When I first met Paige Lewis, they gave me a Pokémon card. Now forever armed with Machop, I keep him in my journal in case my writing muscles aren’t being properly flexed. Lewis running around with Pokémon cards, and giving them away as gifts, also happens to be the epitome of their writing style. Their debut collection of poems, aptly titled Space Struck and published in October of last year by Sarabande Books, gives the reader various gifts throughout it. And what makes the giving so tender is in the book’s patience with the reader, its relationship to seeing and being seen, its imagination in what can be done with language and of what can be given. Whether a pair of binoculars for bird watching, a robe for St. Francis, or a kiss on the wrong wrist, Lewis lets us into their speaker’s small moments with a gentle invitation. It makes Space Struck one of those rare books of poetry that you can read in one sitting and feel full.
What Lewis’s collection also calls to mind is the quick wit of their predecessors. Frank O’Hara weaved poems into his work so cheekily, so ardently, that even in moments of melancholy, the speaker’s careful jokes functioned in such a way that while they were attempting to cheer themselves up, they cheered the reader, too. Lewis, quick-witted in person as well on the page, has a self-deprecation that runs rampant in this collection. Lewis lets us in on the joke, allowing us to laugh along with them while their speakers question their places in the universe.
But there is also depth to these poems, many of which are about feelings that so many of us can identify with. There is “I’ve Been Trying to Feel Bad for Everyone” and “So You Want to Leave Purgatory.” As Lewis says in one of their poems: “Give me more time / and I’m sure I could make this funny.” The joy in a poet not taking themselves too seriously allows the reader to relax, to relate, to revel in the ways we attempt to hide the pain, or at least try to place it somewhere else for a while.
I had the delight of speaking with Lewis about their writing process, Space Struck’s coming into being, and which of their poems are animals.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on your debut collection! It was a joy to read. Can you tell me a bit about how you chose to group these specific poems together? Were there any inclusions you were skeptical or nervous about, or did you agonize over anything before the collection was published—format, design, or otherwise?
Paige Lewis: I’m so glad you liked it, Dakota! It took awhile for the manuscript to take the shape it did. And so much of the credit goes to my professors and classmates at Florida State University. I took a manuscript workshop while I was at FSU—it’s so cool that that was even a thing—and the manuscript I brought into that class was so different than the manuscript that came out of it. Originally, I had far too many poems—my manuscript was bloated and jumpy. But they helped me find the skeleton of the book, and then helped me build up from there.
I was a little nervous about including the poem, “The Terre Haute Planetarium Rejected My Proposal.” It was the first poem I wrote after I moved to Indiana, and it was younger than the rest of the book’s poems by over a year. I hadn’t shown it to a lot of people before deciding it belonged in the book, and sometimes it’s difficult for me to have confidence in my work unless I receive a lot of outside validation. But it seemed to fit so well, and I ultimately couldn’t not include it.
Rumpus: When did you feel like you were ready to publish your first book, and what would you suggest to other poets who are ready to do so? Any advice you’d have about working with publishers or standing your ground in regards to your work?
Lewis: I don’t know that I ever felt totally ready to publish Space Struck, but I got so lucky with my experience in my manuscript class. From my experiences working with the editors at Sarabande, I’ve really learned the importance of having control over the presentation and production of my own work.
The editor-in-chief, Sarah Gorham, made it clear right away that I had a say in what happened with my book and that this wasn’t a gift she was giving me, but my right as an author. I know it’s different for every poet, but to me, if a publisher doesn’t give you any choices about the presentation and production of your book, they might not give your book the life it deserves.
Rumpus: How is the book’s title significant to you?
Lewis: I had a lot of trouble coming up with a title for this book. At one point I was certain I wanted to call it No, but I was kindly talked out of this by friends and professors. Space Struck was actually Sarah Gorham’s idea. When I told her that I didn’t like my current title, she spent a day rereading the book and came back to me with a handful of really good titles. “Space Struck” was the one that stuck. I’m so grateful for all the help I had throughout the naming process. But I still think No would be a cool title for something!
Rumpus: You touch on theology quite a bit, and in a way that’s often humorous, for instance in “St. Francis Disrobes,” in which St. Francis comfortably moves in to the speaker’s studio apartment. What prompted you to write this poem? Was weaving in religious figures and motifs a conscious choice?
Lewis: I am interested in how repetition can normalize something strange or extraordinary over time. It’s possible that this is connected to my OCD. What looked strange to other people—like getting up twenty times during a church service to wash my hands or using napkins to open doors—had become routine and ordinary in my mind. And because I grew up in such a religious family, these religious figures inevitably make their way into my work. Because of his connection with and love for animals, St. Francis has always been my favorite saint—he’s also my confirmation saint—and I wanted to give him a full poem.
Rumpus: As a poet, each new poem you write and feel happy with can become like a new pet you’ve welcomed into your home. That might be a weird comparison, but I also know you’re an animal lover. Which poem or poems in Space do you feel particularly proud of?
Lewis: I know you aren’t asking this, but all I want to do now is compare some of my poems to specific animals. Here, without explanation, is a short list:
“Saccadic Masking”— Green anole
“God Stops By”— Mountain goat
“Magic Show”— Pangolin
“Pavlov Was the Son of a Priest”—American Flamingo
Rumpus: Your poem Yael is noticeably absent from this collection. Would you rather include this more epic poem in another collection? Is it a poem that stands on its own?
