In 2024, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, torrin a. greathouse discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work. Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with the Guest Editor for July, torrin a. greathouse. Torrin is the author, most recently, of Deed and her debut Wound From the Mouth of a Wound, winner of the 2022 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Torrin, welcome and thank you for joining me. All right. Let’s begin. [laughs] How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for July?

torrin a. greathouse: So the first time I was ever solicited for Poem-a-Day, it was a really huge moment for me as an up-and-coming poet. At the time, I had just been rejected by every MFA program I applied to and every job I applied to after that. And I found myself homeless soon after graduating from undergrad. That solicitation in the midst of all of that, was a huge affirmation of the work I was doing, and it prevented me from losing hope. Because of that, I knew that if I were to ever curate Poem-a-Day, one of my goals would be to highlight the work of as many poets as possible who’d never been a part of the series. All new folks to Poem-a-Day, primarily queer and trans poets of color, who faced the most structural barriers to entry in this field. You began writing poetry during your undergraduate years in Orange County in California. Is that correct?

greathouse: Yeah. Yeah. Now admittedly, and this could just be my own prejudice talking, that is not a community that people generally associate with cultural ferment, especially compared to Los Angeles. What was it like for you there coming up as a poet and particularly as a trans woman poet?

greathouse: You know, so that’s where I went for college, but I’m actually … the place that is closest to home for me, I traveled a lot growing up, lived a lot of places, is the Central Valley of California. Which, it’s isolated in some ways, but there is really, especially now, a thriving poetic scene there. Some fantastic Fresno poets who, you know, I could shout out names all day. But for me in high school, there was nothing. I didn’t even know that there were living contemporary poets. So coming from that to undergrad, even if Orange County wasn’t necessarily a thriving scene, it was huge for me. There was a spoken word collective on campus, and actually halfway through undergrad, I was forced to drop out. And much like after undergrad, I was homeless. And during that time, I found an open mic in Orange, California, actually right next to the Chapman University campus, the Two Idiots Peddling Poetry reading at the Ugly Mug Cafe. And that was the first time that off-campus, I encountered poetry as a thing happening and living and thriving. And it’s the people there who first encouraged me to pursue poetry, you know, as something serious to do with my life. And so, while it may not be as big a scene as L.A., I think in some ways Orange County was a really important place for me to be at the moment I was there. Now, if you could direct our readers and listeners to one poem on, or it could be more than one, that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?

greathouse: Of all of the poems in that archive, the one that I return to again and again for sure is “YOUR BRAIN IS NOT A PRISON!” by Sasha Debevec-McKenney. I could talk for hours about this poem and all of the work it does. Levels this fantastic critique of metaphor and the metaphorization of prisons. How this rhetoric erases the inherent violence of carceral spaces and even proposes a list of alternate metaphors, before pivoting into these strange, surreal spaces of memory. And there’s this stunning enjambment: “Your brain is like / stop it.” There’s a radical, abolitionist politic to this poem, which forces readers to confront the harmful use of language, but also an urging during 2020 and the early global pandemic when we were so disconnected both from other people and the world, to just take a moment and sit outside amidst the world. To feel grass, to be in a field, to listen to birds. And this reminder to us, the reader, as much as this poem speaker who says to herself, “Admit it Sasha, the sun helps.” No, it’s just a brilliant poem, and a poem I really needed at the moment I first read it. I’d like to talk to you a little bit about form and memory in your own work. There are two erasure poems in Wound From the Mouth of a Wound. It’s ”Burning Haibun“ and “The Queer Trans Girl Writes Her Estranged Mother a Letter About the Word Faggot & It Is the First Word to Burn.” Both poems use fire as metaphor, both deal with struggling with memories of not being loved unconditionally by one’s parents. And you’ve talked during an interview with the online literary journal A Velvet Giant about having a complicated relationship with the truth and objective reality. And having a complicated relationship with the truth also implies having a complicated relationship with the validity of one’s memory. Speaking of which, I think that you use the erasure form especially cleverly in “Burning Haibun” to sort of concretize the alcohol-induced blackouts described in the poem. Why did you choose this particular form, the erasure poem, to write about your personal history, and what do you think erasure can teach us about memory and documenting history, whether it’s personal or public history?

