May 22–28, 2023
Grace MacNair is a poet, teacher and healthcare professional. Born and raised in North Carolina, she currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. Grace has received residencies and fellowships from Ragdale, Marble House Project, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Monson Arts, the Carolyn Moore Writers House, Bethany Arts Community, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. She was selected by Yona Harvey as the winner of Radar Poetry’s 2021 Coniston Prize and by Safia Elhillo as the winner of Palette Poetry’s 2022 Emerging Poet Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Threepenny Review, Radar Poetry, Palette Poetry, the Missouri Review, Frontier Poetry, the Best New Poets 2022 anthology and elsewhere. Her micro-chapbook Even As They Curse Us is available from Bull City Press.
The Uses of Laughter
Of the bath water, my friend Athina
makes a wine-dark sea.
Just yesterday she pushed
a baby from her body
into my waiting hands which,
after somersaulting him
from his tangled, pulsing cord,
already pink with first breaths
to her chest.
If men bled like we do how would the world be?
The truth is, I’ve grown tired
of complicated men—
I’ve no wish for a muse to tell me
how they wander and are lost,
how skilled they are at deception,
while women everywhere are punished
for self-preserving cunning.
I’ve grown tired of gods whose rapes sire miracles,
whose miracles beget more rape.
For once and for all, I’d like to be emptied
of the spirit of god
yet I can’t help but admire the ruins.
The statues glow white,
pure as the myth of virginity,
as if they want us to believe
that what happened to them
wasn’t so bad after all.
Do I love history or do I despise it?
Athena, the patron goddess
of Athens, where my friend Athina
gave birth, was one of three goddesses
eternally protected from rape.
Everywhere Athina and I went
—the grocery store, the bus stop, the bakery—
people greeted her pregnant belly
with phrases she finds absurd:
May you have one pain
May the birth set you free
Like Penelope, so often when Athina and I
appear to be doing one thing,
our minds move elsewhere—
But, here, in the bathtub,
we are coterminous with laughter
as I pour warm water infused with salt
and herbs native to her country over her perineum,
which, by giving birth at home,
was spared the hospital’s compulsory episiotomy,
Greek for “cutting the pubic region.”
Years before, in another country not my own,
I failed to stop a godlike doctor
from sewing a woman’s labia
to her inner thighs while performing
a dilation and curettage without anesthesia.
He too was laughing—
How is it he’s free
to use the laughter Athina and I pass
back and forth between us like herbs,
like water, like her baby who only hours ago
flowed from her, to me, and back to her,
where he now sleeps, his perfect mouth pulsing her breast
like all men—even the gods—once did.
Like some men’s mouths still do
even as they curse us.
—From Even As They Curse Us, Bull City Press, 2022.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem is one of two I wrote in the tiny Greek village of Kardamili in the Peloponnese, the region where much of the Odyssey, a book I have a love-hate relationship with, supposedly took place. I was listening to Emily Wilson’s translation, and at times I was so angered by Odysseus’s violence, self-pitying hypocrisy and protocolonialism that I had to turn the audiobook off and throw rocks into the sea. In the poem, I’m wrestling with Western history—but my obsession with history, specifically reproductive history, shows up over and over again in my work. The poem is partly a reaction to Odysseus, whose cruelty reminded me of the doctor who appears at the end of the poem, and partly an expression of frustration toward the brand of poetics that, in my younger years, made me feel like being well-versed in the classics was a prerequisite to writing good poetry. Don’t get me wrong, Greco-Roman mythologies, like all mythologies (religious and otherwise), are amazing, and many of my favorite poems/poets draw upon classical literature (I, too, am obsessed with Anne Carson), but it shouldn’t be the dominant lens through which literature is evaluated.