Lewis: It means so much that you even care about the lack of Yael in this book. I’m actually still working on Yael—the current draft is nearing a hundred pages. I do think it’s something entirely different from Space Struck, and I wanted to give Yael more space and time to grow. I do hope it is eventually able to stand on its own as an epic poem.
Rumpus: You described Yael as your non-binary epic, as the subject of the poem is non-binary. Is there any further advice you’d give to non-binary poets trying to navigate within the small literary and/or academic communities? Have your pronouns and gender identity ever been a source of contention as you continued in academia?
Lewis: I’m not so good at advice. My friend Ruth always says she can’t give advice, but she can share her experiences. There have been times where journal editors have been unkind to me about my pronouns, especially when I was first sending my work out. I remember one editor told me he hated using “they” in bios and asked if he could change every “they” to “Lewis” in mine. And I remember letting him. And hating myself for it. There are so many people willing to do the very basic work of using the correct pronouns. It seems silly to waste any time on those who aren’t willing.
Rumpus: I think we all find individual poet’s routines and practices fascinating. Writers rarely prepare to write or sit down to write in the same way. For example, I find my writing motivation late at night, and I know you’re a morning writer. What does your perfect day spent writing look like?
Lewis: I envy people who can write at night. Really, I envy people who can do anything at night. Lately, I find myself ready for bed by 9 p.m. But I suppose going to bed early allows me to get up early. I love to wake up before the sun comes up. Well, I actually hate it for the first two minutes, but once I get past the initial urge to go back to bed, it’s pretty delightful to be up during such a quiet time. Once I’m up, I make some tea and while the water’s boiling, I pick out a dozen poetry books from the shelves and place them next to my notebook at the table. Then I drink my tea, flip through the books, and write until the afternoon. My husband Kaveh [Akbar] and I were gifted a really lovely espresso machine for our wedding, so now my routine also includes a shot of espresso—and it includes the ugly face I make every time I drink espresso.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about love poems! You write these so effortlessly. Who is your favorite poet to come back to when you’re wanting to write a suitably sweet ode to someone or to love itself?
Lewis: I love love poems, Dakota. I honestly feel like every poem I write, even the mean ones, are secretly love poems. I can’t help it! I’ve often copied out Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s love poems into letters to my beloved. Or Frank O’Hara—one of my very favorite love poems is O’Hara’s “A Hill,” which begins, “Yes, it’s disgusting / when you lose / control, but my / wilderness is love // of a kind, no?” I just love that he starts a love poem with a word like “disgusting” in the first line.
Rumpus: Who are some of your all-time favorite poets, as well as some poets you’ve been obsessed with recently?
Lewis: All-time favorite? I am terrified of this question! Aria Aber, Shira Erlichman, Dionne Brand, Leila Chatti, and Eve L. Ewing are a few poets I’ve been reading and loving recently. Though I know as soon as I move on, I’m going to want to come back and list a dozen more.
Rumpus: How do you think teaching and sharing with other poets has helped you in your own writing process?
Lewis: The more I teach, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize I know so little about everything. I try to come to the classroom with the mindset that we’re all learning together. It’s wild, but after a poetry class I feel more energized than when it started! Working with other poets, seeing them get excited about their poems, it makes me get re-excited about writing my own poems.
Rumpus: Now that Space Struck has debuted, and your PhD is finished, what’s next for you?
Lewis: As soon as I came home from defending my PhD dissertation, I played the new Pokémon game for thirty hours. I beat the whole thing in a weekend. So, I suppose that was what was initially next for me. But now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I think I’ll get back to focusing on Yael.
Rumpus: You’ve just started a reading series, Ours Poetica, in which poets and writers read one of their favorite poems, or on occasion, one of their own poems. How did this idea come about? Were there any hurdles you had to jump through to get the series produced?
Lewis: Through Complexly Media, Sarah Urist Green and John Green have a lot of incredible YouTube channels about science and animals and art, but they wanted to make a new channel dedicated to sharing poetry. When they reached out and asked me to curate it, I was actually on my honeymoon. It’s like, how do you make a honeymoon even cooler? Add emails about poetry from John and Sarah!
Early on we knew that we wanted this project to be about getting poems in front of people who didn’t know they liked poetry, and it’s been a real delight to see these poems reach their intended audience. I think our main hurdle is getting the poetry rights for each poem we use on Ours Poetica. Our assistant producer, Niki Hua, also manages the poem rights and permissions and it’s a lot of work. I will say that I expected the YouTube comment section to be a hurdle, but it really isn’t one. Everyone says not to read YouTube comments, but the comments on our poetry videos are often so kind and full of people talking about how they’ve connected to each poem.
Rumpus: When I saw you read from Space Struck in New York City a couple of months ago, you shared some comic-poems you and your partner, Kaveh Akbar, have been experimenting with. How did that come about? Do you think you’ll ever want to publish them as a joint effort?
Lewis: I’ve loved reading poetry comics for years, but it wasn’t until I started giving lectures on them that I decided to try to make a few myself. Sometimes it’s very difficult for me to start something new and to not be discouraged when I’m not immediately good at it. I didn’t want to take making poetry comics so seriously that I might give up, so Kaveh and I treated our initial making as a game. We’d each draw something, trade papers, and then find unused poetry lines from each other’s notebooks to pair with the images. I don’t know if we’ll ever publish them. We do share our favorites with friends. Right now, we’re just having fun making art together.
Photograph of Paige Lewis provided courtesy of Paige Lewis.