The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Shara Lessley about her new collection The Explosive Expert’s Wife, the task of humanizing those we might dismiss as monsters, exoticizing Jordan, and writing toward hope.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So to get to the book, I’m interested a little in the titles that echo through the work. That construction of “the ___’s wife.” Can you talk a little about why you chose that form?
Shara Lessley: Confessional poet says: I wanted to call the book “Domestic Intelligence” but worried that it wasn’t sexy enough. I do like the ambiguity of “The Explosive Expert’s Wife”—as terrorist and post-blast investigator, however. And, how the title points to the women who live real lives behind those “experts.”
Brian S: They’re women who would be ignored most of the time, right?
Shara Lessley: Absolutely. Women (or partners, family members, siblings, children) with complex feelings and emotional lives. People who are often defined by other players’ lives. In fact, you published “The Accused Terrorist’s Wife” very early as the manuscript came into shape.
Brian S: I was just going to mention that poem! (Not for any self-serving reason, I promise).
Shara Lessley: Yes. Thank you for believing in it!
Brian S: Because it’s easy in a moment like that, when talking about an accused terrorist, to imagine them as a loner or to assume that they’re a monster of some sort. I think it’s a psychological defense—if we acknowledge that he had a life, people he cared about, it’s harder to dehumanize him.
Shara Lessley: Initially, I thought about the people around the terrorist—their humanity. That was the easier task for me as a writer. It’s not difficult for me to find the humanity in others. Harder as a poet is writing the monstrosity of the self (“The Ugly American,” for example).
Brian S: It’s easier to kill someone we don’t think of as human, after all, whether we’re talking about people on the battlefield or people on death row.
Shara Lessley: Today I was reading The Red Parts, how Maggie Nelson protested (in the middle of a blizzard!) the execution of a prisoner whose crime resembled that of the murder of her aunt. We have to find what’s human.
Brian S: I don’t know that poem. I’ll have to look it up.
Shara Lessley: It’s a memoir. She also wrote a book of poetry on the subject, Jane: A Murder. But my book began with the same impulse, minus the blizzard.
Brian S: Right. Personally, I’m opposed to the death penalty in all cases. But I look at the case of the Parkland shooter, think about the fact that my mother-in-law was in the building and could have easily been one of his victims, and I can’t bring myself to be particularly upset if he’s executed. And that’s an ugly thing to admit to myself, that my principles are malleable that way.
Shara Lessley: And of trying to reframe the narrative of groups of people who have been demonized.
I understand. And I know that we’re all tested in different ways when confronted in practice versus theory.
Brian S: The way you end that poem: “Please / understand this isn’t metaphor: when // I dropped the rock, I had blood on my hand.”
Shara Lessley: I tried many times to write “The Ugly American”—I was too angry at first, too self-aware, too protective. But I think as poets, we have to turn the camera on ourselves even if it’s difficult. We can’t be the heroes of our writing. I don’t want to be the “good guy” or the victim. It’s too easy. It doesn’t move the conversation forward.
Brian S: Right. And I don’t want to put other people in the position of feeling like I want them to absolve me of something.
Shara Lessley: Commonplace [the podcast] is terrific. You mention absolution—this came up in the Kaveh Akbar episode. I think Kaveh makes an important point. “The Ugly American” (written well before I listened to the conversation with Rachel Zucker) doesn’t ask for forgiveness. It doesn’t burden the reader with that… I hope, instead, that it emphasizes how dangerous it is to convince ourselves that we are above prejudice. That’s the risk. And it’s easy (too easy) to do. Because we’re conditioned into it. Gently. Easily. Quietly. Overnight—like those mushrooms Plath so convincingly describes.
Brian S: Right. Kaveh mentioned once the example of the white writer talking about some incident where another person did something racist and they didn’t step in and how horrible they feel about it, and I’ll admit, in my own drafts, I’ve done that. But it’s garbage, because what it’s doing is trying to pretend like that’s the worst thing the speaker has ever done as racist stuff goes, and that’s pretty unlikely. And then it begs the other people in the room (the readers) to forgive us this trespass, which is an unfair burden for them to bear.
Shara Lessley: Sure. And others like Kate Daniel’s “War Photograph” that implicate the reader in a different way.
Brian S: I also like the way you don’t spare others who are close to you, like in “They Ask Me To Send.” Can you talk some about how that poem evolved?
Shara Lessley: In some ways, it came out of my own limitations. The poem takes stock of the many care packages I shipped from Jordan (our home for three years). The boxes were filled with good intention, but failed to convey a life lived. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t send what makes Amman so magical—the generosity of its people, the culture, the challenges, and contradictions.
