Tension as Love and Craft: A Conversation with Jennifer Militello

Jennifer Militello is the author of The Pact, published this year by Tupelo Press/Shearsman Books (UK), and Knock Wood, winner of the Dzanc Nonfiction Prize (Dzanc Books, 2019), as well as four previous collections of poetry: A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments (Tupelo Press, 2016), called “positively bewitching” by Publishers WeeklyBody Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013), named one of the top books of 2013 by Best American PoetryFlinch of Song, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award; and the chapbook Anchor Chain, Open Sail. Her work has appeared widely in such journals as American Poetry ReviewThe NationThe New RepublicThe Paris ReviewPOETRY, and Tin House, and been anthologized in Best American PoetryBest New Poets, and Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems for Every Occasion. Militello teaches in the MFA program at New England College.


Sarah D’Stair: First of all, thank you for agreeing to this interview. My hope is that the conversation will revel in the wonder that is The Pact, while also considering some poetic principles that guided its creation. You have already outlined thematic concerns of the collection in the excellent interview with Rosebud Ben-Oni at the Kenyon Review blog (May 31, 2021).  I’m hoping this conversation can build on that one by delving into some techniques you used to capture so perfectly the polarizing, fraught, corrosive, colonizing, and overwhelming aspects of love. Yet also, amazingly, the obsessiveness, the need we have, for exactly these kinds of powerful entanglements, even with people who are exceedingly difficult to love. I suppose that often they are the only ones we have, so we persist in loving. And there is something beautiful in that.

Jennifer Militello: I agree. And it wasn’t an easy subject to grapple with. Especially since what we feel is so complex it lies beyond language. How do we capture it with shapes made from a mere 26 letters? How do we let these mouth shapes and hieroglyphs say all that exists internally? We can’t. I tried in this book to compensate for that, to push the language to see what a repositioning can capture instead, to come closer to opening up that between space. I can come closer to recreating what we actually experience. Not to explain it. To embody it.

I don’t shy away from too muchness—for as Tsvetaeva said, “There cannot be too much of lyric because lyric itself is too much.” 

SD: In reflecting on that notion of “too muchness,” I am thinking about the epigraph from “All you need is love” by the Beatles. Have you seen the 1960s British TV show called The Prisoner? In the final episode, Patrick McGoohan uses that song to play over top of a rather violent gunspray scene in a laboratory. The effect is poetic inversion, a polarized tension between the opiate of pop culture idolatry and the terror of the modern police state. This same kind of poetic energy is present all throughout The Pact—the opiate and the terror of love.  

JM: I have not seen that show, but I fully believe in the power of context. We all know that the significance of any thing is transformed or enhanced according to its proximity. This is the embodiment of narrative (or lyric) tension. “Polarized tension” is the perfect term for it. Nothing is good without bad. We age more slowly when we travel more quickly. “Death is the mother of beauty.” 


SD: I see that power of opposition in so many poems in The Pact. For example, in “Agape Feast,” even the title fuses opposing forces—overzealous giving (agape) with overzealous consumption (feast). You place the sublime and the grotesque at the same table and expect them to converse. It’s quite a feat of poetic power!  

JM: Thank you! This is maybe what many of us love about love, or are drawn to, the mix of pleasure and pain, the roller coaster ride. These extremes feel natural to me. Maybe because of the nature of some of my relationships, which were kindnesses haunted by slights, hurts lying in wait among loves. But also, each is felt most completely because of its juxtaposition to the other. Opposites highlight the nature of each, so, as we’ve said, I choose poems that travel quickly, comparisons that rake up the bottom of the lake, that light cheerful music to accompany the horror show. Why not lull a reader in order to shake them awake? Why not make a horror more pronounced by mixing in beauty?

SD: And from a technical standpoint, how do you sustain that kind of tension throughout the collection?

JM: How do I sustain it? I worship at the church of the turn. I work for the melodrama of duende, I sweep between extremes, I don’t let any moment rest if I can. I try to sustain it by piling on, by moving quickly, by restarting a poem at every shift in the poem, by thinking of each twist as a new start. A new start is a challenge. It requires commitment and the pursuit of engagement. I maybe use my first line principle—that a first line should be found rather than written—more often than I should. Maybe I think of every line as a version of the first line, with that draw and hook.

