Monday, October 5, 2015

An Interview With Poet Jessica Goodfellow



                               November Nocturne by Jessica Goodfellow

                               Even planets turn away from the easement of light,
                               sometimes. Night’s a rehearsal for the orb
                               and distance of winter, its map-unmaking
                               and its unmap-making, its failure to ravel
                               wander from resist. All night the night sounds
                               like children not breathing. I am afraid
                               of a thing and its opposite: leaving and not,
                               subject unspecified. The curtain stirs
                               though the window is closed. Stars flash
                               like bees abandoning the hive, humming a lullaby
                               in drone, in monotone but with the Doppler effect
                               of a death mask, coming right at you, wind
                               pulsing around the edges because there is
                               no mouth-shaped hole, no eye-sized emptinesses.

                                         - first published in Boxcar Review

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Jessica Goodfellow grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but has spent the last twenty years in California, Florida, and Japan. She received an MS degree from the California Institute of Technology and an MA in linguistics from the University of New England. Her first book of poetry, The Insomniac's Weather Report (three candles press), won the Three Candles Press First Book Prize, and was reissued by Isobar Press in 2014. Her new book Mendeleev's Mandala is available from Mayapple Press (2015). She is also the author of a poetry chapbook, A Pilgrim's Guide to Chaos in the Heartland (Concerete Wolf, 2006), winner of the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition. Her work has appeared in the anthology Best New Poets 2006, on the website Verse Daily, and has been featured by Garrison Keillor on NPR's "The Writer's Almanac." She was a recipient of the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from the Beloit Poetry Journal, and her work has been honored with the Linda Julian Essay Award as well as the Sue Lile Inman Fiction Prize, both from the Emrys Foundation. Her work has appeared in Motionpoems Season 6. Jessica currently lives in Japan with her husband and sons.

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[This interview was conducted via email in September 2015.]


Tell us a little about your book Mendeleev's Mandala.

JG: Mendeleev’s Mandala imagines the thoughts and attitudes of different personas from various historical eras, in short different differing worldviews. I have felt bifurcated for a lot of my life, needing to balance conflicting worldviews—for example, a deeply religious, conservative upbringing and an education based on science and reason—and instead of feeling torn up about it, as I have during much of my experience, I wanted to have fun with it—to explore it playfully. The nation as a whole also experiences that kind of conflicting multiplicity of world views, and I wish as a people we could cope with it with less rancor. So that’s partly what Mendeleev’s Mandala is, for me.



I find the title beautiful and compelling for a number of reasons, one being the mashup of science and religion. The poem after which the collection is titled is fascinating as well. (Poem can be found in the March 2012 issue of Thrush, second poem on the page.) What led you to write a poem about Dmitri Mendeleev? How did you arrive at the idea of a mandala? In an interview at Tell Tell Poetry, when asked “If you had unlimited time to create, what would you make,” you said “I’m interested in weaving …” Do you carry that desire of weaving into your poetry? I’m wondering specifically about an impulse in your work to weave, braid, or possibly even integrate science and religion, or other seeming opposites.

JG: I have been moved by reading about Oliver Sacks’ relationship to both the periodic table of elements and to Dmitri Mendeleev (the ‘discoverer’ of the form of the table we use now), prompting me to do more reading about Mendeleev. My favorite podcast Radiolab had an episode about him and I was fascinated by what hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad said about his life, details in his family experience that resonated with my own—for example, a disability that occurred in both our families, and that he had a huge groups of siblings. They talked about how he rode around on trains when he had to think, and riding around on trains and in cars has always been useful for me creatively. In short there were a lot of parallels that drew me to him, even as I feel this great gap between his amazing intellect and what I am able to comprehend.

I thought about how the periodic table represents all known chemical elements, and then thought about how a mandala is supposed to be a visual representation of everything in the universe, and the parallel and contrast of these two worldviews struck me, particularly in light of the central tension in my life between the spiritual and the logical.

As for weaving, I’m so appreciative of what you said about perhaps weaving conflicting themes in my poems. I haven’t done well with textile weaving, despite my interest, and I find that disheartening, so your metaphor has cheered me up. I suppose you are right—I do often juxtapose opposites, and it’s certainly more pleasant to think about it as weaving contrasting colors into a pattern than to think of it as courting discordance.



The Motionpoem film of your poem "Crows, Reckoning" is absolutely stunning. (You can find the film here and poem here, second poem down.) How did that film come to be? What was that collaborative experience like—that experience of having other artists interpret your work?

JG: This year Motionpoems worked with VIDA to promote the work of women poets, and they put a call out for submissions. I didn’t expect to have my work selected, and it was one of the thrills of my artistic life when it was. The collaboration from my end was minimal; after having had my poem selected, I had no more say in the process, which was fine by me.

