Monday, April 05, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jessi MacEachern

Jessi MacEachern lives in Montréal, QC. Her poetry has been published in Poetry Is Dead, Vallum, MuseMedusa, Canthius, PRISM, and CV2. You can read her chapbook Ravishing the Sex Into the Hold online at MODEL PRESS. Her first full-length poetry collection is A Number of Stunning Attacks (Invisible Publishing, 2021). She is currently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Concordia University. (twitter: @jessisays / instagram: @jessisaying)

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

The most notable change is that I can now attest to having finished at least one poem in my lifetime, for the long poem (or series of poems) in the book finally feels done, or at least those lines have finally become resistant to being undone and done over.

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

Writing for me is the art of trying to say it, whatever it is, again and again until it comes out sharp and glinting and making some new sense of the world. Prose has yet, for me anyway, to fit that messy mode of expression. The sentence is too domineering, the line lets you get away with so much.

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?

If I have an “idea” for a “project,” I’m doomed. My book is the result of determinedly running away from every new thought or feeling I had, in order to disassemble and reassemble the same lines of the poem, or number of poems, that I had been living, and sometimes writing or re-writing, for three decades.

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?

It begins with a sense of obligation. I’ve identified as a writer, or more precisely a poet, for almost my entire life, which only means I’m always plagued by the feeling that I should be writing. So, I set myself some impossible task and then I become increasingly dissatisfied with my failure to meet said task — until, out of sheer exasperation, I write something. It’s never for the next book, precisely, but to further confirm yes, I am a writer, a poet.

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

To answer this question from the isolation of COVID-19 is to become flagrantly nostalgic for a “before time” that involved impossibly cold winter walks to Librairie Drawn & Quarterly to stand at the back of a sweating, snow-damp crowd, as well as long and humid summer nights in green-lit bars on Saint-Laurent with a troupe of poets or performance artists or both. Sometimes I was invited on stage or to the head of a friend’s charmed living room to partake in the reading and I have always felt so terribly honoured by this opportunity. It is also with a sepia sort of longing that I think of the person-to-person readings I will not host as my first book enters the world.

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?

I’m having a difficult time answering this question because I am equally provoked to say yes and no. Yes, every syllable of my writing is engaged in the feminist project of redefining experience and personhood, as inspired by the uncanny language of the French thinkers Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva and the re-visionary citational praxis of Ahmed. It’s also sparking up against the minor-becomings of Deleuze and Guattari and circling back (with the modernist poet H. D.) to the foundational mistakes by Freud. But no, when the poem comes out, the thought is not theory-inflected. Not in an explicit way. It’s a far too elemental struggle to say anything at all that I’m engaged in when pencil lead is hovering over the notebook page.

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 believe there are too many types of writing and too many types of writers for there to one role for the writer in culture. I can say, however, that my greatest service to the public at large, as a writer, was as the teenage author of erotic Harry Potter fanfiction. A service I may never surpass.

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

Jenny Sampirisi was the editor of my book with Invisible and, together, we formed a fluid and expansive relationship with the manuscript. Without diminishing the concrete changes she made in the writing, I can say the most meaningful gift her editing gave me was one of clear sight. In her eyes, the book became complete.

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

Read often and read widely. I think of Sina Queyras (I believe it was them) advising our graduate poetry workshop, or perhaps writing in an interview, that it’s important to read across genres or forms when you’re writing: poetry for the novel, non-fiction for the poem, etc. Or was that Gail Scott’s advice? Another influential teacher, whose reading lists forever changed the fabric of my life. I don’t necessarily follow this advice (I’m always reading another poet’s book while I’m writing the poem) but I think others ought to.

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

I am used to dividing my time between academic prose and poetry. The worst part of writing my dissertation, an experience I relish saying is good and done, was the inability to carve out time for the expansive and meandering thought poetry sometimes requires. Of course, now, as a contract or part-time instructor, time has not become less of a problem. Without the looming crisis of a critical thesis, however, I have been able to prioritize reading and writing poetry — perhaps at the expense of my academic career. Where is the scholarly manuscript, the hiring committee wants to know.

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?

In For Now, Eileen Myles describes the writing life as a waste of time: “I think literature is wasted time, I don’t think there’s anything good about it. It’s not a moral project except in this profound aspect of wasting time.” Ideally, my routine is shaped by such un-moralistic time wasting: a slow journey from bed, through the apartment, into the city streets, and back to the notebook as needed. This is possible, mornings and weekends especially, because I do not have children. I do, however, have a job (for now) and my writing often has to fit into the spaces left over after the demands of the college or university classroom.

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

I turn back to the writing of the poets who delivered me to this aspiration (to write) in the first place. I admire those poets who find inspiration in the visual arts, in music, in textbooks of astronomy and biology; while curiosity about the wider world fulfills the person I am, which is necessary to be the poet I am, I always find that the only thing that sets the poetry a-ticking is poetry itself.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Vinegar. Accompanied by the sound of pans rattling on the stove and air hissing between the metal lid and the glass bottle of dozens and dozens of jars of pickles. My mother working tirelessly in the kitchen. Always choosing an afternoon hotter than hell. This acrid scent floats too in the memory of my great-grandmother’s front yard, home of my childhood summers, as the swarming grandchildren and great-grandchildren race through the vegetable garden. Great Nana and Nana and Mom are slicing cucumbers and radishes and dropping the red and green flesh into heaping bowls of vinegar. Pig shit, too, floats on the air from the farm across the way and the whole day, the whole summer, would be perfect, really.

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?

The influence I take from other forms is hard to describe. I feel woefully uneducated in music, though its various forms accompany my writing and non-writing life. I love to be on my back below the spread of a tree in leaf or to have my toes in the sand and face to the ocean on Lakeside Beach in PEI, but I find nature is best for inspiring silent contemplation rather than copious transcription. I carry a notebook through every art gallery I visit and take pages of notes but this is to gear up my response in the present rather than to forge a separate response in verse. But all this makes it into the poetry — in the form of an afterlife, maybe, following a circuitous and not entirely conscious journey through my thought and memory.

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

I’ll name the poets I studied during the five or six years of my doctoral work: the modernist H.D. and the contemporary Lisa Robertson, Erín Moure, and Rachel Zolf. I find in this work a shared perspicacity in the face of a shattered/shattering world, translated into various forms on the page: the beauty of a crystallised image, some admiration for a length of well-cut velvet fabric, an unsayable desire in the movement of a limb, and jarring gusts of human-animal-machine sound.

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

I would like to visit Japan. I would like to write at least 2,000 words of a short story. I would like to bake this Russian Honey Cake. I would like, I think, to have a small part in a play.

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 am a teacher as well as being a writer. When I was younger, I dreamt of being a lawyer — specifically a criminal defence lawyer, in the style of Alexis Davis from General Hospital, who falls in love with the married mob boss for whom she tirelessly works.

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

I write and I study writing and I teach the art of reading writing because it is exactly how I want to spend my time — immersed in the material of language. I write because I am always interested in describing what I sense happening in any given now-time. It seems important to name it, to call it to the attention of those we love, this now. That’s what living is, sharing in the now, and I choose words for the sharing.

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

I just finished reading Claudia Rankine’s Just Us and like everything produced by her genius it is just that: genius. The last movie I watched was Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar and it was an indisputable delight.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I have a series of poems, inspired by Hoa Nguyen’sReading and Writing through the Poetry of Lorine Niedecker” workshop, that I would like to see in a chapbook. I am slowly returning to a creative-critical project about “the event” which draws upon the generative space of listening to a writer read their work. I am also writing some new beginning each day until it coalesces into a single poem, or perhaps the next book.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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