At the Landing / an interview with poet Jessica Goodfellow

At the Landing

by Jessica Goodfellow

atthelanding

First published by FIVE:2:ONE Magazine 2018.

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Jessica Goodfellow’s books are Whiteout, Mendeleev’s Mandala, and The Insomniac’s Weather Report. She was a writer-in-residence at Denali National Park and Preserve. Her work has appeared in Threepenny Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Awl, The Southern Review, Motionpoems, and Best New Poets, and is forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2018.

Jessica says of her style, “My educational background is in analytical fields, and I think that shows in my poems—they tend toward the abstract, festooned with logic games and scientific and mathematical vocabulary. I’d like very much to write something with less of an obvious anchor, with more trust in the unconscious tether to the conscious mind. I try to do that—I think it’s important to try to write outside of your comfort zone—but so far, I haven’t succeeded.”

Bekah and Jessica’s work—including the visual poem above—both recently appeared in #thesideshow at FIVE:2:ONE Magazine. We wanted to know more about Jessica and her poetry, so here is our interview with her.

Q~ Tell us a little about “At the Landing.” What was the source material for this piece? What made you choose the stamps?

A~I call each erasure by the title of the short story it came from. I chose Eudora Welty’s short story collection, The Wide Net (Harcourt Brace, 1971), as my source material from the many books on my bookshelf because it has such an evocative vocabulary and also because there was a lot of space between the lines, making it easy to work with on a practical level. I have a box full of international stamps that I’ve been saving for some future project yet unconceived, and one of the erasures I worked on reminded me of a stamp I knew I had. After that I just tried putting them on different erasures, looking for stamps that were thematically relevant. I thought it was pretty unique, but I’ve since seen that Mary Ruefle has used this technique before.

Q~What appeals to you about erasure/visual poetry?

A~This is my first foray into erasure poetry. At the time I erased this piece, my mother-in-law was staying with us for end-of-life care, and I found that though I had vast swaths of free time while she slept, the need to be on-call at all times meant I couldn’t get into the writing space in my head. So, I decided to try erasure instead, and that worked really well for me, possibly because the act of erasing mimicked the experience I was having as I watched my mother-in-law dying, disappearing slowly.

Q~So sorry for your loss. Your new book, Whiteout, is also about loss. I am fascinated to hear more about the book and your experience as writer-in-residence at Denali National Park and Preserve. How did that come about?

A~My most recent book is about my uncle who was a mountain climber. He died on Denali in what was, at the time, the worst mountain-climbing accident in US history. I applied to be a writer-in-resident in the park in order to finish that book. I stayed in a one-room cabin out by the Toklat River, with only my sister. We were in the park (Denali National Park and Preserve) for 10 days. Being there gave me an understanding of why my uncle was compelled to do such a dangerous thing as climb Denali. Wandering around the vast park, feeling completely alone in the wild, going places we knew he had been, was profoundly moving. We were there 49 years and one week after he was lost—watching the sun wheel around the sky instead of set in the evening, I knew he had seen that, too. For the park I wrote a series of poems as an artistic donation. They say better than I am doing now what my experience was. Here is one:

The Wandered

My sister’s drawn to clean-edged kettle ponds,
learning how to tell which pools were formed in basins
left behind by glaciers, and which weren’t.

I’m captivated by erratics, empty-house-sized
boulders stranded in a strange land by ice
that melted out from underneath them.

Erratic comes from the Latin errare,
meaning to wander, to stray, to err. We are
not wrong, my sister and I, to feel kindred—

kin and dread—with what remains after
a mammoth force, no longer visible,
has carved out such a tattered landscape.

You can read the others here: https://www.nps.gov/dena/getinvolved/air-goodfellow.htm  Only “Nine Views of Denali” is in my book, because I wanted the park to have some original work not from the book. “The Wandered” is the one I most regret not putting in the book. Kettle ponds are formed by retreating glaciers carving out grooves in the landscape, and leaving meltwater. Erratics are giant boulders that were carried along by glaciers and deposited in a location where they seem out of place–they don’t match the surroundings because they didn’t come from there–many of them may have come from a mountain. Denali National Park and Preserve is dotted with both kettle ponds and glaciers.

