Nona Lee Porter (she/they) is an approaching graduate in Theatre Studies at the University of Illinois. She is a poet, playwright, and an organizer for People over Profit, UIUC. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What creative processes do you draw upon? As the poet, does the creation of poetry energize or exhaust you?
Nona Lee: So, I’m a big logophile and a big word geek. My boyfriend can attest, I have this massive Webster’s dictionary I got at a thrift store under my desk, so it’s mostly about how much I can actually capture with words. So I’ll start. I’ll say it like, “I’m trying to put a frog in a jar.” I am just trying to take whatever this sensation is, whatever this complete, sort of, theatrical moment that is what we call inspiration and just… see how precisely I can build words around it. It’s a lot of looking, it’s a lot of thesaurus, it’s a lot of digging through the dictionary. It’s a lot of just sort of rambling into my notes app and seeing what comes up because we’re going to have better ideas than we are, if that makes sense.
Q: An evocative point of your poetry is the verse layout, and how stanzas can serve as an aspect of design on the page. What is your relationship with verse structure and laying out verses physically on a page?
Nona Lee: I got in a lot of trouble with this, early in high school poetry classes and things like that. I always had trouble adhering to that sort of structure. I write poems that just make sense to me, looking at them. Because, the way we deliver it, unless you’re speaking it out loud, that layout is so important because that’s how it’s going to be received. So if I can’t imply through the structure of it, I will sometimes write verses and then adjust a whole other verse to the other, just down to sort of, where one drops off as if every new line is a continuation of the last line. And, to me, that’s very much about this neurotic way of thinking where one thing isn’t always. It isn’t linear, it’s going to branch off into, like ten different thoughts. I have ADD, so it’s just about how I can lay out that map of words most accurately to the experience.
Q: I want to talk about your poem, aeriformity. Are you able to go in depth about the title of the piece?
Nona Lee: So, the poem deals with some heavy topics. And the perspective is very much from, like, an observer. It’s from an outside perspective; it’s from someone trying to support another in a time of crisis. So, that aeriformity is that trying to make yourself very light. Trying to make yourself, despite all of the horror, into something that can uplift and can propel because… um, to get a little, like, heavy, that’s a big trauma response. To sort of float away. And I think there’s two sides to that, too. You can float away as, maybe if it’s your experience you might want to escape. Or, you can force yourself into higher space to try and bring other people up there, and say “Yes, it’s frightening down there but we don’t have to live there all the time.”
Q: In the poem aeriformity, I felt there was kind of a distinct point in which the words on the page started to become that different form of layout that we were talking about, and you were playing with font and color and space. At the end of the poem there are phrases and they all had a different color. What is your relationship with words and color, and how did you assign words to color?
Nona Lee: That assumes a lot of work on my part. I really did not assign specific – or not consciously anyways – assign specific phrases to certain colors. I wanted to provide a variety. I talk about red, and sort of, all those connotations throughout, so I wanted to provide a different spectrum. Because again, going to that notion of sort of floating away or rising above, it’s knowing that it’s not just the one thing. It’s that we have a lot of tools with us, we have more colors to look at. We have other places to be. I also just thought it was a nice visual. A big basket of balloons.
Q: I like that; I like the big basket of balloons. When we read poetry, we often talk about the speaker of the poem. I thought that the speaker seemed to be consistent throughout the poetry. This person is insightful, and there are a lot of hints of candor and humor, maybe dark humor. Do you find the speaker of your poetry to be similar to yourself? How does your personality influence the voice of the speaker in your poems?
Nona Lee: Absolutely. A lot of the work does stem from personal experience so it does start off at that core.
Definitely humor, that’s really big for me. The first thing I learned to be was funny. The first way you learn to survive. We use a lot of humor in our day to day life, and I think it’s an important distinction of what’s humorous and what’s funny. I would say, like, if you go … I once went to therapy and my doctor just said the words “post traumatic stress disorder”. I burst into tears. I think that is so humorous. Not funny. I think it’s very humorous. So, yeah, it’s definitely that sense that everything is f*cking crazy. Why should we not be? Why should we not laugh at horrible things. Especially if they’re happening to us or people we love because nobody else gets to.
Q: Do you consider your poetry as part of a larger body of work, or do you want it to stand on its own? Are you looking forward to any goals for the future?
Nona Lee: Sure, I mean, I’d love to. I’d love to publish a book. I love any form of future in which I can write and not starve to death. That would be awesome. I would not consider myself primarily a poet, which is so funny because this is what I do tend to receive, I guess, attention for. But, yes, I am never going to stop writing and I have some things in the works so if we’re not killed by the sun or the oceans in 20 years, then sure. Why not?