My Drowning Home

October 12, 2021


Poetry Off the Shelf: My Drowning Home





Helena de Groot: This is Poetry Off the Shelf. I’m Helena de Groot. Today, My Drowning Home. Isabel Duarte-Gray was born in California. Her parents were both artists. Her father, who had made it over the border from Mexico when he was just eight years old, was staging plays on truck beds for local campesinos, while her mother, who’s American, was a dancer, performing choreographies about sharecroppers and greedy landowners with the Marxist dance collectives she helped found. When Isabel was five, her parents split up, and she and her mother left. From California, they moved to Dycusburg, Kentucky, where her mother’s family was from. Dycusburg and some of the surrounding Kentucky and Tennessee towns form the setting for her debut collection, titled Even Shorn. In this collection, Duarte-Gray speaks in the voices of her cousins, grandmothers, aunts, and other members of her family, whose often violent fates she heard about while growing up. I recently sat down to talk to her. She had just finished up her PhD at Harvard and was getting ready to move across the country. But I wanted to start at the beginning, with the unincorporated community where she grew up: Dycusburg, Kentucky, which the latest census puts at population 26. I wanted to know what it was like to grow up in a place that small.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Okay, let me think, so I grew up in a trailer. And it was kind of an interesting contrast for me, because I was born in Oakland. Both my parents are artists of some kind. So when I grew up, for the first five years of my life, I was surrounded by theater companies and professional dancers and mask makers. So when I went to Kentucky—(LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: It was a bit different.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Not as racially diverse a space. And my mom worked at a very famous local institution called Knoth’s Bar-B-Que. For which I have nothing but fond memories, by the way. They almost went out of business a couple of years ago, and the town revolted to make sure that it continued. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: That’s amazing. Wow. You’re right. It is a local institution.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: And what did she do? Was she a waitress there or did she cook or?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: She was a waitress. And used to come home and tell me all the sweet, sweet waitressing gossip, which was pretty fun. But the town was very small. And, as a result, two things happened. One was that I felt kind of at a remove from a lot of the people around me, because I was very different. Didn’t grow up with much of an accent, then developed one, and then lost it again. But also, my family was dense in that town. We’re really from this town called Dycusburg, which is by the Cumberland River. And it was a town that used to be quite thriving for the cultivation of dark fire tobacco. And then in about, between 1904 and 1908, it kind of self-destructed in rebellion against tobacco trusts. And somebody once told my ex-husband during a Christmas event that back in the day, you could only come to Dycusberg if you were invited. I don’t know if this is true.


Helena de Groot: And does this stem, you think, from this history of anti-trust activism?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Oh, yes. Like, there were these anti-tobacco trusts and they used to have to get literally like 100 percent loyalty of all the tobacco farmers in order to fight back the American Tobacco Company, because otherwise they’d push down the price of tobacco to like two to four cents per pound. So, there’s this intense inter-community loyalty. So when I go back for Christmas, we rent a hall in Dycusburg. And I don’t know half the people there, but they are all related to me. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: They’ll come up to me and say, “Oh, you’re Pam’s daughter, obviously.” Or “You’re Helen’s granddaughter,” or “You’re Gail’s granddaughter.” And I will be like, I have no idea who you are, but you’re obviously family, so I treat you with respect.


Helena de Groot: That’s amazing. And so, okay, I grew up in a city, I’ve always only lived in cities. So I have no concept really of what it means to live in a place where people are kind of looking out for one another and know one another’s business, know your name, that you have no privacy in a sense. You know? And I’m wondering, like, did you experience that as a kid? Like, was this something you noticed or, you know, how did you feel about that?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Okay, I’m going to tell you an anecdote that might be obliquely answering this, which is that—so my mom’s a huge gossip, huge gossip. So being a waitress at Noce was sort of natural for her. But, the elementary school I went to had a scandal when I was eight years old. And the scandal was that one of our local politicians was married to one elementary school teacher and then left her for another one. And they were both my teachers. So my mom used to ask me (LAUGHING) what it was like to witness one of the teachers hand off our class to the other teacher. One of them was very sexy and young, and the other one had two children and was not so much. And then a few months later, they called off the wedding to the second teacher, and then the politician turned up dead in his own like, divorced man apartment, you know?


Helena de Groot: Oh, wow. That is a twist I did not see coming. (LAUGHS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah. So this is a—there wasn’t privacy and I didn’t ever expect there to be any. My mom would just tell me the deep gossip about everyone.


Helena de Groot: And so then your ... because I haven’t heard your dad in this story, was he there with you guys in Kentucky, or?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Oh no.


