Wednesday, December 02, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with J'Lyn Chapman

J’Lyn Chapman serves as Assistant Professor in the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University. Her most recent work is To Limn / Lying In (PANK Books, 2020). Her book Beastlife was published by Calamari Archive in 2016.  She has also published the chapbooks A Thing of Shreds and Patches (Essay Press, 2016) and The Form Our Curiosity Takes (Essay Press, 2015), both of which can be found online.

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?

The publication of my first full-length book, Beastlife, made me feel happy and satisfied, and also a little embarrassed because I didn’t feel confident about every element of the book. As well, I had been in academia for a long time without a book, so a book helped me to feel legit. Of course, that feeling didn’t last for very long.

My most recent book, To Limn / Lying In, is less an experiment with different registers and voices as the first had been and more an immersion into a single experience. And while it does engage with the thought of other writers and artists as the first does, I wrote it in a much more contemplative and private way—in my body, in my space, in my immediate life, which was a life of caring for very small children—whereas the first book seemed to be written more publicly—by writing from primary and secondary sources, in archives and nature.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

Well, as a young person, I came to fiction first, but then I eventually thought I should write poetry. Poetry was a way of giving the private life form, and people I really admired wrote poetry. Poetry also seemed like a permissive genre that allowed a list, for instance, to be art. I didn’t understand what non-fiction was, or cross-genre work or hybridity or lyric essays. Nowadays I feel much less concerned about genre and more interested in “the form our curiosity takes,” as Lyn Hejinian would say.

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?

Sometimes I’m not sure that I have started a writing project. I think quickly, but I write slowly. I take lots of notes, and usually they transform or inspire writing in just a few drafts. I believe in having an idea or intention, taking it seriously, and trusting that it will find its center. Sometimes this takes a long time, but I have faith in creativity. I am a hopeful person, even if I inevitably have moments of doubt and discouragement. I listen to messages that come from within and from without. It all happens in a scattered way, but then something gets made.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose 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?

I do tend to think of a book from the very beginning. This drive to make a book is not always productive, and derives from academic pressures. Yet, these pressures have also helped me to feel that my writing is actual work to be taken seriously. I also just try to pay attention to any kind of pleasure. If an idea or object pulls me toward it, I try to make note of that. I get a lot of excitement from the potential of writing. So, I am not always beginning a piece, but I am noting how I feel about something or what it spurs for me and then I let it grow and develop.

I should also say in regard to these questions that I get a lot out of writing workshops. I need accountability, deadlines, and readers. These strictures are very helpful in getting what is inside outside.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Readings are definitely part of my creative process. I am privileged to be able to read pretty regularly at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program. I’ve become accustomed to thinking of this as a group of my dear friends, and quite regularly there’s a writer in the audience who I admire. This gives me a lot of energy. Recently, though, I’ve read to audiences of strangers, and it’s made me aware of how dependent I’ve become on the perception of familiarity and good will.  I think I need to stretch myself in this regard, but these days readings are virtual, and all the anticipation and performance energy feels dulled. I’m usually reading and trying to kick my children off of me before they show up on camera. And yet, I feel accepting of this emulsion of my private and public life.

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?

Right now, I am interested in minute, largely unconscious phenomena and how they affect the choices we make in our day-to-day material life. Maybe I would call it the hyper-mundane? Mostly, I’m thinking of pleasurable attachments or orientations. Regardless, though, the challenge is both how to express these sensations in text but also to understand the ways in which text or language manifests these orientations.

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?

I’m not sure what larger culture is—I think of a sloppy, digital recreation of landscape that loops. I don’t think writers have any role in that but should work to reject the semblance of it—the rhetorical gestures, the easy pleasures and outrages, the homogeneity—in their work. I still believe in truth and beauty. Our work, which is our lives, should be committed to these. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Working with a good editor is essential.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

After I had my first child, I wondered if I should give up writing, at least for a few years. The poet Jessica Smith told me that she can’t be the mother she wants to be if she can’t be the writer she wants to be. She doesn’t remember saying this, so I may have ventriloquized my own advice to myself, but, regardless, thinking of these roles as equally necessary and mutually inclusive has sustained me in the last four years.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to prose poetry to fiction to photography to philosophy)? What do you see as the appeal?

Cross-genre and hybrid writing, as well as the movement between genres, is ethically necessary. They express states of being, orientations, identities, etc. that traditional generic restrictions can subsume or erase. Yet, I do think that poetry and fiction, for instance, involve different methodologies and approaches, and for that reason, it’s not easy for me to move between genres. I think genres do different things to language, they have different sensations and meanings. I don’t necessarily have experience working in different genres, even if I have a sense of their theoretical concerns and I try to read across all genres. Yet, the challenge and difficulty are important to me. I like to be in a position of disorientation or estrangement when I write.

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 have no writing routine. Most days a child wakes me, or I wake reluctantly to run before the heat of the day. I write when there’s a rare spare moment. Mostly this happens at night. But I do manage to read often, and when I’m reading, I’m also thinking, and that’s kind of like writing.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Visual art, film, and music inspire me, in addition to books of all sorts. Found language—simply writing down or cutting out others’ or my own language—can perform like a kind of yeast to make things grow. I also find it helpful to do something with my hands—to make a collage, to sew, to cook—or to move my body to the point of exhaustion.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Sage brush after a rain storm.

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?

While I am inspired by books as primary phenomena, that is as an object in and of itself, very often I am thinking of the choices a writer makes in a book. I feel most inspired when something emerges unexpectedly. Sometimes that’s a book or even a small passage in a book, but more often it is something I experience with my body, all of my senses and even more often it’s something entirely mundane—not a sublime mountain peak but the backyard garden, not a great piece of literature but something strange my kid said. I should also add that I love learning about the history of material culture. The history of an object or how humans have engaged with objects is endlessly fascinating.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Although I think of them as very different writers, I am inspired by Bernadette Mayer and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Also Etel Adnan and Clarice Lispector. Lisa Robertson’s writing has inspired me for a very long time, and even now I’m returning to it. Recently, I’ve been reading Tim Ingold, for the exciting ways that he approaches anthropology, and Sara Ahmed because I’d like to learn more about affect theory.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I want to live, temporarily, in another country. I want to become more proficient at sewing. I would like to volunteer regularly at a local charity.

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?

If I could attempt another occupation, I would like to be an urban archaeologist or a fashion historian. It’s almost painful how badly I wish I could return to school to study these.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I feel like I am mostly always doing something other than writing, so this makes me laugh. I write because I love to build worlds or to lay down my thinking and animate it. I love language, I love making things with language and finding power in it. It is endlessly challenging and unrestricted. But writing also feels connected to the other things that I love—images, music, the body, prayer, film. I feel when I am writing or even thinking like a writer that I am connected to other people, that I am able to be with other minds all at once. Out of all the things that I love, writing feels the most plastic, the most capable of being itself and everything else.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I just read, actually I listened to it, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House: A Memoir. I also ripped through Caren Beilin’s Blackfishing the IUD—I think she’s terrific. And before that, Sarah Vap’s Winter: Effulgences and Devotions stunned me. The last great film I watched was Parasite.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m writing a book about a skirt.

12 or 20 (secondseries) questions;

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