The poem’s two central questions (“If men bled like we do how would the world be?” and “Do I love history or do I despise it?”) have long haunted me. To study history is to immerse yourself in one crime scene after another. Justice is always hard-won, when it’s won at all. Resistance movements against empire are born from the constraints of gender, race, class and economics created by a ruling class. But ideals are never immune to power and corruption, and even when one side is practicing pacifism, violence and bloodshed are generally unavoidable. What I find most horrifying about history is that most violence plays out in plain sight. When it’s not actively impacting our bodies or minds, most of us (myself included) wander down the dead-end street we call empathy or turn away and look out for our own interests, something Western society has been taught to do, in part, by its mythology. When the Washington Post adopted the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” in 2017, I laughed. The irony. Democracies have always died in front of our eyes and often with the support of the masses.
For me, studying history is a form of grief work. At this point in my life, I’m interested in how I can use secondary and archival research to honor those who came before me and to juxtapose the seemingly distant past with our current moment, troubling our/my ethical frameworks and notions of progress. If history is an epic painting, I’d like to learn more about the origins of the pigments, what the artists painted over or where vandalism occurred. For me, the symbolism of Penelope expertly weaving the burial shroud by day and unraveling it by night to make her life bearable extends far beyond the Odyssey. Every era is populated by women, queer people and BIPOC who engage in creativity and art-making, often in times of grief. How many of these people, lost to history, watched their art be destroyed, plagiarized, stolen—and how many more were denied the time, health and rest necessary for its creation?
“The Uses of Laughter” is also a poem about friendship, strength and safety—a tribute to my friend Athina, whose baby I had the honor of catching in Athens the week before I traveled to Kardamili. Athina gave birth at home because Greece’s cesarean rate is shockingly high (roughly sixty percent of all births) even though the WHO states that cesarean rates above ten to fifteen percent do more harm than good. The day after Athina gave birth, I helped her take a sitz bath, climbing into the bathtub with her and pouring warm water mixed with various healing herbs over her swollen but intact perineum. We were laughing and joking even though she was magnificently tired after five days of labor and nursing her baby all night. It’s extraordinary to witness a close friend give birth; Athina is one of several friends I’ve had the privilege of supporting. Their births along with the many others I’ve attended at homes and in the hospital have made it clear to me that patriarchy and misogyny are direct manifestations of the insecurity generations of men have felt when confronted with reproductive power and creativity. Classical mythology centers many unoriginal men who rely on violence and unexamined emotion. My poem revolves around the women who made these men’s power possible and/or resisted their misdeeds. The linguistic mystery surrounding Homer’s epithet “wine-dark sea” created an opportunity to complicate and desecrate a famous reference with bodily fluids as an opening gesture.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently writing poems about reproductive history, rights and justice, and how White, patriarchal violence has shaped and continues to pervade reproductive medicine in America and elsewhere. Compared to any other high-income country, birthing people in America are several times more likely to die. This already-high mortality rate is three to four times higher for people who are Black or Indigenous. And things are only getting worse: a new CDC report found that in 2021, the number of pregnancy-related deaths increased by forty percent as compared to the previous year. The mortality rate has not been this high since 1965. As a poet who also practices as a healthcare professional, I’ve been asking myself for years what it means to write about how this history manifests in the present and echoes back to the nineteenth century when American medical men began to defame and suppress midwifery. They quickly achieved control, acclaim and wealth by developing surgical techniques on people who had little or no ability to consent—enslaved communities, immigrants and the poor. The study of history is the study of the will to power, and White violence and misogyny are directly responsible for America’s worsening reproductive health outcomes, lack of abortion access and over-medicalization of pregnancy and birth. For those who are interested in learning more about this history, I’d suggest starting with Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology by Deirdre Cooper Owens, an award-winning historian, professor and public speaker.
What’s a good day for you?
