The title of Nicolette Polek’s debut novel teaches you how to read it—Bitter Water Opera is a prayer in the mind, performing as a poem in the mouth, performing as a novel in the hand. This is a text of quiet extremes, from the spectacle of theater to the solitude of prayer, from the American desert to the closeness of a white walled house in the woods.

Its premise is strange but simple: A troubled woman named Gia writes a letter to Marta Becket, the deceased dancer and painter who once operated the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction. Marta shows up. Gia sets off.

In this short interview, I asked Nicolette a few of the questions this enigmatic work evoked for me—concerning spaces, maps, muses, and more.

Stephanie Yue Duhem: In your interview with Tao Lin in The Believer, you discussed where your interest in nature comes from. But you seem equally enchanted with the indoors—the Amargosa Opera House in Bitter Water Opera, the wings of a museum in Imaginary Museums, and even the American Clock Museum in Connecticut, which you wrote about in an essay for Graywolf Lab. Do you think these different interiors have anything in common? What makes an interior space distinctive or interesting to you? What are some other interiors that delight you?

Nicolette Polek: Two interiors really helped me write Bitter Water Opera—the Lutheran Bishop’s plain, stone palace in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, and the looping dream house in Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating. At a basic level, the houses are like corsets for the characters to break out of; they are stuck exploring and returning and opening doors over and over until something within them or within the world is sorted out and overcome.

Interiors feel like plots: they direct movement and provide coherence and causality between the different aspects of myself or a set of characters. My house, for example, brings me to where it wants—every morning I’m drawn to the large picture window, despite needing to sit at my desk at the opposite end of the house. I love Poetics of Space and The Pattern Language, which both break down the philosophical and psychological functions of a building. I grew up in a house that was slowly being remodeled in order to be flipped (and is still somewhere within that process), so I was keenly aware of a structure in flux from the inside. The exposed drywall, unfinished bathroom, scattered nails made it so we seldom had guests. It was my family’s alone to attend to, and as a child I was always waiting until we could fix enough of it so that others could come in.

Recently I went to the Frank Lloyd Wright campus at Florida Southern College. He was commissioned to design a set of institutional buildings but enthusiastically drafted additional plans for a zoo and aquarium for the College. Those never ended up being built, but he used the same blueprints for the professors’ offices, so they look exactly like the glass cases that one would see snakes and toucans in. I like buildings that can withstand radical repurposing. A movie theater turned into a piano showroom, a department store that is a winter wonderland during Christmastime, or in Bitter Water Opera’s case, a dusty abandoned junction that turned into an Opera House. I also like interiors that can be nothing but what they are, like Baldasarre Forestiere’s underground gardens in Fresno that shelter citrus trees from the intense heat beside his kitchen and the living room.

One of the parts I loved in Bitter Water Opera was Gia’s description of her mother’s “shadow maps”—sketches of the shadows in a room or landscape as they changed throughout the day. This made me wonder, since you’ve now published poetry, short stories, and a novel: How do you tell time in your craft? What durations matter to you in your writing? How do the shadows of these forms or genres move across you as a writer?

I don’t consciously think about time before I write, and often it depends on the circumstance and subject that I’m dealing with. I do, however, love single sentences that stretch across years.

Wisdom is often dependent on time, and one fruit of wisdom is being able to take things out from the shadows and attend to them in the light. The process of writing is similar for me. BWO began in 2017 and the writing stretched out impossibly long, but I needed as much perspective as I could get. Lots of forgetting needed to occur so I could see the novel from the outside and witness the changes and stagnations within Gia.

I like to wisecrack that my tragedy is: I want to be a muse, but I’m only a writer. For Gia, Marta Becket seems to be at once muse and mentor, maybe even mother. Do you think these categories, even if tentative, are useful? Can the solitary artist work without one or the other? Is finding a connection with God, as Gia does in Badwater, enough? Do you yourself have muses, even if they’re silly ones?

