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Interrobang: An Interview with Jessica Piazza

 

Jessica Piazza_InterrobangClick here to view my review of Interrobang.

Jessica Piazza’s first full-length collection, Interrobang, was published by Red Hen Press in September 2013 and was the recipient of the AROHO 2011 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize and the 2013 Balcones Poetry Prize. Poems in this collection appeared in such places as 42 Opus, Anti-, Indiana Review, The New Orleans Review, No Tell Motel, The Offending Adam and Rattle. In the following interview, I discuss with Jessica her thoughts on her personal writing habits, the process behind Interrobang, and what she is working on now.

MLT: Hi Jessica! Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview! There have been a few questions that have been stirring around in my mind about craft and the realization of this book, ever since I first read Interrobang.

JP: Hi McKenzie! Thanks for reading Interrobang and reviewing it in the first place. Happy to answer any questions you have.

MLT: Just to jump right in, what type of environment do you need to write?

JP: I worry less about my external environment than my internal environment. Meaning, I can write anywhere when I get the bug. The issue for me is finding a project to obsess about so I can really dig in!

MLT: Who are some of your favorite writers?

JP: Wow. The big question, right? Too big, maybe. As for poetry, I can say Millay, Eliot, Shakespeare. I can go contemporary and say Siken, Donnelly, Kalytiak Davis. I could name my startlingly talented friends: Essbaum, Lindenberg, Cantwell, Johnson, Rivkin, O’Neill, Todd and more. And I could go nuts naming fiction writers, too. But the truth is, my favorite writer is whichever writer I’m reading at the moment who is moving me. I have a terrible, horrible memory, and while I remember loving authors I have a really hard time remembering individual books and poems. So I’ve learned to really embrace the wonderful things I have in front of me at any given moment, and try to be inspired as often as possible.

MLT: What was your inspiration for this collection—writers, places, events, songs, etc.?

JP: My inspiration for Interrobang was my own issues with anxiety, first and foremost. The collection started with the phobias because I was exploring issues of fear and how far those fears dig into a person’s psyche and life. The philias angle came about organically when I realized how much love/lust and fear are connected. I wrote my first phobia poem after having a panic attack while trying to spelunk for the first time. Sigh. That wasn’t meant to be.

As far as my form and language, I had a ton of inspirations. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for sure—in sound if not content. Through both her work and her friendship, Jill Alexander Essbaum taught me not to be afraid of being myself in my writing, even if that’s over the top.

I usually don’t write to music, but PJ Harvey’s Stories from the city, stories from the sea definitely inspired me in this collection, too.

MLT: How long did you work on this collection?

JP: Hard question to answer, actually! I figured out the actual form I wanted the collection to take about six years ago, when I wrote the first poem that actually took a phobia as its title. (That was “Eremophpobia,” if anyone’s curious!) But some of the poems in here are revisions of poems originally written more than a decade ago. And some I wrote right before I started sending the book out. So it’s been a long haul!

MLT: I have a small background in Psychology and so was extremely fascinated by the use of the Phobia and the Philia. How did you start that project? Did you write a few poems and realized there was a larger project to be had, or did you always know this was going to be a larger project?

JP: As I said, my own anxiety was definitely a springboard. As soon as I started exploring lists of phobias and philias I knew I would be using them as inspiration somehow. However, when I started writing poems using those lists I figured the project would be a chapbook at most. I didn’t think I could sustain the conceit over a whole book, but boy was I wrong. I got deeper and deeper into it and I couldn’t make myself stop. I went back to old poems I wasn’t quite happy with and realized they were all coming from this similar place that fit exactly into the phobia/philia motif, and revised accordingly. It all just came together and became sort of behemoth.

MLT: Another point of interest to me was the use of the sonnet form. Did these poems begin as sonnets, or did they evolve into the form? How did you decide to structure this collection (which is filled with contemporary, psychologically-driven ideas) with a more traditional design?

