Jessica Poli is the author of four chapbooks: Canyons (BatCat Press, 2018), Alexia (Sixth Finch, 2015), Glassland (JMWW, 2014), and The Egg Mistress (Gold Line Press, 2013). She is a graduate of Syracuse University’s MFA program, and is currently pursuing her MA at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is the founder and editor of the online journal Birdfeast, and served as Editor-in-Chief of Salt Hill Journal. Originally from Pennsylvania, she also spent several years working on farms in Central New York.
Kate Gaskin: Your most recent chapbook, Canyons, was released in 2018. I want to talk about it as a physical object. This is the most gorgeous and uniquely designed chapbook I have ever seen. Will you tell me more about BatCat Press?
Jessica Poli: I would love to! BatCat is a press run by a group of very talented high school students at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, PA. Their books are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen; they’re really art objects that you can read. What amazes me most about this group of students is how much attention they give to the work they publish. They think deeply about the design for each book (for Canyons, they were inspired by 18th century prayer books), and the result is that the design not only reflects the contents of the work but elevates it. I remember crying when they sent me the pictures of the first mock-ups they did for the book. Part of that was because it was so beautifully done, but mostly it was because I felt like my work had been truly seen, like they really understood this thing that I was trying to put down on the page.
KG: It must have felt validating to work with high school students doing work of this caliber. I think teenagers might be the toughest and truest audience out there, especially for poetry. There is something sweetly raw and exposed in the poems that make up Canyons. Were you intentionally tapping into adolescent feelings as you wrote this chapbook?
JP: Not intentionally, no, but I think that it’s a register that comes out in my writing more often than not. My last chapbook, Alexia, is a series of prose poems told from the perspective of an adolescent girl. While not everything that I write is so specifically centered in that mode of experience or feeling, as Alexia is, I think it’s something that finds its way into a lot of my work in more subtle ways.
KG: I’m not surprised that the design inspiration behind Canyons is 18th century prayer books. One of the first things I noticed about your chapbook is that it reminds me of a pocket size Bible. I found similar themes of reverence running throughout Canyons. This is a book that seems to equate themes of love and nature with the spiritual experience of worship. Can you speak about how these themes intersect and amplify each other in your writing?
JP: I guess they’ve always felt interchangeable to me. I don’t come from a religious upbringing, but I think about God a lot. And because I don’t have that kind of religious practice or education to influence my understanding of what God is to me, my idea of it is sort of hard to explain, and also deeply personal. It’s amorphous, but it has a lot to do with these themes you mention—love, nature, worship. I don’t know how to say it better than that they’re nearly the same thing in my mind. They share a shelf, hold the same weight and meaning. I think that this book is my attempt to approach that.
KG: The idea of imagining God through writing poetry is intriguing. I grew up going to church, and as an adult I find a lot of similarities in the act of reading and writing poetry. There’s a kind of devotion, a sustained attention, and a sense of awe in being connected to a higher purpose. It sounds like you’re seeking some of the same sensations. Does writing poetry fill this need for you? Does reading poetry do the same?
JP: Absolutely. For me, the best part of writing—the most rewarding, addictive part—is that kind of hushed and fevered moment when you get so locked into an idea that everything around you slips away for a little while. Poetry does that for me; farming can, too, on a good day. It’s a feeling that people chase in a lot of different forms. I think that my dad feels it when he’s kayaking on a river and figuring out his lines. My sister, who’s an ultramarathon runner, literally chases after it. And my mom is a painter, and we’ve talked about it a lot—those days or moments when you’re locked into something, all of your attention funneled into it, and you know that if you just devote yourself entirely, surrender yourself, something incredible could happen.
KG: Wow, that’s such a great way to put into words the state of flow so many of us try to achieve. Page by page, Canyons has so many interesting design elements. There’s the recurring paper illustration of mountains, for one. And yet there are also quite a few blank pages between poems, and the poems themselves are surrounded by a lot of white space. Is white space something you think about when writing? Do you assign any weight or meaning to how your poems interact with the space left over on the page?
JP: White space was definitely central to how I wrote and thought about these particular poems, and it has a lot to do with sound and absence of sound. This is a quiet collection; I wanted the poems, especially the prayers, to take on that tone of reverence that I associate with being out in the wilderness alone when everything is quiet and you become aware of your own breathing. I wanted to feel breaths within that space between and around the words.
KG: White space as being a literal embodiment of breath is such a great way to think about the poems in this collection. Is that something you’re still consciously interrogating as you write new poems? How is your newer work different from your older work? Do you find form and content change naturally as you write, or do you consciously challenge yourself to try new things?
JP: My newer work is actually pretty strikingly different from the poems in Canyons. This year, I started writing much longer, more narrative driven poems, which is unusual for me. To that last question, I would say it’s both natural and conscious. The slide into a more narrative poem happened naturally, I think, but when I saw it happening I leaned into it. It made sense to me for a lot of reasons. I’d taken some time away from writing—about a year—so of course it wasn’t going to be the same when I came back to it. I also uprooted myself from the places I knew to be home to move to the Midwest, and the shift in my writing style felt like a way of working through all the big, furry emotions that came with that.