Q~ Is there any online resource you would recommend for anyone thinking about a project book, like Whiteout?

A~The Cloudy House is a website of interviews with poets who’ve written project books, curated by poets Cynthia Marie Hoffman and Nick Lantz. If you are interested in project books, or want to know what one is; if you are curious about how having a project affects the writing process and later the marketing; if you wonder what kind of topics end up as project books, and whether a poet starts out with a project in mind or notices one is arising later—topics such as these—the interviews here are useful and fun to read.

Q~Your poetry has received a lot of acclaim. What’s one piece of advice you want to share? 

A~Your poetry should surprise you, but it won’t much of the time. That’s okay. Just keep sitting with it until it does. It takes a long, long time to write the words that are the right words. A short poem can take months. Don’t give up, and don’t get impatient and publish something before it is truly surprising to you. Read everything aloud—the part that you want to rush through is the part that you need to keep working on. 

Q~There are lots of publications out there. What is a literary gem you feel deserves more attention? Why will we love them?

 A~Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, & Light Industrial Safety is a quirky journal featuring smart, unusual poetry. Even the format of the journal is quirky (see their website for examples http://www.forkliftohio.com/ ), and with a print copy comes random pieces of ephemera, such as an envelope of seeds for planting or an old key fob from a hotel. Fresh writing, a little bit askew—there is nothing like it. This journal knows what it likes and doesn’t apologize for its slightly off-kilter aesthetic. From their guidelines (known as their logistics page) come these two pieces of info (plucked from among many others): 1) “[we] Fetishize the aesthetics of early industrialized society in a distinctly post-industrial fashion;” and 2) “[we] Include, besides poetry, such diversions as recipes, agricultural wisdom, home economics lessons, and other bits of nonsense.” How are you not going to love this journal? 

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~Right now, I’m rereading Natasha Sajé’s Vivarium. I love this book—it’s the right amount of cerebral for me. The poems are built around the alphabet and as with all good constraints, the alphabet fetishization inspires a certain meandering that is unexpected and mesmerizing. I’m also reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s dark and disturbing novel, The Sympathizer, for my book club.

Q~Are you involved in your local poetry scene?

A~I live in Kobe, Japan, and there isn’t much of a poetry scene in English here (I don’t write poetry in Japanese). A couple of times a year there is a reading series event, but it’s any kind of writing in English, and more often than not it isn’t poetry. But, I attend and have been invited to read several times. I also belong to a group of poets around Japan writing in English who do a linked poem project. We each write a single stanza with given parameters and constraints, and pass it to the next poet who uses our stanza for inspiration, and that’s a lot of fun. It tends to be seasonal, in the Japanese tradition. There’s also the annual Japan Writers Conference that I attend about half the time. Mostly though, I’m on my own as a poet here.

Q~How has living abroad changed you as a writer?

A~I get asked this question often, and I have to say that I don’t particularly write about Japanese themes. Local imagery and the occasional Japanese word or phrase will show up in my poems, but I don’t specifically seek to dwell in the experience of living here—I leave that to other writers, while I tend to be interior in my work, and so only the part of Japan that penetrates my interior identity appears in my work. However, living here means a certain amount of isolation—from the poetry scene back home, from native speakers who comprehend my words without effort, from society at large here in this place where my foreignness is the most important aspect of me to nearly everyone I interact with—and that gives me more time and space to write than I imagine I would otherwise have. Also, my sense of being an outsider is heightened and continual, which I think is good for any kind of art even while it may not always be good for the private life of the individual artist.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work? 

A~I’ve linked to most of my online publications on my website. My erasures aren’t listed there, but here are journals where you can see more erasures: Star 82 Review, Thrush Poetry, Calamus, and decomP. On Facebook, I’m Jessica Goodfellow Ueno, and my Twitter handle is @jessdragonfly.

Whiteout Front Cover

 

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