Rosebud Ben-Oni is talking with me about quantum mechanics, her face so filled with passionate curiosity, she is glowing on my computer screen. Her cadence is quick and she moves on to the subject of language without taking a breath. For every one of my questions she answers, she creates ten more.
“What’s it like to live in your head?” I ask her. “You’re just… firing all the time!”
She smiles and shrugs. “Yeah.”
Ben-Oni’s remarkable propensity to question everything has colored her life and work. Born to a Mexican-American mother who converted to Judaism after meeting Rosebud’s Jewish father, Ben-Oni grew up in South Texas and attended Hebrew school in the conservative, predominantly Christian and Catholic Southwest. Enduring systematic ostracization from a young age, Rosebud grew up escaping into books, K-pop, and science, counting the days until she could leave. This complicated incongruence is something that Ben-Oni has never forgotten.
“To be perfectly honest,” Ben-Oni says during our interview, “I didn’t really fit in completely anywhere.”
This might help explain the otherworldliness of Ben-Oni’s poetry, which sings of the secret, complicated places in every human heart. Her new book, turn around, BRXGHT XYXS (Get Fresh Books, 2019) is a stunning coming-of-age collection, heavily influenced by K-pop culture and New York City. Themes of disenfranchisement, rejection, rebellion, and power struggles prevail, but Ben-Oni’s musicality radiates with light and hope, and conveys the tender influence of her parents, both of whom supported Rosebud’s creative, inquisitive art.
Ben-Oni attended New York University, and immersed herself in creative writing. She won two major awards while at NYU: the Seth Barkas Prize for Best Short Story, and the Thomas Wolfe/Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Best Poetry Collection. Later, Ben-Oni did post-graduate research at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar, and later she received an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she was the Rackham Merit Fellow. Her last collection of poetry, Solecism (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013), is a celebration of language and a cultural identity without borders.
At the time of our interview, Ben-Oni had just won the 2019 Alice James Award for Poetry for her manuscript, If This Is the Age We End Discovery—a collection about string theory and quantum physics—scheduled for publication in April of 2021. We spoke recently about X, Y, and Z.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on the book! turn around, BRXGHT XYXS is stunning. You have a unique voice, a unique music in your poetry, and important themes with a social justice component.
Rosebud Ben-Oni: Thank you.
Rumpus: The book is published by Get Fresh Books, a house that is doing great things right now. What was it like working with them?
Ben-Oni: Well, it was amazing! Working with Roberto (Get Fresh Books founder and president, Roberto Carlos Garcia) is amazing. He is one of the most supportive publishers on the face of the earth. He’s done a lot for the book and he’s really championed it and I owe him a lot for that. So, I’m very excited.
Rumpus: Why did you spell turn around, BRXGHT XYXS the way you did?
Ben-Oni: Well, the title refers to something—it was during a very turbulent time, when I was younger, after my mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer. The doctor, at the time told her, “We’ll just watch it. It hasn’t progressed that far.” But my father said, “No, I think she should have the operation and it should be taken out.” So, the surgeons went in and found that the cancer had spread. If they hadn’t done this surgery, my mother would have died.
After surgery, my mother started chemo and radiation therapy. One night I went running to my parents’ room—I knew I wasn’t supposed to go to her because my mother’s incision was not completely healed—and I crawled into bed with her. She was facing me and I was facing her, and there was this storm. I felt something behind me. I put my hand out, and something touched my hand and pushed it away. I remember turning around—I was feeling very brave—and all I saw were these really incandescent bright eyes. I turned back, immediately, to my mother, and she had a look of shock on her face. They stayed with me, and I called them “the bright eyes.” My mother now says maybe we were both dreaming, but I know we couldn’t have had the same dream at the same time.
For the book title, I took out the “I” and put in an “X” for the unknown, and also for the erasure of the first person, because I don’t really know what it is. I took the title from the Bonnie Tyler song, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
Rumpus: The lyrics from “Total Eclipse of the Heart” show up throughout the book.
Ben-Oni: Yes, because that was my mother’s favorite song. There’s something very otherworldly and supernatural about the video and the song. I’ll never forget that turning point in my childhood, when I knew my mother was going to live. After that, she beat cancer three times. She’s still alive. It’s a really strange phenomenon that I haven’t been able to understand.
Rumpus: Why did you decide to use this song as a through line?
Ben-Oni: Well, part of me thinks that I’m one of those poets who just is terrible at putting collections together. [Both laugh] I’m one of those poets who just wants to write poems.
