Sylvie Baumgartel’s essay “Fat Man and Little Boy,” originally published in Subtropics Issue 32, has been selected by Vivian Gornick for Best American Essays 2023.

Sylvie Baumgartel

Interviewed by Olivia Ivings

Something I noticed about your poems that are appearing in Subtropics is that they explore the relationship between religion, colonialism, culture, and violence. These ideas seem to be particularly noticeable in “The Mission Bell” when the speaker guides the reader through an account of a Christian church plopped on a “Native settlement” that eventually becomes a place where deaf children are sexually abused. I found these themes useful in understanding how the poems are somewhat tethered together and how the narrators might view these institutions. What are your thoughts on the connections between these ideas, and does your work ever focus on one of them, or is recognizing the overlap necessary?

I believe all of those themes are intricately connected and often you can’t have one without the other or others. Violence is intrinsic in both religion and colonialism. And every beautiful, historic building has some dark underbelly (like the San Miguel Mission): whether built by slaves, or by very low-paid labor—power and injustice are always at play. Especially with religion and religious architecture. And even more so in colonies or former colonies. New Mexico, as all of the US, is full of histories and cultures overlapping—sometimes peacefully, but more often than not with overt and covert violence.

There seem to be two kinds of religious exploration in your poems. One is scrutinizing how religion treats those inside the institution, and another is observing how people on the outside are exploited and brutalized. How do you think these different perspectives operate in the poems?

I don’t know how to answer this. So I will instead tell you about my relationship to religion. I grew up with atheist parents and we never went to church and I went to secular schools. But since I was in preschool, I have been fascinated by religion, especially Christianity— but that’s what I did have some access to— as it’s the dominant religion in our culture. Power, the divine, control, eternity, devotion, worship, beauty, philosophy, myth, meaning, purpose— these are all things I am interested in and religion is a great source of all of them. I am not at all religious— just intrigued by it, interested in it, appalled by it, affected by it.

What kind of role do death and terror play in your work? These themes are often present, but I wonder to what extent you build your work around them. I’m especially interested in the effective way these poems end in concrete examples of violence or death.

I think about death and terror a lot. Not in a dark way, or at least not entirely so, but out of interest, fascination. I believe that having one’s death constantly present in mind is incredibly powerful for living a rich life. Death gives life meaning. Though it’s the only certainty, I believe that we are eternal beings (not in a religious sense) so actually fear of death is unnecessary. But I still have it.

When I was little, my mother said to me that life is about two things: sex and death. That stuck with me.

 Something that seems evident in these poems is how carefully the speaker establishes scenes. While the details create the space in which the poem takes place, for me as a reader, they don’t make me feel as though I must feel a specific way. What was the motivation for this?

I don’t want to make you feel one way or another. Or is that true? I sometimes want people to feel uncomfortable. And I like it when art makes me feel uncomfortable. There are a lot of difficult subjects in the world that are pushed away, denied, ignored, and I do want to shine a light on difficult, neglected and forgotten things. On the shadows. To have my poems be witnesses.  

Despite your work’s historical settings and philosophical implications, it resonates for readers in a contemporary age. How do you confront issues and ideas in the past while maintaining a foothold in the modern reader’s mind?

Perhaps only because that is life—part history, part present.

What are you reading this spring? Are there any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?

On my bedside table are: Dante’s Inferno, Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by Adonis, Sappho, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, St. Mawr by D. H Lawrence, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Origin by Dan Brown, Me & Other Writing by Marguerite Duras, The Complete Works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Jack Spicer’s Book of Magazine Verse, and Calvin and Hobbes. I am homeschooling my son this year, and some of these books are ones we are reading together.

I am working on two things right now: one is a long poem—eleven-thousand words or so—about love and death in Italy. The other is a collection of poetic essays about Santa Fe. I’ve never been able to write about Santa Fe before. “The Mission Bell” was the first poem I wrote about my hometown. I was supposed to be in Italy this year on poetry fellowships, but Covid has kept me here, and I felt like this is a good opportunity to look at right where I am. I have a complex relationship with Santa Fe and it has never inspired me before. But being stuck here like this has forced me to look at it and find ways to write about it. Luckily there’s a lot of violence, colonialism, death and art for me here to use as inspiration. J

Though much of what I write is difficult and dark, I find much joy in my life and in my work.