Helena de Groot: Okay.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: He stayed in Oakland and actually continued to write Chicano plays. Usually about like, the Chicano community, but also about gentrification, capitalist violence.


Helena de Groot: Right, right. So initially when you moved to Kentucky with just your mom, it was just you and her in the trailer. And then when you were 12, it was, your little brother was born there too.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah. Yes.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. And so, given that your mom had been a dancer and involved in all these, like, really cool, like, Marxists performances and, you know, and then all of a sudden to move to Kentucky, did she still have time as a waitress, looking after you as a single mom, did she still have time to make art? Was she bitter? Was she—like, how did her art factor into your world?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So she was bitter, but she was also making art. That’s the answer, is that she was very angry. And, you know, her feminism didn’t necessarily translate to 1990s Kentucky all that well. But she did make art. She was interested in the relationship between dance and labor.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: She always has been. But there are art traditions that exist in Kentucky, obviously.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So one the things that she used to do was take me to bluegrass festivals, she played, there was a radio show called Music from the Front Porch.


(Excerpt from Music from the Front Porch with guitarist and vocalist Josh Williams, from November 1, 2012 PLAYS)


And it was all bluegrass. So she would play that every Saturday. Like, my entire memory of Saturday mornings was just bluegrass, followed by folk. So she really respected local artistic traditions very much. The most socially integrated form of art that she could put me in was choir. She would put me in a church choir, she would put me in town choirs. There was something called Paducah Symphony Children’s Chorus that she put me in. And so I was singing everything from, like, very local hymns, you know, “Rock of Ages,” things like that to, you know, Bach, Schubert, people like that. For whatever reason, our choir director was obsessed with Anton Bruckner.


(Excerpt “Agnus Dei” from Anton Bruckner’s Mass no. 2 in E Minor, performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, directed by Eugen Jochum PLAYS)


He was very interested in devotional music. So that was why he was so obsessed with both Bruckner and Bach.


Helena de Groot: Right. Right. That’s so interesting. I mean, this is kind of like a perfect segue to your work, because of its polyphony. I won’t belabor it.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: But before we get to the polyphony part, I just wanted to ask you a little bit about your process, because I read that you wrote Even Shorn really quickly, that it kind of just gushed out of you initially, before you started editing. And so I just was curious about that time and that place.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So, I didn’t really write that much poetry before I started writing this book. I took one workshop. I went to Amherst College on a full ride. And so I did one workshop with Richard Wilbur, for which I am very grateful. And then I didn’t really write anything for eight years. I graduated into the recession, so there were no jobs. (LAUGHS) And I just sort of thought, okay, well, my creative ambitions are dead now. So I went to Harvard and did a PhD in English. And I was maybe right in the process of finishing maybe my second or third dissertation chapter. And I also was helping my brother apply to college. And that’s what precipitated the book. And it’s hard to explain, but—so there are a lot of early deaths in my family, and they’re almost all men. You know, one of our cousins shot himself at 22. Another one had a complete breakdown, joined the military, and then went AWOL. Another one fell off a building in his 30s. And that’s, you know, how that happened is somewhat ambiguous. So we had all these deaths. I had gone to funeral after funeral after funeral. And I hadn’t really thought that much at the time about the relationship between poverty, patriarchy, and violence. Particularly self-destructive violence. In these rural spaces. And then I just started to panic that if my little brother didn’t have more economic options and didn’t see the larger world, he might also end up in this sort of cycle of no mental health care, not a lot of economic opportunity, and not really a way to visualize, you know, what a dream might be and how to achieve it. So I was helping him apply. He’s at Wesleyan now. He’s fine.


Helena de Groot: Great.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: But I started writing these elegies. I don’t really know why. It just started pouring out of me. So they started off as being entirely directed at a second person. And then it took a while before I figured out how to make the music of the dialect, because that was a real transition. But originally, they were all elegies for these cousins who had died in these awful ways. And then I realized it was bigger than—oh no, my cat’s here.


Helena de Groot and Isabel Duarte-Gray: (LAUGH)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I absolutely dowsed the carpet in catnip, but it’s not going to stop her.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) That’s fine. If she doesn’t knock over the microphone, I think we’re good. If she makes cute sounds, I’m all for it, you know.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah, there she is.


