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Spilling Ink Again
When you think of the poetry of Jeanann Verlee you wonder how can one bring the thunder and the rain? How can something rattle you so much yet feel like a baptism? Well, if you’ve read Racing Hummingbirds from Write Bloody Press, you know these questions are valid. This interview with Jeanann is fascinating and shows a poet on hiatus but not slowing down at all in a creative sense. You’ll notice in this interview how I get on her about being on hiatus and how she so eloquently puts me in check: She may be on hiatus but the thunder and the rain still flow through her and she has many surprises and grand things in store for 2014.
TF: “You are an exit wound, the extra shot of tequila, the tangled knot of hair that must be cut out. You are a cell phone ringing in a hushed theatre, pebble wedged in the sole of a boot, the bloody hangnail. You are, just this once. You are flip-flops in a thunderstorm, the boy’s lost erection, a pen gone dry.” (“Exit Wound,” Racing Hummingbirds). I know you have been on hiatus. Has the pen gone dry? And if so, why?
JV: The pen gone dry in the poem, “Exit Wound,” intends to reference the writer’s temporary frustration/neurosis/trauma in the moment of finding her literal pen has gone dry. That moment most of us have experienced where we have an idea and nothing with which to chronicle it—a dry pen, a dead smart phone, no keyboard in sight. The urgent fear that can consume us in that moment, dreading we will forget whatever it is our mind has created before we can write it down.
As to the matter of the figurative ‘dry pen,’ I don’t believe so. I’ve been a writer my entire life. I’ve had dry spells before—I didn’t write poems during the entirety of my first marriage, lost six months after the publication of my first book, waned after a period of ill health, etc. I’m unsure exactly why I’m not compelled to generate new poems right now (though I suspect it has something to do with trying to publish my second manuscript), but I am confident I will again. For me, writing has always been something I am simply compelled to do—indeed, ultimately, I cannot not write. So while I’m having a difficult time finding the inspiration in this moment, I know it will return. It is who I am.
If the pen has gone dry are there any plans on filling it up or a new kind of pen?
Well, filling it up so far has really been immersion in other tasks – definitively more domestic tasks (relocating homes, home repair, decorating, cookie and chili recipes, etc.). I suppose my most artistic endeavor right now is an attempt to return to children’s literature. I am currently revisiting a children’s story I was working on years ago, as well as a new one I just started. I don’t know what this path will look like, but I grew fond of the genre in college and always planned to return to the work. Why not now, while the poems have waned?
“The way they fit and jump in the mouth. I want ice cream and long letters. I want to read long love letters” (“Communion”). Since you are currently in a writer’s rut, do you still want ice cream and do you still want to read long letters? My real question is, do you still have a passion for the written word?
I’m actually not a big ice cream fan, it was just a craving in the manic moment of writing “Communion.” And the long love letters? Well, sure. Who wouldn’t want to receive a long, gooey love letter? Finally, the written word? Of course. It is my life’s passion. While the act of writing poems may be on temporary, inexplicable pause, and while I have taken a hiatus from organizing poetry readings in NYC, I am still doing the work of enjoying poetry. Reading. Editing. Listening. I can’t imagine being completely gone from poetry, ever.
So when putting a second manuscript together, are you trying to recreate Racing Hummingbirds or are you looking for that next plateau? In my opinion Racing Hummingbirds is very dark but also has this wonderful sense of empowerment, is that something you would like to continue to explore? How do you balance the two?
I’m in no way trying to recreate Racing Hummingbirds. This second collection is more themed, focused on a single year in my life and the tumult of surviving immense grief as someone who lives with bipolar disorder. In that, it is honestly a much darker collection—but, as with much of my work, there is also light—bizarre and at times hilarious tales of manic episodes and responses to grief.
I’ve been told before that my work communicates a certain triumph or empowerment, despite its sadness and brutality—and I’m certainly glad that comes through to readers, but I can’t say that I write with that specific intent. I think it is more a nature of my personality—as a survivor of many tragedies, it is simply part of my construct as a person. I believe what is perceived as “empowering” is simply the telling of various survivals. How do I balance the two? I’m not sure that “balance” is a word I’d use to describe my…anything.
You mention “an attempt to return back to children’s literature.” I love the idea of a Jeanann Verlee children’s book. Can you go into more detail will it be fantasy fiction or poems for children, etc.?
The pieces I’m working on right now are fiction. One is a piece I wrote 20 years ago (20!!) that I’m working to resurrect and find where in it my current voice fits. It’s a more mythology-based story and will take some work. The other is a new idea based on two characters from a game (so-to-speak) my husband and I invented. While the stories are not told through poetry, there are poetic elements – my fiction has always employed such. Oddly, I used to consider myself a fiction writer—didn’t imagine myself a “poet.” Poetry was simply something I had to do—for myself. It’s what kept me sane and gave me space to explore the alternate landscapes and invented characters of fiction. It’s funny to me now to be standing here with effectively two poetry collections and scarcely any lasting fiction.
So who are you reading right now? What writers do you look to to reignite that spark?
Ha. Even my reading right now is what poets would consider ‘dry.’ I am working through a couple nonfiction books, Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman and Cunt by Inga Muscio. But I also recently nabbed Rachel McKibbens’ and Jeffrey McDaniel’s newest collections, Into the Dark & Emptying Field and Chapel of Inadvertent Joy.
I spent many of the last several months combing through my collection of poetry books, rereading old favorites, hoping for some of that spark, but ultimately only grew more despondent. Comparing and contrasting, gaping at others’ use of language and expert craft—I ended up feeling more broken. Even so, as I mentioned, I keep reading. A lot of the freshest work, too—I like to keep up with journals both online and subscriptions.
I find that the happier I am the worse my poems are. You just got married to Ian Khadan. Do you think this will affect your writing?
