The Natural is Vexed: Sophia Dahlin Interviewed by Brandon Brown

A poetry collection that is “allergically pastoral” and full of good fantasies (with a touch of pain).

Natch Cover

To say that the release of Sophia Dahlin’s first full-length poetry collection, Natch (City Lights Books), is long-awaited is not merely a cliché but an understatement. I met Sophia a decade ago in one of the classic sites of Bay Area writing, a house poetry reading. As a poet, performer, teacher, activist, and friend, Dahlin has embodied grace, intelligence, wit and raw spirit in the Bay Area for years. Even during sojourns in Iowa City and Philadelphia, Dahlin remained, to my mind, a quintessential Bay Area writer, with her outstanding ear, shameless fealty to pleasure, and performative range.

The world of Natch is, in part, an old world. A world where horny herdspeople take a break and steal time from their lords by exchanging dirty verses with each other. But her work doesn’t founder in nostalgia. Dahlin’s poems are for our time, for our yucky and seductive mouths and lips, and we should all be stealing hours from our lords to revel in it. Somewhere between ancient pastoral tradition and the very present-tense erotic vocabulary of her life as a lover, Dahlin brings enormous musical sensuality, romantic intelligence, and impressive wit in these marvelous poems.

Speaking of the present tense, I long for the other version of the present where Dahlin would be bringing this show to your town. The Natch tour would have been the stuff of legend. I encourage you to find videos of Dahlin performing her work. You’ll get a sense of her unique approach to performing poetry: somehow impossibly intimate and flawlessly staged. Still, when she reads she effects something like a dance, a sway in cadence and attention that thrives when its embodied. Too bad for these times when embodiment comes with such risk. But it was nonetheless a pleasure to discuss, remotely, this magnificent new book.

—Brandon Brown

 

Brandon Brown First of all, congratulations on Natch! It’s been such an enormous pleasure to be your reader and friend and co-conspirator for the last…decade or whatever, and I am so happy for you. A first book is inevitably whelming if not overwhelming, always productive of many varieties of feels, and sometimes overdetermined in how it guides our fantasies as writers. Natch enters maybe the weirdest world we’ve ever experienced. How has that felt, to see this culmination of so many years of work, study, refinement, explosive life in an explosive historical moment, emerge in the summer of 2020?

Sophia Dahlin Thank you for your congratulations! Your readership, friendship, coconspiratorship is a joy in my life plus immeasurably helpful in all ways, and I would rather gossip with you than attend any seminar. I do feel you are happy for me, and that makes me lucky.

When I accepted that Natch would come out in a sheltered world I was kind of wrecked, because I love poetry readings, and the fantasy of going on tour with my first book and flirting with the poets of the world is a sustaining dream of mine.

On the other hand, I’m so happy about it, and it feels amazing to have something I can so easily take joy in at this time. I mean there are a lot of joys right now—riot joy, protest joy, the word “abolition” in everyone’s mouth! But this is a devastating time. Hard, hard. So, having a book—an expansive object that is a little bit me and leaves my house and connects me with others—is, for my personal happiness, in many ways really well-timed.

BB Speaking of others, the poems in Natch are so frequently addressed. There are a lot of lovers, or at least one lover who takes a lot of forms and shapes that feel distinct. There are friends and family and occasionally people in the street, but it does also feel a little like a universe-creating collection of poems. You hardly name anyone in the book, for instance, maybe once? Which is not a slight obviously but something to notice in a time and milieu where a lot of writers (myself included) are constantly name-dropping. LOL. How were you thinking about people, real and imaginary, as you distributed these addresses and addressees through the poems, if you were?

SD It’s funny, you know, these days I include names all the time! In fact, I just word-searched my girlfriend’s name in my drafts this year and Brandon I honestly wrote it fifty-six times. Since January.

When Natch does have a name, it’s normally not even a real person. Like “Rebecca”? Who TF would that be. I think the poems in Natch are often addressed—they’re often love poems, to various lovers and friends—but they aren’t conversational the way you or sometimes I or many of our friends write. They’re addressed more to the space between me and the lover. Is that too much of a smart bitch thing to say?

I think devotion is a mode for me, certainly in this book, but the poems are not usually asking for something. They’re not attractive. They’re just like, Here I am, and there you are, and therefore here is everything between us, charged with lightning and blinking with eyes!

Here is the erotic grass where you are not!