I like to think of a muse as someone whom I can pilgrimage with towards a subject that matters to us both. A mentor, then, is someone who keeps me on the path, and a mother (ideally) is someone who’s walked the path before me and can offer their own experiences with a fierce love and respect for my own walk.

God, for me, and in the Christian tradition, fits neatly in this configuration—as positioned above the path as an end, alongside me as I walk, and as someone who has walked the same path before me through the particular individual of Christ. But as far as making good art, it’s crucial for me to have models and muses that are specific to the craft of writing. For BWO, I was surrounded by a lot of testimonies within the Protestant church, while also reading glimmering, boundless prose like Olivia Laing’s Crudo and Danielle Dutton’s Sprawl. But I find my muses everywhere—the other day the person who works at the post office was listening to a science lecture on their iPhone. There she was, surrounded by stamps and envelopes, listening to descriptions of garnets and tourmaline.

Another silly thing. I enjoyed this passage on Gia’s mental state very much: “This was a limerence for another world that destroyed all joy. I began calling it ‘limes’ as some lovely-dumb nickname. Some days I was ‘heavy with limes,’ and more and more days I had none, or one that I could easily throw into the pond. The exuberant language here underscores her depression, in a sort of perversely impish, sympathetic way. Where do you think this wish for self-punishment comes from? Do you think it’s an element of depression, or is it something more persistent and universal?

I understand there to be a fine line between self-punishment and repentance. The Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae says this: “If it wasn’t for repentance, man wouldn’t have the tendency to want to overcome. Repentance is a continual fire . . . which maintains the tension for the better. By it man surpasses himself.” Repentance emerges from the presence of love and the awareness that I often don’t love well enough. But if I simply punish myself, without an eye toward the Other, then I’m still left with this problem of thinking only about myself. Here is where the distinction in my experience then arises—if I am repentant without love (which comes hand-in-hand with forgiveness), then it morphs from repentance to self-punishment, which then can lead to the restlessness of anxiety or the stagnation of depression.

Funnily enough, I think I meant the sentence to be understood as “This was a limerence for another world, a limerence that destroyed all joy” instead of how it’s written now, “This was a limerence for another world, a world that destroyed all joy.” But perhaps this is more true. The nostalgic vision of a wonderful world is in fact an eviscerating one that doesn’t exist and ruins our ability to attend to the broken one we’re given.

I want to talk about another lovely passage towards the end of your book.

Joy completed and doubly felt. The world seen twice as well, like a windowpane made from a prescription lens . . . . Like a barn swallow’s forked tail. Time spent with one another, doubly spent with God.

This reminded me of that line by Li Po, speaking about poems: “It was like being alive twice.

You seem to have brought not only your poetic sensibilities to this novel, but your religious ones as well. In some ways, this novel reads like a long prayer. Can you talk about the role of prayer in your writing life? Do you think about prayer as text at all, or is that fundamentally the wrong way to think about it? What is the relationship between prayer and doubling?

Well, what is joy? If I’m moved by a painting, or the experience of encountering a pond filled with frogs, then the first thing I want to do is show it to someone else. I just wouldn’t be satisfied keeping these things to myself. Leading someone off the path in the woods to the little pond filled with green frogs, and watching their delight, makes the pond all the more wonderful.

There are many reasons why I pray (to praise God, to cry out, to petition, etc.), but one of my favorite ways to pray is just reflecting back to God what I love. If God is life, truth, and love itself . . . you know, the verb “to be,” then God already beholds all this, but sharing my experience of encountering the pond of frogs in a prayer leads to a multi-dimensional experience of life. God, of course, already knows I’m weirdly excited by the pond of frogs, because I was designed in a very particular way, but communication strengthens friendships, and helps me develop a deeper relationship with not only the world but with God.

Up until a very final version of this manuscript, the book ended with an explicit, written prayer from Gia’s perspective. Christian Wiman told me to cut it, that it was telling too much, and I was surprised by how the prayer was immediately absorbed into the rest of the text, like it was there all along.

Stephanie Yue Duhem is a poet in Austin, TX. She can be found online at

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