There Is No Break: A Conversation with Nicole Homer
Nicole Homer’s debut poetry collection, Pecking Order (Write Bloody Publishing), confronts silences around issues of motherhood, colorism, and multiracial families. While her work demands the space to be heard, the strength of these poems often lies in their vulnerability. By listening in to such intimate reflections, Homer’s readers experience the relentless ways in which identities are affected by social constructions, revealing both costs and gains.
Pecking Order immerses the reader into its world with its piercingly sharp lines and smart, witty commentary.
Homer’s writing has been nominated for Best of the Net and has appeared in Muzzle, The Offing, FreezeRay Poetry, Cease Cows, Yellow Chair Review, and elsewhere. She is an editor and regular contributor at Black Nerd Problems. She currently lives in New Jersey, where she teaches.
The Rumpus: Pecking Order centers on motherhood; lyrical poems like “Hunger” and “Motherhood” define it by both praising and questioning the body, whereas a poem like “I Wish I Was More Mothers” uses a more humorous voice to portray the complications and paradoxical feelings surrounding motherhood. Can you speak to your approach in writing this collection around such a theme?
Nicole Homer: Motherhood is so fraught. For me, and I think I’m not alone, it is to be in a constant state of conflict and calculation. It is joyful, but joy costs. It is exhaustion, but then the unexpected rewards materialize. I wanted to write my experience from as many different angles as I could. For example, “Hunger” addresses the ever-present breastfeeding conversation. A conversation I was happily unaware of before kids. There is so much weight attached to this act. There was pressure from society, from well-meaning friends, from Internet strangers, and–this surprised me—from myself. But there was also a silence around it. I had no idea that a nipple could crack and bleed. No one had told me. So much of motherhood for me has been learning all of these things that it seems someone should have told me. I wanted—I want—to tell those things, to say out loud what motherhood is to me when it is not a carefully curated experience.
Rumpus: The poems on family also examine how the personal sphere of domestic life becomes less private due to America’s views on race. Poems range from strangers asking the mother of biracial children if she is the nanny to friends commenting on the beauty of the lighter-skinned children. Were there challenges, or maybe even pleasures, in writing about such personal intersections?
Homer: The challenge is that these are real experiences with real people: people I know; people I care about; people I see regularly. I want to take care of some of these people, but still I need to take care of myself, of my children. So how do I balance that? The first drafts of those kinds of poems were most often angry because it is an act of violence to approach a stranger and demand intimate information about the composition of their family. And it happens regularly. So I had a deep well of anger to draw from but, because of my disposition, I was as often moved to laughter in the face of that kind of absurdity that the second and third and eighth drafts found the humor even if it was small or biting or both. So, yes, it was both challenging and pleasurable, in turn.
Rumpus: A poem showing absurdity through humor is “The Woman Who Is Not the Nanny Answers at the Grocery Store Concerning the Evidently Mismatched Children In and Around Her Cart. ” Are the speaker’s answers replies you or others have wished you could say when such strangers demand intimate information?
Homer: It’s a mix. It really depends on how many microaggressions I’ve accumulated that day. I have said, “They’re all mine. Every kid in the store is mine.” I haven’t joked about having murdered someone; there are things I cannot joke about with white strangers without putting myself in danger. I have asked strangers “Why?,” as in, “Why are you asking me if these are my children?” There is a level of entitlement to black bodies embedded in that question that I cannot fathom. I try. I have tried to imagine what it must be like to think that a stranger owes me information about themselves and I cannot. And yet, this is a situation I have encountered numerous times. “Are they all yours?” “Are they adopted?” “Are you their real mom?” Sometimes I’m patient. Sometimes, though, it’s a day wherein someone has touched my hair without permission. Or it’s a day when another black person was killed. Or another white person was acquitted of such a killing. Or 45’s complicity in overt racism has manifested into yet another rant by a mediocre white man about who should be in this country, what they should look like, and what god they should worship. I want to be patient, but I’m not always—patient or graceful—in my responses.
Rumpus: The collection moves back and forth between different perspectives. Some provide dialogue or lack thereof as in “The Grandmother Says [The Mother Thinks],” another listens in on mothers giving advice to biracial children in 1859, 1963, then 2017. The collection also has the children speak, a sister reminisces, a father use direct address. Did most of these poems start in these specific forms or did decisions regarding point of view emerge when crafting the collection?