Helena de Groot: Oh, hello.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So I started doing a lot of research because I realized if I wanted to represent this stuff accurately. A) I should go back at least two generations, because my great grandfather was a tobacco sharecropper. He was illiterate. He was Pentecostal. So I started doing research because I’m really more of an academic in a lot of ways.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So I looked at—I researched how tobacco was farmed. I looked at Dorothea Lange photos of tobacco sharecroppers and how they worked. I found and wrote some of my friends who work at libraries there, and they sent me Kentucky oral histories, particularly of that antitrust period where nightriders were destroying their hometowns. (LAUGHS)


(Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Bernard Jones, April 15, 1977, Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries PLAYS)


Bernard Jones: They rode in between 11 and 12 o’clock. Everybody was asleep in Hopkinsville. They overpowered the policemen. Tied them up. And the National Guard that were stationed there didn’t know anything about it. They cut all the telephone lines, the same men that had cut ’em in Princeton. They had their climbers and climbed the poles and cut them. And they burnt two of the biggest factories in Hopkinsville. And they was one other place or two that had been sympathizing with the tobacco people. And they burnt their place a bit.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And that was very fertile because my family has an extremely particular accent. And so, I’d never really heard it recorded before. And suddenly you’d hear just the sound of my great aunts and great grandmothers just in these recordings talking about the Tobacco Association.


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And so I was really inspired by that. Because they would tell these stories and the stories you could tell were only maybe like 75 percent true and had been so deeply embroidered by tradition that it was very funny, but also horrifying. They would be devastating stories and they would just be told like it was funny.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So then I also researched folk remedies, so I would look up 19th century books about local Kentucky folk remedies and medicine. Found some weird stuff in there.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, I saw something about a madstone in your book.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: And I had never heard this word before. Can you maybe talk a little bit about a madstone and what that is?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I think it comes from the stomach of what, a goat or a sheep or a, can even be a cow. And it’s just like some sort of growth or formation in the stomach. But they’re used to treat snakebite. And they’re used to treat other kinds of usually poisonous illnesses.


Helena de Groot: Right. And you’re supposed to put it in the mouth or something, right?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah. You either put it in your mouth or you put it on the snakebite, I think.


Helena de Groot: Ah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: But don’t super trust me on that, because it’s been a minute. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Yes, of course. Of course.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And then there were a bunch of really fascinating ones. One of them was just that you could switch your gender if you ate five green persimmons.


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Like, there’s actual belief in the magical powers of stump water.


Helena de Groot: What’s stump water?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: It’s water that collects in a stump.


Helena de Groot: Oh, okay. That makes sense. Yeah, I could have thought of that. (LAUGHS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: And what kind of powers would that have?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I forget. It was supposed to be providential in some way. I think it was either good luck or it could cure usually some kind of skin ailment. But it was interesting, like, there were so many things. A lot of the childbirth stuff was very disturbing. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Like in what sense?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: How to induce labor. So, one way to induce labor would be to give her a cold water and gunpowder.


Helena de Groot: To eat? To ingest gunpowder?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Mm-hmm.


Helena de Groot: Okay. I mean, I understand the metaphor here, you know what I mean?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: It’s like you’re trying to create like, an explosion, ejecting the baby from the barrel of the mother’s womb.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah, that’s where so much of the poetry came from was this, like, genuine belief in something like sympathetic magic.


Helena de Groot: Uh-huh.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And so I found that kind of a metaphor that becomes super literal, that returns back to metaphor, this kind of ambivalent metaphorical practices to be really interesting and helpful for creating the music.


Helena de Groot: So I was just wondering, like, when you were listening to these oral histories, when you were writing, what was it like to have this home chorus in your head while you were also going about your day at Harvard? It sounds like a very confusing interaction.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Well, I didn’t need the poetry to make that confusing.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: It was always confusing.


Helena de Groot: Fair enough.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So when I was in my third year, I was supposed to be doing my fields exam. So I was supposed to do it in I think February, very early February. And in mid January, one of my cousins went missing. And so we don’t know exactly what happened. But she was found dead in a puddle of runoff by a highway in the deep of January. And so that was this weird, weird experience, because I couldn’t go back. I was too busy to go to the funeral. So I sent flowers and everything, but.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: But like, so at Harvard, (LAUGHS) we were sitting around having these professionalization processes. And there’s one particular professor there who I shall not name, who used to just say, “Oh, you’re going to have a mental breakdown at some point late in the process of either being an assistant professor or finishing your dissertation. So, budget time so that you don’t mess with your tenure process.”


Helena de Groot: Budget time so you can have your nervous breakdown?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah, one of the examples of when you’ll have a nervous breakdown is like, if your parent dies, budget time so that you don’t lose—yeah. This really happened.


