JILLIAN WEISE IS from Houston, Texas. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Cincinnati. Her first book of poetry, The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, was published in 2007. Her second collection, The Book of Goodbyes, was published in September 2013. It received the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award from BOA Editions. Her novel, The Colony (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press, 2010), won a Good Sex Award from Salon. In addition, she received a Fulbright Fellowship to Argentina in 2009. She currently teaches at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Front Porch: Why is poetry important?
Jillian Weise: James Dickey wants to answer this one: “Science and technology and medicine: these things can save your life. But only literature makes it worth saving.”
FP: The poems in The Amputee’s Guide to Sex tend to be more lyrical, while the poems in The Book of Goodbyes have more narrative elements—especially the section “Intermission” and the poem “Once I thought I was going to die in the desert without knowing who I was.” In between your two collections of poetry, you wrote the novel The Colony. Can you talk about how your relationship to prose has influenced your poetry?
JW: The novel is the unforgiving genre. You must ask yourself without irony: Do I have time to write a novel? For example, let’s say you spend three months on a poem. Let’s say it is terrible. It is really, very bad. At least your inner voice will say, “Don’t worry. It is not a good poem but you have other poems. And one of them is pretty damn good.” Not so with the novel. Let’s say it has been three months and you have written 100 pages. Suddenly you fall in love and you spend a lot of time texting: “Where R U? Want to hang out?” Time passes. You break up or you move in together. E ither way, s uddenly you want back into your novel. You re-read the pages. Your inner voice says, “You’re in trouble. You have no other novels and this is terrible. You’re ankle deep in this puddle of spit and now what?”
I tricked into writing The Colony. I published some of the prose as poems first. My degrees are not in fiction, so I did not feel any fidelity to the conventions of the genre. Plus, poetry invented fiction. I figure the poet can do anything in prose. I am starting to sound a little cavalier here, so let me say that I am deeply invested in the work of genre-benders like Julio Cortazar and Jean Toomer and Gertrude Stein and Richard Brautigan and Kathy Acker and Chris Bachelder. Their work gives mine permission. Since I had written the novel, and it kicked my ass in a lot of ways, I took everything I learned from that and carried it over to poems. Like character and pacing and plot. Margaret Atwood writes about plot: “a what and a what and a what. Now try how and why.” I think that’s good advice for poems, too.
FP: In both The Amputee’s Guide to Sex and The Book of Goodbyes, your poems vary in form from couplets to prose poems. However, there is a strong emphasis on rhyme regardless of the form. This highlights the precision in both structure and language you bring to your work. Can you talk further about how you work with poetic forms and what they allow you to do?
JW: You mentioned the “Intermission” poems, and those are in quatrains, and quatrains were new to me. I stole them from Juan Ruiz’s El Libro de Buen Amor. Do you know this book? It follows the character of Juan Ruiz through adventures with “mountain women” and anthropomorphized donkeys. Ruiz announces himself in the poems and fictionalizes himself. Tonally, he ranges from bombastic to humble, irreverent to religious. It seems incredible that a stanzaic form can contain Ruiz’s elasticity. And yet, the form is the How.
FP: You mentioned that you explored quatrains because the form seemed new to you after reading El Libro de Buen Amor. Can you discuss another unlikely source of inspiration?
JW: Sure. Quatrains felt new to me after I read Juan Ruiz. Before that, I thought quatrains belonged to “Roses are red / Violets are blue.” I thought they belonged to folk song and ballad meter and pantoum. I was narrow-minded about the quatrain. Then I read Juan Ruiz. He is from 1350, so he is not exactly a new dude. Form sparks the imagination. Maybe this answers the question about how to keep from getting stale. Try a new dress on your poem. In The Book of Goodbyes, there is a substitution poem “Affairs.” I was taking this class called “Theories of the Short Story,” and I wanted the professor to like me, because I respected him very much, but I did not care for some of the theories. One of the essays, “Recalcitrance in the Short Story,” seemed trifling. It seemed like you could substitute any word for “recalcitrance.” I substituted “affairs” and the poem happened. Thinking about it now, I disagree with my former self. I actually think “recalcitrance” is a cool way to consider why we resist some forms of writing, embrace others. The substitution form offers relief from the myth of genius.
