Mark Twain once said, “the secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow.” In Strip, Jessica Abughattas straddles this dichotomy with a modern sense of drollness and bewilderment while providing scrupulous attention to our age’s fractured sense of communication and identity. Not only is humor used as a balm, but as a lens through which to view our individual and collective perceptions of media, intimacy, and each other.
Before we dove into Strip, discussing how the book was shaped and the techniques of performance and film used to frame the themes and content of the poems, I was privy to some insights via the cheekiness Jessica exhibits in casual conversation. “It was partly me trolling to put a[n epigraph by a] dead white lady [Emily Dickinson], who the public also has different perceptions of her public versus her private life,” she confessed during a particularly unguarded pre-interview moment, evincing the foundational polarity of Strip, as well as marking mischief and subversion as looming presences in her work. In an unprecedented time where our communities are limited to these virtual spaces, it was a prescient and revealing preface to our conversation about the subjects Abughattas grapples with in her poems.
Anthony Thomas Lombardi: The opening poem in Strip, “Dinner Party,” sort of frames a lot of the book’s themes, interests, and questions — the repetition finds adjustments, so the syntax itself calls to mind multiple takes and this idea of an endless reframing. I have this theory about writing, and art in general, that as creators, we merely rewrite and recreate our obsessions and experiences from different vantage points throughout our lives. In the cases of trauma and mental illness, I find that our reframing and rewriting serves to reclaim some semblance of control. This felt like the perfect metaphor and a genuinely generous framing of the book’s themes. Has this been your experience with your work and the ideas that you orbit?
Jessica Abughattas: [pause] I keep thinking about your theory, because I have to restate it in my mind to say whether or not that’s my experience of it. I certainly had obsessions and interests that I was exploring, and many of them — particularly all of the party poems, “Dinner Party” included — are reenactments of real-life events in a certain way, or at least of my interior experience of those events. There is a transformative power in capturing them in a poem.
ATL: A lot of poetry, I feel, aims to present, in the best way we can with the limited resource of language, the multifacetedness of our obsessions. That reframing captures this idea really well in the book. It gave me a specific framework to look at the poems through. There’s this palpable preoccupation with other bodies throughout the poems, as well — whether you’re describing a particular moment with your mother or the teacher and a participant in a yoga class — and I felt a real sense of tension between your presence and that of these other bodies. In “Little Dume,” you come very close to naming this obsession — “It infuriates me that he’s good / at living.”
JA: The poems reckon with embodiment and what it means to be contained in a body, whether or not you necessarily want to be, and what you’re subjected to. As an aside, I think it’s tough for me to respond to this question because I am able-bodied, so I don’t want to say something that negates anyone else’s experience, but my intention was to consider my relationship to my own body, one that hasn’t always been healthy — a general mistreatment of my own self is my interest in the body. I’m still interested in the body. It’s through the body that we experience everything sensory. When you’re feeling depressed or traumatized or disembodied, you’re in a body, and also distant [from yourself].
ATL: I think it’s possible and also necessary to be mindful of the different kinds of abilities that people’s bodies have while also having that bewilderment and curiosity about how your body experiences the world. You can’t think about that without thinking about its relationship to other bodies. We live in socially constructed societies.
ATL: On the subject of proximity, I noticed a prominent sense of juxtaposition in the book — while there are moments that, at first glance, feel like conventional lyrics of intimacy, the placement and sequencing of these poems reveal contexts that seem to speak to greater senses of detachment. For example, in “Anthem with Emerald and Gold,” we’re ostensibly reading about two lovers — sharing a joint, a stolen kiss in the kitchen — but on either side of this poem, we have poems with lines like, “Miles of empty space between me / and the rest of everything” [from “What I Want”] and “calling you / to hear the ringing go and go” [from “The Blood Move”] that can’t help but to, again, reframe even moments of intimacy with this sense of detachment. Was this contrast something you were consciously thinking about when you were sequencing the book, or even writing the poems? Were these ideas of disconnection on your mind while writing toward intimacy?
