Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Interview with Poet Jessica Young

Jessica Young’s poetry has more math and science it in than most contemporary American poetry. Her new book, “Only as a Body,” not only has an “X,” but also a narrative arc. This is a collection to read not only as individual poems, but as a complete book.

I am very happy to have met Jessica Young at the Key West Literary Seminar in our workshop with Jane Hirshfield. Young kindly agreed to answer some questions about her poetry and her writing process. I think you’ll be particularly interested in the influence that math and science has had on her art and her decision to include truths and facts in her writing.


Congratulations on the publication of your first book, "Only as a Body", published by Bateau Press. Could you share how you chose the press?

Thank you, and thank you so much for having this conversation with me.

How I chose Bateau was a mix of coincidence and choice.  I assembled my manuscript in early Fall 2009, and looked for small presses that were currently reading.  Bateau was on the list I generated, and I recognized their name from AWP.  There, I'd seen some of their books and magazines.  Their publications were exactly what I wanted--the voices they printed were ones I enjoyed, and their actual books felt personal... clearly a work of pride and love.  The contest deadline was a few weeks away, so I submitted, and voila.

This collection of poems details the narrative and emotional arc of the end of a romantic relationship. In poetry, there is often the overlap of non-fiction and fiction. Would you feel comfortable discussing the decisions you made to include true-to-life and/or invented details?

Generally, I write from my own life experience, in my own voice.  I'm a big believer that a poem needs to feel authentic.  For me, at least, that's correlated with true stories reflected on in a true voice.  Sometimes another voice comes to me, though, and if it's in good faith and fascinating, I indulge it to see where it goes.  These poems tend to be a lot of fun.

The odd part for me about the publication of "Only as a Body," is that when I think of the poems I write and want to write, they're not these!  I'm so happy with this book, but it also feels strange to share it knowing readers will assume the story is true, and I am the narrator.  I get a little nervous, even, when I think of the more intimate poems.  It's unlike me/my poetry to open in that way.  So I think this is what happened: I wrote these poems during a six-month period of extreme stress and hurt.  At the time I felt like another person, and probably acted and wrote like another person.  That version of me wrote this book, and in that sense it's true-to-life.  But looking back on it, comparing it to what I usually write (astronomy! nature! math!), it's barely recognizable.

As for specific details in it, during the editing process I just tried to have fun.  Some of the poems are 100% true (riding my bicycle into the woods), and some of them are 100% metaphor and make-believe (stacks of dirty dishes).  Where I invented, I tried to detail plausibly.  Some details, of course, got borrowed from real life--the muesli, the attraction of a fresh start.  Some of them were pulled from the air.  As long as we populate our poems with details that a reader feels possible, they can be fact or fiction.

Most of your poems in this chapbook build upon each other and could fit together as one long poem. End lines of some poems flow seamlessly into the following poems. For example, poem "II" ends with the phrase, "But that's not" (without end punctuation) and is followed by the first, un-capitalized line in the following poem, "a secret; and the pieces I still need". This second poem is entitled, "There are the pieces he wanted kept". Can you discuss these decisions and connections between the poems?

"Only as a Body," is intended to be read cover to cover.  I was thinking about how details unravel... how we understand situations better in retrospect, as new information enters... how we cope with situations we lived but cannot change.  So I designed the book to reflect that: to have an arced plot, and to have a story that isn't linear, but represents something of the human experience.  So to encourage a cover to cover reading, the book is very much meant to flow from one poem to the next.  You found a couple of my tricks--the repeated use of the number 21, and that some poems lead right into the next one.  There's also the poem, "At first, you say you enjoy doing them," which is a longform broken into 7 pieces, and doled out throughout the book.  And then there are little patterns to pick up on, for example, phrases that are repeated again and again.

Numbers play an important role in your poems, especially in the three part poem "The 21 Before Me". You move beyond arithmetic and use mathematics as a means to develop a system of understanding. Can you discuss how this came about and the role that your science and math background plays in your poetry?

I grew up with the illustrious X... my father taught algebra for 17 years, I felt at home in my math classes, I studied a lot of Physics at MIT, took Differential Equations for fun... all of this taught me to think in a certain way, to process information as a scientist might.  So when I go through, say, a break-up... I think of the numbers.  I quantify my experience, or remember the details--how many times did wh X, how many times did I say Y, how often did I think Z?  Likewise as I brainstorm for a poem, my paper won't necessarily contain phrases or thoughts, but flow-charts and variables... and I'll admit, even equations.  Numbers, compared to the anything-can-happen world of poetry, seem quite sturdy.  And the number 21, well, that was an obsession.  It refers to a personal detail from the relationship, and became an organizational tactic for the book--how many poems, how many lines, how many pieces of silverware... In this sense, math/patterns help me write by offering a constraint.  If I give myself a blank page, where do I start?  If I give myself a blank page and a rule to play by, well, that gets the brain moving...

Finally, writers must spend time not only writing and revising, but also tending to the administrative side of publishing: submitting poems to journals and contents, applying for fellowships, etc. What advice would you offer to writers about balancing these activities?

Ah, the practical side.  These are thoughts I try to live by myself:

(1) Submit your work widely.  To get individual poems placed, generate a list of journals you like and submit to one a day.  I did this for a month and it felt like overkill, but I realized at the end I had 30 submissions out there!  Only 2 came back positively, but hey, that's 2 more publications!

(2) Understand that a rejection is in no way personal.  If 2 of my 30 submissions were accepted, then 28 weren't.  That seems... depressing? offensive? confirmation of all my self-doubt?  In reality, what gets picked is so random and subjective.

(3) When you do get the acceptance, feel really good about it.  Yes, it was random.  Yes, it was subjective.  And this time, it went in your favor.  Celebrate, tell your friends, and send copies of the magazine to the people who helped.

(4) Have a few writers to fall back on when you're feeling bleak.  Some of them should be in print (Matthea Harvey, Theodore Roethke)--to remember why you're doing this, to re-learn that we can feel connected across a page.  And then some of them should be in person (friends and family)--to remember there is a world outside of your computer screen, and that there are people out there who--whether or not your poem was accepted--love you fully.

Jessica Young currently holds a Zell Fellowship for poetry in Ann Arbor, MI.  She completed her Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (poetry) at the University of Michigan, where she received two Hopwood awards and the 2010 Moveen Residency.  Her undergraduate work was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she received four Ilona Karmel prizes for her poetry and essays.


Angie said...

I loved Jessica's chapbook, so it was cool to hear about the process of writing it, especially all the "tricks" and numbers. Some of those I picked up on--like the one poem flowing into another and the 7-piece longform poem-- but I wondered about the number 21. Going to go reread it now and see what other patterns I missed.

I also like her comment about how at the time (of writing the chapbook) she "felt like another person" and "that version of me wrote this book." Good point. Not only are we not the same people from day to day, but even if something was "true" for us once, we may be completely different people today--changed by both the experience AND the act of writing about it.

Chloe Yelena Miller said...

Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts, Angie! Such insightful answers Jessica shared with us...

Angie said...

Check out Cate Marvi's essay "Tell All the Truth but tell it slant: First-Person Usage in Poetry":

Jessica said...

Angie... how perfect an example. I read your words, "we may be completely different people today--changed by both the experience AND the act of writing about it" ... and feel that connection across a screen. To feel understood--incredible!