BBThat is a perfect segue to what I wanted to ask, which is about the “pastoral,” a word I have seen many times in reference to your book and which gives me that delightful feeling of perplexity. I mean I get it, or think I do, but I would love to hear you say a little more about how you think Natch partakes in the tradition of the pastoral. On the one hand, there’s not an overwhelming density of nature in the book. You have some “hot slophouse” and “thoughts…free like ducks,” but the actual ambience of the book, its landscape, feels somewhere where the bedroom and the heavy air between flirting people becomes perpendicular. And of course that’s part of the pastoral too. Maybe the pastoral is really just the name of a wedge in the working day where one or more poets can sit around and talk about what they lust for. But I’m going on and on!

SD Oh, go on forever! I want to ride that wedge indefinitely.

I like to think of Natch as allergically pastoral. Or that it’s a joke for me to call it pastoral, because I don’t know plant names! I don’t know how to ride a horse or walk a dog. That tree? I don’t know her.

I feel very free to misuse terms, because I’m not an academic, not at all! So, I called the book Natch because it sounds like nature, the natural. And the natural is vexed, for me and the beloveds in that book, for many reasons—being queer and having to rally the community to get gay pregnant, or having one’s own body and sexiness slurred by those invoking “the natural.” But I grew up reading and still live among poems that are actually nature poems, the romantics and eco-poets etc., and I feel a funny lack in my work of some fluencies that those who live in tune with plants and animals seem to have.

So it’s awkward, because yeah, I’ve never been outside, and I’m fully a city person, and these poems are only about landscape in that perpendicular merge you invoke. But I love that.

I love the way shepherds are always lying down in the paintings and the china plates. 

I think about lying down a lot, the feelings that make you lie down, and the feelings you get from lying down.

Sophia Dahlin

Photo of Sophia Dahlin by Brooke Cena.

BB So there is a lot of sex in this book, speaking of lying down. Although the sex does not feel restricted to lying down while doing it. I have to say I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered writing about sex that’s quite like this. You’ve spent a lot of time here with me in the Bay Area, where writing about (predominantly queer) sex is part of our legend, our origin story. I can definitely sense some of the lushness in how you write about sex that you find in new narrative and other queer writing scenes. But something feels a little different. Maybe something that worries precisely the “natural,” like “the cunt wants in twos,” an unforgettable line that seems clearly and obviously true (inasmuch as I can say that). The sex in the book seems at turns boastful, submissive, super haptic and yet suspiciously too good to be true. Alongside that, there is a note of menace, very occasionally. “Sex is dangerous / for the shepherdess.”

SD Too good to be true! Doesn’t all sex feel too good to be true when it’s good? I mean it is too good to be true because it’s transformative—or transportative—takes you elsewhere.

Which is frightening! I’m very, very curious as to what you are saying about the sex writing being different from others, and I really want to hear more! I can hazard one guess, maybe, which is that a lot of the poems focus on a single body part, cunt, eyes, legs, and retain that as the actor, and that is a disorienting way to write about sex and sexual emotion.

BB The writing feels both unbelievably embodied and sexy and lush and also quite formal, rhetorical almost, like it’s really poetry and not erotica or something like that.

SD I’m definitely learning about my book hearing your questions. Thank you. It’s totally not erotica, because it’s not narrative. Or IDK about you but I would need it to be narrative to feel it as erotica. Anyway, yeah it’s embodied, but it’s often embodied one body part at a time. Or one body part speaking for the rest of the body.

I’m really into objects and materials and the dynamism of things, and I love poetry. I’m thinking of Laura Riding or Farnoosh Fathi, where the imagery is maximalist and absurd because it is trying to fully describe relationships in terms of objects.

Fathi who writes, “a snail / whose castle is the quiet / on a nun’s navel.”

Or Laura Riding has this poem that describes her own eye whites as butter balls rolled in the moon’s hands?

BB I want to note that the sound in those lines of Fathi’s evokes your ear for me, because definitely something to say about the book, oh god I am speaking in blurb again, but is that the bodily pleasures are really mirrored by the sonic lushness of your lines.

Since Natch is such a book about wants, and takes place in this fantasy world—which is full of good fantasies—I want to ask you, what do you want?

SD Well one thing I know about my poems, firstly, is that they usually know more about what I want than I do. Natch is full of good fantasies but also lots of fear and pain, and a lot of it was apparent in the poems before it was apparent to me. 

But do you mean what do I want for our conversation, or what do I want for Natch, or what do I want for me, and the world, and you and all our friends and everyone we love?!

Anyway, if you did want to know, I want love, and to read and write my whole life. And also the end of capitalism and the end of prison. Care for all. And to have a child and never work and to be your friend forever.

Natch is available for purchase here.

Brandon Brown’s most recent books are Work (Atelos) and The Four Seasons (Wonder). He is a co-editor at Krupskaya and edits the zine Panda’s Friend. He lives in El Cerrito, California.

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