JA: I was thinking about detachment and distance with all the poems that deal with intimacy because my experience with intimacy has been disconnected at its core. That was one of the things I was examining and thinking about during the time I was writing these poems, and it’s something I continue to heal from. I will say that I resequenced this book probably a dozen times, at least half of which was prior to the book being accepted by the Etel Adnan [Poetry] Prize, and I also resequenced several iterations after acceptance, deleting and adding poems. I wasn’t so much thinking about juxtaposing love and discord versus the sort of fantasy and imagined love that’s in “Anthem with Emerald and Gold,” but I was looking at first and last lines. “Riding in a Bus on the Way to Prison” — which was published by Adroit — was the last poem that I wrote for Strip, and I actually wrote it in December of 2019, [only] weeks before I had to submit my final copy of the manuscript to the team at University of Arkansas, and I wrote it pretty much the way it appears now. It was after I had gone through all of the sequencing, after cutting several poems. I was intentional about not wanting to have a long book just for the sake of putting everything in it, so I was erring toward a more concise book. As I was sequencing and revising the poems and getting closer to the product that I wanted, I realized which poems were missing, and then it was easy [to fill in the blanks]. They just happened. In the process of manuscript-making, your mind starts to fill in what you think is there that isn’t actually there. Those poems include “The Pure Gold Baby,” “The Blood Move,” and “Riding in the Bus on the Way to Prison,” and all those happened while I was working on edits for the other poems.
ATL: I don’t know if it’s in spite or because of that, but those are some of my favorite poems in the book. The fact you couldn’t arrive at them without cutting and revising so much other work…
JA: It’s like practice. Some of those poems that are in the book, I consider to be poems that were me working up to writing some of the other poems. And “Dinner Party,” not to mention! “Dinner Party” was not in my accepted manuscript, but it was the first poem that I showed Fady [Joudah] and Hayan [Charara] after we met. In June, I started talking with them over e-mail about some of their ideas about the manuscript and any feedback they had for me, and in September the press flew me to Houston to meet with them. We sat down and went through the manuscript page by page, and they gave me their feedback on every poem, and after we went through it, we looked at new work that I’d sent them. It was only after going through my whole manuscript that we talked about “Dinner Party.” The book I submitted won the contest, but I was still writing it! [laughs] I was still writing it when it was accepted. I continued working on it pretty much until the absolute last minute that I had to submit it, and that’s my nature.
ATL: Like a true poet. What’s wild to me is — especially since it’s book-ended with those dinner party poems, they feel so foundational to the book — to learn that they came later…
JA: Another dinner party poem, which is at the end of the book — the penultimate poem — that was published in Waxwing as “Dinner Party,” and that was my dinner party poem. I wrote that in 2017, then in 2019, I wrote “Dinner Party” again — another poem called “Dinner Party” — speaking to your theory on obsessions, I wasn’t satisfied with it. So this poem had to be “Dinner Party,” and I knew that I wanted it to be the opening poem. At that point, my book had already been accepted, and so I had to change my other poem from “Dinner Party” to “Another Dinner Party,” and I decided to bookend them.
ATL: Yeah, that speaks directly to that theory: just revising our obsessions into different incarnations. Because of the usage of film techniques as a thematic structure throughout the book, there is this blurred line between speaker and author in the poems, as well. Was this something that helped you write through some of the more difficult subject matter?
JA: I think that Strip has a spirit of performance, and that’s intentional. For me, it was liberating to get to put on these different costumes in different poems and to have a speaker who can both say tender things about her grandmother in one poem and in another poem have a more scandalous and borderline histrionic way of speaking. That, to me, feels tied to performance and is something that I really miss. Some people don’t consider poetry readings to be a performance, but I consider any communication between an audience and a speaker a performance, whether you choose to see it that way or not. A lot of these performances can be very alienating when the person who’s presenting chooses not to see it that way. I do feel a duty to readers and a duty to audience members, and that’s that I want them to be entertained. Even during difficult or painful passages in the book, I still wanted to have the feeling of being entertained in receiving it. I really miss that in-person human-to-human connection at the heart of performance that you can’t always get virtually — it’s not perfectly replicated in a virtual sense.
ATL: That sort of film mechanism extends itself to setting too. Of course, you live in Los Angeles, and LA is often seen as this representation of projected, hollow beauty, and there’s Hollywood as the epicenter of the film industry, and LA pops up time and time again in the book. Did this setting ground the poems for you, or sort of extend them into this world in-between?
