Jessica Q. Stark is a mixed-race, Vietnamese poet originally from California. She is a doctoral candidate in English at Duke University where she writes on the intersections of American poetry and comic books. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks, the latest titled Vasilisat he Wise (Ethel Zine Press, 2018). Her chapbook manuscript, The Liminal Parade, was selected by Dorothea Lasky for Heavy Feather's Double Take Poetry Prize in 2016. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pleiades, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Hobart, Tupelo Quarterly, Potluck, Glass Poetry Journal, and others. Her first full-length poetry collection, Savage Pageant, is forthcoming with Birds, LLC. She writes an ongoing poetry zine called INNANET. She is an Assistant Poetry Editor for AGNI.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook was called The Liminal Parade, which like my first full-length book, is a hybrid text. I juxtaposed illustrations of Britney Spears crying on YouTube, scenes from the World’s Fair in 1904, and poems about exposure. I was in a socially disappointed place, and I just went for silly and bizarre because that’s where I felt like I lived at the time and that’s where so many people live. The Internet is bizarre, we are bizarre, how we view ourselves and each other through the Internet is bizarre. So it had to be a wild text, and that is where I have continually written from with my work. I think the first chapbook was formative in first training my mind to think in book-form. I felt a distinct shift in how I write after that text. I used to want to write one good poem. Now I work in patterns: denouement, apex, liminality, boredom, accumulation—these are all things that are important to me in designing poems in constellation with other poems. In thinking about how they fit in a larger narrative—both on the page and historically.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Oh, but I didn’t. I wrote my first published pieces under a pseudonym and they were humor short stories. They involved a lot of hiding. I love humor in real life—it’s how we stay alive, isn’t it? Agony as humor, humor as bravado. But I crawled into poetry as a place for looking hard into the dark little corners. When I read books by Bhanu Kapil and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, they had a profound effect on the truth for me. I was interested in being more truthful and I think that poetry’s boundlessness allows for a great deal of magic in truly staying alive and, perhaps, uncovered.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I think about writing projects a lot before I sit down to write. I write a lot of notes on my phone and a lot of my work has come from research. I’ve had the privilege to spend large swaths of my life in libraries, archives. I work at Duke University’s Rubenstein rare books library right now. Naturally, my interest piques from certain materials and I think for a long time about how pieces speak to one another—especially combinations that aren’t typically thought of as in dialogue. Right now, I’m thinking about the gendered history of bodily pain with my friend and poet Lauren Hunter, which was influenced by our similarly strange sources of nerve pain and my experience thumbing through the artifacts from the history of women’s medicine archives. For another manuscript I’m working on called Buffalo Girl, I’m researching the oral history of Little Red Riding Hood in juxtaposition to stories from my mother who immigrated to the US from Vietnam in 1975. The thinking of these projects is generally slow, and the process is respectively quick. I like to write manuscripts in stolen chunks of time (six months or less) when I’ve arrived in my mind to what it will resemble.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
These days, to keep my mind on good behavior, I work on “books.” Like I mentioned, I used to want to write one “good poem.” As if life is ever a good poem. I want books to resemble something more chaotic and honest about how we make little homes out of raw material and misinformation. I’d like some of the seams to show and that’s why I write for long-form texts.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy attending readings and hearing people read immensely, but I have never been the writer that enjoys performing. Which seems funny because I’ve hosted a reading series for half of a decade. I put a lot of stakes in performance and it takes a bit of my heart to perform. I have read dozens of times and I do not get nervous anymore, but it still is something that I give myself to in ways that are occasionally exhausting. And there’s always a bad performance. No matter how prepared you are. Once, I read in a crowded bar with half of the bar talking at high volume at the same time while I was reading. I could barely hear myself; loud laughter during inopportune lines. I always joke that poets know at least *a little* bit what it would feel like to be bad comedian. Stuff of nightmares.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Goodness, yes. My forthcoming book with Birds, LLC, Savage Pageant, explores the concept of spectacle in relation to the varying forms of enfolding violence throughout US history. I’m curious about who gets to call what a spectacle? How do we treat forms of spectacle? How have I been a spectacle? What’s the relationship between telling stories and ignoring ecological collapse? How does spectacle erase or revise unsettling histories? What’s the relationship between the exploitation of animals and how we view the maternal body? I want to say that the answers to these questions and our national history manifest illnesses that we do not necessarily understand, cannot see, and will not yet describe. I names it psychogenic illness, but that is a historical and linguistic container for what I do not know either. It also involves a zoo, which is a metaphor for absolutely everything.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Writers, especially poets right now, in my mind have a deep responsibility to act as a guard, a nervous ward, against injustice. We need urgency, we need disruption, we need unsettling perspectives and rude juxtapositions in order to jog us into activity, attention. Everything starts and ends with language. Writers must wield that energy as they would a very sharp knife: with confidence and deference for the blade’s potential violence.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
