Jessica Smith, Founding Editor of Foursquare magazine, serves as the Librarian for Indian Springs School, where she runs its Visiting Writers Series. She is the author of numerous chapbooks including mnemotechnics (above/ground 2013) and one full-length collection, Organic Furniture Cellar (Outside Voices 2006). Her second book, Life-List, is forthcoming from Chax Press. about.me/jessicasmith
Five poems from The Daybooks appears in the fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: I’m curious about your current work-in-project The Daybooks, in part due to the poets who have worked on variations on such in the past, including Robert Creeley, George Bowering and Gil McElroy. Were you aware of any previous incarnations of the poetic “day book” when you began? What were your models for the project?
A: Although The Daybooks finds influences among poets, I don’t think the abovementioned projects really entered into the vortex of associations that instigated the project.
When I was a teenager, I was drawn to Frank Stella’s sculptures, which he said he made out of things he found in his garage. I liked the idea that his collages of scrap metal were made of things that were already lying around. Similarly, The Daybooks is a collage of scrap that was already lying around.
When I began The Daybooks in early 2014, I knew I wanted to work on a sustained poetry project. I had begun two: I’d started a series of ekphrastic poems (some of which have been published in The Brooklyn Rail and seventeen seconds, and some of which are forthcoming in The Hat) and a long mesostic based on a discarded book from the library, The Bull of Minos. I planned out both series of poems but didn’t connect with them personally. Neither of these projects really hit on what I wanted to do with the poems intellectually or ethically.
Reading some poems by Sandra Simonds and Dorothea Lasky, I knew that ethically, I wanted to say something about women and the violence of everyday life. Intellectually, I wanted to continue the investigation of memory and record that I began with Organic Furniture Cellar.
At this time (late 2013) I was also reading Yannis Ritsos’s Diaries of Exile, Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary and Jacques Derrida’s The Work of Mourning. I have a special place in my heart for Eva Hesse and her Datebooks, which are available in facsimile from Yale UP. I also see Stephen Ratcliffe’s poetry experiments and photographs online every day as he records the shifting light from his home in Bolinas, California. In January 2014, I saw a Facebook status update from poet Valerie Loveland about her accomplishment of writing 365 poems in 2013. I thought: I can do that. I need to write every day. I need to write poetry like I write in my diary: every day and without so much internal criticism. Like many writers, I kill my darlings before they’re even born, doubting them to death before they reach the page. But I don’t do that when I’m writing for myself, in my diary.
I made a schema for a poem for each day for 366 days. Each day is a combination of memory and record (diary entries, bits of books I was reading, marginalia, descriptions of contemporary photographs). The records are drawn from the corresponding day where there is a diary entry, so, if I am writing a poem about July 27, I look back at my diary entries from July 27 ranging back to 2002—I started keeping a diary in 1990, but I missed 1999-2002, so I started with 2002, which is the year I left my abusive boyfriend and was able to start keeping a private diary again—and determine what was the most interesting July 27 in the available entries and then write about it. This method affords me the material to write—I don’t have to “come up with it all myself” in bursts of inspiration that may never happen—I don’t have the smelt the metal, I just have to go to my garage—while also satisfying my intellectual and ethical desires. I get to investigate my own memories, how they’re recorded, and how they continue to associate; I hope that by letting my poetry remain fragmented and fluid, I can touch the reader’s memories and associations too, and the poetry can become a collage of our memories. I also get to work on the ethical question of what poetry should “be about” and “do” by writing about the impact of violence—especially sexual violence and “microaggressions”—in the everyday lives of young women.
Q: I’m curious about what you say about continuing some of the investigation of Organic Furniture Cellar. What do you find so compelling about utilizing “memory and record”?
A: The way that poetry deals with memory interests me. Although classically lumped with music as an art of succession (probably because of its oral heritage), written poetry is an art of both simultaneity and succession. (Everything is concurrently simultaneous and successive, even the “purely” successive art of music.) It isn’t just sound-in-time, it’s the memory of sound-in-time. It’s not just the words on the page (simultaneity) but the patterns of moving through them (which takes time) and their sounds in the mind’s ear. Nevertheless, poetry generally moves one way down and across the page, and the message of the poem evolves linearly in the same fashion. When a poem recounts a memory, it follows this same linear pattern. When a poem is read aloud or memorized, it conforms to the same successive line.
Because the act of recollecting occurs in time, it moves linearly, successively, at the same time that it marks time (simultaneity). But our memories do not conform to linear narratives. When I recall a birthday party from my youth, I can recall fragmentary colors, patterns, and little snippets of linear moments (she brought out the cake, he paid for the ice cream), but to pull together a story from those elements distorts the reality of my memory. To narrativize the memory is to fill in the gaps. In writing fragmented narratives that do not necessarily move linearly across and down the page, I hope to preserve some of the sense that memories are shimmery, unreliable, scattered things.