I’ll tell you a story. I stopped writing poems at one point for a span of ten years. During part of that time, I was married to my first husband. He would fret over the fact I wasn’t writing artistically and my response was always that I was happy now, so what would I have to write about? The dark secret I was unwilling to recognize at the time, however, is that we were rotting from the inside. We were unfit, unwell, and slowly choking both individually and as a couple. I had every reason to write, but I wasn’t compelled to do so. I took up all kinds of artistic hobbies but no poems. Eventually, I realized the relationship had deteriorated and we needed to get well and move on. Within months of that decision, the poems poured out of me. Poured. I had been giving an easy answer to a very complex question. One I didn’t have the capacity to answer with any insight or clarity. In hindsight, there was something in that relationship that barred me from connecting to the intensely intimate experience of writing.
That said, I think there’s some hard truth for many writers in the concept of not writing (or only producing mediocre work) while happy in our other-lives. For some, it’s because we’re busy doing the business of being happy (spending time with a new lover, taking on a work project, managing a hobby, etc.). For others, it’s a core sense of satisfaction—contentment— and we find little in us begging for the exploration and excavation that writing provides. As for Ian and I—being that we are both writers, it’s something we stay focused on and discuss often. We both need space and allowances for not only the base act of writing, but also for freedom of content. (Many relationships are troubled by—or even fail—for writers whose partners question or complain about the poems’ subjects—particularly past lovers or (worse) themselves.) It takes continual effort and focus to ensure we’re caring for and honoring both ourselves/the relationship and our art.
You mentioned being bipolar and for a lot of our poetry friends out there they have gone through similar emotional disorders. How have you been able to harness that kind of emotion into a new collection? How do you open the door and let other poets into that world?
Many of the poems in the new collection came from the need I mentioned earlier to write. In this case, to process a series of situations and traumas through poetry. In some ways, it’s a very personal need. As an artist, however, I also strive to present the information in both unconventional and compelling ways in hopes the reader can glean something about their own experience. Regardless a clinical affliction or an old-fashioned ‘bad mood,’ we all have issues and need help processing our traumas.
I ‘open the door’ into my own mental health for others by working to show the core emotional center. I strive to avoid “telling” the emotion – doing so robs the reader of any emotional journey—and try my best to trust the reader. By approaching from varying angles and perspectives, I hope to not only guide the reader through the stories, but push, pull, and drawn them in to a dynamic emotional journey.
The past couple of years have been a crazy time for the performance poetry community in terms of “safe spaces.” Do you think there is any way of completely providing a safe space whether physically or mentally?
No. Firstly, predators are often keenly aware of whom to target and manipulate. It is incredibly difficult for any organization to preemptively bar the participation of individuals with ulterior motives. How can they know? Secondarily, safety means something different to every individual. Where one person might find one set of actions unsafe, another might find even the mere discussion of them unsafe. Still others may be completely unaffected by a given idea/joke/poem/person while others find that given thing/person triggering or even terrifying. Still, as a former organizer, I strongly believe it is best practice to strive toward creating safe(r) spaces and continually engage dialogue about the myriad safety issues within their communities.
So when you write you say you don’t intend for it to come out dark or empowered or any type of theme, does that stuff start to happen with editing? Do you have an editing process? Can you give us an example in Racing Hummingbirds of a stanza that was changed into something more focused or themed?
I write what (for me) needs to be written: an idea or emotion I’m compelled to release. Again, I think the themes readers detect are simply a matter of my personality coming through the work. I am in person who I am on page (though obviously the page can’t convey the entirety of a person), so if I feel triumphant, triumph will guide a piece; if I feel grief, the poem will grieve. I guess, in short, I don’t write with an agenda. The few times I’ve tried have failed. I listen to what the poem wants to become, not what I expect it to be.
As for editing, yes. It’s a multi-tiered process. First, I edit while writing (can’t help myself), clipping and rephrasing, etc. Once a draft forms, I continue to rework it, honing and paring down. Eventually I’ll send it to editor friends for feedback and again return to drafting. At some point I may test it at an open mic or—when particularly brave—submit for consideration in a journal. The process rebegins once it lands in a collection, to ensure it fits with the other collected work.
From Racing Hummingbirds, the only significant change that comes to mind is the poem, “and/or.” Originally this poem was two long stanzas—the “and” and the “or,” but a closing stanza was later added. Soon after the first draft of “and/or,” I wrote another poem (the bulk of which was trashed) and in discussions during rehearsals with my 2008 NPS team from LouderARTS, we discovered that the salvageable lines from the discarded poem would perfectly close “and/or.” I kept this change in the final of the book.
Any last thoughts or comments or light you would like to leave us with?
Let’s all forgive ourselves when we aren’t writing. And when we are.
Jeanann Verlee is an author, performance poet, editor, and former punk rocker. She is author of Racing Hummingbirds (Write Bloody Publishing), which earned the Independent Publisher Book Award Silver Medal in Poetry. Verlee is also winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry. Her work appears in a number of journals, including The New York Quarterly, Rattle, and failbetter, among others. She is a poetry editor for Union Station Magazine and former director of Urbana Poetry Slam. Verlee holds a number of local and national slam titles and has represented New York City ten times under both NYC-Urbana and NYC-louderARTS at the National Poetry Slam, Individual World Poetry Slam, and Women of the World Poetry Slam. She believes in you.
Thomas Fucaloro‘s latest book is out now by three rooms press and is called It Starts From the Belly and Blooms. He is found editor for Great Weather for Media and editor for staten island’s new literary magazine NYSAI. He teaches poetry workshops at the NEON Bronx Probation Center, Writopia Lab, and The Acorn Youth Treatment Center.
***This piece first appeared in Luna Luna Mag and was republished here with permission. ***
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