Homer: It definitely emerged. There is so much unspoken about race within families that I found myself staring in disgust at drafts that, on some level, pretended that fact wasn’t true; that’s how “The Grandmother Says [The Mother Thinks],” came about. What is happening in these silences within families—between people—who otherwise are forthcoming? These are the people I trust to tell me if my hair looks hideous or if I have spinach in my teeth or if I’m about to make the absolute worst of decision, but because of how race is constructed, because of how motherhood is constructed, we don’t say so much. Part of it is me wanting to finally unpack that silence and some, like the mothers giving advice throughout the generations, is me forcing myself to look at how history has enabled me to make the choices I’ve made and to be able to offer to my children the options that they now have. And then the morbid mother in me asks: What do they think about these so-called choices? About the dolls I buy them, about the strangers in the supermarket who make mommy mad. And so I imagined a child’s voice. I imagine, too, that one day in the future, I’ll have to answer for that to them whose voices I fabricated and that seems only fair and in keeping in line with what I know of motherhood.
Rumpus: Such silence also emerges when discussing, or not discussing, interracial relationships. In one poem, the speaker calls her partner or boyfriend “white boy” when he wasn’t around. The poem ends on the lines: “I am sorry. I did it more than once./ I am sorry. I meant it every time.” Could you speak further on this poem’s take on what is unspoken about race in families?
Homer: Love cannot be blind. Love and relationships do not exist in a magical plane where the inhabitants of the relationship are able to transcend the current descent into chaos that we call reality. I believe there is a chasm between partners in interracial relationships (where one of the parties is white) caused by the drastically different ways in which they navigate the world—and the way the world responds to them. To ignore or pretend it has no impact is foolhardy. That poem addresses that idea: what language do we use to describe a person who loves us or who we love but whom will always occupy a separate space? How does that language—what we name that person—connect us to those who do occupy the same space as us? How does it distance us from the object? Is that distance necessary?
Rumpus: So many lines hit readers in powerful ways, as lines are often direct, demanding attention. The line “I don’t wear makeup. I feel like it means I am going to war” really resonated with me specifically when reading “The Colorist,” for example. Did you feel this way growing up about constructed views of femininity and standards of beauty?
Homer: I didn’t. Not exactly. I knew, because people made it clear, that my siblings and I were not like either of our parents. But I didn’t understand even remotely the implications of that. I didn’t have the word colorism; I had words like “good hair” and “light-skinned,” and I did not then understand the currency of those words. I’ve never worn makeup regularly. I always knew that that wasn’t for me, but I didn’t realize how that choice and people’s response to it was in so many ways a manifestation of my own privilege; my mother who has darker skin than me would be received differently if she chose to stop wearing makeup. So, yes, I was a tomboy. Yes, I’m mostly on the masculine side of femininity, but that cannot be separated from race if I’m being honest. I did not always know that.
Rumpus: The poems in the book rely heavily on long lines, most of them appearing as if they are prose. Did these forms begin organically, or did you rework them into these structures specifically for the collection?
Homer: I gravitated to this form while writing “How I Became a Mother Contemplating Loss” in a workshop. Other poems, like “The Paper Trail” started off much more traditionally; that poem is a sestina, but made more sense as a chunk of text. Part of me doesn’t want the reader to come up for air; that is what being black is like, what being a mother is like, what being a woman is like: there is no break. The poems began to reflect that in structure. When I read them out loud, I want, on some level, to bombard the reader with the speaker’s experience. There are some things that must be unrelenting in order to be understood.
Rumpus: The book makes references to pop culture, The Color Purple, The Walking Dead—another poem is titled “Things I Want to Say to Rae Dawn Chong.” How has the media’s portrayal of race and gender shaped you or this collection?
Homer: The importance of representation in the media cannot be overstated. It, in the case movies and television, starts by showing you what you can or can’t be. It’s insidious and unrelenting and before you know it, you have an outline of what you are expected to be. There is almost not enough vigilance in the world to guard against it. The heroes are white. The lead female is white and, if not feminine, then enough of a damsel to satisfy her role as the binary opposite of the male lead. Everyone is heterosexual and cisgendered. While it’s dangerous that these are the messages that I got, what was more dangerous was that these were the messages everyone got, so who was there to challenge it? The unlearning is an ongoing and lifelong process. It’s messy; that’s how it’s shaped this collection: the pure messiness of trying to be honest about the ways in which this world got me fucked up.
Rumpus: What are some current shows or movies you are excited about today in terms of representation?
Homer: I’m a fan of The Walking Dead, even though I’m also a very vocal critic. For several seasons, a lot of the heavy lifting has been done by female characters of color: Michonne, Sasha, and Rosita. These women show up for each other and do the emotional labor that no one else will. As an extension, I’m excited about the newest installment of the Star Trek television series, which will focus on a woman of color who will report to a WoC captain. I’m extremely excited about Chewing Gum, in which Michaela Cole holds nothing back in her examination of racism and colorism.