Bodies of Water: A Conversation Between essa may Ranapiri and Eliana Gray
Poets essa may ranapiri and Eliana Gray discuss the body in their writing, and writing as a way of understanding and healing trauma.
we take the body out
of the pool once it has absorbed all
the water it can
we rinse our hands before we touch the dead
plastic covering and
pull it over taught like
glad wrap for something we will never
to touch something is to make it less holy
to make ourselves into a rippling
thing we spill
over ourselves like a river of holy water like an
underrated fireworks display
popping flash behind the eyes that haunts us
with words like
gender like queer like we’re never
what was that? I couldn’t hear you over the
sound of your body
horns blowing in the digital fuzz in the
in the pool we lay ourselves in to wake
up we pull ourselves out of the body once
we’ve absorbed all the body we can
Ellie: This is starting off very personally but, ever since I read your book, every time I have sex, the title of your poem ‘us as meat hitting meat’, cycles through my head. The dissociation of a body into literal meat (which it is already, BUT) is one of my favourites, held close to my heart, but I’ve only ever used it conversationally. Which is maybe why the formalisation of this idea in your poem is so stuck with me. The body is everywhere in your book, but barely ever as a body. Body parts are abstracted into, “to that husk / to that meat alien…a squat shell made of skin”. Was this a conscious decision made to enrich concepts within the work, or did it naturally litter itself because bodies are the weirdest and disassociation is a very real thing?
essa: I think it comes from having a strange relationship with sex. Christianity told me sex was wrong and my body said my dick was wrong and so it created this huge sense of disconnection, especially when I was writing about it. Though I would hope it doesn’t come across as negative. I’m not sure how intentional it was. My body is in the words maybe more than my body is in the world but it doesn’t necessarily look like the traditional conception of a body; it can be the structure and shape of a poem, the grammar as the lungs or the brain pulsing. It can be the land and the water. The body is a knot or the body is a number. The body is in the tree that makes the paper.
Coming back to the “us as meat hitting meat” line, I think I was obsessed with this idea of our bodies as food: one day for the ground – the earth, the whenua will take us.
I want to ask something about the first line of your book, “we only need the word / until we know how to say it”. This reads to me like we only need poetry when we don’t know how to talk about it in traditional registers, when the body isn’t playing ball. Do you feel physically connected to your body when you’re writing?
Ellie: I never realised, but you're completely correct about that line! I thought I was talking about my book, writing about trauma specifically, but this is how I feel about poetry as a macrocosm too. A toolbox for building new languages and ways of speaking that allow us to talk about things we might not otherwise.
I never would have started talking about my trauma unless I was able to veil it in ten thousand metaphors. I think this is because of how we're taught to talk about (or rather, not talk about) it. It’s supposed to be this BIG BAD SECRET, so it feels natural to me to translate those experiences into forms that can obscure the situation. This use of language has been integral to my healing journey. I am able to talk about my trauma so much more explicitly now (big credit to years of therapy also), not only in my life, but also in my poetry. Now I’m using language devices to illuminate certain aspects of experiences and/or make the experience more universally relatable, rather than to protect myself from being too vulnerable or exposed.
“Sexual trauma and gender identity have given me a ~complex~ relationship with my body. Poetry has been a refuge to explore it.”
Sexual trauma and gender identity have given me a ~complex~ relationship with my body. Poetry has been a refuge to explore it. Why I hate it, why I love it, why it hurts, why I hurt it, why I need it. The languages of poetry are elastic enough to wrap around experiences of trauma and dissociation. To give space within hyper-personal writing for a more universally accessible narrative.
One of the reasons the body features so heavily in my work is because I love the grossness and repulsive connotations that have been attached to certain ways of talking about bodies. Poetry is one of the places where I can make my body as gross as I want. I can do anything to my body in a poem. I can let myself “Flay the cut of my skin against the grain / Stretch my gums across my bones as a smile / One hand dipped bloody / Digging in my wounds”. This is the only time I imagine my body when I’m writing, when I’m visualising doing grotesque things to it. Which I guess, like everything in my life, is about me having control. It feels good, to have control over my body, no matter what I do to it. I think, in this way, I’ve disassociated myself from my body during the writing process, so my body doesn’t really ‘feel’ like anything in the moment because I’ve put it completely on the page. My body doesn’t exist in my body when I’m writing, it only exists on the page. I think this is a very good protective mechanism when writing about traumatic experiences. It allows me to revisit and reclaim experiences without re traumatising myself.
Your poem ‘Con-ception’ describes really well the emotional intersections of pain, the body, disassociation, familial and societal expectation, sex and intimacy. What was it like writing about a body that wasn't your own? “Her throat tightens the stomach unhinges itself and throws. She spews into the sink.” Did you have different considerations in mind when you wrote it, did you have to think about it differently afterwards? Or is it so personal that none of that consciously applies?
essa: I don’t know if I really wrote a body that wasn’t my own. I don’t know if I can imagine myself out of this. Though it is a poem where I’m very worried about how I’m telling someone else’s story. The poem is explicitly for my mother. It is about her. That was probably the hardest poem I’ve ever written. It took me six months to write and formatting it for the book was fucking difficult as I had written it to fit on A4 pages (note: never ever write on A4 unless you know it will be published on A4 lol). Tracking each week of growth became like a slog and I almost hated the idea of having the baby birthed. I had found information online about the growth of a child in the womb, so to write more of the poem I had to keep returning to this page on the internet; one of those tethers that is super important for a piece but becomes sapping of the creative flow, I guess, especially when so many assumptions about gender are made in that kind of text. But at its heart it’s about being a body, a body that has grown from another’s body – about that estrangement and connection.