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to let goodness/delight into my everyday life. A delicious meal with my partner. A walk with my friend Megan or my friend Kate. Oysters with my other friend Meagan. Voice-texting with my friend Rennie. A good day is when I allow myself to move toward rather than away from desire. When I show up emotionally replenished, connect deeply with my patients, or discover new research that deepens my medical work. It’s any day that I get enough sleep and feel okay in my body, something that, until recently, has been rare due to some longstanding health issues. My creative practice continues to rehabilitate my fraught relationships with desire, rest and pleasure. Poetry denatures my Protestant work ethic. It’s one of the only things that’s powerful enough to get between me and my tendency to obliterate myself through work and caretaking.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
If you’d told college-me that I was going to end up in Brooklyn, and would still be here over ten years later, I wouldn’t have believed you. I grew up on a farm in the mountains of North Carolina, an area I’m still deeply connected to and believe to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth. My plan had always been to move back to the mountains after college, but the person I was desperately in love with at the time moved to Brooklyn, so I started visiting. We broke up shortly thereafter, but by then I’d fallen in love with Brooklyn and had arranged two apprenticeships with rockstar homebirth midwives, so I took a chance and moved.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I love where I live in Prospect Lefferts Gardens (PLG). I love walks and greenery from having spent a significant part of my life in the mountains of North Carolina, so it’s essential to be connected with nature around my home. I’ve been in my current apartment for almost four years. Prior to moving here, I lived in Bed-Stuy for six years. I would encourage anyone who visits PLG to spend time learning about the history of the neighborhood and to check out some of our local businesses such as Aunts et Uncles, Jen’s Roti Shop, PLG Coffee House, Hibiscus Brew, Lips Café, Kulushkat, Slow Loris and Ix!
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I once showed up to a bar called Union Pool wearing a bathing suit. I was new to Brooklyn and its bar scene, and I was trying to make friends, and, well, I assumed Union Pool was, as its name implies, a swimming pool. I even brought a towel and sunscreen with me! Another defining experience: I used to belong to a community garden called Greene Acres in Bed-Stuy. It was my roommate and I who first petitioned the garden to acquire chickens. The baby chicks we raised in our kitchen are long gone, but the garden has continued to keep chickens—they built them a palace!
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
At this point in time, my poetry community is a handful of beloveds with whom I talk poetry and swap poems, as well as submit poems and applications alongside. I’ve met some wonderful writers at residencies and through social media. During my MFA at Hunter College, I felt so supported by the poets in my cohort, all of whom are incredibly talented. During the pandemic, I taught poetry classes and enrolled myself in poetry classes online. The first class I took was “Influence in Both Directions” taught by Emily Hunt through Brooklyn Poets. I began many of the poems in my current manuscript in Emily’s class.
Because poetry communities, like any community, especially those with scarce resources, can be complicated, I believe it’s vital to cultivate a life outside of poetry. Academia so often distorts what it means to be/become a poet. I love this quote from June Jordan about how poetry should function:
I’d like to say something about poetry. What’s important about poetry in the context of leadership is that most of the time, power has to do with dominance. But poetry is never about dominance. Poetry is powerful but it cannot even aspire to dominate anyone. It means making a connection. That’s what it means.
Those I hold close, share unfinished work with, listen to, read, mentor and am mentored by understand that poetry is made stronger by community, reciprocity and care.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
June Jordan grew up in Bed-Stuy! In my teaching and my writing life, I return again and again to her essay “Problems of Language in a Democratic State,” in which she writes:
I am talking about majority problems of language in a democratic state, problems of a currency that someone has stolen and hidden away and then homogenized into an official “English” language that can only express non-events involving nobody responsible, or lies. If we lived in a democratic state our language would have to hurtle, fly, curse, and sing, in all the common American names, all the undeniable and representative and participating voices of everybody here.
Other poets include: Nicole Sealey, Gregory Pardlo, Jenny Xie, Aracelis Girmay, John Murillo and Shira Erlichman. I think Edna St. Vincent Millay would’ve loved Brooklyn, so I count her as a Brooklyn poet. Of course Walt Whitman, and Marianne Moore, who apparently shared a bed with her mother until her mother died?!
