The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project: Christine No


Christine No’s poetry collection, Whatever Love Means, is an explosive debut that magnifies intimacy and the eruptions that occur when bonds are broken. Her language is both daring and realized, capturing multitudes of contrasting feelings in a single moment. In her poem, “Echo Chamber,” she writes, “Inside you are holy and inside you are poison and soft inside you are a cavity. And I, an invasive species.Often the narrator is aware of the wreckage but decides to jump anyway, displaying unapologetic accountability for pursuing passion.

A filmmaker as well as a poet, No has a cultivated vigilance with which she sees the world. In this interview, we talk about unconditional love, how it feels to reveal snapshots of personal relationships, as well as her own relationship with the body.


The Rumpus: You capture both the comfort and discomfort of living in a body. You also write a lot about dissociation. Can you speak to that?

Christine No: There’s a lot of dissociation or fracture in the way we relate to our bodies, and the way our bodies relate to other bodies. This goes with the intimacy theme. We’re always trying to understand each other by crashing into one another or crashing into ourselves. We will never fit the way puzzle pieces fit together. It will always be off-kilter, like when a jar lid threads wrong, and you can’t totally get the lid on or off. That is something I’m always interested in, by trying to fit together the messes that we make. How we are still trying our best, and trying to piece ourselves together with our present and past. The difficulty of existing in a body while having this mind that wants to go so many other places that aren’t the body and aren’t the here and now. How do you exist in this form that is here, but you just lived most of your day in 1997? That has always fascinated me, in words and not. How does one get to feeling with such a limited amount of space and a vast amount of space?

Rumpus: How have you learned to deal with this hypersensitivity or hypervigilance as you walk through the world?

No: It’s a balance between seeing everything and learning not to see everything, so you can survive in this world. In my twenties, I crashed through the world. Or maybe, it was up until two years ago. I felt like we were here to do everything. Our skins were meant to be lived in. I went really hard. I wanted to feel it all. Indiscriminately. It made me really impulsive. That made me move really quickly, and it made me lose touch with what I was actually feeling. After a while, it becomes this onslaught of feeling on top of feeling on top of feeling, and it becomes a spiral that you have to deal with, as opposed to something that you are actually experiencing moment to moment. I think I had to learn the hard way. To do all the crashing, and landing, and the wishing that I hadn’t crashed and landed or not landed. And, also experiencing things that way, and seeing how other people don’t necessarily feel everything all the time and seeing the discrepancy: That was a big growing-up experience.

There is always this idea that the creator has to live on this edge, this darkness somewhere that we have to tap into and constantly channel. I think here is a way to understand that part of ourselves without having to live so entrenched in it. That’s a lot of balance, which is difficult when you are not used to doing it. Finding one’s way back to balance: There is fear in that too. When you are used to working from a place where everything is imploding and exploding at the same time, you are like, What if I lose that? What if that’s the thing that made me creative? Balance is its own beautiful practice.

Rumpus: How did you come up with the title?

No: I lean in to what we expect things to be. What are cinematic notions of love, and life, and relationships, and self? We’re sold this picture. What love means is told to us. It isn’t until very much later, after heartbreak, after all different kinds of experiences of love that we come to realize whatever love means. It’s always going to be whatever love means. It’s not going to be the same thing to anybody or even to ourselves, about ourselves, throughout time.

Rumpus: How has being a filmmaker influenced your poetry?

No: Film and poetry have always influenced one another. Poems have imagistic morsels that you take away—a feeling and a moment that one is always trying to capture with film. We make all art to remind one another that we are human, and we’re feeling these things together. In films, you get that on the close-up of someone’s hair out of place. You understand so much from watching a scene when two people are fighting, and everything is in the way one person taps their thumb on their teacup. There are just these human details that we can all relate to that make experiencing art gratifying or impactful.

There is something so magical about being able to zoom into that—that we can craft that experience. That filters into my life as well. I don’t know if that is the anxiety or the art. There is higher vigilance that I think we all cultivate as artists; certainly, I do. I’m always noticing someone picking at their thumb or the piece of dust under the planter that nobody has touched for three weeks.

Rumpus: You were kind enough to be a guest speaker at one of my creative writing classes, and you mentioned that sometimes you work on poems for years, and sometimes you feel as if they are channeled to you in one sitting.

No: “Echo Chamber” was kind of channeled. It came out in one night. It was the echo chamber in my head that exists within a relationship with two people. It’s that vibe when it is all making sense and bouncing off one another. It’s also the creative process. It’s also a spiraling inward to realize one’s spaciousness. For some reason, I thought a lot about the sound of something pinging around inside an aluminum can. Or like the sound of the Large Hadron Collider when they remove all the atoms except for one and it is pinging around—that sound. Those are the images that came to me. In that experience of crashing into ideas, or the world, or one’s self, you discover there is a spaciousness that is yours and contained.

Rumpus: In this collection, you use language from space, cinema, and neuroscience. Can you tell us more about these seemingly divergent interests?