FP: Many poets make use of reoccurring images in their work—such as William Carlos Williams and flowers or Pablo Neruda and wood. In your own work, you consistently return to human anatomy. Despite the recurrence, you make each image feel fresh. Can you talk about how one can overcome staleness?
JW: Oh, I really like “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” for the lines: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” And Pablo Neruda: he wrote love poems again and again. I do not know how to prevent staleness. I use books and rap music and WIRED magazine as stimulants. Ideally, I read something or hear something and that applies a new pressure to whatever I’m writing.
FP: Can you discuss what you mean by pressure?
Yes, it’s a confuddling term. It lives in peer pressure and blood pressure and atmospheric pressure. I’m thinking of it like this: You know how you go to a reading, and maybe you check out during it, you are thinking of the after-party, and then you go to the after-party? But in some readings, you are so enthralled that you skip the after-party, go home, and take to the keys. You don’t even care if you miss some major kerfuffle at the after-party. Your next poem is more important. So that’s the kind of pressure I like. Somebody said something out there and my neurons are all fired up.
FP: Besides writing, are you involved in other arts? If so, how do you think that form or medium correlates or collaborates with writing?
I don’t think I would count this as art, but I like making videos. I made one with the poet Bo McGuire and it is over here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qIi9AZfmyw
FP: In general then, do you think involvement outside writing is important to the craft?
JW: Yes, for sure. Otherwise, one can get solipsistic.
FP: How do you know when a poem does not allow the reader to enter? How do you find the balance between saying too much and too little in a poem?
JW: Not allowing the reader to enter. That’s a good way of saying it. I am picturing a poem with a welcome mat outside the door versus a poem with a padlock on the doorknob. If the guard has to come with a key to let me into the poem, I have probably already left the scene. I’m not sure how I balance this—accessibility vs. intrigue—in my poems. I know the term accessible has been thrown around pejoratively. It is almost a cuss word, isn’t it? In certain poetry circles?
FP: I think so. Can you talk about one thing you learned from either your MFA or your Ph.D. program that you still carry with you as you teach writing? Can you also share something you know now, but wish you had learned then?
JW: I’ve had incredible mentors: Fred Chappell, Jim Clark, Stuart Dischell, Van Jordan, Don Bogen, Jim Cummins, John Drury, Michael Griffith, Brock Clarke, and Joanie Mackowski. Their mentorship has been so important to my writing. The hard part about post-grad school is that there are no deadlines for your thesis and your dissertation, and some of the friendships fade, and nobody is scheduled to meet you at Tate Street Café to talk about your poetry.
FP: That’s quite sad to not have people at the coffee shop to talk about poetry with. Have you been able to find a replacement? How have you been able to continue your poetic development outside the academic setting?
JW: I no longer live across the street from Tate Street Café. So I won’t be meeting my mentors there. It is not all sad. I’ve got stellar friends here in Greenville, S.C., and colleagues who are generous toward my work. But talking to friends and colleagues about my writing is different than the guidance from professors. For one thing, I would hesitate to say: “Let’s meet at 3 p.m. and talk only about my poetry.” That would just be weird. I guess I’m nostalgic for the Ph.D. at Cincy, or my MFA Program, or the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Abraham Smith used to come to my place with a bucket full of poems. Really, a blue bucket. He is an incredible reader. Have you heard him? Matthew Dickman used to stop by and we would read aloud and I loved hearing his poems. It was all immediate and electric. I just heard Emily Rosko read from Prop Rockery, and her poems are brilliant, and brought me back to that sense of urgency. Had to rush home to the page.
FP: What are some books that you are reading now?
JW: I’m rotational reading: The Erotic Poems by Ovid, Strange Things Happen Here by Luisa Valenzuela, and this new anthology on Transhumanism.
FP: What can you say about your next project?
I have an “Imaginary Interview” coming out in Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, so I’m pretty excited about that. I’m also scared. I think there will be a respondent in the same issue.