I want to give a shout-out to two Brooklyn friends of mine who have forthcoming books: Megan Pinto, who lives a few blocks from me, and Rennie Ament, who now lives in Maine but used to live in Brooklyn.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
This is a difficult question to answer because I could list so many names! I’ll start by saying that I’m not someone who was writing poems before they could walk. My interest in poetry has accrued in direct proportion to two things—straying from religion and gaining exposure to poets, living and dead. I’m certain I wouldn’t have found poetry, or had the courage to return to it after fearing I’d lost it for a number of years, without my teachers Alan Shapiro, Nina Riggs (who wrote a gorgeous and heartbreaking book called The Bright Hour shortly before she died at age thirty-nine of metastatic triple-negative breast cancer), Donna Masini, Catherine Barnett, Tom Sleigh, Mark Doty, Jennifer Grotz and Emily Hunt. And then there are all the poets who have influenced me via my reading life: Layli Long Soldier, Robin Coste Lewis, Ilya Kaminsky, Katie Farris, Natalie Diaz, Yona Harvey, Solmaz Sharif, Molly McCully Brown, Susannah Nevison, Choi Seungja, Leah Naomi Green, Jenny Johnson, Tiana Clark, Monica Youn, Jenny George, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Victoria Chang, Anne Carson, Ama Codjoe, Jorie Graham, Ross Gay, Bernadette Mayer, Mina Loy, Forugh Farrokhzad, Wanda Coleman, Eavan Boland, Lorine Niedecker, Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser, Lucille Clifton, Emily Dickinson, David Jones, Patrizia Cavalli, Miyó Vestrini, Alejandra Pizarnik (trans. Yvette Siegert), Chantal Maillard (trans. Yvette Siegert), Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver …
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I|I by Katherine Indermaur is a deeply philosophical meditation on the danger/wonder of how we perceive, confront, obscure and value ourselves and others. I especially love how Indermaur incorporates the history of mirrors—how they are crafted, their psychosocial impact, how they appear in literature and architecture, the linguistic origins of the word—into her investigation of her ever-evolving image/selfhood, especially her fraught relationship with her own reflection: “If I could only see more clearly my own seeing.”
indecent hours by James Fujinami Moore is driven by a fierce and multilayered awareness of the speaker’s relationship to gender, aesthetics, the natural/animal world, generational/cultural history and American hypocrisy and violence. Simultaneously obsessed with care and threat, wisdom and dark humor, lust and love, the book languages, laments and celebrates the complex ways in which people both can and cannot shape-shift within a society where “Americanness” is a “temporary feeling.”
Some books I’m loving but haven’t finished yet are I’m Always So Serious by Karisma Price, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive by Katie Farris, From From by Monica Youn, In the Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison, and stemmy things by imogen xtian smith.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I recently found out about these books, so I haven’t been meaning to read them for years, but I can’t wait to get to them. The first book is The Selected Poems of Tomaž Šalamun. I’m interested in his strangeness, his tonal shifts, his imagination and his idiosyncratic humor. The second book is Testimony: The United States (1885–1915): Recitative by Charles Reznikoff. The book was the result of reading thousands of criminal court cases. I’ve heard it’s extremely dark and extremely moving.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I finish most books I start, but I’m always reading multiple books at once. I would love to become the sort of person who tracks and keeps notes on the books they read. My friend Meagan Washington, who’s a wonderful poet, does this (her notebooks are a thing to behold!), and Elisa Gabbert publishes a list with commentary at the end of each year. When I’m doing research, I take copious notes, but in a very disorganized manner. I dream about enrolling myself in a note-taking class, although I fear I’m a lost cause. The search feature in Google Docs saves me almost daily because I’ll often start taking notes without naming the document/file. Instead of journaling, I text myself and randomly add notes to a very loose daybook I keep in Google Drive. I can’t write by hand for more than a few minutes at a time due to an old injury. A rather funny thing I do is call out ideas to my partner while I’m falling asleep—he’s a night owl—and he’ll email them to me along with silly rhymes that he’s made up.