JP: When I began writing the poems using the phobia/philia conceit, yes, those were sonnets. (As I said, some were later revised into sonnets when I knew they would work for the book.) But I find sonnets very soothing. In fact, it’s potentially annoying for me to say this but they come easily to me; far easier than free verse. I knew I was excited about this phobia and philia conceit and I knew that I had so much internal energy building about the project and so much to say in every piece. I really thought that the sonnet form would be perfect for this—it was a way to contain the vastness and vitality of the theme. A few of the poems truly didn’t feel like sonnets to me, though, so I searched for other forms that felt more approprioate. I have a tanka in there, for example, and a poem in terza rima and some Sapphic verse. And heresyphilia—love of radical deviation—is a prose poem for obvious reasons!

MLT: I’ve always been fascinated by how writers order their poems, and their personal process in making those decisions. How did you order your poems, or decide on where to place the “non”-phobia-and-philia poems?

JP: Ordering poems was a dilemma for me in this book. Well, except for the three mini sonnet crowns—I knew those would go in the beginning, middle and end of the book, and I knew their order because it felt like they created a little narrative: the woman in the fucked-up relationship, the woman trying to find herself and walk away and the woman who was learning to celebrate herself despite what others thought. I think those created a little mini-collection that spoke to, but was not directly part of, the phobia and philia project. It was the phobias and philias themselves that were hard to place because I don’t think they tell a story, but instead work as little snapshots into deeper and more complex (and ultimately not necessarily connected) lives. So I’ll be honest—I winged it. I tried to mix up poems in the two sections so each had some family-themed ones, some romantic relationship ones and some more general or contemplative poems, but all in all it was pretty random. Except the very first poem in the book, that is. “Melophobia: fear of music.” In a collection that relies so much on sound and voice, I felt like that had to come first. And the last phobia/philia poem, “Kakorrhaphiophobia: fear of failure,” ended the collection for a similar reason: very few of us leave a project satisfied that it will find its true place in the world. So I ended on that note.

MLT: What are you working on now? Anything new we should be on the lookout for (publications, etc.)? What do some of your new poems focus on? How do you think your next collection might compare thematically to this one?

JP: Thank you for asking, and yes! I have a chapbook available for order now from Black Lawrence Press called This is not a sky. It’s all ekphrastic poems that consider very famous paintings. I think some of the writing in there is my best work ever. They aren’t formal poems, either, though they use soundplay and the conventions of form in specific and, I think, explosive ways. Like Interrobang, This is not a sky has an obsessive edge, and it delves into desire and fear and death. (I can’t seem to get away from those in my work!) It’s available here.

I also have a book of erasure poems coming out at some point with Red Hen Press called Obliterations. It’s co-written with Heather Aimee O’Neill, and we did side-by-side erasures of New York Times articles. It was a really fun project, and especially so because the results weren’t at all like the poems I write without the constraints of the erasure form. In the end, it was pretty amazing to see how one article can yield two such very different poems each time!

MLT: Wow! These new projects sounds incredible! I know I’ll certainly be on the lookout for them. And thank you again, Jessica, for taking the time to discuss Interrobang. I can certainly say that I love this collection and can’t wait to see where these next projects take you.

 

JESSICA PIAZZA is the author of two full-length poetry collections published by Red Hen Press: Interrobang (winner of the AROHO 2011 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize and the 2013 Balcones Poetry Prize) and Obliterations (with Heather Aimee O’Neill, forthcoming), as well as This is not a sky (a chapbook from Black Lawrence Press). She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and is currently a contributing editor for The Offending Adam and a screener for the National Poetry Series. Her commitment to fostering writing communities wherever she lives led her to co-found Bat City Review in Austin, TX, Gold Line Press in Los Angeles, and Speakeasy Poetry Series in New York City. She currently teaches for the Writing Program at USC and the online MFA program at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. You can learn more at www.jessicapiazza.com.

 

 

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The Phobia, the Philia, and the Altered Persona: Reading Jessica Piazza’s Interrobang

 

Jessica Piazza_InterrobangClick here to view my follow-up interview with Jessica Piazza!