One of Proust’s great accomplishments was making us aware of the “involuntary memory,” the image that comes unbidden at the behest of a stimulus. In the famous “madeleine scene,” Proust bites into a madeleine and is mentally transported back to his childhood and the sensory experience of eating madeleines with his aunt. The memory has not been “present” for him—the Sunday afternoon treat with his aunt is not one of those memories he constantly retrieves, obsesses over, maintains. We all have those “fond memories,” voluntary, tried-and-true memories that we narrate to ourselves to establish our identities, like checking our looks in the mirror. Involuntary memories are different because they’re unpredictable. Traumatic memories work similarly to involuntary memories. They might be caused by a stimulus or trigger, like when Septimus Smith hears a car backfire in Mrs. Dalloway and is reminded of gunfire in the war he survived. Or they may simply be “invasive”: with no obvious trigger, the strong memory surfaces and supercedes all other thought. Involuntary and traumatic memories make the “fond memory” much more complicated. At any moment, as I dwell in memories of my experiences (mulling over regrets or fondling happy thoughts), they may be interrupted by outside stimuli or my own internal, invasive memories. Memories never operate on just one temporal plane. They are always a highly fragmentary web of controlled and uncontrolled, conscious and unconscious thoughts.
To try to render memory in poetry, I want to disrupt the conventional “look” of the poem in favor of fragmentation and multilinearity, although I know that the reader must follow one track at a time through the poem. I want the reader to try to hold multiple threads and possibilities in her head at one time and to reside in the pleasant ambiguity of unresolvable fragmentation. I know that the reader brings her own thoughts and memories to the poem as well, and the white space of the page echoes, for me, that blank possibility, as well as the blanks in my own personal narratives.
Q: Part of the disruption you describe includes utilizing fragments of text across the entire stretch of the printed page, as though you approach the page just as much as a visual medium. What influences have you had over the years to the visual aspects of your work, and how are you able to blend both text and visuals so comfortably? Just what is it about the disruption that appeals?
A: This is such a massive question. I grew up studying drawing and painting and love going to art museums and studying art history. I want to use the whole space of the page and approach it like a kind of blend between painting and poem, in that the words are usually arranged roughly left-right, top-bottom, but not entirely. I see the space of the page as already having a certain “weight,” like it’s not a blank/silent space, and that concept was molded for me by John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock and Steve McCaffery. I was also inspired, early on, by installation art, which along with sculpture is still what excites me the most: I want the audience to physically participate in the making of the object.
One of the biggest artistic aha moments for me was discovering Gotthold Lessing’s aesthetic treatise Laocoön via James Joyce’s Ulysses. Lessing describes visual art as an art of simultaneity and music as an art of succession. The plastic arts—sculpture, installation, architecture—deconstruct this binary by requiring the audience to move through/around them in time and space. The spacing of my poems calls attention to the fact that language isn’t just successive (like music) or simultaneous (like painting) but requires both time (succession) and space (simultaneity). Spacing is often only seen as important insofar as lines break or don’t break, but the way that a poem is arranged on a page can completely alter the reading. Visual poetry calls attention to the medium of poetry, showing that written language isn’t a transparent score for oral performance.
Some of the poets who have heavily influenced my use of the page are: Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Christian Bök, John Cage, and Johanna Drucker. The problems of scoring music and the disjunction between the score and performance have also been important for how I see the page (see for instance Dieter Schnebel’s “Musik sum Lesen”).
Q: Given the breadth and depth of your explorations on form, what is it about the composition of text on the page that attracts you? Have you considered, for example, utilizing performance or the musical score as part of your response? You speak of “how you see the page,” but how did the page become your framing, and do you at any point feel limited by it?
A: I choose the page as a constraint: Often when I asked for poems for periodicals, I ask the editor about the margins, page size, and font, and then I write a poem specifically for the magazine within those constraints. When I write a larger project on my own, I choose my own visual constraints. I enjoy writing by hand on square pages, but when I transfer drafts to the computer I try to choose standard printer sizes for paper and margins and standard, readable typefaces. I am constrained by the current standards of publishing, but I choose the constraint for myself with an eye to publishing because I want a larger audience than the kind of micropublishing that non-standard pages/typefaces would require. So, yes, I sometimes feel limited by page space, but the limitation is positive. I need boundaries! It helps me concentrate on other things.