greathouse: This is such a big question, and one I don’t think I can fully cover in our conversation today. But I’ve written elsewhere in an essay “Writing From the Ashes on the Burning Haibun,” about the origin of this form, the inspiration it drew from a couple of different poems from Ocean Vuong’s debut, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. And I was really ... I have this long-standing obsession with memory as someone who has experienced a lot of trauma and really experienced the ways in which trauma fundamentally alters our experience of memory, the way that it breaks down the clear delineation of fact and what we remember. The fact that it renders memory to no longer be a linear thing. And so I think in the “Burning Haibun,” I’m both trying to get at what is the core of this memory? What is the feeling amidst everything else happening here? What is that kernel of truth or “truthiness” there? And also how can iteration help me reach that? How can running back over the same memory over and over take me there?

And then there’s also the aspect of … part of the reason I have a complicated relationship to truth is, before I was ever a poet, I was a journalist. That’s what my undergraduate degree is in. That is the field I fell in love with. And that field sold me on a lie. The fact that what I was concerned with was the truth. I think that most major journalism happening now cares a lot more about corporate interest than it does truth. It cares a lot more about bipartisan politics and who is funding that newspaper than it does the truth. And I think a lot about, at the same time as I was having to drop out of college and becoming more entwined in the poetry scene, I was also losing faith in journalism, you know, particularly as I learned more of the history around Gary Webb and his likely assassination by the U.S. government because of breaking the Iran-Contra affair, and the way that even many newspapers refused to run the story. The facts checked out and they wouldn’t run it.

So that story is also one of the first major online stories in the history of journalism because it had to be published through a small online publication because major newspapers wouldn’t touch it. They would not touch a story about the CIA being directly involved with bringing crack into Black communities. Knowing all that, how could I not lose faith in a field like journalism? And so poetry for me became a way of saying, well, maybe if I throw away objectivity, I can get closer to the truth that clearly isn’t in this field that sold me on the lie of objectivity in the first place. And what are you reading right now?

greathouse: Oh, I am reading both more than I should be and less than I should be, which I think is the permanent state of working writers. The pile goes on and on. I recently finished Franny Choi’s new book, The World Keeps Ending and the World Goes On. In Full Velvet by Jenny Johnson. Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T. Fleischmann. I returned to Not Vanishing by Chrystos, one of my favorite books I read in undergrad. I’m also right now working my way through Poem Bitten by a Man by [Brian] Teare; The Boy in the Labyrinth by Oliver de la Paz. Just finished up Camp Damascus, which is the comedic romance novelist Chuck Tingle’s sudden debut into serious horror writing. And I actually, just before this call, finished reading an arc of brilliant writer and dear friend Julian Randall’s book, The Dead Don’t Need Reminding: In Search of Fugitives, Mississippi and Black TV Nerd Shit, which might be my favorite book of nonfiction I’ve read in at least a couple of years. Those who subscribe to Poem-a-Day will know that Brian Teare served as the Poem-a-Day Guest Editor in June 2023, and Oliver de la Paz was Poem-a-Day Guest Editor in October 2019, a Poet Laureate Fellow in 2023, and was featured in our interview series enjambments in July 2023. Torrin, what are you working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?

greathouse: Well, it’s kind of an inflection point. The second book, Deed, is coming out so soon. I’m not quite sure exactly when this interview will drop, but as we record it now in the beginning of, I have to check the calendar to remember what month it is, in the beginning of May, it’s about, June, July, August.… So, oh my goodness, it’s about three months until this book comes out. And so I’ve been taking some time to slow down, tinker with some new projects. I’m in the initial phases of a third collection of poems, which really for me is, I feel like I did the thing that my first two books do. I took it as far as it could go, and so it’s really a departure. And this is a collection tentatively titled “The Museum of.” It’s a collection of speculative ekphrases of art that doesn’t actually exist, in a fictional museum that doesn’t exist and can only be visited in your dreams or on the verge of death. And they’re all prose poems because I got sick of line breaks and I decided to abandon them for a whole book.

I’m also working on a collection of craft essays titled “Blood on My Back Teeth,” on excess obsession and failure. In addition to this creative work, you know, I’m also currently working [on] teaching and mentoring poets as part of the Rainier Writing Workshop, which is the low-residency MFA at Pacific Lutheran University. That new work sounds exciting, and I think your book is going to drop around the same time that this interview does because this interview will be released in early July. Okay? Thank you so much for joining me today. This has been great.

greathouse: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.