Abigail Chabitnoy

“Girls Are Coming out of the Water,” a poem

10 Questions Interview with the Massachusetts Review.

Abigail Chabitnoy is the author of How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan), winner of the 2020 Colorado Book Award for Poetry and shortlisted in the international category of the 2020 Griffin Prize for Poetry. She was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow, and her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, LitHub, and Red Ink, among others. Most recently, she was the recipient of the Witter Bynner Funded Native Poet Residency at Elsewhere Studios in Paonia, CO, and is a mentor for the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA in Creative Writing. She is a Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak.


How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan University Press)

Our Interview

You note that this poem is in conversation with Tishani Doshi’s “Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods,” as seen through its title “Girls Are Coming out of the Water.” Can you speak to how sea and water imagery fit into this poem? How do you see your poem alongside Doshi’s? 

AC: I find Tishani’s collection very inspiring and influential in my own work, as her third collection shares thematic interests with what I hope will be my second: themes of violence against women, and celebration of—insistence even on—survival. The title poem of that book in particular insists on restoring voice and in some ways agency to women and girls who have been abused, murdered, and otherwise silenced. It’s a poem that recognizes the horror these women went through, but re-visions a narrative that otherwise ends in a grave—or a ditch, or by the side of the river—and with silence, by empowering these women through language to come out “of the woods the way birds arrive / at morning windows—pecking / and humming, until all you can hear / is the smash of their minuscule hearts / against glass, the bright desperation / of sound—bashing, disappearing.” While violence against women is not limited to Indigenous women, oversexualization and dehumanization in the media, coupled with jurisdictional gaps that prevent tribes from bringing non-Indigenous violent criminals to justice, have allowed a situation to fester in which Indigenous women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the national average. 

Water, for me, has always been a source of power, connectivity, distancing, and fear. I dreamed of sleeper waves, had nightmares of them, before I knew they were a real phenomenon. I’m irrationally terrified of sharks (part of the Jaws generation) and perhaps less irrationally afraid of being pulled out in a riptide. But water’s in my blood, and I also never feel so at peace as when I’m on a boat or a paddle board or kayak. Water is what separates the Aleutian Islands and makes it so hard for me to visit my ancestors’ homelands, but it’s also a life-sustaining presence in traditional Unangan and Sugpiaq traditions. The water is my woods—scary, dark, unknowable, capable of hiding—but also powerful and life-giving. 

MR: What led you to use repetition frequently in this piece? 

AC: Repetition in this poem is used at once to enter a kind of meditative space, but also to invite listeners to hear each utterance slightly differently—a tonal shift, here insistent, here a name, here a quality, here the need to repeat enough times to make it so. I’m very interested in patterns, particularly patterns of violence in narrative and rhetoric that facilitate the continuation of that violence. Each time the story’s the same on one level—except, of course, every case is uniquely personal as well. How long until we learn?

MR: What was your intention behind incorporating heavy white space between line breaks? How would you like readers to encounter those spaces? 

AC: That space, for me, is where others speak—ghosts, ancestors, sisters. It’s room for echoing. And it’s room for listening—because speaking itself can so often be a burden, can take its own toll, and this space of listening also becomes a space of simply breathing, being alone.

Covering Lines of Light, released in April 2021.

MR: The speaker’s sincerity comes through their ability to hold contradictions in lines such as “Say I am not afraid / … because we understand the need / to maintain appearances” and “Wear red and / still / they will think of what to do with you.” What was your writing process like in these moments?

AC: One of the ways I strive to keep myself “honest” in the work, as it were, or to avoid speaking for others or for conditions I can’t possibly grasp in the same way, is by interrogating my own feelings and culpability at every step. But that also leads to questioning others and questioning language as well. Red is the color we wear in May to raise awareness for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls crisis. It’s also a color associated with sexuality. While I may not have experienced direct and violent assault in the way these women have, I have had to negotiate societal expectations of women even as they contradict themselves. Be attractive, well dressed, sexy, demure—but if you get assaulted you must have given mixed signals or have been dressed in a manner to suggest you wanted it. Of course, expectations for women go beyond our sexual availability and persist even as each generation continues to resist and push against such limits. But even that act of resisting—by women, I think, and others who fall outside of the cisgender male experience—have to think about how they move in the world, while cisgender men have been able to simply be in the world. 