And there’s also the expectations of people back home—the limited view of the region. Folks wanted pictures of me on a camel. Dead Sea salts. All of this, of course, underscores Orientalism. Our limited view of the region, which is presented in the media as either dangerous, exotic, or comic.
Brian S: There’s also that subtext of “I’m not going to help you make an ass of yourself,” in the father’s friend who wants a dishdasha or the mother’s friend who wants proof you’re not going to give birth in a cave.
Shara Lessley: Yes. And yet, let me tell you, writing the book helped me realize that it’s very easy to recognize the loud ass (aka: dishdasha request for bbqs), whereas seeing the ways in which we’ve all internalized such ideas as Americans—the subtleties—is tougher (ie, “The Ugly American”). I hope this becomes clear in the last section of the book, which includes several poems on the history of domestic terrorism in the States—bombings by mainly white men.
I will say that my decision to give birth overseas—twice!—was met with more hostility and passive aggressive comments than I ever could have imagined. And, also, it was the best healthcare I’ve ever received.
Brian S: I think it does. Like “Found Poem: No Joke” is a good place to start with that, with all the footnotes there to corroborate the examples you reference.
Shara Lessley: “Found Poem: No Joke” still frightens me. It definitely walks a line.
Brian S: There’s a direct line from the “rah rah we’re number one” rhetoric I was raised with to that attitude. I think large swathes of the US—and this crosses class and political positions—don’t believe the statistics which show the US is near the bottom of the list of countries when it comes to healthcare outcomes.
I feel like someone could do a similar, even longer poem about mass shootings.
Shara Lessley: But I hope that people read “No Joke” with “In Jordan’s Northernmost Province”—the opening poem dedicated to the all-female de-mining crew. Do you know that wonderful Szymborska poem that starts “After every war / someone has to clean up”?
Brian S: I do. “The End and the Beginning.”
Shara Lessley: Here, again, are the women on their knees in fields along the Syrian border, digging up dragon’s teeth (small bombs meant to maim), defying our expectations, doing the tough work that must be done.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
Shara Lessley: Yes! The End and the Beginning. The End is the Beginning. The Beginning, the End, and so on.
Brian S: There’s a hopefulness there that I distrust a little even as I hope against all my inner cynicism that it works out.
Shara Lessley: I’d like to try to write hope. One day, maybe.
Brian S: Like, that Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Well maybe, but as a friend of mine adds, “only if there are people jumping up and down on it.”
Shara Lessley: Actually, I take that back. There’s a poem in the book—“These Days”—about the mothers and their children in the park across the street from out apartment building in Amman. I read it recently at a reading for the first time. That poem makes me hopeful. Because that moment made/makes me hopeful. And happy. Happy still. I don’t know how the poem holds up. But the moment holds up for me. Even after many years,
Brian S: The way your poem ends is definitely hopeful, between the boy “making a windmill of his body” and then your son clapping and finally the other mother “laughing so hard she could almost weep.” Yes, there’s hope there and it’s not false hope either. I have to believe that the world can improve even if it doesn’t often give us reason for that.
Has your time in England had a similar effect on you as Jordan did?
Shara Lessley: I don’t think so. Time will tell, I suppose. But I had an immediate reaction to living in Amman. It was home for me. Even though I had no right to claim it, to love it as I did, Jordan was home. I often say that I will grieve it the rest of my life.
Brian S: Any plans to go back?
Shara Lessley: I’d like to go back. Frankly, I’m also afraid to return—I know the moment is gone, that the city moves forward. I’m writing essays about our time in country, so it would help to visit.
Brian S: Okay, the hour is almost up, so last question. Who are you reading right now? Anything new we should have an eye out for?
Shara Lessley: Ooph! Yes! Books, my favorite subject! What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth by Rigoberto González, Dunya Mikhail‘s The Beekeeper. I loved Leila Chatti‘s Tunsiya-Amerikiya, which reads more like a full-length collection than a chapbook. I think Philip Metres’s essays at LitHub have been incredible, as are his poetry collections (have you read Sand Opera?). I guess I should also add The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice, an anthology of original essays I recently edited with Bruce Snider. Despite the obvious bias, I’m just overwhelmed by how much I’ve learned from that collection!
Thanks so much for having me, Brian. I really appreciate it. And thanks to all the readers in the club!
Brian S: No, thank you for this terrific book, and for dropping it on me when you did. Take care, and I’ll talk with you soon.