Interview with Jill Khoury
CW: Ableism, oppression
Conducted by Emily Corwin
Emily Corwin: Rogue Agent is a journal of "embodied poetry and art," a journal that "inhabits the body" in all its viscera, and I wonder what fuels you as an editor. What are you seeking to curate in Rogue Agent?
Jill Khoury: At the time I started Rogue Agent, I noticed very few journals that specifically focused on the idea of celebrating marginalized identities. Two journals that did inspire me to do Rogue Agent were Lunch Ticket and MUZZLE. Additionally, in the classroom, on social media, at conferences—I heard the idea percolating: the body is a taboo subject, especially the marginalized body. Or, in [the fallacy of] our post-feminist, post-racial society, haven't we "moved beyond" needing to write about the body? I wanted to give an exclusive platform where poets and artists who worked on issues of identity (which I think is very much lived in the body) could show their work. I wanted to hear the various and myriad answers to the question "what is it like to live in your body?"
As well as this work being political, it is also personal. When I started Rogue Agent, I felt somewhat alone in submitting my own work focusing on disability and mental illness. Being so vulnerable on the page is a daunting prospect. By putting out a submissions call, I was reaching out to like-minded people to try and form a connection. I'm so proud of the work we've done in less than three years. And with the current US administration which continues to issue decrees and attempt to make policies to punish marginalized bodies, the work has only increased in importance. I'm so grateful to everyone who has the courage to work in this arena of the body, to place themselves front and center and say "I deserve to take up space. You will not erase me."
EC: Your first full-length collection, Suites for the Modern Dancer, was published last year through Sundress Publications. How was the experience of putting together this manuscript? What helped you shape the voice, order, and form of these poems?
JK: It was really challenging! I'm extremely grateful to my editor at Sundress, Erin Elizabeth Smith, for being so patient and helping me make good editorial choices. Suites has a complicated narrative with two story arcs and five characters. The poems vary quite a bit in style and form, from fairly straightforward narrative, to poems that are much more language driven and in a "lyric-experimental" style. I think the form of the poems varies so much because I'd been working on Suites since 2009, and was still writing poems for the book as late as 2016. That's seven years of my own writing evolution. I tried to match certain poem styles to certain characters (for instance the poems in the voice of the character Annie are often the more narrative ones). Erin helped me tell a difficult story in as straightforward a way as it could be told.
The voices in the poem are all fictional, but based (even if somewhat loosely) on my own experience 1) as a legally blind woman, existing in this liminal zone between functioning as sighted and functioning as blind 2) as a woman who has spent a long time in the medical-industrial complex, specifically in the mental health milieu, and the women I met there. I wanted to honor their experiences without appropriating their stories, so four of the characters are composites of women whom I crossed paths with, some of whom helped me survive.
EC: What resources do you find most helpful with regard to disability writing and poetics?
JK: Reading other work by poets and essayists with disabilities! When I first started to publish work related to my identity as a woman with multiple disabilities, the anthology Beauty Is A Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (edited by Sheila Black, Jennifer Bartlett, and Michael Northen), was like my spiritual book. I carried it everywhere. Sometimes I didn't even have to read from it to feel its power; just having it in my bag was enough. The book is so well-executed. Each poet introduces their work with a critical essay on disability and/or poetics. The history of disability poetry is represented as well as current boundary-pushing work. Even though I had already taken some disability studies courses when I was going for my MFA, I learned so much about my lineage as a disability poet from Beauty Is A Verb. Also, the magazine Wordgathering (edited by Michael Northen), which appears quarterly at www.wordgathering.com, has some great essays on disability poetics. The Split This Rock community focuses on all varieties of social justice poetry, including disability.
Lastly, I follow lots of people on Facebook and Instagram who write essays or blogs focusing on issues of disability.
EC: As a writer, what does your particular practice look like? What do you need to do your best work?
JK: This is the hardest question for me to answer because my practice is so sporadic lately. When I was taking a class with him, the poet and essayist Stephen Kuusisto said, "writing is a process that involves the whole body." And as my vision, mental health, and chronic pain conditions have changed, I've noticed this more and more. I would like to have a routine, a rhythm—to me it seems like the "professional" thing to do. This is another thing I learned in grad school: it's implied that the pros have an established routine on which to scaffold their writing and revision, and when my health was pretty steady I had that too. But lately circumstances have become more challenging.
Coincidentally, around the time I started Rogue Agent, I have also been forced to tend to my health as a major priority. Only in the past few months have I regained the ability to incorporate writing, submitting, and working on my second full-length manuscript back into my life routine. I had been getting really down on myself for not being as productive, but recently I wonder if this is internalized ableism. I need to be okay with the fluctuations caused by my health. It's a thing I need to accept, again and again, because it's hard not to feel guilty, like I'm not doing enough.
EC: What vision do you have for the disability community as well as the poetry community? What excites you about the power and potential of these networks?
JK: I would love love love to read more disability poetry that is intersectional. The queer disabled experience, the experiences of people of color with disabilities, for example. I know there are people out there writing it, and some journals already publishing it. I want even more space for them.
As far as excitement..... because of the current administration, like I mentioned before, it's really hard for me to feel "excitement." Mostly I just feel like we (the disability community, the poetry community, especially of marginalized poets) are just digging in and hanging on. We won't stop doing the work because we can't let Trump's ideologies win. But that is completely a projection of my own feeling-state. I'm sure plenty of people are excited. I feel like our power right now is "we will not go away. We will keep writing, keep risking."
EC: Lastly, what have you been reading, watching, eating, wearing? What are your current obsessions?
JK: I'm just going to stick with "reading," because I've been reading such good stuff lately! Recently I've started an interview series for Rogue Agent because I had drifted away from reading as voraciously, and I wanted to remedy this. So some of the books listed here are by authors we've interviewed or are thinking about soliciting for an interview, and some of them are books I've found while paying attention to what current work is being done and just marveling at the wealth of talent.
- Blood Sugar Canto, by Ire'ne Lara Silva
- Bone Confetti, Muriel Leung
- Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay
- i be, but i ain't, by Aziza Barnes
- In Full Velvet, Jenny Johnson
- On that one-way trip to Mars, by Marlena Chertock
- Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, by Sonya Huber
- The Feeder, Jennifer Jackson Berry
- We are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby
Work I'm looking forward to reading really soon:
- Crumb-sized, by Marlena Chertock
- Field Guide to Autobiography, by Melissa Eleftherion-Carr
- It's Just Nerves, by Kelly Davio
- Like a Beast, by Carly Joy Miller
- One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, by Scaachi Koul
- salt., Nayyirah Waheed
- Telepathologies, by Cortney Lamar Charleston
- The Twisted Mouth of the Tulip, Monica Rico
- Wasp Queen, by Claudia Cortese
JILL KHOURY is interested in the intersection of poetry, visual art, representations of gender, and disability. She is a Western Pennsylvania Writing Project fellow and teaches workshops focusing on writing the body. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University, and edits Rogue Agent, a journal of embodied poetry and art. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Copper Nickel, Bone Bouquet, Lunch Ticket, and diode. She has written two chapbooks—Borrowed Bodies (Pudding House, 2009) and Chance Operations (Paper Nautilus, 2016). Her debut full-length collection, Suites for the Modern Dancer, was released in 2016 from Sundress Publications. Find her at jillkhoury.com.