In the end, I don’t really believe in mixed metaphors. I think everything is related to everything else and the more you can showcase that, the more you can ask your reader to see things anew, i.e., for what they actually are. I do believe there is a range one can aim for where the relationship between two things has the right distance. Lucie Brock-Broido used to talk about it as the distance of iron shavings from the magnet. Put them too close and they clutter and stick, pull them too far and they drift off, but get them right at that center place and they will hover and feel the attraction and quiver with the tension of suspension. That’s the space I want.

SD: It’s such a perfect phrase, “the tension of suspension.” There’s such fatigue in it. In poems like “Species,” “Lineage Is Its Own Religion,” and definitely “Oxymoronic Love,” the overarching technique seems to be this kind of exhaustive accumulation, almost to the point of weariness. “Sibling Medusa” is filled with anaphora, and in “Sibling Parasitic,” the aggressively repetitive sentence structure—predominantly subject-verb-object—is written in a staccato rhythm that almost feels like darts piercing the skin. Can you talk about how you decided to use the sentence itself as a kind of weapon?

JM: I love that you are making the words sound like rain or hail, as though one can get caught out in the downpour of these poems. Thank you also for using the word “exhaustive”—I think that’s right, and it’s what I was after. 

The sentence can be a hammer, a battering ram. I have, yes, built sentences as axes that can swing or chop, arrows that whistle through the air. But think of your favorite songs. Chords are weapons. Bass lines are weapons. We either tread lightly and speak politely and have manners or we crash in the way experience can. For me, this is how the world feels. There is some drama in the arc of flight or in the arm’s swing, but when the hit happens, you feel it with your whole self. I wanted extremity in these poems. Life is a bombardment. We can reproduce that bombardment in poems. We have been hit by other things so often—why not be hit by the sentence to replicate that?

Then maybe the barriers come down. The door begins to give. It is the heart, that door, and behind it lies the whole of the reader. I want to reach it badly. Because these are not weapons meant to harm. They are weapons meant to recollect the harming so that we can feel recognized and understand that our experiences are shared by others—so that we can be healed.

SD: As I think about how your poetry works, and perhaps this is how the “recollection” happens, it seems to be both representational (of complicated, at times horrific love) and compositional (sounds for their own sake). For example, in “Sibling Bipolar,” psychic polarization is captured in the clashes of “Quiet” versus “cough,” “embellishment” versus “zilch.” Yet some lines seem to revel in their own sonic pleasure—for example, “I mint a limit to you,” and “Reams of it reign. I dare to steer.” Can you talk about how these (at times) competing energies work together in your verse?

JM: I was with Jericho Brown at New England College’s MFA residency this past week and we were talking about the nature of music in poems. I told him that I pushed music as far as I could in this book, that I allowed for sound above all else, maybe because the subject matter felt so urgent to me. As you’ve said, I stretched my relationship with the sentence. I also ended up with a book that uses rhyme in ways that I never had before. I pushed the repetition and sonic qualities. I would work along and repeat a sound every few steps and let the poem lie rather than trying to temper it. This felt like the right subject to express in this way, so I followed my instincts. 

But I also think the representational is compositional. A word does not represent. It invents. A sound does not invent. It connects. Language started in sound. We spoke before we wrote, and music is our attempt to recreate the heartbeat, to make our bodies feel what our brains know. And vice versa. So sounds should bring us back to ourselves, even as they provide clarity and distance. Sound is a poem’s first grammar.

I don’t like to separate the way things mean from what they sound like, because it is just a different kind of meaning. This is also what makes people resistant to poetry. This sense that there is a hidden meaning that they can’t have access to.

SD: Perhaps that’s one reason there is so much wordplay in the poems, which communicate a subject matter that doesn’t seem playful at all. I’m curious about how and why this technique works so well in The Pact as a whole. Could you talk about the concept of play in these poems?

JM: I guess the word “play” has a few different meanings. Because this work feels serious to me, I would maybe talk about it as the give or swing in a section of rope or a luffing sail. A cousin to the play of children, to the work of games, related but instead—a slackness which allows for things to move in different directions than might otherwise be expected. This definition feels closer to what I think I do as I work toward suggestion or resonance. 

