As It Ought to Be

Author Conversations: Jenny Drai and Elizabeth J. Colen

 

JD: Hi Elizabeth! I thought I’d jump right in and say that as I was reading What Weaponry, which you call a novel in prose poems, and The Green Condition, which you call an essay, I started thinking a lot about the concept of story as somewhat separate from what we (or at least I) often think of when I hear the word ‘narrative’. (I suppose I’m thinking of what I encounter when I read what is termed ‘narrative poetry’.) To me, your work seems to speak very much to the power, and to the necessity, of telling stories, even as you let the reader create connections from what’s left unsaid in the spaces between lines, between sections, in the silences. I’m reading your work as a series of impressions that build, that accrete, into whole pieces. Lyric stories. Could you say more about the importance of story in your work and how/if that influences the mode you write in for any given project?

EJC: Well, they’re both hybrid texts, both poetry and. And so, as such, I’m interested in the tensions between genres, the tensions between modes of meaning-making. So while in each there is intense play with sound as well as a forward motion (the simple way I define narrative or story), there is also a haltingness, a turning back, echoing, re-vision of events, etc, that takes place. Which also adds to the sound-play. And is more like the way memory works: we obsess over the details, rarely thinking big picture all at once. I like what you say, letting “the reader create connections from what’s left unsaid.” That’s very important to me. What Weaponry is certainly story in jumps, gaps that intentionally wait for a reader to co-produce narrative, which happens in any work no matter how seamless the narrative hand-holding. I’m interested in making those seams apparent. As a reader we expect the writer to bring content and structure; I like to turn that back a little: I’ll bring the structure and let’s both bring the content and see what we can do together. I hope the collaboration is more inviting than vexing, though I’ve had both responses.

In reading your work I’m also interested in your relationship to narrative. It’s definitely not a straight-forward endeavor, but that you align your work with existing narratives says something about your desire to tell a story. What made you come to align your story for example with Young Werther’s in The New Sorrow is Less than the Old Sorrow? Of course Wine Dark also immediately conjures connections with Homer. How important is that parallel?

JD: I think the parallels are important in the sense that I, as the writer, am saying something like, “This is epic. All of this has happened before. (And will again.) You/I/We aren’t alone in this phase of your/my/our existence and even though many of our experiences will differ greatly from each other’s as we move through time and space, maybe the connections, the points where our lives touch each other’s, as well as how they touch pre-existing cultural narratives (as found in stories, literature, etc), may be what can, ultimately, offer comfort.” I’d say epic isn’t necessarily comfortable, so there’s a tension there, in my trying to make the epic lived in, livable. Comfort is important to me, in the sense of coziness as a soothing balm for frazzled nerves, restorative warmth, safety. My whole life, I’ve looked for this comfort in the books I’ve read and I think this is why I am so apt to involve pre-existing literary narratives in my writing. In The New Sorrow is Less Than the Old Sorrow, for example, the Speaker comforts herself by comparing her loss to the great literary loss of Werther, who loves Lotte but can’t have her and therefore commits suicide. But my Speaker decides, meh, maybe her situation is less tragic than it seems. She goes on. In Wine Dark, in my mind at least, all of the poems have the same Speaker, someone who is a bit at sea maybe, who connects to blood and the sea as she literally sails the ocean and figuratively sails in and out of the personae she climbs into—Heloise, Jane Eyre, Scheherazade, Elizabeth Bathory. So even though Wine Dark consists of separate poems, they comprise, again in my mind, an unofficial series, and in fact were written during a relatively short period of time, then revised over months, years even. To me, it’s a book-length project in feel (but maybe all books are!!), if not in name. I think what I’m trying to say is that these poems always lived together as a group.

Since we’re both clearly interested in longer projects, serial narratives (or stories, if you will), I want to ask you about the importance in your work of going on, as opposed to, say, ending. It occurs to me that there is always going to be a tension, in story, between continuation and ceasing. In What Weaponry, for example, you begin the text with the line, “We build a place to be safe, start talking in circles and so build that way.” And you go on to describe a process of building concentric circles with found objects that widen out and grow. It seems, to me at least, that a text that begins in such a way can never really end. How do you negotiate in your writing the tension between having to impose ending, structure, and arc, with the fact that, I think, you are also very much writing in order to continue?

