HPA: I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with the ideas your book illuminates, particularly this idea of categorisation and the power and tyranny of language, so to me your book reads less of an escape and more of a ‘wreckoning’ with the suffocation of patriarchal ontologies. While I agree that language can help us to articulate more fluid understandings of our bodies, I’m also aware that language can serve as the pedagogical means to put us into these different categories we are trying to obliterate and/or make opaque. Was writing I am a human being a way of reclaiming and repurposing language for your own means on your own terms? I definitely see I am a human being as a clever way of disrupting and drawing attention to the vast contradictions our bodies hold. My understanding is that you wrote many of these poems quite a long time ago, so I also wanted to know about its relation to time and what it has been like to revisit and finally publish this collection in the midst of global pandemic?
JN: Writing the book has absolutely been a long process, and because of that it’s hard for me to speak about intention in regard to it since I went through several phases of intentions during the writing and editing. I wrote the first ‘I am a’ poem in late 2010/early 2011 and finished a first draft of the collection in 2013. I knew at that point that the book was about identity, but I didn’t yet have the language or concepts of non-binary gender; I still thought of myself as a man at that point. Being introduced to that language has been so freeing for me and has absolutely helped me gain a better understanding of myself, and yet I completely agree with the issues you raise around language.
Language itself is an inherently categorical system. The better we understand the system the more easily we can manipulate it, but not everyone has access to the education necessary for this and so they are constrained by even more limited categories. Hopefully the book can do some work to introduce people to those concepts. For a long time I’ve been wishing for a post-language world, where we can communicate telepathically without the need for words, just plugging directly into each other’s heads. That’s the ultimate goal of my writing anyway, I want to be able to share what is happening in my mind with others.
Since 2013, the book has been through many different iterations. Some of the poems remain exactly the same, others have changed substantially, some poems have been cut and new ones added. Many readers probably wouldn’t notice much difference between these iterations, but my relationship with the text definitely shifted. I went back and forth so many times about whether it was even worthwhile at all, whether anyone would care about it. The book was almost finished for the longest time. I would come back to it every few months and tweak things but never had enough time to fully complete it. It was literally only a few days after I had finished it finished it that Chris Holdaway from Compound Press contacted me, saying that he was going to start publishing full-length books and asking if I had anything.
It has been such a weird time to release a book. We never actually set a release date because everything was so up in the air. One day the book was just on the shelf at Unity Books and then it was out. It was really difficult to organise a launch event, but I was very lucky that we launched it when we did because just a couple days later the COVID-19 restrictions were raised again. I really feel for other debut writers whose launches have been cancelled due to lockdown. It’s really easy to feel like your book has just been lost, it’s come and gone without anyone noticing it, even if that isn’t the case.
HPA: I completely agree that understanding how language works in terms of patriarchal power can be illuminating and an appropriate way to not only understand those structures, but find a way to undermine these kinds of categorisations, particularly around gender. I really feel like poetry really offers us that, because it’s such a distillation of ideas, experiences and imagery. I think poetry is a way to say more with less words, especially when speaking about different ways of imagining the complexities of our bodies. I always think about what might be a better way of communicating and I think telepathy would be great and actually there are a number of studies working on brain to brain communication to be implemented into technology. This brings me to thinking about for instance, Julianna Huxtable’s book Mucus in My Pineal Gland that I read recently, where she talks so much about how her identity and relation to her body and gender was deeply rooted in her experiences with technology, particularly mentioning cyborgs like Motoko Kusangi from Ghost in the Shell in her poem ‘UNTITLED (FOR STEWART)’. I wonder if you could speak to your early experiences with the internet and how your writing to me at least really speaks to moments of discovery and discombobulation that happens when you are online?
JN:The internet has played such a key role in my writing and my life in general. Between the years of 2010 and 2015 I was part of an online scene called Alt Lit. This was also when I first formed a writing practice and when I began working on the poems in I am a human being. Many of the male gatekeepers in the scene were eventually outed as abusers and the community pretty much imploded, but that period, and some of the people who I was introduced to through it, had an immense impact on me.
I was back in Pōneke after a failed move to Tāmaki where I had my first major depressive episode. I had dropped out of two universities and a serious basketball program and had attempted suicide multiple times. I plugged into the internet and didn’t unplug for a long time. I spent all day everyday online. I added hundreds of strangers on Facebook, spent countless hours on a video chat platform called Tinychat, turned the comment sections on random photos into chat rooms with threads of thousands of comments, and formed strong relationships with many people who I had never met in person. I read and wrote a lot during this time, but a large part of my practice was performative. I took on an attitude of relentless positivity as the only way I knew to combat my depression. I posted the phrase ‘Everything is fantastic’ on thousands of people’s Facebook pages, I scrolled through and liked every single post on both Facebook and Tumblr, filling people’s notifications. This received mixed responses, lol. I still feel very passionate about the possibilities for art and writing on the internet. Hyperlinks, GIFs, video, and social media are all mediums that remain relevant and capable of communicating things about the world that can’t be shared in any other way.
That was the first time I had a real writing community. Before that I didn’t feel like I had any way into a writing scene in Aotearoa. Fortunately, several of the people I came into contact with through this scene were also in Aotearoa and I was able to connect with them IRL. This was when I met my partner Carolyn DeCarlo, who is American but has since moved to New Zealand. It’s also how I came into contact with Chris from Compound Press. And it was through this online writing community that I was exposed to the concept of non-binary gender from the poetry of people like Never Angeline Nørth, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, manuel arturo abreu, Jamie Mortara, and Joss Charles.
For the first couple years of this period the internet was my only real connection to the outside world. One of my strongest desires during that time was to be a functioning/productive member of society. I gradually began spending more time unplugged, went back to school, got a job. Of course, now that I am a productive member of society that’s the last thing I want to be. At least a productive member of this society. There are certainly other possible (non-capitalist/patriarchal/white supremacist) societies that better deserve the productivity of their members.
Those years online were simultaneously some of the worst and best of my life. I still sometimes feel nostalgic for them, still feel the urge to plug back in and turn my back on concrete reality.