MR: How did the length of this poem shift from its initial to final drafts?

AC: The main shifts in this poem were in perspectives and pronouns. What did it mean to say “I,” to say “we,” “you,” “they”? How was I positioning my own experience versus the particular case, among thousands, that moved me to write this poem? In what ways was I identifying with or maintaining distance between other situations I had not experienced first hand? This violence does shape how I move in the world, even if I am in many ways sheltered and privileged by comparison. How to speak to that experience, while not wishing to speak over victims who are already silenced daily? How to raise awareness without appropriating another’s experience? Part of my uneasiness with point of view in poems stems from my own family history and experience with my Indigenous identity. I am forever questioning my own motives at every turn.

“I am forever questioning my motives at every turn.”

MR: What is it like for you to read this poem out loud? 

AC: This poem is certainly one that still raises goosebumps for me personally when I read it. The amplification caused by repetition is certainly part of that, but it’s also the personal nature of this poem. It’s seeing the faces that accompany similar news articles, hearing the family testimonies, understanding that these women are not merely figures or images for art, even an art intended to raise awareness. They are people who this world, our society, has let down and is too ashamed to look in the eye. This poem is my own call to look at these women, these girls, in the eye.

A Reading

Writing Prompts from the Author

  1. Create a collage on connection to an issue or event that resonates with you—of images, of text, of screenshots, journal entries, dream records, of text messages–include everything and anything. If you want to be more traditional in terms of the presentation, have your “collage” consist only of texts. Include lines of theory, notes in the margins written in response to theory. Approach the work as an ethnographer, attempting to understand some other. Look for patterns, recurring images, text that lends itself to multiple interpretations depending on the context. Develop a refrain of sorts. Perhaps you choose a focal subject. Perhaps you simply observe everything. Bring all the pieces into the same “room” of the page. If you work better on parameters, replace a set journaling time with “scavenging” time. Comb news headlines. Read the articles. Or don’t read them. Give yourself only one week to collect the preliminary material for your collage.

    Once collected, look to see what patterns, images, shapes, ideas emerge from the collection. What stands out to you? What threads might be worth picking up and following, or weaving into a more focused text?

2. There is a prompt borrowed and adapted from the Instagram account @fiercewomxnwriting:

Write a factual story.
Tell it as a true story.
Tell it as a helpful story.
Tell it as an accountable story.
Tell it as a journey story.

3. 3. Keep a journal of news headlines that grab your attention—either for their absurdity, the language, or the nature of the event. File the article, or just note the headline. You never know when one such line might be just the piece you needed to extend a poem beyond your own immediate scope.

For Revision: If you find your poems are often in first person, play with revising some poems by taking yourself out of the poem. Not simply removing pronouns or turning the poem from first person to third—but really consider how the perspective of the images change as well. Conversely, if you find you are never present in your poems and they are all absent of any 1st person perspective, try playing with revisions that center your gaze.


  1. MMIW / Native Women’s Wilderness https://www.nativewomenswilderness.org/mmiw. An overview of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic and campaign to end it. It includes statistics and recent policy initiatives that seek to raise awareness and further investigate MMIP (missing murdered Indigenous people) cases. 
  2. The website for Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) / Native Womens Wilderness raises the voices of Native women and leading healthy lifestyles in the wilderness. It is also the home of the MMIW project which investigates data and the statistics of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in the United States.
  3. The Sovereign Bodies Institute (SBI) works to publicize research on gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people. 
  4. The Urban Indian Health Institute’s website provides a toolkit for MMIWG: We Demand More, a research study investigating the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls in Washington state. 
  5. An article discussing the 2021 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act set forth by Congress.
  6. (Non-exhaustive) Information about local tribes in Massachusetts (state and/or federally recognized):