Helena de Groot: Oh, god.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So, I didn’t have time to grieve.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And there wasn’t really anyone to grieve with. My husband worked as an attorney at the time, and he worked 12-, 14-hour days. It was bad. And so, I just kept it inside me for a long time.


Helena de Groot: And did that make you want to turn to the page?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah. I think it was that I had not a lot of spaces to be emotionally available or raw or just have unbridled, unmitigated grief. And so, you know, if there wasn’t really room for that at home, which there wasn’t, and if there wasn’t really room for that at school, which there wasn’t, I needed to create some third space in which to grieve.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. Yeah. Did it carry you through the time where you were so grief-stricken and so busy? Like, was it a comfort? Because the poems you write are not ...


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Comforting?


Helena de Groot: Yeah! (LAUGHS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah, it was comforting for me, because I had a way to talk about it ... that was somehow more socially acceptable than just talking about it. Because I felt like the professionalization of academia is a place where you shut down emotion, because if you have an excess of feeling, it often looks un-rigorous. So, there is an affect of performance, especially at Harvard, although I have no idea where else, Stanford, most certainly, that is one of rigor being associated with indifference or cynicism that I didn’t find very helpful, because, usually if your rigor is associated with something like a cynical detachment or intellectual detachment, that means you are not suffering directly from whatever it is you’re studying.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: It means your detachment comes from a space of not having to feel it. And so I remember thinking I needed a space to feel it.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I want to get to a poem. I mean, the poem that I had thought you could read initially was “A Portion of Foxes” on page 14. But how do you feel about it? Because this poem is sort of uncharacteristically light.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Sweet.


Helena de Groot: Sweet. yes.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah, it’s—I always get asked to read “A Portion of Foxes.”


Helena de Groot: Uh-huh. (LAUGHS) That’s interesting.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I think it’s maybe the most palatable poem in the book, because literally every other poet in there is terrifying.


Helena de Groot: Okay, let’s not do it then. People can buy your book and read the sweet poem.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: But I assume you want one that’s in dialect because I perform them very differently. So the ones in dialect, I feel, because I hear them in dialect in my head, that I have to perform them in dialect, which is, I find a little bit unsettling, because I don’t have the accent naturally, I have to put it on. I do it okay, but it never feels fully authentic to me.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, yeah. I understand that.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I mean, my entire experience of living is one that disproves authenticity discourse because I’m authentically Mexican-American and authentically Southern, but I don’t have an accent and my Spanish is iffy at best.


Helena de Groot: That is interesting. Yeah. Well you don’t have to perform anything you’re not comfortable with.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: No, let’s—


Helena de Groot: Yeah. Okay, so, do you want to read, on page seven, “I Said Your Daddy’s Gone” or is there another one where you think, “No, I want to read this one rather.”


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Oh, I’ll do this.


Helena de Groot: Okay.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Okay. This poem’s about—it’s one of those stories my mother just casually narrated to me as though it wasn’t a big deal. My grandfather was a very dysfunctional alcoholic. So there are two kind of relevant pieces of information. One is that bootlegging was very common in Kentucky. And Dycusberg, because it had very limited jurisdiction, was a bootlegging hub.


Helena de Groot: Huh. Because the rest of the state was dry?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Oh, I mean, Dycusberg was dry too, but nobody cared.


Helena de Groot: Oh. Right.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So there was a lot of illegal gambling and a lot of illegal bootlegging down there. I’ve heard there’s illegal cockfighting down there, but I don’t know.


Helena de Groot: Right.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Anyway, my grandfather used to disappear to Dycusberg for long periods of time. And would sort of be found in a drunken spiral sometimes for two weeks at a time. And in this story, he was bootlegging with a young woman, probably far too young. And my grandmother was in the car with her sister and they pulled up alongside him in the act of bootlegging. They ran his car off the road. And then my grandmother got out and, for lack of a better phrase, beat the shit out of him with a six-pack of beer. So it’s about domestic violence. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Right. Right. Okay.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Okay, let me try and get here. All right.