JA: I was consciously inspired by my setting when I was writing Strip. In Los Feliz, I was living in this 1920s Mediterranean building — all single studios — and it’d been there since 1922. The history of it is that Disney illustrators used to live there, so I’d be sitting in my apartment and wondering about, for the past hundred years, all of the different creative people who came to work in Hollywood and lived in my apartment. It wasn’t families living [there], it was a lot of single creative people like me. I found that super interesting. The apartment itself is, I feel, something you would find singularly in Los Angeles. It’s so old Hollywood, and it had this pink floral carpet inside and clear crystal doorknobs and a portrait of Don Quixote. Then I’d step outside and walk around, and you can hear people talking about the projects that they were working on, or updating or pitching their friends what they’re working on, or you’d hear people in coffee shops talking about their screenplays. So it was unavoidable. In trying to write poems that capture being a twenty-something in LA, it would be omission not to talk about the film industry.
I actually had a rare feeling of completion this fall. In September, a month before my book came out, I made a short film that I wrote and directed, and then I felt like my book was finished. I felt like, I’m writing all these poems about filmmaking, I better make a film then. I felt that was actually part of writing the book and part of the performance of the book is that I had to put that on, so I made a film of “Dinner Party.”
ATL: I can’t wait to see that. Between the structure, the themes, the setting, and then making a film — everything kind of folds in together. There’s such a sense of interactivity in that. It goes right into what you’re saying about performance and audience and that direct line that’s between people in physical spaces. You’re replicating that in your project.
JA: Being the poet, being “the author,” is also a kind of performance. People won’t actually know me from reading my book, so I might as well take advantage of that. I think of [Fernando] Pessoa, who had all the different personas — not that I’m doing that, but I enjoy looking at poems the way an actor might look at a monologue.
ATL: That sensibility is palpable, the way you structure it and relate it with different themes throughout the book. That’s sort of what I was getting at with the divide between speaker and author. I think every poet grapples with that, and that’s what I think is fascinating about Strip. You found a way to approach that in such a unique way.
JA: Thank you!
ATL: I definitely want to take time to uplift the poem “Legalization,” one of my favorite poems in the book. On the poem’s surface, you’re describing, for better or worse, the state of millennial relationships in the modern era — which can be surmised with this lack of connection, once again — but in this poem, you speak pretty heavily toward the age of social media, and there’s this sense of recoil involved. There’s this line that’s stuck with me: “We’re free / to do anything we want and choose / to see each other thirty nights in a row. But / still get bored about it.” The way that line resolves itself in the closing lines of the poem, “I’m doing what I want. I’m doing what / I want. I’m doing wherever the light takes me” — I took this as a commentary on the illusion of possibilities and choices these platforms offer. This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. What has this relationship been like for you?
JA: That line, in particular, is alluding more to apps as a way of capturing a person, and, yes, also the convenience of: how many taps away on my phone am I from whatever instant gratification [I want]? How many taps away am I from having food, weed, a person, a car delivered to my doorstep? Right before the pandemic, I moved to Altadena — it’s not suburban, but it’s an unincorporated part of LA. It’s 20 minutes away from downtown, but also it’s an unincorporated city, and there are no sidewalks, and people have chickens and ducks. It’s great. I love it here, but it’s very different from the city life I was living before [that the poem alludes to]. It was this moment that felt, as you put it, that there was a lot of possibility and access…
ATL: The illusion of possibilities and choices.
JA: Yeah. Well, the illusion of options that could keep one from committing to any one choice. I think that was the nature of the poem: this fleeting-life-in-the-back-of-a-Lyft poem.
ATL: Instead of that instant gratification, or maybe as a side effect of it, it ends up creating anxiety.
JA: Yeah! For me, it certainly did.
ATL: In “The Pure Gold Baby,” there’s a line that I took as a thesis statement or almost a key for the entire book: “It’s lonely to be looked at through the eye of a lens.” I still had these words rattling around my brain by the time I got to “On Loving,” where you describe this sort of predatory love with a sense of tenderness that is disarming. In the greater scope of the book’s ideas about constructed or even simulated forms of affection and beauty, there’s this tension between the liberation and the hindrance of solitude. Do you see your poems navigating that spectrum?
