Raisa Tolchinsky


Spiraling Down: On Katabasis and Stepping into Fear

Striking and big-hearted, Glass Jaw (Persea Books, 2024) depicts the grit and glamor of women’s boxing based on the poet’s time training as a fighter in New York City. Beginning on the ropes, fighting back against the limitations of gender, Raisa Tolchinsky situates us within the dynamic context of the boxing gym, through both a chorus of named women boxers and a single fighter battling for her selfhood. In a Dantean reimagining, we follow the boxer as she descends into the hellish “rings” of an abusive relationship with her coach. In a count-down from 34 to 1, sputtering at times, the fighter gets closer and closer to the heart of her brutal, solitary metamorphosis. Winner of the 2023 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry, Glass Jaw explores a quest as spiritual as it is physical through poems that are muscular, musical, ecstatic.

In a conversation with Meridian editor Coby-Dillon English, Tolchinsky discusses how her debut poetry collection came to be, the armor she wears to write, and the importance of facing fear and failure in writing.

Coby-Dillon English: I am always interested, when thinking about a poetry collection, in thinking about how it moves, and for Glass Jaw, I was really drawn to the katabasis, this movement downward, of moving towards an underbelly. In “Canto 2,” you wrote “I tried to tell it / without entering. The only way was down.” How are you thinking about descent as a movement in this collection?

Raisa Tolchinsky: I think “Canto 2” was actually the first poem I wrote in the second section, and I think it served as a sort of spell. I wrote the first sort of cloud of poems and got to the end of that cloud and realized “oh my gosh, I haven’t actually said everything.” There’s this other piece that needs to be said, and I think the way I felt able to write that second section was through permission to fail completely. Like to completely have not done it already after so many years of trying. So, I think, when I reached that pivotal moment, I was on a phone call with someone and they recommended Leonora Carrington’s Down Below, and I started to think if this collection was a map, what shape would actually allow me to write the things that I want to write. That was the first time I visualized the possibility of other boxing rings below the ring I had already sort of written.

CDE: I love that idea of trying to construct a map within a collection. Thinking about movement, that makes a lot of sense to me. It’s so easy, I think, to imagine a book as beginning on page one, ending on page whatever, and that movement being a straight line, but Glass Jaw seems to be doing something different. And I was seeing that in the poems as well. You talked about that first section, “The Diatribe of Women Gladiators,” and then the cantos in the second section, “Here This Hollow Space.” I’m curious as to how those two forms came to be and what point in the writing process they came to be.

RT: This is a fun story. The last thought floating here for me, in thinking about downward, I think a lot about the shape of the spiral, because I also think about it a lot in terms of healing and how we tell stories. We are sort of always recircling the same story but also we are somewhere different in the story each time we tell it, even if it feels like we are saying the same thing over and over again. I just wanted to name that thought floating there. For the two sections of the book living together, I mentioned this, but I wrote the first cloud of poems first. Those are the voices of many women. I didn’t know if that belonged in the book actually by the end. There was a big debate with all these people I really trusted, all the University of Virginia people, people I really deeply trusted, asking “does this belong?” I felt closer to the second half of the poems. And I sort of wrote the second section all at once. Those all sort of happened chronologically. I began at one, wrote them all, and then reversed the order. But I think what ultimately happened was realizing that I love the idea of the reader moving through my own process of trying to speak and that it also felt important to have a chorus. The boxing gym feels multi-voiced. It felt hard to imagine not having that cloud or collective. So, that was a little bit of figuring out “what is the bridge between the two sections” and it was a question I held for a long time. I wondered for a while if I had written two separate things that couldn’t be married or combined.

CDE: I like how you describe that first section, “The Diatribe of Women Gladiators,” as a cloud. It makes that second section feel like we are really zoned in on that singular voice. I wanted also to talk about the two “Purgatory” poems in the middle that seem to exist perhaps not separate but...the word divide feels too strong. Those two poems feel like a true center. How did those poems come to be as part of this process and how you see them operating as part of the larger collection?

RT: I think those poems are written as part of the first cloud. As someone who writes fiction as well, and I think a lot about narrative, and about shape, and about place, and that “Purgatory” poem about standing in a field was where I often felt like I lived in trying to write the poem. There was this cloud of characters and this cloud of voices in some way because there was these characters and this descent into something. I think about Dante a lot and see purgatory a lot as this wide space of voices. I thought about that wide space is perhaps where that cloud lived, and after, we can follow this voice. It feels more trustworthy because it’s coming out of the purgatory space.