On the other hand, those small snippets are based on my family. I wanted to give those small moments their own space, and maybe a little room to breathe. I wanted to show how my family, no matter where I have been geographically, or where I was in my career, or where I was as a human being, I will never forget them. They always supported me and they never gave up on me. They have always been with me. I might start crying… [Pauses]
When I lost my oldest uncle, the one for whom [one of the poems in the book] “l u z” is written, when he died, part of the Rio Grande Valley, he took it with him. And I have to be okay with that. Because if we’re not, we don’t change.
Rumpus: I love that poem, and so I appreciate this story. I’m so sorry for your loss.
The book begins with a poem called “Matarose Tags G-Dragon On the 7.” What is the significance of this poem and its title?
Ben-Oni: I had a lot of different nicknames growing up. Like Matarose… Somebody once asked me, “Doesn’t mata mean ‘kill’ in Spanish?” [Smiles] Actually, the nickname didn’t really mean anything; it was just supposed to mean my fiercer self. Names play a big part in this book as well.
Rumpus: Is “Matarose” your alter-ego? Your younger-self?
Ben-Oni: When I was younger, probably in my teenage years especially, I was very rebellious. I used to tag my name, “Matarose.” Years later, I fell in love with two things: the 7 train and K-pop. Let’s just say that the 7 train is not very popular. [Laughs] There was a time when it was always breaking down, and it was always overcrowded, but I love the 7 train. When I have to work in Manhattan, or teach there, or do a reading there, and I come home to Queens, I know I’m home. I love Queens more than anything in the whole world! It’s funny, when I meet people and they ask me, “If you could live anywhere in the world…” and I say, “Queens, New York.” With K-pop, I love that it can do things in music that other Western music can’t do. I love that song, “Fantastic Baby” by Big Bang. It’s just a wonderful song! If Matarose had heard that song when she was younger, that would have been her song.
Rumpus: How much of you is still Matarose?
Ben-Oni: [Laughs] A lot.
Rumpus: “Matarose” gives the reader a clue to what’s coming, right at the beginning! How much did pop culture influence this book?
Ben-Oni: One hundred percent. Pop culture in general is one way to challenge institutionalized spaces, and I’m all for it.
Rumpus: Challenging institutionalized spaces, or exposing them, seems to happen a lot in the collection. Two poems in particular, “A Horse Dies Once That Is A Lie” and “She Calls Once That Is A Lie,” have this theme.
Ben-Oni: Yeah, those are for my ex-girlfriend.
Rumpus: They’re both very beautiful, and both reflect two sides of one self. Here is a line from “She Calls Once That Is a Lie”: “Once on VH1 in a thrash metal rockumentary that is a lie / It was at the Kentucky Derby when she calls in the morning.” This line makes reference to “A Horse Dies Once That Is a Lie,” doesn’t it?
Ben-Oni: Yes. The metaphor of the Kentucky Derby is to illustrate different spaces. I chose the Kentucky Derby because, coming from a working-class family and coming from a mixed heritage, there were spaces where I was not allowed in, spaces that I didn’t even know I wasn’t allowed. My ex-girlfriend is from a family who definitely had more money than mine did. I met her when I first came to New York, as a teenager, for college. Back then, I didn’t know anything about fashion—I didn’t even own a winter coat!—and she was a very refined, very beautiful woman. We began this tumultuous relationship. “She Calls Once That Is A Lie” is about how she would get caught doing things, like cheating on me. After a while, the infidelities became so racked up. I knew I had to let her go, but I didn’t know how to escape the language of the infidelities.
“A Horse Dies Once That Is a Lie” is about another disparity. I loved horses but didn’t necessarily want to own one; she grew up riding horses. I’m well aware of how badly they treat horses at the Kentucky Derby, and it’s always bothered me. This language aligns with the idea of using others for sport, and using others for entertainment until they break them. So, “A Horse Dies Once That Is A Lie” is about how my ex-girlfriend gradually just “broke” me. In the context of the Kentucky Derby, I felt a kinship with the horses that were used until they were thrown away. For many reasons, she belongs in those spaces. When I first came to New York, I was amazed at how people didn’t worry about money. That was so foreign to me. They never had any concerns about paying rent, or having money in their bank account. I’d have these fellow students—these people were sophomores in college—telling me they were going on vacation in the South of France. I was like, “Okay…” But there’s no money in poetry, and it’s really hard to make it. I had a very difficult time.
My parents never got to pursue what they wanted to pursue, but they worked hard so my brother and I could choose our careers. It sounds like the old narrative about the younger generation, but I realize now that I owe my parents a great deal of debt.