Helena de Groot: Thank you. Well, the question that I had about this poem and about your dialect poems in general is, since you inhabit the speech of another person … okay, you’re not a reporter, right? You’re not trying to get an exact quote on paper. You’re a poet, you know? So how do you go about channeling other people’s speech but also allowing for your own poetic intervention?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So my dad is a playwright, so I’m kind of used to, you know, seeing, I guess from a Bakhtinian point of view, heteroglossia as being an indicator of political and spiritual and ideological orientation. So, you can hear in the way that people talk, how they feel about the world around them. It’s indicated by language choices, by their use of clichés and what clichés they think are most relevant to any situation. And so, in some ways, it was like figuring out what this person’s ideological orientation is, and then trying to figure out how it would express itself in music, in verbal music, through choices, through clichés, through postures and posturing. But there’s also this profound fatalism that sort of rests inside the way people orient themselves to death and to violence and the attritions of poverty. And just sort of accepting that you will probably die young. And so that is the other thing that I was really trying to catch. So, that felt like the thing that I wanted to catch the most.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And people have very paradoxical relations to death in the book. For example, I think it’s the poem “Cast Iron.” It originally was more monologuey, but I couldn’t quite get it to fit together. But it’s about my stepfather—he’s not really my stepfather, he’s just sort of a figure like my stepfather—once tried to date a woman that had been convicted of attempted murder of her previous husband. He ran around on her. That’s the term everybody uses. And then she whacked him in the head with a pan and then ran over him with her truck. For cheating!


Helena de Groot: Right.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Which is funny, because this man, my stepfather, has a history of cheating. And I just remember thinking, “Do you also want to die?” (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: That is amazing.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: But when I asked him about it, he was just like, “She was great! She was a great woman.” And I just remember thinking, “Yep, that’s about right. Your death drive overrides all sense of self-protection.”


Helena de Groot: That is interesting. I mean, because it kind of reminds me a little bit of the Southern Gothic tradition, you know? Like this kind of orientation towards death, towards fatalism, knowing that the past is more present than the present. And so yeah, you say that you’re, where you’re from, people are kind of oriented towards death. Are you?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Me?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Hmm. Yes and no. I will say that both late capitalism and religious fatalism actually share a teleological orientation towards history, so, I mean, the way that my family is looking at it—I mean they’re Pentecostal, which is an almost, more or less Millenarian tradition, in which they’re anticipating the end of the world. But that’s not bad. That’s good. That means all the suffering has already happened. We honor that suffering and we are looking forward to the redemption of the second coming of Christ.


Helena de Groot: Right.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So if you look at Milton’s vision of history, it’s the fall happens. That’s the beginning of history. The first marriage is also the first nation state, and it is rife with sin. And then you go down into the Old Testament and then Christ arrives and redeems, and then history starts to progress upwards towards redemption. And then, that’s certainly also a neoliberal mindset, that we’re just getting better, that technology is redemptive, that reason is redemptive, and that we will arrive at an egalitarian state through capitalism?


Helena de Groot: Mm.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Which is not really borne out by facts, but is certainly the way that we look at history since the Enlightenment is this reason is in and of itself redemptive.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, yeah. But that was what I thought was so interesting about your collection, is that it seems so firmly rooted in two polar opposites at once, you know, like the dream world, the mythological, and then there is the rational take that you have on everything. Like, because you are an academic, you are a researcher. And I’m wondering, because the rational world has a tendency to hijack the world of myth, the world of dream, the world of the soul, I wonder how you fuse those two without your rational side overruling and over-shouting your inner dreamer.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I definitely don’t write from a rational place. So I’ll make a list of poems that are basically anchor poems that have to be written for the book. And then from there, I just wait. So I do a lot of research. And I just research and research and research, and think and think and think, and then I just wait, for a really long time sometimes. I basically wait for my subconscious to process it and then it kind of explodes out of me, a lot at night. And that’s the best I can describe my own relationship to rationality. I mean, I think having grown up with a really, really rich choral tradition, I often experience emotion in terms of almost like pre-linguistic experiences. What is it—oh, what’s his name? There’s a German composer who says music is too specific for words. He wrote “Lieder ohne Worte.”


Helena de Groot: Ah, Mendelssohn.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Mendelssohn. Thank you. “Lieder ohne Worte”, so “Songs Without Words.” And I remember thinking it’s weird that this is how I orient myself towards language, but in some ways, it feels like it’s coming out first as images and that I’m trying to figure out a language to catch it.


Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm. And so, you know, you said you do a whole lot of research and then you just wait. Like, the waiting, what does that look like? Do you listen to music? Do you cook? Do you … I don’t know, rake leaves.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Like, what, I don’t know what else shape it can take. It can take a million shapes. But is there some shape that you use to connect to the quiet part inside you?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I definitely listened to a lot of bluegrass when I was writing this, because it taps into this like, very primal space of me of every Saturday morning.




Isabel Duarte-Gray: But I didn’t want it to be predominantly white music, because I’m not white. So I listened to a lot of The Carolina Chocolate Drops.


(Excerpt from “Why Don’t You Do Right” by The Carolina Chocolate Drops, from the 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig PLAYS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And also Rhiannon Giddens.