I’m constantly inspired by what my friends are reading, but I’m also always going down rabbit holes, especially when I’m researching things. David Naimon’s podcast Between the Covers is truly fantastic. I refer to it as my second MFA.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d like to write poems that contain more joy, desire and love. To borrow from the last lines of Jennifer Grotz’s poem “Staring into the Sun,” poetry is one of the best ways I’ve found to “keep living / in a world that never explains why.” For me, that “why” extends to joy as well. Joy is as unknowable as grief—both are present in my life in great quantities. The pain in my life and my body, the rage I contend with and the difficult things I’ve witnessed/experienced in my healthcare work are not static because that’s not how the universe or the human psyche works. I’m deeply interested in opportunities for rest, beauty and radical love/action in life and poetry. I’m inspired by Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry, who’s doing incredible, reparative work connecting the lack of bodily/psychic rest in our culture with slavery, racism, capitalism and misogyny. As I finish my manuscript, I’m always looking for ways to include the beauty of the natural world, grief’s attendant and complicating joys, and the alchemical wonder of discovering hidden/forgotten legacies. Here are a few poems that inspire me in this regard: Jenny Johnson’s sequence of poems called “Dappled Things” in her book In Full Velvet; Safia Elhillo’s poem “Self-Portrait with a Yellow Dress”; “While the Child Sleeps, Sonya Undresses” by Ilya Kaminsky; “At Last the New Arriving” by Gabrielle Calvocoressi; “O Taste and See” by Denise Levertov; “Double Dutch” by Gregory Pardlo; “Object Permanence” by Nicole Sealey; “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” by Ross Gay; “Invocation” by Alan Shapiro; “How Delicious to Say It” by Vievee Francis; “On Wanting to Tell [ ] about a Girl Eating Fish Eyes” by Mary Szybist; “Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World” and “If Marriage” by Katie Farris (she has so many other amazing poems about love!); the section of Maggie Millner’s Couplets that begins “Everyone had the same Ikea bed.” I could go on and on, but I’ll end with a Ross Gay quote (from his conversation with the Black Joy Collective) that I first heard on the Between the Covers interview with Ada Limón:
Joy is a grave feeling, a serious feeling, a feeling infused with the act of dying. The feeling of disappearing into and profoundly joining something.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
The last book I read in a public space (the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s greenhouses) was Deus Ex Nigrum by Jasmine Reid. That was a beautiful reading experience, and her book is just brilliant. But, in general, I find it very difficult to read and write anywhere other than my apartment. I cherish my alone time. I love my bed. I hate wearing pants. I keep delicious food in the fridge. I’ve always wanted to be the sort of person who can read and write at a café, on a train or in a museum, but alas, I doubt that will ever be me.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Prospect Park is probably my favorite place. There’s something magical about experiencing the wild abundance of nature in an urban space. For example, this week, as I was pulling the giant canvas wagon I use to transport groceries across the park, I stumbled upon swathes of snowdrops. I live a ten-minute walk from the east side of the park. I love how snowdrops, oyster mushrooms and raccoons coexist with people grilling out, playing music and getting married. Of course, coexistence is a bit of a misnomer. Modern humans have irreparably damaged these spaces/ecosystems. The Lenape people, not Brooklynites, truly coexisted with nature. As much as I value Prospect Park, and our National Park Service, I think a lot about the complicated legacy underlying public spaces. There’s more awareness these days about how ancestral homelands were seized or stolen via broken treaties, but theft of Indigenous lands still occurs under the guise of preservation. How is it that we’ve divorced land protection from protecting the people who best know how to steward it? Similarly, I can’t talk about Prospect Park without acknowledging that access to green spaces in Brooklyn is deeply inequitable. Last year, the artist and data journalist Mona Chalabi installed a site-specific work about this on the plaza of the Brooklyn Museum, which is one of my other favorite places in Brooklyn. My partner and I just saw two amazing exhibits there. The first was Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe. Nellie Mae Rowe was a Black woman artist who began to draw, sculpt and collage prolifically in her sixties following the death of her husband and after her longtime employer died in the 1960s. She turned her house in Vinings, Georgia, into a living museum, which became so popular that there were traffic jams; unfortunately, her house was destroyed after her death. I’m looking forward to watching the new documentary about her life, called This World is Not My Own. The second exhibit was DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash by Duke Riley. Riley engraved hundreds of single-use plastic items with scrimshaw and meticulously arranged plastic detritus into giant sailors’ valentines. These items were exhibited within and around the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century houses that are preserved inside the museum.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate abortion access,
And what I choose you don’t have to choose
For every part of my body as good as belongs only to me—Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Coney Barrett and Roberts, fuck you.
Because it’s where my frontal lobe finished developing.