When I was younger, in junior high school, I learned about sonnets and I started writing them like crazy. (I think the form of the sonnet haunts my work, as the form of the alexandrine is said to haunt French avant-garde poetry.) I enjoyed working within the constraint. I don't write “formal” poetry like that any more, but I sometimes make rules for myself to work within. For example, I wrote a series of poems about books using excerpts from discarded library books and each poem was exactly 26 words. Now I am writing a series of poems about dreams of houses where each poem has 2 strophes of 30 words each. These little pieces give me a small field in which to “exercise.” These poems are more like sonnets in that the constraints have to do with the words: In sonnets, rhyme and meter are the constraints; in these poems it’s word count and subject. But it's the same desire to show variation within constraints. I enjoy the work of visual artists who obsess, repeating the same subjects or gestures again and again with small variations.
Regarding performance, well, I am not a performer. I was steeped in the history of performance poetry and contemporary classical music at SUNY Buffalo, and I love poets like angela rawlings who use both sound and the page to compose. I enjoy others’ work that employs sound and performance, but I can’t do it. I also love the feeling of reading silently to oneself and discovering how words come together as I read them. That, too, is a kind of performance: It’s the performance of the reader’s eyes across the page, the internalized sound (“inner ear”) and custom-driven dance of reading.
Q: Part of what you discuss via the limitations and boundaries of the page are reminiscent of some of the work the late Toronto poet bpNichol did, specifically his explorations utilizing the machinery at Coach House Printing. Because he hadn’t the “proper” training on such machinery, Nichol managed to open some of the boundaries of what was possible in the printing processes, and Stan Bevington has long said that Nichol, in many ways, taught him how to use his own presses. Have you considered moving in this direction yourself to explore further options for what might be possible with the page, or is your practice one that prefers to explore within those particular boundaries?
A: I like the boundaries of the page and standard printing techniques, and I think my poetry is kind of a poetry “of the time,” of a specific technological moment, perhaps even a moment that’s already gone. When I published Organic Furniture Cellar, for instance, color printing was still very expensive, and now it isn’t. Letterpress was just beginning to come back as an art—you could still buy old letterpress machines for cheap at estate sales and via Craigslist—and now I know multiple people with letterpress businesses. In both directions—the direction of cheap industrial printing and the direction of common artisan printing—the publishing field seems to have broadened since I imagined page constraints based on what was common and inexpensive in printing.
Although I am not interested, at the moment, in learning letterpress, a friend of mine from college, poet and printer Christopher Fritton of the Western New York Book Arts Center, developed a method for letterpress printing scattered works that look similar to mine. We “grew up together” as artists and there are similarities in our work. In 2009-2011, he and Kevin Kegler collaborated on an artists’ book with Kevin’s photographs and Chris’ poetry. Instead of setting the fragmented poetry using spacers, Chris drilled holes into wooden plates and set the text in the holes to widen the range of space he could use. I think that kind of innovation in letterpress printing is what many of my poems would require.
At this point, I am more interested in what I am saying than in how I am saying it. The way I write comes naturally to me, and the constraints I have chosen help me focus on content. I am still writing poetry “about things” (I have many things to say and I’m saying them), e.g. in Life-List I write about birds and extinction and loss, and in The Daybooks I write about gender and violence. My methods are limited, like a piano player might be limited to his instrument, so that I can play with content.
Q: Finally, who are you currently reading that excites you? Given the length and breadth of your research and reading around this current project, what contemporary discoveries have you made that you feel should be shared?
A: I tend to follow presses and let their editors curate my reading habits.
Yannis Ritsos’ Diaries of Exile (Archipelago)
Michelle Detorie’s After-Cave (Ahsahta)
Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life (Wave)
C.A. Conrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon (Wave)
Hoa Nguyen’s Red Juice (Wave)
Ron Silliman’s Revelator (Book Thug)
Chantal Neveu’s Coit (Book Thug)
Craig Perez’s from Unincorporated Territory series (Omnidawn)
Stephen Ratcliffe’s Painting (Chax)
Lisa Samuels’s Anti-M (Chax)
... and Les Figues, Ugly Duckling, Birds LLC, Natural History, Black Lawrence, Shearsman, Black Ocean, etc. (between my personal book purchasing and my job as a librarian, I keep track of a lot of presses). It seems like when an editor hits on a particular zeitgeist, like Janet Holmes’ recent curation of “feral poetics” books (After-Cave, Beast Feast, ]exclosures[), Wave’s love for a new lyricism, Les Figues’ interest in process, or BookThug’s finger on the pulse of Canadian experimentalism, I will just follow a press for awhile and breathe the air of what’s happening. When I was younger, I read to find cognates—I sought others who were doing work similar to mine in order to feel that what I was doing was legitimate. Now I am comfortable with my own voice, so I am not searching for anything in particular, but I do find it liberating to read other strong voices and feel like we’re all working together in some way.