(Excerpt from “O Death” by Rhiannon Giddens, with Francesco Turisi, from the 2021 album They’re Calling Me Home PLAYS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray:... because I feel like she’s doing some of the same kind of project work that I’m interested in, which is a take on Southern logic and Southern esthetics that isn’t necessarily rooted in whiteness. So that’s how I tap into irrationalities.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I mean, music is too specific for words.


(Excerpt from “O Death” by Rhiannon Giddens, with Francesco Turisi, from the 2021 album They’re Calling Me Home PLAYS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: That helps. And I think, you know, so much of music is about collective experience. So, you know, my grief is my mother’s grief is my grandmother’s grief is her mother’s grief. We’re constantly sharing in this affective lineage of suffering without remediation. And so, in some ways, music is just a way of cutting through to that deeper substrate of intensity.




Helena de Groot: Well, I want to get to a poem. It’s the poem called “Tennessee Valley Authority.”


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Oh.


Helena de Groot: About this Army Corps of Engineers type organization that is like, “Well, we need electricity for the area, so we’re going to flood some villages.” And then how that affects the people who actually live there in those homes that will now be underwater. So it’s on page 21. And before we start, again, I want to just ask, is there something you want to say before you read, something about the way in which you wrote it or researched it or anything you want to say?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I didn’t research this one at all. I’m from Kuttawa. And Kuttawa is one of the cities that was flooded. Oh, there is something funny in here.


Helena de Groot: Okay. (LAUGHS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: No, wait. It’s “Gone Bridge” that has the funny line. So I have two poems that address the flooding of Kuttawa for the sake of building, I think it’s Kentucky Lake. There’s Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, and they create a space called Land Between the Lakes, which is where I grew up. And so, yeah, the other poem mentions that my great grandfather, who had like four wives, and several of them were dead, he had to unbury his wives. He exhumed his wives (LAUGHS) in order to—


Helena de Groot: Oh, that’s what that was about.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yep!


Helena de Groot: I read that in a poem, but I didn’t understand what it was, and I thought, “Well, nobody is going to unbury—this must be a metaphor.” But you’re talking literally.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: No, no. He literally unburied—he exhumed his wives to move them so that they could flood the river into a lake.


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And I realize, like, there’s not just grief buried underneath, some of which is probably getting addressed and some of which isn’t, there are literal corpses under there. And if you go in a boat over Kentucky Lake, you can sometimes see the tops of foundations and things like that underneath the water. And that’s where the poem came from, because I remember doing that in a very dense, lily filled part of the lake and feeling like, there’s a whole city under there. There’s a whole drowned city under there.


Helena de Groot: Mm. And so is that—because the poem starts with a reference to a corpse boat.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: I looked this up, because I was like, is this a thing that I just don’t know about? Which is entirely possible. But so you’re just more—what was the thinking for you? What was the corpse boat?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Oh, that’s actually a private joke.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So my stepfather, Phil, he—this is so hillbilly.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I cannot even. So he’s always had a series of boats, and none of his boats perfectly work, because they’re all poor people boats. He’s a house painter and he … what am I allowed to say? He’s never had a bank account. And he was in trouble with the IRS for never paying taxes for a very long time. That’s my stepdad. So he used to get all these boats. And one of the boats that he was taking my mom and brother out on literally used to be used for fishing corpses out of the lake.


Helena de Groot: Oh, so in a previous life, this boat had been used by law enforcement to fish corpses out of the lake. And now he was like, “I’ll use it!”


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah!


Helena de Groot: Okay. That is great. Thank you for explaining the first line of the poem to me. It opens up a whole new image. (LAUGHS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: (LAUGHS) I sometimes forget that I write these so densely that I sometimes don’t even explicate things that are worth explaining.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah. Okay, so—




Tennessee Valley Authority


The corpse boat split the lilies

in a black and heaving ribbon

in a final day on earth.

This lake ain’t lake the way a god

shapes lakes with claws of ice.

A living man remembers when this hole

was not a place of many waters but

a city drowned in just a day.

Underneath the lilies can’t you see

the roofs where finches threw a nest

for sowing panic grass and babies.

There was brides made in this place

where herons sweep at corners.

Mudcats breed here now their knowing whiskers

rooted. Home the only thing to root here

in these rooms we cannot save.



Kuttawa, Kentucky.


Helena de Groot: Thank you. Hmm. Yeah, I have two questions about this poem. The first one is tying into, you know, the story that you told me about the corpse boat and that this is kind of a private joke. There are also words that you make up. There is one poem where you make up the word the “billowingest.”


