Teaches of Peaches: A Preview
Nobody knows how to language grief. It comes to us as a sine curve or a gust, as the smell of fabric softener or when we stretch and open our hips. It is significant that we capture our private pain creatures, which are intent on bloating spaces of absence with the ugly spasming replicants of that absence. It’s a creature that is, ironically, impossible to fully disappear. It finds a home in wreckage the way humans have always done. Diane Exavier’s Teaches of Peaches examines this grief through hybrid exercises, not bothering to train the cycles of grief for her intentions, but rather, by cycling her intentions around her grief. The book sets itself up through the lyric urgency of a poem and the sober reportage of the essay. Combined, we might call it a sober lyric or an urgent report, not daring its leanings toward genre in either direction. The poems spit and cackle, redact and quote; the essays ruminate and investigate, unearth and historicize. Peaches, we learn, is Diane’s cat, who was, as Diane tells us, “not my partner or my child or my companion or some surrogate or even the creature on this planet that understood me the most because we happened to live together.” That Diane has experienced great loss throughout her life meant, ironically for her, that she never quite learned how to grieve. It’s a family affair and then it is done. The entire book culminates not on the death of either of her parents (in fact, we start there), but with the fateful Uber to the animal hospital, Peaches in her carrier, Diane sitting in a makeshift reckoning. It is a chapbook of unbelievable elasticity and control, a freedom carved by way of formal constraints.
Co-editor Emily Raw (also responsible, as always, with the gorgeous chapbook cover) met with Diane to shoot the trailer. In Teaches of Peaches, Diane finds her mother’s mixed tape, a tape to which she has never listened. Emily procured a working tape player, which is no small feat in 2017, and recorded Diane listening to the tape for the first time. It is a special moment. Be sure to listen to it with the sound on. Below you can read a preview from the book, as well as my interview with this brilliant chapbook author. Do yourself a favor and get this book.
Of the two women who birthed me
I moved one of them in,
even though the other wants desperately for us to live together.
It’s not a competition.
The one I stole in the middle of the night
has been saying so much as of late.
And the one I left in Brooklyn
keeps saying the same thing —
except for when she talks about her sister.
I’m getting new old news now
that I’ve reached the year she ceased.
My sister did it four years before me.
Persisting is not rocket science.
I sleep well even though she sits on my coffee table.
I guess it’s not so hard after all
to breathe from behind plastic sheets.
She sits in my phone.
She sits in my feed.
I call her mother.
I call her mom.
I classify and interpret.
I make distinctions.
I create altered definitions.
I am rewriting the Bible.
I still wear the guard I used to push her out of my mouth
even though it makes me dream of teeth turning to dust every night.
It’s the plastic, not my anxiety.
I’m not worried about this transition.
I’m worried about this transition.
I watched the smallest planet move across the sun.
I’m not a rocket.
I’m not a cosmonaut.
I am not a myth.
My mother is still looking.
I’m afraid she’ll follow me three continents away,
her gaze setting fire to the tundra
and my two eyes
running in the other direction.
An Interview with Diane Exavier
Natalie Eilbert: When tasked with describing Teaches of Peaches, I usually say that it is a lyric essay hybrid. It isn’t simply that you blur genre a la Maggie Nelson, nor do you construct a long essay with a lyrical ear a la Anne Carson. It’s a chapbook that contains both poems and short essays, brief encounters with grief. Grief encounters, is more like it. How have you described it to others? How have you described it to yourself?
Diane Exavier: “Grief encounters” is a great phrase to describe Teaches of Peaches. It’s exactly that: fleeting meetings with grief too stricken to turn themselves over to the longer term, maybe more cohesive, work of mourning. The poems are filled with images like flashes. The essays are built on gaping arguments. It’s tired writing. I was so tired. And I didn’t realize that’s what grief feels like. I’ve experienced a lot of loss in my life, but the state of exhaustion, primarily physical, that grief puts you in is something I had never actually felt for reasons I suspect (as I tried to write through) have a lot to do with culture, history, colonialism, and a spiritually embodied memory of people frustrated with reaching for love so that they might practice this business of being alive. To love is to be fully alive. It’s a daily practice of relation, recognition, abiding, and care. It’s such a human thing to do, not even in the realm of emotion, but in the way that we have bodies full of organs that are looking to connect with other bodies that are just as full.
When I describe the book to other people, I usually call it Teaches of Peaches: A Book About My Dead Cat. There’s only one actual essay about the cat. But I think in reflecting on this once living creature I got to think about the adjacence of live beings. I just want to work hard at being a person who is fully alive in a world that is not betting on that, because of a history of turning people into capital and a present moment where the extremity of capitalism has rendered people incapable of registering each other as human. And man, do I believe in love. For me, the book feels like love drills: essays and poems lending themselves to temporal moments of recognition, abiding, and care.
NE: The format of Teaches of Peaches goes as follows: a section title (e.g. “were:”, “might have been:”, etc.), a poem or prose title, and then the poem or prose block itself. Tell me about how you decided to structure this book. What was the process?