CDE: Part of my next question was on this sense of arriving place. There are these lines in your poem “Canto One,” “I packed my bags, said I will be my own Virgil / in the story I could never quite begin.” Now, I’m thinking about trustworthiness, and how in a sense, we have to trust our Virgil. Was there a point when you felt like you could trust this speaker in that second half, especially as your moving out of the wide purgatory space?

RT: I think for me it’s a felt sense in the body. I don’t want to necessarily equate trustworthiness to risking vulnerability or risking self in some way, but I think the experience of writing the second half felt like I was actually speaking clearly to what I was most afraid to write. If I was hiding behind some narrative or story, and not that those things don’t happen, but it felt like I stepped out from behind and into a feeling of being seen by the page. It felt like I was risking something in writing the very, very scary thing. So I felt trustworthy to myself because I was writing it, because I was looking at it directly. And I couldn’t have done that without those first years of writing of those poems.

CDE: In a perhaps narrower question, in the Acknowledgements of Glass Jaw, you thank Lake Michigan, and as a Michigander, as a child of the Great Lakes; I want to know about the influence the lake has had on you as a writer and this collection.

RT: I’m so glad you brought that up. I wrote the second half, that scary part, the part I had in some ways not been able to write for a long time, in the pandemic. I moved back home with my parents, which was actually so wonderful. There, I was in Chicago, near Lake Michigan, and every morning, I would go down to the water. I had a ritual in order to be able to write those cantos. I would go down, watch the sunrise, and come back and write immediately. I would not edit anything, just write. I think something about seeing the wideness of the lake and seeing the horizon in that way changes the lengths of my lines actually. And, in that way, changes what I feel is able to be held, not only by me but also the world. It’s a more generous assumption of a reader and a more generous assumption of the poems. I feel extremely grateful to have been able to do that with the lake in such a deeply quiet time. Even now, living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I can see the river, but I can’t see a large body of water or the horizon line, and my lines get shorter and shorter.

CDE: My next question actually had to do with rituals and practices. I saw in an interview that you said that you put on a lipstick shade called Hustler when you sat down to write.

RT: [laughs] that’s true.

CDE: In a collection where the physicality feels so close to the surface, I was curious about your other practices in how you engage with the work of writing in a physical manner.

RT: I can talk about this from the place I am now, which I think is a lot gentler and softer in many ways. I think sometimes these poems felt like stepping into the ring. They felt combative in that sense. I felt angry. I felt really angry about so much. A lot of this book comes is fueled by a clean rage to be able to write the poems, to be able to name certain things. I think the lipstick felt like armor sometimes. For some reason, it felt like the headgear was on and my hands were wrapped. I listened to Megan Thee Stallion’s Good News album on repeat. So I really have to thank her. There were two albums I listened to on repeat, and that was one of them. It’s interesting to think about my rituals and practices now. It doesn’t feel like that anymore. I am coming to the page now with more of a gentle question rather than feeling like I am facing something.

CDE: You mentioned that the second section of this book was “the scary thing” to write. What have you learned about yourself, your writing, in being able to go to that place? And if you have any advice to share for others about going to that scary place in writing, what would you share?

RT: I wouldn’t have been ready before I was ready. There’s a sort of gentleness around that process. I love the first half of the book. I feel close to those poems in a way that feels like the trying is worth it. It’s just as important as the fierce, authenticity; they feel just as hot. I love the attempts of that person who is trying so hard to get to the thing. I think that matters; it’s why I decided to include those poems. The attempts, the revolutions, the running around trying to find it is worthy, and I feel so grateful for it. I was able to write the second half when I could say “I may have failed at this.” Stepping fully into whatever expectation or whatever desire we have for the work to be good, which of course we all have that, I think when I could say “well, maybe what I wrote was terrible” or “maybe I will never write this,” that was actually a really generative place. The first poem came out of “I tried. Look, I tried really hard, and this is where I am.” Perhaps it’s not advice, but a generative question is what comes from fully stepping into the attempts. When we really step into the possibility of failure, what arises from that place? Fully meeting the fear of not writing the thing we know we have inside feels like it can offer the doorway into writing it.

From Issue 48, Summer 2024 / First online publication June 01, 2024

Raisa Tolchinsky is the author of the poetry collection Glass Jaw (Persea Books, 2024), winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize (2023). She has published poems in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Raisa earned her MFA from the University of Virginia and her BA from Bowdoin College. She was the 2022–2023 George Bennett Writer-in-Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and is currently a student at Harvard Divinity School.

Coby-Dillon English is a graduate of the UVA MFA in Creative Writing Program and the editor-in-chief of Meridian 38.