KG: I would describe the poems in this book as being a series of short lyrics. What draws you to lyric poetry? When writing in this mode, how do you decide what to reveal and what to withhold? What are some of your favorite lyrical poems or poets who write in the lyrical mode?
JP: I like that lyric poems, and especially a collection of lyric poems, can emphasize the slow build of a tone or emotional register while not being explicitly narrative. I think this prioritization of tone over narrative is an interesting one. And in the ways that I tend to equate love with nature and worship, I think that I often equate emotion with landscape and place. While I was writing this collection, I remember reading a lot of Frank Stanford and Michael Burkard (who was my professor at the time at Syracuse University). Jean Valentine and Louise Glück also immediately come to mind.
KG: I’ve read a lot of Frank Stanford, too, and I definitely see a tonal influence in your work. There’s a similar sense of danger and foreboding in much of Canyons. I’m thinking of lines like “The red sun coming through the trees / was like blood through teeth” and “does your heart tune itself / to the corn // is your body a wicked thing.” These lines are appealing in the same way horror movies are appealing. Perhaps it’s the build-up of tension. Is tension something you consciously craft in your poems? What are your poems influenced by?
JP: It was definitely something that figured hugely into this specific collection, but I don’t think it was so much a conscious choice as a reflection of a tension I was feeling in my life at the time of writing it. There was a lot of uncertainty hanging over me; there were things in my life that were ending, and other things that were just beginning and were inflated with all this hope and fear.
KG: One of the themes that runs throughout Canyons is anticipation and the pain of desire or love that goes seemingly unrequited. The penultimate poem in this collection reads, “There is a religion in the way / I wait for you.” Can you speak about how form amplifies the quiet of waiting? What is it about the act of waiting that motivates and compels the speaker in your poems?
JP: I think this goes along with your question above about revealing vs. withholding. There’s a lot of withholding in Canyons, and that’s because it’s very much about yearning and unfulfilled desire. In a lot of the poems, there’s an underlying fear of saying too much. I think that there’s an odd sense of comfort in that space too, though—safety in distance, safety in the act of longing. But maybe that’s revealing a little too much about my romantic life. [Laughs]
KG: I’ve never thought about the act of withholding as a measure of safety. I always think of how narrative can organize our lives, but it never occurred to me that lyrical poetry could do the same by limiting what we’re exposed to, which can create a sense of safety and intimacy between reader and poet. Is establishing intimacy with readers important to you? Is it something you consciously think about?
JP: It is and it isn’t. I like that there’s a conversation I’m taking part in with the reader that I’ll never fully understand, because I can’t know what each person brings to their own reading of something that I’ve written. There’s magic in that. I find a lot of value in trying to figure out, objectively, what a poem is doing, but I’m also often far more interested in what readers bring to a poem on a more intimate, personal level. I want readers to bring their own experience into their reading, and I think it’s exciting when a poem or a collection leaves a space open for that.
KG: I love the idea of purposely leaving space for readers. There are so many gorgeous natural elements at work in Canyons: trees, rivers, rain, fire, and of course canyons. How does place inform your poetry? I happen to know you have spent some time working on small farms in the past few years. How does your experience with this kind of work influence your writing?
JP: A lot of my poems begin with me locating my body within a specific landscape, whether real or imagined. The poems in Canyons exists in dream-like spaces (and literal dreams), as did a lot of my work before Canyons. Real places have only recently started carrying a lot of weight in my writing, which I think has a lot to do with the fact that I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, this past year, leaving two homes—Pennsylvania and Central New York—behind. So there’s a reaching back to those places happening, but it’s also just a way to break into a place to write from. I took a creative nonfiction class with Joy Castro this semester at UNL, and in one class she had us draw a diagram of a childhood home, giving it as much detail as we wanted. Then she had us put an X over the “hottest” spot, the place where the most intense memories lived. In some sense, I’ve been trying to take that exercise and use it in different locations—Pennsylvania, New York, and the farms where I’ve worked. I think that my work right now is a matter of finding the places where that X lands and writing out of those physical spaces.
KG: That writing exercise is excellent. I really enjoyed the dream-space that Canyons occupies, but in reading some of your more recent work I definitely see the influence of real places in your writing. You published an excellent poem in Cotton Xenomorph recently, “Greenbrier,” that is so firmly grounded in place I can actually smell the forest and feel the shade and sunlight even though you never overtly invoke those senses. I think for some of us, we have to move away from our childhood landscapes to really see them. What is it about the landscapes of Pennsylvania and Central New York that calls you to revisit them?
JP: There’s a piece of writing advice that I’ve heard (maybe someone specific said it, but I can’t remember who) that to really write about a place that’s close to you, you have to leave it. The woods behind my house in Pennsylvania, where I grew up, and the farm in Central New York both felt deeply like home to me in separate ways. I grew up in both of them. And when I remember the things that happened to me in those places—the big life moments, the things that made me cry or dance or yell—I think foremost about where I was at, physically, when I was going through them. So writing about those landscapes for me is synonymous with writing about the experiences that make up my life. Another answer to your question is a simple one: those places are just plain beautiful. I’ve been fortunate and lucky enough to have inhabited some truly gorgeous landscapes, and I think that they’ll always have a presence in my work.