DE: I wrote the bulk of the book on a silent writing retreat in Providence. I lean toward essay writing because I love it as the evidence of reflection. But sometimes a poem is the only way. Also, I am a person who deeply believes in structure. I usually blame this on my Catholic school upbringing. I love rules because I love to break them. When I realized I had something like a collection, I had to figure out its rules. That’s how the section titles became containers of time. I decided to make time the container and think about conditional verb tenses as the way to move through the writing. Also, I’m obsessed with grammar—another consequence of fourteen years of Catholic schooling—and just became so fixated on the notion of the conditional, I think because I’m so fixated on the possibilities of being.
NE: You have a pretty strong background in theater, and you mention teaching theater in the book. Would you say this was a heavy influence in the making of this chapbook?
DE: Theater, or at least my understanding of it, definitely played a heavy hand in building the book. When I think about the way plot works in a play, I think of the literal definition of the word. As if looking down from a plane, the plot becomes how the play, or in this case the book, lays itself out. The plot is the organizing, containing principle. The section breaks are the plot of this book. Time becomes the plot of a book whose question is: How do I love? I think you love by being human. And I think to be human is to live in time.
NE: Conversely, does Teaches of Peaches look like any of the work you’ve done in your theater life? Has it influenced that side of your world?
DE: My playwriting is founded on four L’s: love, loss, legacy, and land. So, Teaches of Peaches fits right into my usual antics. To be honest, I’m a reluctant playwright. I always feel like a terrible theater student, even though I have two degrees in it. I hate musicals. Intermissions stress me out. And I’m terrible at writing reversals, which apparently, all good plays should have. I am so not a theater person (no shade to theater people). What I am, though, is someone who firmly believes in convening and the power of poetry to bring people together. Also, I love throwing parties. So that’s actually why I make theater. Teaches of Peaches, as a text, is a eulogy; and whenever I read from it or get to engage someone in it, it turns into a funeral. I enjoy funerals because they’re about care: there’s food and drink and conversation. Funerals are about people being together because of the absence of a person. And so, maybe more than anything, Teaches of Peaches has encouraged me to throw more funerals.
NE: Teaches of Peaches interweaves grief, Haiti, Brooklyn, Providence, colonialism, family lore, Jamaica Kincaid’s Mr. Potter, and of course, your cat, Peaches. In fact, grief seems to be the canvas out of which all these other themes expose themselves. Place is important too. How did you decide what to include and what to keep in the back of the closet as you wrote this chapbook?
DE: There’s no way I could have written this book in Brooklyn. Living alone in Providence allowed me the distance to be objective and fair about so many intensely personal things. Coming back home, in every sense, I find myself nervous about how much I dragged out of the closet. When I think about the essay “Interventions” or the poem “Hotbox,” I wince a little. I think of my very alive immediate family who I see every day and how I’ve written words that speak truths I feel like I can’t ever really tell them. I guess I just made the assumption that my family would never read the book because they’re not that interested in my “weird art stuff.” My sister told me she ordered a copy and I don’t know how she’ll feel about my mentions of her. I’d like to think that I took my own advice and handled the people I wrote about with care. But it’s tricky business being alive and you can never know how someone will react to your recognition—your love—of them. I think that’s why I’m so much more comfortable with writing about my mother and father. In lots of ways, I get to love them (see them, hear them, forgive them) without the complications of receiving that love back. That’s precisely why I don’t think I kept as much in the back of the closet as I should have; but that’s also what will allow me to be more okay with—to love, even!—being loved.
NE: You employ the literary device chiasmus both by name and also as a concept in the book, within the context of Kincaid’s Mr Potter and your last name. What does chiasmus mean for you, and has your relationship to the term changed since the writing of this chapbook?
DE: Chiasmus, to me, has become a kind of plot form. In dramatic writing, there are some go-to plot forms: linear, circular, patterned, fragmented… I think about chiasmus as a plot form because of how it functions: as mirror, as an exercise of recognition, as a completion of shape. When I think about the history of my family, when I think of my name, I can’t help but think about 1492. These are each totalities. I think that’s an advantage of chiasmus: it’s a quick way to get to the total. You get to use language to skip time and consider the whole of something in an unusually complete way. On the other side of that has to lie the possibility of breaking. Whenever I make anything, I want it to break, a chief reason being the miracle of mortality. With chiasmus and that totality it offers, I’m always hoping that something might enter in and break it to remind me of what it means to be human.
NE: Who are your main literary influences? Whose work do you want readers to know about?
DE: I’m always jumping between novels, plays, and poems. Obviously, the GOAT Jamaica Kincaid. Adrienne Kennedy does things in plays that Kincaid does for me in prose. Irene Fornes, Edwidge Danticat, Lorna Goodison…all influences, but in a “those are my aunties” kind of way. In terms of people I feel like I’m staying up with all night: Kiese Laymon is my friend in my head. His honesty in facing himself and this country is so full of love (and funny as hell). I definitely boast that Morgan Parker slept at my house once. Desiree Bailey, my fellow mermaid enthusiast. Aziza Barnes, Saeed Jones. Real talk, poets are it. I feel like they are taking risks playwrights won’t. And maybe it’s a “grass is greener” situation, but I honestly feel like poets, the ones who really are about that life, just aren’t scared. They can’t afford to be.