We both touch on thoughts of not wanting to be here – my poem ‘Kaimais’ and your poem ‘I remember the taste of it’. The narrator of your poem asks their therapist “…what it’s like being able to swim. / How it feels to go into the water / without it filling your lungs.” There are no question marks. Can you talk about this?
Ellie: It’s funny, to me, this question, because I have always felt a huge sense of imposter syndrome for not being a very ‘technical’ or ‘trained’ poet. So, decisions about punctuation and deeper meaning make me feel like a fraud, but then I realised the reason I gravitate towards poetry is because of the meaning you inherently imbue into things through your (my) subconscious. So, two-part answer. When I wrote the poem, I literally did not think about it. Now, I realise, I didn’t put question marks there because it’s not really a question. It’s a demand. Tell me, tell me why everyone else seems to be able to swim and all I do is choke.
“I feel like an imposter even when people see me as who I’m trying to be seen as. I’m like, “Oh I’m not really this – I’m something else, I’m lying to your face.””
essa: There are so many times that I do something in a poem thoughtlessly but like the brain knows what is up. You talk about imposter syndrome and this is something I feel like I deal with a lot less in writing than I do with gender. Like when people see me as a man, there is this feeling of annoyance because I’m not and the same when people see me as a woman – though it’s a bit different there. I feel like an imposter even when people see me as who I’m trying to be seen as. I’m like, “Oh I’m not really this – I’m something else, I’m lying to your face.” I slip away from myself constantly. These lines really speak to me on this: “I never knew how I came to hold / my hands so tight / How I learned to step into this body every morning”. Is there anything that anchors you to your gender or even lack of gender?
Ellie: Oh yikes! I mean – yes and no, but mostly no… I don’t necessarily feel like I have a gender. I think this gives me a pretty chilled-out level of gender disassociation because, however people gender me, I’m mostly fine with it. Part of me is pretty sure that this is a coping mechanism to deal with the puritanical hell of New Zealand, but also, I feel excited about being gendered in many ways. I do get most excited when people gender me as a cis-man or not as a cis-woman, which is more telling than my opening sentence of this paragraph would like.
I used to feel like the only thing that anchored me to my gender (when I still thought my gender had to be a cis-woman) was my experiences of sexual violence (which I experienced as very gendered and thought of in a binary framework). Now, I don’t attach my gender to those experiences. I think, perhaps, that was the last anchor and now, unintentionally, through writing the book, and years of therapy, I’ve unmoored myself into the genderless abyss.
“ I wonder a lot about what gender looked like once. Was there always some seed of sex binary in Ranginui and Papatūānuku?"
essa: I find the idea of a genderless abyss beautiful, it gets me thinking about Te Kore, or the space of potential before there was even the darkness. I wonder a lot about what gender looked like once. Was there always some seed of sex binary in Ranginui and Papatūānuku? Though we come from the in-between don’t we?
Ellie: We are the in-between, although that still places us in a linear space but, more so than that, we create the in-between. We create the language we need for situations that people don’t think exist. I’m speaking from a Western framework here, as there have always been many understandings of gender from Indigenous viewpoints. This is something I love about your work, how you gather the threads of Te Ao Māori, different understandings of gender, language and identity.
And now, the potentially unanswerable question: how difficult was it to try and articulate the many facets of identity you inhabit, and was it a conscious choice to have that be a cohesion throughout the work or was it an inevitability of writing about yourself?
essa: I think I realised I was writing about the self pretty early on – and the book would be this attempt at challenging and discovering who I was at that time. Putting it on paper to find some sense of cohesion, however, trying to do this just showed me how little cohesion identities have in general, and if you reach a place where you can be happy with who you are I think that is way fucking better than trying to fit yourself into a box.
Ellie: Our books end very differently but also startlingly similarly in their resignation. Your ‘pen shatters and you have no paper left’. You’ve written all you can. I tell the reader to, “close your eyes… until you’ve learned to hurt”, because I’ve also written all I can.
I feel this resignation is an accurate representation of how I feel about the book, writing about and recovering from trauma, and life in general. We both undertake these long explorations about pain and life, and end up with a not entirely hopeful outlook. Do you agree and is that an accurate portrayal of the experience and how you feel about your life now?
essa: I think I end up at a place that might not seem nice but I think there is hope there. Breaks don’t mean we can’t recover; sometimes things break so we can start anew, which I feel resonates with your book as a whole. I think there is also a great relief in having let go of the need to know what I am. With that in mind, I want to write about something different now. I’m not sure how different, but these very explicit questions of gender aren’t going to be at the forefront of the text anymore. I’m tired of the me I was.
Ellie: I feel so deeply that same sense of wanting to leave things on the shelf. I do not want to write about trauma in the same way that I did. I don’t need to, I’ve done it. I’ve done, for now, my writing about physical self-harm, immediate trauma responses and the guts of a first-time therapy process. I think to revisit things is only helpful for so long, and now I am tired. I also think it’s a very natural process. I don’t have to consciously try to not write about trauma in that way anymore, I simply don’t write it because that’s no longer where I am. I can now write about what happens after, and everything else besides. I guess that’s kind of hopeful.
essa may ranapiri
Eager to Break (Girls On Key Press)