Jessica Piazza’s debut full-length poetry collection, Interrobang, is all at once lovely, inquisitive and complex. I found myself startled by the constant alteration of the persona; the interjection of the phobia and the philia as a backdrop for the persona’s transformation; and Piazza’s mastery of the sonnet form, employed in most of these poems. It was a pleasant deviation by way of theme and form.

Before fully launching into my review of Interrobang, I’d like to share one of my favorite poems from the collection, “The Prolific,” which I will then return to throughout my discussion of the collection.

 

THE PROLIFIC

 

The red, the blue, the streak of orange stripe—
they’re everywhere; so, too, are sound and scent
and still, if all were still the air would pipe
its tactile breath nonstop like bakeries’ bent
street fans wafting out exhaust of bread at us
each morning, as we passed on 23rd.
He’d tell me less is more. I’d say: I’ve heard.
But I’d want more; felt there was more of less
for me those days than more of more. The swirl
of world went on, but at the center of
this narcissistic universe: one girl,
dead-stopped. Red cup. Blue shirt. I moved
my hand through orange streaks of hair—a shift
in space that couldn’t rift. My eye bereft.

In space that cannot rift, the eye’s bereft
of stimuli. A boy was here, but left
an empty seat. I can’t just stare at space
that once was filled and not perceive the trace
of stirring lingering. That boy. We walked
down 23rd a lot, and talked, and smoked
and looked at all there was to see, the more
of street urbanity. We walked the floor
of gum coating the ground, built toss by toss;
the buildings that had sacrificed their gloss
to sheets of smog. It calmed me: a world built
of what’s beneath it, never done, the silt
foot-pounded down by countless hurried feet.
He couldn’t love it. It was not complete.

He couldn’t love me—I was not complete
the way his wishful eye completed me,
subtracting toward an ideal sum. I’d see
myself lost part by part: white neck, large feet,
wild hair—erased—a disappearing hand
pressed lightly to transparent collarbones.
He wished for tides, forgot they caused sea stones
to wane and yield. But glass worn down to sand,
if not beautiful, is also not
as delicate. I couldn’t disappear
beneath his blink. Instead I found the spot
on 23rd where, when the sun struck clear
glass buildings, streets appeared to multiply.
Then a thousand of me walked away.

A thousand other men could walk away
from me a thousand times, and yet I’d pay
them hardly any mind. The only one
who matters is the one I left. He’s gone
the way a flash of bright light goes: still there
in afterimages, a shadow where
a statue stood. But 23rd Street’s full
of immigrants who see this way: the pull
of memory placing a tree where raised
wires ought to be; a river where the paved
roads actually run. And if they can erase
a city with nostalgia’s sight—replace
the truth with things they loved—I wonder what
my own imperfect eye could substitute.

My own imperfect eye is destitute
when faced with all there is to see. He’d said:
just close them, then. I said: I can’t—minute
details I missed would haunt me when I did.
But now I do. I walk down 23rd
Street blind, a movie played on loop
beneath my lids. A vast, prolific world
swells all around me, kaleidoscope
of sound and scent redoubling, but I
know nothing of it, only see in flash-
backs. Empty seat. Raised cup, a grip belied
by see-through hands. Unfinished buildings slashed
by vivid streaks of sun; a city wiped
too clean of reds, of blues, of orange stripes.

 

This poem is stunning, in the way so many of Piazza’s poems are stunning—they are imagistic, rhythmic, and (perhaps most importantly) internally aware of the changes that inhabit their space, and that inhabit the larger arch of the collection. Because of this, there is an implied conversation that occurs between these poems, drawing attention to the discrepancies that are projected onto the persona or the situation that surrounds her. These discrepancies have very little to do with unreliability or lack of attention to detail; rather, they reflect the impermanence of our humanly situations, as well as the potential falseness of our memories. Much of this collection operates around the complex concept of transformation, which opens doors to, both, longing and our own limitations.

Piazza’s poems are complex and require great and consistent effort to gain access. For instance, the first five lines of this poem operated strictly as a series of images for me—until I reached the sixth line, “each morning, as we passed on 23rd.” The simplicity of this detail, placing the persona and this male other on 23rd Street, recast that previous series of images as memories of landmarks along that stretch. This sort of shift in access to images and information is a constant, both in this poem and many others; it represents an opening up that occurs between the persona and the reader, particularly in a poem such as this one, when the final line of one sonnet is revised as the first line in the next, displaying some new truth to the story developed across the “Profilic” series.