Early on in my writing career, a group of poets asked to read a poem of mine in public, and when I heard what they did with it, I was shocked—not that I disagreed with their extreme interpretation, but it was not what I had ever envisioned for that poem. I talked with a friend about it, and he said it was like sending your child out into the world, and seeing them choose a life that you never would have predicted for them. He told me that poems are going to have lives of their own, just like my children will eventually, and that I’d be happier if I just embraced that. Which I have. I’ve had a few other experiences where artists have responded to my work, or paired one of their pieces with my poem, all without any additional post-poem input from me, and I’ve written a few ekphrastic poems myself, so I’ve gotten really comfortable with non-collaborative collaborations like this, responses really.

I teach a course on Japanese poetic forms, and one form, the haiga, pairs haiku with art. The best haiga have images that don’t repeat the images in the poem, but that deepen the feeling or meaning. That’s what directors Edward Chase Masterson and Alex Hanson did with the Motionpoems film—added new imagery to mine in a way that deepens the experience. It’s really stunning work they did, and I’m so honored to have had my poem be a part of it.



In Mendeleev's Mandala, what is one of the more crucial or important poems for you personally? Why?

JG: “Burning Aunt Hisako” was a poem I worked on for a long time, a poem about the cremation of my husband’s aunt; I knew there was something crucial in the experience, over and above the particular loss, but I wasn’t sure what it was. It was the first time I had attended a post-cremation ceremony, which is described in the poem, and I thought maybe that the visceral experience of coping with the remains of a family member was what haunting me. But I continued to have trouble writing about it. Finally, when I was on vacation, surrounded by snow and consequently thinking of the death of my mother’s brother (which occurred on Denali), I had a kind of personal breakthrough. My uncle’s body was never recovered, and that is one of the reasons his death has always been so hard to talk about in my family, and contrasting that lack of a body, with all that implies, with how my husband’s family was involved actively with the final rites for my husband’s aunt’s body after her death was compelling me.

Burning Aunt Hisako

Afterward we sifted through her ashes
with long chopsticks—one bamboo
and one willow, for this life and the next.

The furnace-keeper lifted bone by bone.
“Her ankle bone,” he tendered. “Her left thumb.”
A plate-shaped bone he named “her face,”

just before he smashed it into pieces
small enough to drop inside a dull bronze urn.
“What are we looking for?” I whispered

as we sifted. “From her throat, a bone
that’s said to hold a seated Buddha.”
From Adam’s rib to this, does at least one bone

from every body belong to someone else? Never
mind—what use are their own bone Buddhas now,
to Aunt Hisako smoldering on her slab,

to my mother’s father sealed beneath a hard
and glittering snow? Bits of mica, memory
of fireflies—my own hand on my own throat—

of what use is this thirst for things
resembling other things, this endless trying
to wring milk from a two-headed cow.

(originally published in diode)

In the diode version the poem says ‘my mother’s father’ instead of ‘my mother’s brother,’ as it does in Mendeleev’s Mandala, because I was afraid to write about my mother’s brother—afraid of breaking taboo and upsetting our family. But in writing this poem , though I wrote in code for the diode version, I came to the understanding that I was going to have to explore the subject eventually. I figured I could write it and not publish it, and I thought it would be a few poems, maybe a suite, and then I would be done with the topic. But that’s not how it worked out; eventually I wrote an entire book-length manuscript. And this poem was the breakthrough that caused me to realize that I needed to do that scary taboo thing.

In fact, my mother has been fine with me writing about her brother. She showed me documents and photos and newspaper clippings and letters, and we talked about his life, the accident that took him, and she told me she hoped I would eventually write about his life, not just his death. This was not something we had ever talked about before, but because I approached her with my idea to write about her brother, she opened up. So this poem is important to me.




Your chapbook A Pilgrim's Guide to Chaos in the Heartland was the 2005 winner of the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Award and your debut full-length book, The Insomniac's Weather Report, was the 2011 winner of the three candles press First Book award. Please give us a synopsis of each book. With either contest, were there things you thought would happen as a contest winner, yet didn’t? unexpected things that did happen?

JG: The chapbook A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland is very directly about my religious upbringing and my education in analytic fields, and about how and where they dovetailed and collided. It’s only about my experience—it’s a personal book with big themes, far less playful than Mendeleev’s Mandala, which has similar themes but includes my imagined experiences of other people thinking about these themes. Lana Hechtman Ayers, the owner and editor of Concrete Wolf, championed my work more than anyone ever has, and she made me feel like a legitimate writer despite it being my first venture in publishing. I had no idea what to expect from a press, but Lana set the bar quite high.

