I met Naomi Thiers at The Nora School last February when we both participated in a reading. Naomi’s poetry spoke powerfully as she read her stories about women and girls who are marginalized and forgotten, as well as her poems about her grandparents. Her gift lies in getting beneath the surface to reveal and then polish the tales that so many people never get to tell.
Naomi is one of the featured poets in a new anthology, Veils, Halos, and Shackles (Kasva Press) edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, which features the works of international poets addressing the topics of women and sexual abuse. I spoke with Naomi recently about the anthology, her work, and her hopes for abused women.
Ann Bracken: How do you see the collection of poems in Veils, Halos, and Shackles being used in creating a dialog and awareness about rape and the many other forms of oppression and violence women confront?
Naomi Thiers: The editors of this anthology began collecting poems about the oppression of women, especially sexual assault, after the gang rape on a bus in New Delhi of 25-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey—a rape that led to her death. When you read about details of this assault—it’s just a gut punch. This rape launched huge protests around India and elsewhere and led to some changes in the Indian laws about sexual assault. The editors—and I and everyone involved in the anthology—hope it will lift awareness of how widespread oppression against women (of many kinds) and assault are–and how deeply that violence damages all of us.
Just as important, we hope the book brings the voices of women who’ve experienced assault into the light in a concentrated way—so their voices, their experiences, can be heard, respected. So they can hear each other and understand viscerally they’re not alone. Many of the poets are survivors of rape or other gender-related crimes that affect women and girls daily. And I think it’s key how international the anthology is, that the editors took time to collect poems from so many countries. This book is part of a global effort to confront gender-based violence.
Just the act of speaking up as a survivor of sexual assault, pushing past that sense that the victim should feel shame or embarrassment—which I certainly grew up with and is still with us—is powerful. Indian laws don’t allow newspapers to publish a rape victim’s name, so Jyoti Singh Pandey’s name originally wasn’t used when the crime was reported on and discussed. People in India began referring to her as Nirbhaya (meaning “fearless”) or Jagruti (“awareness”). Then her parents said that because they—and she—had nothing to be ashamed of, they gave permission to disclose her name. Reading that brings tears to my eyes every time.
AB: If you could give a copy of this collection to any political figure, who would you give it to–and why?
NT: I can’t think of one person I’d give it to. If any one leader read all these poems about women’s pain and fighting back, it wouldn’t hit that person instantly, like a thunderclap, and make them change the course of their policies–the way the writer of “Amazing Grace” turned his slave ship around. I think the deeper awareness, anger, and a commitment to work to stop violence against females would infuse gradually into a person–or more likely many people—making significant change slowly, person by person. I guess I’d like to have many young men–particularly in societies where men and women are kept very separate and there’s a lot of mutual misconceptions—see the collection.
AB: The editors of the anthology, Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, said, “In editing Veils, Halos, & Shackles, our focus has been on finding poems that tell the truth about the violence and oppression women are subjected to. . . poems that ask us to protect and nurture women through intelligent laws and the transformation of cultures.” Can you think of one law you’d like to see changed that could significantly improve the lives of women?
NT: Not any one law. I think the second part of what the editors say “the transformation of cultures” is much more important. But I think the most important overall policy to change is the many laws and customs that prevent women from getting a formal education. When all women are allowed to be educated, many, many other things will change.
AB: What sparked your interest in writing about women who are oppressed? What would you like readers to know about the women you write about?
NT: I never set out to write about women and oppression, or even poems about women. But something must’ve sparked my interest because—like most people—I write about what I’m interested in whether I mean to or not! When my daughter was about 8, we were just walking one day and I guess I was telling some story, and she suddenly said, “Geez, Mom—you just like women, don’t you?”
Last time I put a manuscript together, I wanted to gather poems focused on some theme and I had on hand enough for a manuscript in which every poem focused on an individual woman— a friend, someone in the news, or just someone I noticed in passing. So that became She Was a Cathedral. The title is the last line of a poem by Denise Levertov. In that poem, Levertov is feeling raw and discouraged and she remembers the indomitable spirit of her late friend, poet Muriel Ruykeyser. She commands herself “Remember her now/She was a Cathedral.”
My idea was to honor each individual in these poems as someone complex, sacred, able to lift up our vision–as a cathedral does. There’s also a specific woman the title refers to—my friend and fellow poet Patty Bertheaud Summerhays, who died six years ago, very young. She was an immensely generous and spiritual person. You felt lifted after being with her! The book honors Patty.
I’ve often noticed and thought people who are kept down or outsiders in some way—they get under my skin. I sometimes feel beckoned to write about a person who is marginal to bring that person into focus, to make a portrait. That’s the start of coming out of being oppressed–being fully seen.
Women are still, in so many places, kept from exercising their rights and abilities as humans, or even from having decent lives—they aren’t seen or taken seriously. I’d like readers to really see each woman I write about in all her complexity. And if there’s one quality I hope readers see in every woman I write about in Cathedral and elsewhere—it would definitely be: resilience.
AB: In your poem “Little Sister” that’s in the anthology, I was particularly moved by the way the speaker in the poem identifies with the young high school girl who was raped.
NT: I wrote that poem after hearing on the news about a rape of a young girl in the DC neighborhood where I lived at the time, Mt. Pleasant. I couldn’t stop thinking about it; I walked to where it happened, near the old Lincoln Middle School on Irving Street and on Park Road, and I began getting lines in my head, and it became a monologue from a Salvadoran woman living in the neighborhood. The details in the poem about the attack are from the news report. The visual details are what you’d see walking those streets in 1990.
AB: It seems the speaker is talking about dissociation—a form of detachment from a physical or emotional experience—when she says, “I know that ceiling she had to look at/ how the black cement swells in and out/ against your face while he moves on you/ and when he gets up, the cement/ comes down and touches you.”
NT: That’s interesting. Sexual assault is so hard to speak about. What I was trying to express there is that when you’re feeling overwhelming pain, assault, and fear—especially fear—everything compresses, sensation gets distorted, perception shrinks to a wall of fear.
The poem seems grim, but I think there’s resilience in it–in the fact that the Salvadoran woman, when she hears of a girl being attacked in her neighborhood, instead of just closing up, thinks about reaching out to that girl. She goes to the school and thinks about talking to her; she wants to somehow connect and say “I’ve been there, too. I know how this is.” So in “Little Sister” there’s a seed of hope for the thing Veils, Halos, and Shackles is all about—women across cultures speaking up, reaching out to say “You’re not alone. You don’t have to feel ashamed. We are all resilient.”
AB: What do you wish to send out to the readers with this anthology?
NT: That women who are being oppressed aren’t primarily victims. We are primarily survivors with something to say.
Online Editor: Naomi Thiers has published three books of poetry, Only the Raw Hands Are Heaven(WWPH), In Yolo County, and She Was a Cathedral (Finishing Line Press). Her poems have received many awards, including an Evangelical Writers Association award. She has had a go at many art forms, but poetry is the one that stuck, the one she’d never be without in a cell or on a desert island. Poets whose work she’d want on that desert island include Hopkins, Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, Phillip Levine, and Pablo Neruda. She is a mom, a yoga and music lover, a magazine editor, and a member of Langley Hill Friends Meeting.