With a good match, working with an outside editor is absolutely essential. Chris Tonelli from Birds, LLC has been wonderful to work with in terms of shaping Savage Pageant and bringing light to places in the manuscript that were otherwise obscured or underdeveloped or hiding in plain sight. His attention was critical to the final cuts and development of the book. A good editor is at best a mirror and at worst, a thoughtful adversary. A bad editor is always a disdainful critic. I’ve had my time with both. Run like hell from the latter.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Learn to write anywhere. I had a teacher in undergrad assign me to write a poem on the school bus that made a circle around campus. I had to turn in what I wrote on my phones at the end of the cycle. I assign this same exercise in my workshops. I’m a mom to a young toddler. I write anywhere I have the time. I’ve written poems waiting in doctor’s offices, in parking lots while my son naps, in the gym on a locker bench. Once you’ve gotten over the block that you need to be using this tool or in this mindset or in this particular room, it becomes quite freeing to know that you can always be creating in some sense. Between my job, my PhD, my son, and my life-life, I don’t have a lot of “creative boredom.” Knowing how to create in fleeting, rote moments fills me with joy and it’s a skill that I’ve honed, in order to survive as an artist and to keep writing.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I move between poetry and prose in Savage Pageant and in my current books. I use the term “poetry” as language that traverses these traditional containers. Could I write a book of just prose, a novel? Probably. But I’m not interested in holding the reigns on what poetry can do by moving back and forth between genres. If you think about how people typically read on a day-to-day basis, filled with screens, we are constantly shifting between genres and reading modalities. I am reading the advertisements I don’t see when I check my e-mail. I am reading images when I scroll through Twitter, Instagram. I’m interested in having the printed page rise up to the challenge of speaking to contemporary reading practices and how we might dismantle the everyday violence of neglect and inattention.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t tend towards routines, though I wish I had a life and a habit to do so more frequently. I write creatively in waves and usually fit it in around waged work or deadlines or childcare or other obligations that fill up most of my time. I get it when and where I can. Lots of coffee, too.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The archive. Libraries hold so many untold stories. I’m dedicated to the blood in the archive’s curation. I return again and again to figure out what isn’t there, what needs attention. It never fails to inspire imagination.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Incense and tiger balm. My mother is Vietnamese and was raised Buddhist. My childhood involved attending a lot of my relatives’ ceremonies and lots of pain masked by piquant balms.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My creative work is continually influenced by different forms of research, which includes visual art, ideas in science, music, and beyond. I have the privilege of being friends with a few visual artists as well, particularly those who work in experimental documentary—a field that directly overlaps in my mind with poetry. I also love visual artists like Carrie Mae Weems, whose work is basically another form of poetry. I’ve written an entire scholarly dissertation on poets that have used comics and cartoon media in their poetic work during the twentieth century; I’m fascinated with the barriers that we place on defining containers for art and how artists continually complicate these projected boundaries. The Green Lantern in Amiri Baraka, Joe Brainard drawing Nancy comics. I don’t think these attentions are one-offs or random. They’re incredibly informing of one another.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’m drawn recently to other hybrid poets: Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of is simply brilliant and so is Tina Chang’s Hybrida as well as Rachel Zucker’s Soundmachine. Since finishing my dissertation, I’ve been reading a lot of comics. I love Paper Girls by Image. I’ve been also reading the biography of Madame Nhu by Monique Brinson Demery, which is stunning in its portrait of one of Vietnam’s most complicated historical “villains.”
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Take my son to Vietnam, own a dune buggy, finish the book(s).
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’ve been told by two psychics that I was a folk singer in another life, and I believe them.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It came agonizingly to me in the beginning—like a deep pull inside. The dishes in the sink that you know you got to get around to. I don’t know—that’s the best way I can describe it. It’s less that now and more joyful, even easy at times. I took a lot of big lecture classes in English during my undergrad years at UC Berkeley a decade ago. In one session, the whole lecture hall (over a hundred students) recited one of Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s poems together. I think that was the moment. I was a goner for the task of the word.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m late to the party with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Hugely underrated. It’s pure visual cake.
20 - What are you currently working on?
In addition to the Buffalo Girl manuscript and my collaborative work, I’m always writing a poetry zine called INNANET. That project began as an experiment about three years ago with writing a love poem for the Internet exclusively on my phone. I transfer and print individual “volumes” from my phone logs and usually gift them or send them to poets for free, especially poets that I’ve met on the Internet through Twitter or other forms of social media. I love to hate the Internet, and it hates to love me. Or maybe it’s the other way around.