The Insomniac’s Weather Report is about my experiences in domesticity, in becoming a wife and mother. After it won the three candles press First Book Award, the press folded suddenly, with fewer than 100 copies in print. That was devastating, but luckily a few years later I was contacted by Paul Rossiter of Isobar Press, a Japan-based press publishing poetry in English, who offered to reissue it. Steve Mueske of the defunct three candles press was supportive, and we were able to do it. Both those publishers have been great.

Having the book go out of print within a few months of being published was completely unexpected, and so was getting an offer to reissue it. The entire experience taught me to be wary, but hopeful. You never know what’s going to happen. So just keep writing. In fact, I wrote Mendeleev’s Mandala during that period when The Insomniac’s Weather Report seemed lost, and I ended up being contacted by Isobar for the reissue and by Mayapple for Mendeleev’s Mandala within the same week, after a couple of bleak years.




If you were an animal or a place, what/where would you be and why?

JG: I am drawn to animals and plants that co-existed with dinosaurs yet still exist today in the same or similar form; for example, dragonflies, crocodiles, and gingko trees. I don’t know if I want to be one of these, but seeing them, being in their presence, always affects my conception of self and time, and just about everything.



When do you remember first being interested in poetry? Was there a mentor who encouraged you?

JG: I started rewriting nursery rhymes before I could actually write, asking my mother to write them down for me. I’ve been writing ever since, with a break during the years of my first graduate program and when I worked as a financial analyst—I found it too hard to switch gears from analytics in the daytime to poetry in the evenings, though there are plenty of people who can do it.

I took one creative writing class in high school, and one in college, and other than that, haven’t had any formal education in it, and no mentor. I’d love a mentor though. If someone wants to be my mentor, I’d love that. My high school creative writing teacher had also been my next-door-neighbor when I was growing up, and he and his family always encouraged me to write, and more importantly modelled for me that a creative life was a possibility—I wouldn’t have had that model otherwise. But I really would love to have a mentor.



Generally speaking, how do you approach revision? Do you use a checklist or have any tried-and-true practices? Do you have a writing group with whom you share your work?

JG: This isn’t an original idea, and I regret that I can’t cite where I heard it, but when revising, I like to take a line and change it to the opposite of what it says, and see what happens. Sometimes I replace a line with its opposite; sometimes I juxtapose the opposing lines, for the resulting tension. Particularly when I make big sweeping pronouncements, I find this interesting and generative to do.

I work a lot with sound when revising. If something sounds clunky, then it needs work, no matter how logical or poetical the sensibility. And I try to cut as much out of each poem as possible; any word, line, or stanza that can be taken out without damaging the integrity of the poem is looked at long and hard for justification for keeping it. And more often than not, it gets jettisoned.

As for writing groups, I had a great one when I was living in Florida, but now that I live in Japan, I no longer do. I have one fiction writer that I work with sometimes, and when I’m really stumped, I use the consultations from Black Lawrence Press . Often you can pay a nominal amount to have one of their poets look at a group of poems (five poems or ten pages, or something like that), and give you their take on your work. I’ve done this three times now, and it’s been hugely useful, and a solution to a problem that those of us isolated in the non-English-speaking world face. I think they do entire manuscript consultations too (which I’ve never done), and some of the money goes to (or used to go to?) a literacy program. So it’s a win/win.



What are you working on now?

JG: Currently I am finishing up the manuscript about my uncle, who at age 22 died in one of the worst mountain-climbing accidents in US history, on Denali along with six other climbers. I’m writing about the accident, and its effect on our family, even on those born after his death who never knew him, but whose lives are both diminished and complicated by his absence, and by the absence of his body, a circumstance that has long-lasting implications.



Finally, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

JG: Practice fearless receptivity. Notice what you notice. Of all the many words, images, thoughts, facts, impressions, etc., that rush by you in a day, notice which ones catch your attention. Then use that.

For example, today I heard a poem with the word ‘indigo’ in it. Then I listened to commentary about the poem, which mentioned how difficult it is to dye an item indigo. Later today I listened to a memorial podcast by the New York Public Library for Oliver Sacks, who recently died. Sacks talked about having only seen indigo twice in his life, and he mentioned the cultural and historical importance of indigo. Now indigo is on my mind. I might not have noticed that I was noticing indigo—I might have let it go, even if I had noticed the coincidence of hearing about it twice in one day—if I wasn’t in the habit of noticing what I notice, and jotting it down in a notebook. Eventually, if indigo is crucial to me, I’ll get around to it. But I might get there faster for having noticed myself noticing it now.


Jessica Goodfellow Online


For a sampling of Jessica’s poems, see the Poems and Prose page of her website.



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