Rumpus: You just said, “there were spaces where I was not allowed in, spaces that I didn’t even know I wasn’t allowed.” Is this also a theme in the book?
Ben-Oni: Yes. When I think about order and the division of spaces, even nationality, my hope is that in about a hundred years—I think it may be longer—my hope is that we’ll look at borders and nation-states and say, “What were we thinking?” There are ways that we can coexist without capitalism, these market-based economies. I have some ideas about zero-point energy, where there is no such thing as empty space. Every minutia space is filled with energy that can be harnessed if we just had the technology to harvest it. If we had this, we could have free resources, and it would shatter these economic hierarchies. Some people just don’t want that because they want to hold on to their apex. If people had access to free resources and shelter, if all the basic needs were taken care of, then they could literally pursue what they want to do.
Rumpus: You mentioned how you have some ideas about zero-point energy, and it reminded me of one of your poems in this book, “Dancing with Kiko on the Moon,” specifically the line: “when kiko & I are kicking up / a tundra out of—tú / & summoning the sun & dew & oh // we’re over the you of you.” I love this poem, but I wanted to know, who is Kiko? Is she real? Or is she just a metaphor for humankind?
Ben-Oni: [Smiles] She’s a Japanese model and actress who appeared in a video, called “I Feel It Coming” with an artist known as The Weekend. I’ve known about her for a long time because she allegedly dated G-Dragon, who’s in Big Bang. The director of that video, Warren Fu, really captured the incandescence of Kiko, so I was really inspired to write a moon poem about her. Kiko kind of reminds me of the otherworldly quality that I first saw in my ex, what she embodied. The video reminded me of the last part of my teenage years and early twenties. I was feeling free about the sense of discovery of women, and open spaces, and there’s just no patriarchy that exists in those open spaces. It’s just her and me—which is a reflection of my ex—and because of all the bullshit we had to put up with because of men, when we were together, sometimes it was just magical.
Rumpus: This poem also captures an “otherworldly” quality, a musicality you have. Do you think this style permeates your poetry?
Ben-Oni: Yes. Even though—this is going to sound pretty strange—but even when I was down and out and broke, which was for a number of years, I was still pretty happy. Even when I was miserable because I had my heart broken, or was always struggling to make money. There was all of this heartache and heartbreak and failure, but I was still happy, even at my worst. There’s something really magical about those years when you’re young. I still feel the music, but I learned how to feel the music in those years. I felt the music before I learned how to listen to it, before I learned how to hear it. I feel these poems deep in my bones. They happened, and then… I am aware that I really did not go to the moon. [Laughs]
Rumpus: You weave themes of tribe and family into the book, including allusions to Biblical characters. You have a few “If ____ the younger sister” poems, e.g. “If Delilah the Younger Sister” and “If Noah the Younger Sister,” which are all exquisite.
Ben-Oni: People like it when I read “If Cain the Younger Sister” because it has so much momentum.
Rumpus: Oh, yeah! I love that one.
Ben-Oni: I remember learning the story of Cain and Abel and thinking, “This is not a very complete story. They’re not telling us something.” So, naturally, I asked my Hebrew school teacher about that. [Laughs] It became the point when that Hebrew school teacher started shaking his head at me. When I raised my hand, he wouldn’t even call on me. So, I turned to my father.
My father is a unique character—I’ve never met anyone quite like my Abba, which sounds biased—who has this way of letting you question your faith because he sees that as the core of Judaism. To him, we’re supposed to have these doubts. I remember when I shared this with my Hebrew school teacher at the time, he was really offended. He said, “No. You can’t go in and just change Torah. You can’t just go in and do whatever you like to suit your narrative because you’re a woman.” I think that’s part of the problem with historical narrative. When I talked to my father about Cain and how I felt something was missing from the narrative, he said, “You should write something.” Many years later, I did. My father used to tell me, “Maybe the Torah’s not done.”
So, I wanted to write the narrative of these Biblical figures, whether it was Benyamin, Delilah, but Cain wrests a certain place in my heart. I feel like I understand Cain’s jealousy.
Rumpus: So do I! Before we finish up, can I ask you about your process? Who influences your work? Are there poets with whom feed you feel connected?
Ben-Oni: My writing process is simple, I write whenever I can, and I use everything! Paper and pen, computer, even the voice memo feature on my phone. And as far as influences, for this book, I have to say I owe a lot to CantoMundo. My three fellowship years meant so much to me, and the ties that bind me now to poetas within it remain strong.
Photograph of Rosebud Ben-Oni by Brian Lee. The cover of Turn Around Bright XYXS is a Michael Hafftka painting titled Watchful.