JA: You’re suddenly performing when somebody points a camera at you. It’s a different way of being seen when the presence of the camera supposes a performance, and so some people are very comfortable with that, and I’m learning to [be], but for me, my natural instinct is to feel uncomfortable when a lens is pointed in my direction. I think that comes up in a variety of ways — some of them we’ve already touched on — but the heart of the question is about the public and the private self and how one’s behavior might change when suddenly it is this virtual experience or we feel we’re being watched. I think my poems definitely have an awareness of that. For most artists, solitude is necessary, and yet we can feel incredibly lonely even when we’re at a party full of people, and even with the illusion of choices that we have from social media and app convenience, it can still be a lonely, lived experience. [What the poems navigate is that among] too much obsession and too much solitude, you can’t forget to actually live. One of my teachers in my MFA said that to me.
ATL: “You can’t forget to actually live.” I love that.
JA: My typical day in 2017, 2018, when I did most of the work, when I made the manuscript, I was living alone and I was a student and I was a freelance writer and I would just wake up and get stoned and read and write poetry all day long completely by myself and not leave my apartment, and at night I would go out and that was my lifestyle. And I thought it was great! But it was not sustainable. You can only live that way for so long.
ATL: I think that’s what the poems do such a great job grappling with.
JA: “Legalization,” I meant to say, is the occasional poem for weed becoming fully legal in LA.
ATL: It’s the unofficial Weed Legalization Poem.
JA: That is what it was actually in response to, anyway. [laughs] It was the end of 2017.
ATL: I want to return to that line, “it’s lonely to be looked at through the eyes of a lens” for a minute, as we touched on it in a previous conversation…
JA: Yeah, yeah, I thought it was going to be a different line than the one you called out. There was a great debate about that one, that I was receiving some advice to consider cutting it. I did change it a little bit, but the essence of the line is still there. I thought you were going to call out the last line — “Poetry is a plain woman who comes and goes as she pleases” — but that would probably just incite the metaphor discourse now. [laughs]
ATL: Which is already on fire on Twitter. I do remember you talking about everything in that poem pointing toward that line…
JA: When talking about that poem, in one of our conversations, Fady said something to me along the lines of that line describing what [I’m] trying to do as a poet, to edit toward that line. That was prior to writing a poem like “Riding in a Bus on the Way to Prison,” which is very plain and has these very plain lines, and that is an aesthetic that I tend to gravitate toward. So I printed that line out and taped it in front of my desk as I was continuing to revise the book.
ATL: I love the idea of having a navigation — a sort of lighthouse guiding you through your work. Another key line I found was, “So long as I have to go on with this existing / I might as well be irresistible” from “All My Life’s Been a Costume Party.” The constant shifting and dynamism of identity in this book cloaks the poems in ways that offer more questions than answers, which I find both fascinating and the very essence of what poetry should be. If the poems are a costume and a dressing up, why strip? Where does the command come into the dressing down your poems?
JA: Well, some of them are dressed down, and some of them are stripped bare and they are fragmented and they feel further away from the ego, and some of them — like “Musso’s” — embrace the ego, let the ego have the stage for a moment. To an extent, there are still moments of honesty in that poem, but I think that I allowed myself to write from these costumes, so to speak, or from these personas, and in a sense, when we do that, it’s cover for where we’re not willing to go. Like when we use humor, it’s deflection, and so the voice, the speaker, in many of my poems, is using that, they’re playing cover: they’re saying one thing and they really mean another. We do that — human beings, we do that. Now, I’m actually more interested in this very spare, or more spare, poetry that is moving toward something pure.
ATL: So, in the end, what you’re leaning toward and what you’re interested in now, the title almost foregrounds…
JA: In a sense. The book’s epigraph, from Sand Book by Ariana Reines — “I was naked except for culture / like everybody else in my generation” — speaks to some of the millennial sensibilities of culture, and early on in writing these poems, I felt a certain performance was expected of me, as a Palestinian-American, in particular. But in Strip, there’s a continual stripping away at culture and at identity, which juxtaposes, as you said, the putting on of costumes. So, really, which one am I doing? Who knows?