Write is tightly themed, and I noticed many poems that seemed to work in tandem, even if not placed beside one another in the collection. Would you mind talking a little about the ways certain poems are in conversation with one another throughout?
JD: There are so many conversations going on in this collection, some “louder” than others. In my mind, “For the Body as HAL 9000” is almost a spin-off of “Refrain” because of the references to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it’s also in conversation with “The First Restraint Was the Body” and “Mutilated Is the Word,” in that all three poems present a relationship between the speaker and her body. The body is at once other, a separate entity guilty of breaking up with the speaker, stepping out on its relationship with her, and something to which she is forever bound, that which she can never escape.
“Refrain” is also in conversation with “That Episode of 90210 When Brenda Finds a Lump” and “Metastasis,” in the way all three deal with the perception of time.
Finally, “Metastasis,” “Refrain,” “Redbuds” and “The First Restraint Was the Body” all draw from etymology (an obsession fueled by Leahy’s Tumor), so there’s that thread.
MPT: The weaving of all these threads is fantastic. Let’s touch on a couple of those poems, starting with“For the Body as HAL 9000.” Your Notes section of the collection states that it “contains variations on dialogue from 2001: A Space Odyssey and on lyrics from Harry Dacre’s ‘Daisy Bell.” I’m curious what those references mean to you, to each other, and the work in the rest of the micro chapbook. To me, it felt like the most surprising inclusion in the collection, unique but somehow not out of place.
JD: This one surprised me as well. I hadn’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey in over 20 years, but when I wrote “Refrain,” it floated to the forefront of my mind and remained there. Months later, serendipitously, I caught the last 45 minutes of the film on PBS. It was late, I was about to go to bed, and there it was: a gift from the universe! I saw the famous scene where Dave is disconnecting HAL 9000, and HAL is pleading with him not to. As Dave disconnects him piece by piece, the last words we hear are HAL’s first words ever, his rendition of Harry Dacre’s “Daisy Bell.” Even though I know, logically, that HAL is a dangerous, manipulative, homicidal machine, at that moment I felt for him. I mean, when he says to Dave, “I can give you normal again,” I really, really wanted to believe him. He was the voice of my body. And I realized that my tenderness toward HAL was a tenderness toward my own body, this body I had been so angry at, this body that betrayed me and continues to restrain me in so many ways. So I wanted to write to my body from that place, and what better way to do it than to use HAL 9000’s words?
MPT: In “That Episode of 90210 When Brenda Finds a Lump,” I am obsessed with how time passes, so visual, so visceral, too. Tell me a little bit about how time functions in this poem as a place to start and go from, and maybe how you explore space/time, especially in poems that deal with finite time (mortality) and countdowns (diagnoses, treatments).
JD: That episode of 90210 has remained lodged in my psyche since I was 14, and for whatever reason, it re-emerged recently. Who knows what pushed it to the forefront of my mind? I was just eating breakfast, and there it was. But that’s precisely why it seemed the perfect vehicle to explore the reach cancer has had across generations of my family and within my circle of friends. I think when you experience any kind of trauma, there is always a before and an after. By focusing on the before and after of a TV episode that foreshadowed these events rather than the events themselves, I didn’t have to choose between my cancer or my mother’s or my cousin’s or my friend’s. I could write about all of it at once, plus mortality and grief and loss and the origins of the universe. And time—the thread that weaves all aspects of life together. Our very human construction of time forces us to think of time as linear, but we are always relating our experiences to the past, and how we reference different moments in time changes with our experiences. So even the past changes in a way, and foreshadowing is the stuff of fiction. We just don’t know what’s going to happen in our lives, what’s important, what’s a warning. And our traumas certainly don’t resolve themselves the way they do on TV. Like time, they’re fluid.
MPT: In “The First Restraint Was the Body,” I’m wild about this taut, compressed shape, how the white space is bound by the margins. We could talk about that one, but zooming out, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on form overall—things you experimented with before these poems took their final shape, or what form you find yourself most comfortable employing, etc.
JD: Usually, I don’t know the shape a poem will take until I type out the lines and start playing with them. I always handwrite everything, initially. Typically, a single line comes first. And even before I have the language of the rest of the poem, I transcribe the rhythm. This usually means assigning random words to this music in my head. The real language of the poem comes in drips and drabs, but once I’ve got a skeleton of a poem, I begin to craft the lines, throw meat on the bones. I read aloud as I write, feel the words with my breath, my eyes, ask myself, Is this what it feels like in my body? That’s ultimately what dictates the form. Always, the goal is to honor the body’s music. But in the case of this collection, I often knew the shape of the poems before I had the words. For example, I knew I wanted the structure of “Mutilated Is the Word” to be narrow and tight—sharp like a knife. I knew I wanted “That Episode of 90210” to be more of a prose poem, structureless like time, and that “Refrain,” “Redbuds” and “Metastasis” would all be in couplets because I often employ the couplet when I’m trying to explore several different ideas in the same poem. It provides a kind of controlled meandering.