EJC: Yes! I am interested in books that are controlled in craft, while the content and concept gets out of hand. Books that consume themselves uroburos-style. Books that refuse completion. In What Weaponry I have what feels to me like both the ultimate ending and an anti-ending. The last poem “No One Waits in the Side Yard” is, I think, the loneliest poem I’ve ever written. It serves as anti-ending in that all sentences written in negation, everything spoken is also taken away. Everything both there and not there at the same time. Part of this might be my lifelong interest in The Twilight Zone. There is often the world and the not-world and they replace each other at will. Isn’t this a little bit how life is though. Nothing’s ever wholly there, there’s also the fear of the thing’s absence and the language that keeps it there.

What is your writing process like? Do you have rituals? I’m interested in writers as conjurers. Like, for me, I’m always reading out loud. And that’s what makes the writing start up for me. And also do you have a whole-book plan before you sit down or do you figure it out as you go along?

JD: I’d say my writing process is pretty structured, and yes, I often have a plan going in, and rituals, like organizing my pencils and highlighters and index cards at my desk before I start writing. The preparation of hot beverages also plays a role. But for me, what makes the writing start up is reading. I especially love pouring over history, legends, hagiography, fairy tales, and any sort of criticism taking any of that into account. I love to do research, albeit in a not-so-academic fashion. The worst part about living in Germany is that I had to leave a lot of books behind in a storage space in Vancouver, Washington. If I could go back in time and do one thing over, I would make different choices about what books to bring with me. I have a lot of books on medieval history and on Anglo-Saxon England in Vancouver that I would die for a look in right about now. But I did make some good choices too, and I’m happy to have those books here, all my books on fairy tales, for example, which I’m using a lot right now in the fiction I write. And there’s also the internet. There is so much online and a lot of time I copy and paste text and create MS Word files for myself of research I’ve compiled on different topics. So to answer your question more succinctly, reading (a lot of different things) and then research is what inspires me, what wakes me up, what gets me going. I would only add that sometimes I read a lot on a topic but end up writing very little. “Bathory,” for example, in Wine Dark is a very short poem, but I’ve read quite a lot about Elizabeth Bathory and watched several movies about her life. Although, to be fair, she shows up in a poem sequence in an as yet unpublished manuscript. I don’t finish with topics/figures easily, I suppose, and possibly this is because I spend so much time with them as part of my writing process.

But what about you? How did you approach writing What Weaponry? Did you write these pieces as individual prose poems and then see the larger connections or did you have the idea of them as a novel beforehand? Also, I’m curious about order. Did you write the pieces in the order they appear in the book, because I do see a narrative arc as I’m reading, or did they come to you differently?

EJC: We’re alike in that with a lot of what I write (especially The Green Condition and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies) I do a lot of reading / researching / thinking far in advance of any writing happening. I tend to work project by project, slowly establishing some strong concept of a book-length project (or multi-book-length) and not so much writing towards that, but holding that concept at the back of my head while I write whatever it is I’m writing. At some point the pieces start to cohere into the bigger plan. Then I see what I have, the unexpected connections, and revise heavily to bring those to the surface. So I start with the grand plan, but the project never ends up being exactly that. It’s just something to keep me grounded.

My daily practice before writing involves reading poetry out loud. It’s the only way I know to get started. And when I read poetry, I always read it out loud. So you should know, when we traded books for this, I stood in my kitchen reading your work out loud.

What Weaponry was written on the train one summer. The Coast Starlight and the Southwest Chief. I had less of a plan with this book. I had plucked these two characters out of my first book, and was existing within / writing from a place of strongly conflicting excitement and deep sadness. I had a loose story after a few poems; the thrust of the narrative was built during the many-month revision process a year or so later, once I was clear of my own emotional upheaval and could let the characters do their thing.

***

Jenny Drai is the author of Wine Dark and The New Sorrow Is Less Than The Old Sorrow, both from Black Lawrence Press. Her first full-length collection of poetry, [the door], was published by Trembling Pillow Press in 2015 and her novella, Letters to Quince, was awarded the Deerbird Novella Prize from Artistically Declined Press. She is an Associate Poetry Editor at Drunken Boat and lives in the Rhineland. She has recently completed a novel.

Elizabeth J. Colen is most recently the author of What Weaponry, a novel in prose poems. Other books include poetry collections Money for Sunsets (Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2011) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies, flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake, long poem / lyric essay hybrid The Green Condition, and fiction collaboration Your Sick. She teaches at Western Washington University.