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Mm-hmm.


Helena de Groot: It’s talking about like church hats. And yeah, those made up words and then these like, private jokes that you weave in to this collection, it all felt to me like the way you use a—I mean, we all use sort of a private language when we’re talking to our own. You know, when we’re talking to our siblings or our parents or someone really, really close. And so I’m wondering, having written this book, using so much of something that feels like private language to me, how does it feel to share it with people you don’t know? Like, is it a vulnerable feeling? Do you feel like you’re exposing something?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So the first thing I’ll say is that, you know, I’m Mexican American, so on the other side of my family, we have a very different version of private language. My dad has a whole joke that if we’re going to, if somebody’s gonna fart in the car, you have to say fuego, which means fire.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Isabel Duarte-Gray: So we could roll down the windows, because nobody had automatic windows growing up because we were poor. So like, on one side of my family, we have a completely unrelated private language that I’m supposed to understand.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Like, if I know my dad wants me to call him, he’ll be like, “I have chisme.” That means gossip. Porque soy chismosa, I am a gossip.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And so, on my dad’s side of the family there’s Spanglish.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And I always feel like I have limited but real access to that. And that’s also true of Southern dialect to some extent. I don’t fully speak it, like, the private language, perfectly and I never have, and I never will. And I’m not trying to claim that I do. But my experience of being at Harvard, and I went to Amherst before Harvard, is one of code switching. Like I’m always code switching. There’s no day, there’s no time when I’m interacting with another human being that I’m not on some level mirroring that person’s preferred language. So I don’t really have a sense of interior authenticity with language. Like, I don’t necessarily know how I think in language when I’m alone, because even when I’m alone, a lot of my experiences of language are mediated through a sort of internalized interlocutor. So I think to other people, even when I am by myself. So, there’s that. And then … so there’s a lot of dirty laundry in this book. And I, like I asked my mother not to tell anyone that I published this book. I’m genuinely concerned about hurting people by airing their dirty laundry. It does belong to me, but it also doesn’t belong to me. And I don’t, I don’t feel ethically pure for having written this book. I’m not proud of it. I mean, I’m proud of it, obviously, I’m very proud of myself, and, you know. But in another sort of deeper familial sense, I’m very concerned about having made private suffering public and whether people are enjoying it in the way that they should. I’m hoping that the language has such an intensity to it that it doesn’t really allow you to take pure pleasure in the experience of reading. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Mm.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: That it’s about cycles of trauma, and how those cycles of trauma don’t have that redemptive upwards arc towards progress, they’re just cycles.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And so, in that sense, I don’t feel good when I read these. I always like, every time I finish reading one out loud, I just think, “I didn’t do that right.” Like it didn’t come out perfectly. I get scared when I start doing the accent, because it makes me uncomfortable.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: But I feel like it would be inauthentic to what I’m trying to do, not to read them in an accent.


Helena de Groot: And so in your head, when you’re reading them not out loud, is it different?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: It gets—it’s closer in my head than it is my mouth.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I actually had—I did a reading not terribly long ago and I asked a friend of mine from Murray to read all the poems that I was doing. And he isn’t thickly accented, but he is accented. And so I listened to him read them because I wanted to understand what it might sound like in a more authentic accent. Because I always feel inauthentic when I read these. You know, to some extent, I have an absolute claim on this language. My mom speaks it. Like, it’s mine, but it’s also not mine.


Helena de Groot: Right. That is interesting. Well, I have a question about the end of this poem, about the lake flooding these two towns. It ends on these lines, “Home the only thing to root here / in these rooms we cannot save.” And I’m interested in your relationship to home. Would you ever move back to Kentucky? Do you feel at home anywhere? What is your relationship to home?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I would never move back. Never. In fact, there’s a job opening at Murray State University that I am qualified for. I’m not going to apply for it. I can’t do it. It would be too hard. So, I ... I don’t, I don’t feel at home anywhere. I never have. I call my dad’s house home and I call my mom’s house home, but I don’t feel fully comfortable in either. And I never have. And I never will. Precisely because when you grow up as a child of interracial divorce, you tend to have these very segmented pieces of your sense of self that are localized to each house. And one side of my family is totally oblivious to the other. They are not aware of what’s going on in each other’s spaces. So my dad likes to tell stories about having visited Kentucky and he like, saw my uncle Ray Peake was raising hogs in a upside-down clothing washer. Or it was maybe a dryer. And he was like, “Why are you doing that?” And they were like, “Well, it’s just a good house for a pig.” And then he goes, “Yep, ya eat slop for six months and then ya die.” And that was like my dad’s favorite anecdote about Kentucky. And I just remember thinking, like, I know that’s funny to you, but there’s something very accurate about saying, “Oh, you eat slop for six months and then you die.” It’s that fatalism again, where you are very familiar with killing animals for food. Like, when I was six, I think I helped dress a doe for the first time. Or it might have been a buck, I don’t remember.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Like, we eat tons of deer meat. Like, my fridge is usually full of—not here, obviously, but in Kentucky, it was always full of like, turkey somebody shot, deer somebody shot, made into sausage, or sometimes jerky, which is really good, by the way. And then also, usually fish that someone caught.