I don’t usually write in form, but after reading Victoria Chang’s The Trees Witness Everything, I was all about Japanese waka poems, specifically tankas and chokas. I started experimenting with them, mainly to alleviate some of the pressure of writing the poems in this book, half of which were written in the first two weeks of April as part of NaPoWriMo. So in between working on the manuscript, I’d write tankas and chokas—sometimes three or four in a day. It was like a meditation. When I started to write “The First Restraint Was the Body,” all I had was the title (lifted from Chris Abani’s response to his editor who asked him, during a Copper Canyon reading with Victoria Chang, about restraints he employed when writing Smoking the Bible). But I knew I wanted the poem itself to convey a sense of restraint, sonically and visually. So in addition to writing a choka, I eliminated the spaces at the end of each line to create a kind of suffocation, a tautness.
MPT: While you did not mention this poem specifically yet, I was particularly moved by “It’s Okay,” in which you write:
Besides, you’ve got other scabs to pick
until you’re nothing but split skin, red-raw.
Let’s start with your body—its white blood
cells like tiny ghosts swarming your glands,
feeding on breath & tears. It’s okay to call it
a broken thing, to hate living in this broke-
You have an incredible way of writing with such precision and intimacy on the body, in that poetic universality way and in such a deeply specific, deeply personal way, as well. What kinds of things were important for you to convey with regards to sickness/health, diagnosis, and what it’s like to navigate and experience these things?
JD: Thank you! What a wonderful compliment! With these poems, I very much wanted to convey that illness, disability, loss and grief are not physical and emotional circumstances that happen to a body but are ever-evolving processes held within the body. We carry them in our bodies forever. Yes, they take different forms, but they are always there. My father died six years ago, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel grief for that loss. And even though my cancer was removed, I will forever be a person who had cancer; I will have to navigate the grief and fear that comes with that experience for the rest of my life. These things are part of the fabric of my being now, and these poems are my way of not just acknowledging that but surrendering to it as a fact of life.
MPT: Shifting focus from the collection to your experience as a poet, do you have any advice for writers?
JD: Don’t concern yourself with what other writers are doing or achieving. Stay focused on the work because, in the end, that’s what matters.
MPT: Before we conclude, I’d like to let you know all of us were destroyed by the line in “For the Body as Murder Hornets”: “Who among us hasn’t wanted / to kill the sweetest thing?”
JA’NET DANIELO: Thank you! It’s funny because that poem was almost cut from the manuscript. Originally, it was titled “To the Murder Hornets I Want to Say,” and even though it’s clearly in keeping with the body theme, it somehow felt out of place to me. It wasn’t until a friend suggested the title change that I finally felt like it belonged. Now I can’t imagine the book without it.
MAYDAY POETRY TEAM: Neither can we. Thank you for this evocatively transformative collection and conversation!
JA’NET DANIELO is the author of The Song of Our Disappearing, a winner of the Paper Nautilus 2020 Debut Series Chapbook Contest. A recipient of a Professional Artist Fellowship from Arts Council for Long Beach and the Telluride Institute’s Fischer Prize, her poems have appeared in Superstition Review, The Shore, GASHER, Mid-American Review, Radar Poetry, Gulf Stream, and elsewhere. Originally from Queens, NY, Ja’net teaches at Cerritos College and lives in Long Beach, CA, where she facilitates Word Women, a free, virtual poetry workshop and retreat series for women and gender non-binary writers. You can find her at jdanielo.com
This Body I Have Tried to Write cover art by TRINH MAI, a California-based visual artist who examines the refugee and immigrant experience, then and now. Her work pursues healing through storytelling by confronting the fear, injustice, and devastation that has harrowed our communities. Seeking hope within humanity’s consistent struggle in war and hardship, she has engaged survivors of war in creative projects through partnerships with academic and arts institutions, including Friends of Huế Foundation Children’s Shelter in Việt Nam, the Angkor Hospital for Children in Cambodia, and the International Rescue Committee. Mai is the recipient of awards from Gonzaga University’s Center for Global Engagement, and has had the privilege of serving as University of Washington Walker-Ames Fellow in 2019, Long Beach Professional Artist Fellow in 2021, and continues speaking about her art practice and engaging communities in creative storytelling, with the desire to help usher us into an enduring hope that will help ground us in a fractured world. Learn more about her work at trinhmai.com