Jessica Laser was born in Chicago. She is the author of two books of poems, Planet Drill (Futurepoem Books, 2022), winner of the Other Futures Award, and Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides (Letter Machine Editions, 2019). Her poetry has been supported by fellowships from Brown University, the Iowa Writers Workshop, the Mastheads, and Purchase College. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Solar, Rainbow Agate, No Materialism, Lana Turner and The Yale Review.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
There’s a take on free will in Dante that says something like, “Set in motion by a happy maker, the soul turns to what pleases it.” When they published Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides, Lisa and Josh at Letter Machine set me in motion in this way.
Over the last few years, I have slowly but completely reversed my thinking on, for lack of a better term, the affective fallacy. This has been the single biggest factor in changing the surface of my work. Before, I judged poetry (my own and others’) on the extent to which it seemed aware of itself as made of language; I judged poetry on what it chose to do with that awareness. Now I judge poetry on whether it is moving. These aims are not mutually exclusive, and now that I write this out, I see that any distinction between them is false, because of course I was and am still extremely moved by the way poems recognize themselves as made of language.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
As you can see from my previous answer, I’m not so good at rhetorical argument. Poetry seemed to me the medium best able to release rhetorical argument’s fantasy of control by weaving itself of contradiction, by privileging how we actually feel over how we feel we should feel. That’s my thinky answer, but in some sense I was always headed this way: even as a very young writer, I was driven by music more than by narrative or description.
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?
It’s always changing and I feel a lot of resistance to describing it.
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?
A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom. Oh wait, that’s Robert Frost. For me, a poem begins wherever there is an opening, engineered or spontaneous, for language to pour through, sometimes even in the middle of another poem. Deep down, whether I want to or not, I believe that poetry’s potential for greatness lies in the discrete poem and not the book.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes. I prepare for a reading as I would for any performance: I rehearse. Perhaps because of copious theater training earlier in my life, I am uncompromising about my belief that members of an audience deserve to feel confident in a performer’s preparation, so they can sit back and receive the work. It drives me crazy when, in the middle of a reading, the poet asks the audience how much time is left.
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 have currently abandoned all my theoretical concerns to try and become a true student of practice.
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?
What is the role of inner life in larger culture? What is the status of emotional truth? What kinds of information does our newsy reliance on “fact” leave out? Where do we think experience takes place? Stevens: “The blood of the mind fell/ to the floor. I slept.” Writers should keep us awake, and, thankfully, there are a lot of different ways to do that, many of which, no matter how difficult the subject matter, are founded in a sense of play.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I might regret saying this, but poetry happens in editing (not writing), in the writing becoming aware of what it is. In my experience, the best editor is one who loves the poem enough to recognize a full fruition the poem might not yet have achieved, and who can see a way to steward the poem toward that fruition, not one externally imposed. This question is timely for me: in the last few months, I worked with editors at Solar and The Yale Review who were able to, as it were, take the telescope I had built and see beyond me, and the poems were better for it.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I love advice; here’s my arsenal.
A. “Listen, and allow yourself to be surprised.” An intellectual mentor of mine, Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg, wrote this in an email to me in 2010 when, having never taught before, I was offered a creative writing course with little notice and asked her for teaching advice, though obviously this advice also holds for writing poems, being in relationship, appreciating life, etc.
B. “You can write whatever you want, but you actually have to do that.” Carlos Lara put this piece of gold on the internet and I continue to sit back and watch it shine. In writing as in life, “whatever you want” is no default state; it must be cultivated, protected, accessed.
C. Anti-advice advice in Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim: The Yehudi speaks on Psalm 13:2—“How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart by day?”— saying, “‘So long as I take counsel in my soul, there must needs be sorrow in my heart by day. It is only when I realize that no counsel can help me, and know of no help save that which comes from God—it is only then that help is accorded me.’ And then he added: ‘This is the mystic meaning of the ritual bath.’” A bath I would take.
D. A physical therapist, Susan, once told me: “The pain isn’t always where the injury is.”
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
None. But I can say that if I do not have an active, relaxed and joyful reading practice, then I have no writing practice, either. I begin my day by walking my dog.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I try to get in touch with the permission to fail. Recently I was helped along by the first draft of James Wright’s poem “Hook.” At the top of the page, after typing the date, he’d written, “I will call it Hook,” which, I am probably projecting, indicated to me that he was in something like the ideal mental state for writing poetry. Right at the start, he took the permission to write the whole phrase as it occurred to him, to let go of any premature desire to distinguish between language that would ultimately be in the poem (“Hook”) and language that would be cut (“I will call it”)—because until the poem comes to be, who knows what language it requires, and you wouldn’t want to miss the poem because you refused to recognize as poetic the language it was calling for.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Obsession by Calvin Klein.
13 - 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?
Pop music that leans country and country music that leans roots, because of a relationship I hear there between pleasure, vernacular, generic tradition and formal ingenuity. Psychoanalysis, the study and practice, has shaped my sense that language, adequately witnessed, to which one’s agency has been given over, is able to reveal truths we didn’t know we knew. And painting: figuration, abstraction, gesture, mark-making—these terms have been useful to me in exploring how to resist productively language’s constant pull toward the communicative.
- What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your
life outside of your work?
I am overwhelmed by this question and am limiting my response to one author chosen not at random: John Cheever.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Have a child.
16 - 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?
A baker and a psychoanalyst, to the first question; maybe an actor or director (theater, not film), to the second.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was recently saying to my friend Dan Poppick that being a poet is like being born speaking a language that no one else in your family speaks and that sounds to most people like nonsense, and then one day finding out that there is a large, international community and centuries of tradition of people speaking this language, and that you are, were always, part of it. Not all the time and not in every way, but poetry has helped me feel at home in the world.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Two books, instead: Nicole Krauss’s To Be A Man & Anahid Nersessian’s Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse.
19 - What are you currently working on?
A new poetry collection.