Helena de Groot: Right.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And it has a much darker relationship to the kind of casual violence of a space like this. Like, most of the kids in my family learn how to hunt and like, six or seven. So they have guns by six or seven. You can see photos of them in really young ages like, with a six-point buck. And it’s just like, okay, I don’t know why this is so necessary to our sense of … of like, an Emersonian self-reliance, but without the kind of intellectual side of Emersonian self-reliance.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. And like, for your dad, this was just a fun, like a typical anecdote.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: An anecdote.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, for you, this is life. Was life.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: It’s a fact.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. Right. Well, you know, because you were talking about this … how you never, like the separate parts of you never seem to meet, you know, like your father’s side of the family doesn’t really know about your mother’s side of the family, like, the life that you know in Kentucky has nothing to do with the life that you are leading in at Harvard. I’m wondering, like, with all of these contradictions sort of kicking around in you, is there some kind of white whale that you are chasing that is an integration of all these things? Like, is there a secret poem that you’re trying to write that will once and for all unite all the parts of you? Or are you resigned to this disparateness?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: I don’t think I could unite those things. I mean, the poetics of it would be impossible. Like, do you write a Spanglish Southern poem? I know that thing must exist, because I know lots of Mexican Americans with Southern accents when they speak English. But like, that’s not my reality. My reality is fragmentation. That is the fact.


Helena de Groot: Yes.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: And I think it would be a nostalgic or artificial move for me to try to link them together into something coherent, because my experience of living is not coherent and that’s okay.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. In the beginning, you said like, you know, a poem is a place where you can be alone, where you can feel, you know, all the things are not allowed to feel basically as you go through the rest of your day. So if the poem is a safe place for you to feel things, what does it allow you to do?


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Um … I believe in the value of hope. Like, my father’s theater company is called El Teatro de La Esperanza. And that means “The Theater of Hope.” Back when I thought I was going to have kids—and I don’t think I am now, but back when I thought I was, I wanted to name one of them Esperanza. And so I believe in hope, but I also have that trenchant, inherited fatalism inside of my bones. And so I think poems—Jorie Graham says like, the great thing about poetry is you don’t have to answer questions. You just make them. So it’s a space where you get to string together contradictions.


Helena de Groot: So, asking the questions that, as Jorie Graham says, do not even need to be answered, is inherently a hopeful act?




Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah, I mean, José Muñoz would call that an act of utopianism, is that—I mean, for him it’s about queerness. But hope is in some ways a horizon to which you look, rather than a fact of being.


Helena de Groot: Right. So that’s an orientation.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: It’s like, you can orient yourself towards death or you can orient yourself towards hope.


Isabel Duarte-Gray: Yeah, except I’m pretty Janus-faced so (LAUGHING) I’m always looking at both.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)




Helena de Groot: Isabel Duarte-Gray just published her debut collection, titled Even Shorn, with Sarabande Books. It won the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature, and was a New England Book Awards Finalist in Poetry. Isabel has just finished up her PhD from Harvard, where she studied Latinx Literature, Poetry and Ecocriticism. She’s about to move to LA for a postdoc, but as of now still lives in Cambridge with her cat who likes string, Ariadne, who you may have heard at the end of the episode. To find out more, check out the Poetry Foundation website.


The bit of oral history you heard was from an interview with Bernard Jones Sr., interviewed by Claire Hodge in April of 1977. It’s part of the Black Patch and Night Rider Oral History Project at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History from the University of Kentucky Libraries.


The music you heard was “O Death,” by Rhiannon Giddens (with Francesco Turrisi), “Why Don’t You Do Right,” by The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the Agnus Dei from Anton Bruckner’s Mass no. 2 in E Minor, performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eugen Jochum. The other music in this episode is by Todd Sickafoose.


I’m Helena de Groot, and this was Poetry Off the Shelf. Thank you for listening.



Isabel Duarte-Gray on town gossip, folk remedies, and the music of Kentucky.

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