What became the most daring and the most telling to me, however, were the lines:

                   . . . And if they can erase
a city with nostalgia’s sight—replace
the truth with things they loved—I wonder what
my own imperfect eye could substitute.

This final sentiment in the second-to-last sonnet—“I wonder what / my own imperfect eye could substitute”—seems to function as the central question in this poem, regarding the impermanence of our surroundings, the unreliability of memory, and even the concept of substitution, which may or may not work in our favor. When looking at all of these concepts, it can all be pared down to memory. What’s fascinating about memory as the central concept, here, is how the memory transforms how we view the world, and our relationship to it, and how it is always evolving:

                   . . . We walked the floor
of gum coating the ground, built toss by toss;
                   . . . It calmed me: a world built
of what’s beneath it, never done, the silt
foot-pounded down by countless hurried feet.

Though these lines are in reference to the Street itself, it also suggests something greater about memory: how our memory is hardly one large map of instances, but rather is a complex layering of references, reminders and transformed understanding. This idea relates to the larger connection, as well, and the instances in which one image transfigures into another—“a tree where raised / wires ought to be”—or is transposed onto another—“still there / in afterimages, a shadow where / a statue stood.” Both of these possibilities (though one relates specifically to the falseness of memory and the other to the afterimage, or transposing, of memory) further emphasize the impermanence of our surroundings and the longevity of memory, however untrue or changing.

Perhaps this suggests something about longing, as well. Often, in these poems, I find the use of memory and the transformation of an image, to relate specifically to a wanting back in, looking for a door that will allow us back into a shared space with a person or object, in the hope that they are the same as we left them. In the second-to-last sonnet, the persona reflects on the absence of one particular man over all others, and these reflections are recast into a meditational longing for what once was there, in the same place and in the same condition. This is a desire I believe we all experience at one time or another—a longing to return to something, or to have that something returned to us, in the here-and-now, somehow unchanged and lacking the memory of ever having been absent. A longing for a lack of change, even. However, we are constantly reminded as readers of this impossibility, due to the constant-flux that occurs in the persona, in the landscape, and in other accompanying figures. We are challenged to understand the demands of change; when one thing changes, it changes everything else, however minimally; and there is no way to regain that object in an unchanged state while remaining in our present. We have to choose; we can’t have both.

Though I have focused primarily on “The Prolific,” these sentiments of change, memory and the inclusion of the phobia and philia run deep throughout this collection. I found myself challenged—threatened, even—by the shifts imposed upon the persona and the longing that is so inherent to these poems. This collection threw me back into my own depths, my own grief and fears, and left me cycling-in-place in a way very reflective of the persona: living in the present but longing for things of the past, somehow pairing them together in my mind and losing the realities of what used to be, creating instead an ideology. Perhaps that is why the role of Phobia and the Philia became so important, so remarkable, to me; they not only worked to categorize feelings around loss and longing, but they also represented the positive-negative complication of memory. Sometimes they even functioned as a direct opposition to what is expected—dreading the good memories of something lost, and thriving on the negative, giving us reason to lessen our affection for the lost. Sometimes that’s just how grief works.

Jessica Piazza’s Interrobang is a truly-stunning collection that is, at its deepest, heartfelt and frightening to the core, in the way it opens us up and searches through our most-secret parts, our memories, our emotions. It is an emotionally-challenging collection that is imagistic and rhythmic, and it is highly unforgettable. This is a collection I’ll be thinking about for quite some time, especially as I return to some of those old, harder memories and try to transform them into something new, a poem, a piece, somewhere. The longer I think about it, the more I feel this collection expects that from me, as it will expect from others.

 

JESSICA PIAZZA was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and now lives in Los Angeles, where she has completed a Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. Her chapbook, This is not a sky, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2014. You can view more about Interrobang here.

 

 

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