No: Cinema is always equated so closely with poetry and literature. Neuroscience, mental health, and psychology are things that I’m always going to be interested in, because I’m working through my own experiences with mental health. I love the science of engagement between people. The little human things that we do—that we all do—but experience so singularly. It just boggles me. We have all these terms and definitions, and we can name things and diagnose them, and we have a shared language for this, but when we are going through mental health stuff, they are such lonely experiences and they are such isolated experiences.

Space does a similar thing. We see these beautiful color pictures of galaxies and supernovae, but what we see is color assigned to the different wavelengths of light and chemical makeup of the explosions. The camera sees ultraviolet light, so it’s not actually red, blue, green, and purple. Space is happening out there, and it’s epic and crazy and so hard to fathom and wrap our minds around. But at the same time, it’s not the images that are being presented to us. It’s like the actual experience is different from the snapshot. The thing that we love the most about life is the messiness, the not-pretty thing.

Rumpus: The poet often writes about the unseen.

No: Yeah, like what are we picking up on? What are we choosing to pay attention to? What are we choosing to outright deny, the not-noticing in that moment? That’s so interesting in human relationships. The whole thing about an elephant in the room. Like, there is clearly an elephant here. We’re not going to talk about it. But you feel it. I feel it. I write about that.

Rumpus: The poems in this book explore, What is conditional love? What is love without condition? What does that look like?

No: The condition can also be the condition that we are in, and the ability to love the other. I write about mothers and daughters a lot. And that story changes throughout, because it has changed throughout my life. We love as we grow ourselves. The relationship changes from a difficult one to where mother feels more like sister, mother feels more like grandmother. The mother-daughter relationships throughout the collection are constantly evolving, but they’re all a bunch of ancestors in one, and they are different versions of repeated relationships.

Rumpus: The poems that include your grandmother have a reverent tone. Tell me a little about your grandma.

No: Grandma is this maternal figure that stays consistent throughout. When I think about myself, my mom, and my aunts, my grandma is in the best of our qualities and the worst of our qualities. Grandma was dramatic! She was a storyteller. She is the reason why I look at things the way that I do and why I am interested in human relationships the way that I am. Grandma is the reason why I attach meaning to things. She was such a feeler and very conscious of herself as a thinker. Grandma was always the consistency throughout my life, and to me, one of the strongest definitions of love is consistency. That’s what unconditional love is: an unwavering touch point.

Rumpus: Have your mom and dad read the book?

No: My dad wants to read the book, but I sense the hesitation from both of my parents. The other day I was like, There is sex in it. My dad was like, I guess I can’t give it to my friends. That is a lesson that I am learning myself. It’s tricky. What did Anne Lamott say about family?

Rumpus: The one from Bird by Bird? I have it. “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

No: Yeah, that one! There was this other part of me that wonders what will happen if I put this out in the world, and people don’t understand it in the way that I need them to understand it. From a very personal standpoint, will I be putting stories out there that will cause judgment or pain? Because that’s not what I want to do. I guess if I had to give advice I’d say: consider deliberation. As we tell the stories to the world, we are also telling the stories to ourselves. Earlier I was talking about crashing through life. There comes a point where we have to slow down and take a step back to see what we are doing. Take that moment.

Rumpus: You are an excellent reader and performer as well as a writer. Are there any poems from this book that you won’t read live, and do you ever use the audience to help you edit your work?

No: No, there isn’t a poem I wouldn’t read. I feel finished in that way. Like, this has been connected with, and I’m moving on from this parcel or this person. I have read poems about an ex-lover and noticed the ex-lover was in the audience. But I also went up to them afterwards and asked, “Hey! You know that poem I read?! Was it good? Did that work?”

I used to think [my poem] “The Patron Saint of The Lost Cause” was melodramatic, that no one was going to relate to it. Only when I read it out loud did I realize that it’s something that we can all relate to in a real way, including the vehemence of sentiment there.

As for working on a poem at a live event, I’m really shy and get really nervous at readings. It took me a really long time to even realize what was happening. When performing, I can’t see the audience. I’m trying not to faint! I can’t see the words. It took me a long time before I could even start to read the audience, and it always baffled me when someone told me that a poem hit them in a certain way. I usually work out the reception of my poems with individuals instead of an audience. Now that I’m more comfortable in front of a crowd—I’m still shy—I will try a new version and see if I can feel it back.

Rumpus: Do you think that you are done revising these poems or will you still bring a red pen with your book?

No: I’m in such a weird stage with this book. I’ve been with it for so long that I have my opinions about it at this point; but only recently have I realized: Oh, now other people have it. It feels like other people had it as long as I had it. But they haven’t! It’s only me. Now that other people have it, I wonder if I will see things in a different light and start noticing things I haven’t noticed before.


Photograph of Christine No by David Swope.

Jennifer Lewis is a writer, editor, and the publisher of Red Light Lit. Her debut short story collection, The New Low, will be released in 2022 by Nomadic Press, and her short story, "New Low," was the winner of the Bindle Award in 2018. In 2020, she won the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction award for "Put a Teat in It." She received her MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University in May 2015. She teaches at The Writing Salon in San Francisco. More from this author →