It’s interesting because these three things you are asking about—this use of proximity, this sentence structure, this sonic quality—they are all related. They are all meant to make poems that exist as experiences as much as, or more than, purveyors of a meaning or a truth. There is truth in what we move through. There is reality in the recreation of an emotional reality. And this is what I consider the best poems to be: the reenactment of an emotional reality. In this way we learn about our truths, sure, and each poem is an investigation, but, as I told my students this past week, asking what a poem is “about” is the wrong question, because “about” suggests a practical breakdown of reductive realities. You can ask what the situation of the poem might be, what the poem is doing, what it intends—but once you ask what a poem is about, you are guiding us toward a reading that eliminates or reduces the most important piece. Language is only a proxy for communication. We are trying to fit large things into little peg holes of sound, so why should the meaning happen only on a practical level? Meaning is emotional, it is immediate, it is broader—the way there are frequencies on a spectrum of light that can’t be seen with the human eye. We understand with sound, in my view, just as fully as we understand with a more practical, agreed-upon meaning for individual words in a certain order. All these techniques we’ve discussed are about building that experience for the reader. To be read, as I often say, with the instinct rather than the intellect. If you can tell me what one of my poems is about, I’ve done something wrong. I want to know what it has done to you. I want to know how it has changed your life.

SD: I love that. It makes the experience of reading such an intimate act, almost like poet and reader become a duo of fraught lovers themselves. Switching gears a bit, I’m wondering how this book was conceived? Did you set out to write a book about love, or did you notice this theme arise after writing some of the poems? Is this a book you’ve been wanting to write for some time?  

JM: This book grew out of its poems. I follow poems in the direction of a book rather than the other way around. New poems I start to write are breadcrumbs I follow through a forest—trying to get to a version of home I’ve not yet known. It’s there, the next book, and I can feel its shapeless shape waiting through the darkness, wanting to be made, but the actuality of it is a mystery I need to write my way into. I don’t even know what specific obsessions lie in wait, but I write and those obsessions make themselves clear.

This particular collection started off with a love affair and a few of what I call “anchor poems”—one of which was inspired by a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I was writing what I hoped were anchor poems, poems that were solid enough to stay around and be the base of something larger, but I didn’t yet know what was being anchored. Then, in one of the museum’s rooms, I stumbled across the nkisi nkondi, a wooden statue from the Congo, with its shoulders hammered full of iron nails and its eyes cut from scratched glass. The nkisi nkondi embodied so many things that I was struggling with in that moment. This intimidating figure embodied the complexity of agreements we enter into, and our ability to keep them or break them, was at times benevolent and allowed a vow to be sealed and was sometimes a seeker of revenge when a promise or deal was broken. It also reflected the nature of every relationship I had ever had back at me, as I continued to ask one of the biggest questions of my life: How do I connect with other people when it is so essentially wonderful and so essentially painful at the same time? That was what struck me about this wounded figure holding together all the agreements people had made with one another, and punishing those who had broken those vows. There’s a voodoo there that is somehow what I was trying to capture. We are haunting one another like ghosts. Promises kill us. We damage those we love the most. The ones we love the most must almost always damage us.

SD: It’s always fascinating to hear the genesis of what eventually becomes a unified collection. This leads me to another of my curiosities. For me, each book I write compels me toward a slightly different writing routine/process—sometimes the writing space changes, sometimes the time of day, even what I eat. Did The Pact require any particular routine or method as you composed the poems? And why do you think this book required exactly that process?

JM: I had started to write some poems exploring relationships built between family members and lovers. While my writing routine didn’t necessarily change—I was still writing some poems out of fragments and some out of whole massive word-spills—my approach did. I was unable to write at home so I wrote a lot of this book on trips to the UK. I wrote on the plane or in the houses of friends. It was a book of traveling because my house was full of obstacles for me. I wrote some of the poems late on overnight flights, crammed into a middle seat while those around me slept because I’d forgotten to check in early enough. I remember writing “Species” in an upstairs space in Corsham Court at Bath Spa University while there for my PhD. I wrote “My Mother Is in Antarctica” at a big wooden kitchen table in Neighbourne and “The Love Song of One Is the Punishment of Another” while sitting at Penn Station waiting for a 4 am train. These were poems written in between spaces, while waiting or traveling. That seems appropriate, since this book feels unsettled and is a book about challenging varied versions of home. It is a book about leaving, and about being trapped. So not having a process but catching it in the glimpses between things, in foreign spaces, seems about right.


Sarah D’Stair

Sarah D’Stair is a novelist, poet, and literary critic. She is the author of One Year of Desire (Finishing Line Press) and Helen Bonaparte (Late Marriage Press). She received her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Photo: © Molly Schlachter.

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