Poetry Centre

Episode 16: Maya C. Popa talks to Niall Munro

  • Maya C. Popa

    Maya C. Popa is an American poet, researcher, editor, and teacher who has published two pamphlets: The Bees Have Been Canceled in 2017, and You Always Wished the Animals Would Leave in 2018. Most recently, her first full-length collection, American Faith, was published by Sarabande Books in 2019. The book was the runner-up in the Kathryn A. Morton Prize judged by Ocean Vuong and the winner of the 2020 North American Book Award from the Poetry Society of Virginia. She is the recipient of awards from the Poetry Foundation, the Oxford Poetry Society, and Munster Literature Centre in Cork, Ireland, among others. Maya is the Poetry Reviews Editor at Publishers Weekly and an English teacher and director of the Creative Writing Program at the Nightingale-Bamford school in NYC, where she oversees visiting writers, workshops, and readings. She holds degrees from Oxford University, NYU, and Barnard College (‘11) and is currently pursuing her PhD on the role of wonder in poetry at Goldsmiths, University of London.

    As you’ll be able to tell from the recording, Niall Munro spoke with Maya in late May whilst the Covid-19 lockdown was still in place in New York City, where she lives. They talked about three of the poems from American Faith: ‘The Government Has Been Canceled’, ‘Meditation Having Felt and Forgotten’, and ‘Knockout Mouse Model’.

    American Faith is a compelling book, especially when we think about we think about how we live now, since it deals with our presence as human beings, what makes language powerful as a way of communicating experience, and what political poetry might look like. It is a book that engages with terror and loss - in the present, historically, and in personal histories - but it also asserts, often joyfully, the presence of the body and how we can see our way feelingly through the world by engaging the intellect, the imagination, and the distinctly human quality of empathy.

    You can read the poems that Maya discusses below and you can order a copy of American Faith direct from Sarabande Books or the Poetry Book Society, as well as from the usual retailers. You can also visit Maya’s own website and follow her on Twitter.

    Do tell us what you think of the podcast by e-mailing us or getting in touch via social media - we’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Thank you for listening!

    ‘The Government Has Been Canceled’, ‘Meditation Having Felt and Forgotten’, and ‘Knockout Mouse Model’ are © Maya C. Popa and reprinted with the permission of Sarabande Books from American Faith (Sarabande Books, 2019).


  • The Government Has Been Canceled


    and my friend has just dissected a body in medical school,

    of which we have not spoken, knowing there are privacies

    we must pretend are still intact.            The panda cam is off: people
                                                                              are distressed

    that someone will forget to feed the cub
    unless the live-feed’s breathing in the toolbar. I spend the afternoon

    dreaming a rebellion I could stage
                                         and still show up to my body the next morning,

                             life the way it was promised
    on sitcoms where everyone gets to be alive for twenty minutes
                not worrying about the debt ceiling or health insurance.

    My friend makes the first of many incisions
    into that cold familiar otherness.

    I turn to obituaries for proof
    that people still matter to one another
                in towns where stores bear the names of the deceased.

                           Today the Library of Congress is canceled
    which makes it difficult to do my job,
    checking dates of publications and answering questions
                such as are preachers and reverends interchangeable in most faiths.

    From this description, it is impossible to say what I do.

                                         I go home burdened & amplified by knowledge,
                            live in the world this information refers to—
               there is no better, other way to do this.

    The government is canceled
    but not the body: not the bodies furloughed
                                       not the bodies waiting

                                                    for my friend to break them tenderly.


    Meditation Having Felt and Forgotten

         after Robert Haas

    All the new thinking is about preempting feeling.
    In this way, it is incompatible with all the old thinking
    but easier to stomach.
    How birds land on water without closing their eyes
    reminds me how I sought you with an appetite
    more pressing than fear. And the year our passion took—
    how flat to call it lust, how wrong to call its mimicry love,
    when little love was made with which to mistake it. 

    All the new thinking is about straightening the facts.
    Your hands disappeared, water drying over weeks.
    I learned that pain’s the lack of place to point to.
    Would have made the trade: me for you, us for anything.
    Would have said anything over and over, blackberry,
    dance party, silverfish like Typhon imitating voices.
    What an unfair tax on time desire is,
    a year of spell work to break that staring contest. 

    All the new thinking is about drugging up
    to let go of the mark desire leaves on the body.
    The new thinking’s about saying goodbye to the body
    flamed into a maddening nothing. You didn’t even die—
    was that the problem? Hardly to do with her
    or with him. Sometimes I set aside the afternoon
    to relive what feels like caricature: walks under
    the George Washington Bridge, neither of us knowing 

    to enjoy the company. Time’s passed, yes,
    left me a diamond of bitterness. I see the water brace
    itself for my reflection, circle the stitch where absence
    dropped its anchor—but I’m alive and capable
    of meditation. Walking through chokecherry trees,
    language seems accomplice to grieving; everything
    dissolves to make words possible. Joy sours,
    brevity distends, silence tows its dragline to the finish. 

    Poem, close your palm: you ask nothing in return.
    Think how far you’ve come through afternoons and evenings
    when loss seemed to whistle from the manholes,
    your hands staining everything with blackberry blood.


    Knockout Mouse Model


         A knockout mouse is a genetically engineered mouse in which researchers have
         inactivated, or "knocked out," an existing gene.


    Its body and blood are teaching tools: islands of the genome’s archipelago
    disabled, the conditioned chaos observed. Most won’t grow past the
    embryo, designed for dissection, microscope eyes. A scientist spends his
    lunch hour contemplating the concealed sides of its origami heart.

    How to say that suffering should yield something? How to say trespass,
    hope, progress stowed in the lax body, in one utterance?

    Terror is imagining the human body intruded upon in this way, its
    furniture rearranged & forced to breed children. Someone coming in
    the night with helix scissors, clipping your eye color, turning off your
    hearing, switching out your liver for a third kidney, all of it happening
    slowly, like an old movie reel.

    I feel my cells retreat into my fingers, ready to defend their information.

    In a gentler, cartoonier universe, the mice would be anthropomorphically
    attractive: knockouts, mice who model. They’d drink on the house
    wherever they went, twirling their tails flirtatiously.

    Tonight, the unstudied, parasitic mice are having the night of their lives,
    scaring couples on stoops, freeloading meals from granite floors. Deli cats
    hear them pacing behind walls. The excitement of their tiny footsteps
    is excruciating.

    An off duty scientist is breeding something for fun, to see what happens
    if—what happens? Nature’s mice are breaking & entering, slipping
    under doors with all they need to survive.


    by Maya C. Popa