For Chicago poet E Nina Jay, her book Body of Rooms is a reclamation of herself.
"For a long time, I didn't have myself," said Jay. "For so many years I wrote a lot of poems about friendships and flowers, and all this shit I thought people wanted to hear about. The writing was a vehicle, I had never used it, but I had to learn to use it for myself. I didn't know it was mine yet, or what that meant."
In Body of Rooms, Jay's using her voice to take on issues like sexual violence and racism, pen poems of deep passion and love, and address her own considerable trauma. Often, she said, her work comes from a place of loss. "That's the part I acknowledge and that's where I stay, which keeps me from getting to a lot of places," she said. "Part of that process with the book was to let go of that."
The body as symbol is personal for Jay. "I'm so tired of being locked in my body with my emotions," Jay said. "I mean, physically. I love winter. I was just saying to someone the other day that I was so glad that winter was coming because you can wear as many clothes as you want and it makes sense. You can hide, and it doesn't look like hiding. I'd go to Michfest when it was going, and one of my goals was to go topless. I went for 13 years and I did it for five minutes until one person noticed, and then I put my shirt back on. I don't enjoy those kinds of freedoms and I just covet it."
Jay intersperses her poems with long prose meditations. "For me, the book is the room, the journals could be the hallways," she said. The first of these journal entries continues the tone of the initial poems, talking about how Jay overheard a Black male speaker at a bonfire talking about the armor he wore to get through the white world, and segueing into an exploration of that armor's function with rape survivors and personal trauma and insecurity. "I wanted to leave those journals exactly as they were, and that informed what I really wanted to say," Jay said. "I struggled to leave it exactly like it was, and I'm still struggling with it."
Some of Jay's most memorable poems are dialogues. Her poem "colorb( l )ind" interrogates a white woman who refuses to truly acknowledge Jay's Blackness, claiming "she doesn't see color." "do you see white?/do you think white?/you sure think white?/i know you're white," Jay writes. Another piece, "dear this fucking poem" is one that Jay says she sometimes can't stand to look at. It takes the form of Jay's argument with a piece that creeps up on her as she's washing dishes, about a breakup that left Jay standing naked as her lover drives away.
Both pieces, while very different, have the feel of conversation. "That's what poems are, conversations," Jay said. "Sometimes I'm having them with myself, sometimes I'm having them with other people. Usually I'll just say, let me pick up the pen and have the conversation however I'm having it, that's just how it comes out."
All of the book's poems were written in the past year, and Jay remembered being roused by current events like Black Lives Matter, but hampered by her own needs to process. This conflict inspired the poem "i need to talk about rape."
Jay will read Body of Rooms Monday, Nov. 7, 6-8 p.m. at Affinity Community Services, 2850 S. Wabash Ave., #108.
A copy of Body of Rooms can be obtained for $20 ( plus shipping ) by emailing Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org .