Jill Bialosky’s newest volume of poetry is Asylum: A Personal, Historical, Natural Inquiry in 103 Lyric Sections. She is the author of five acclaimed collections of poetry, three critically acclaimed novels, most recently, The Prize, and a two memoirs, Poetry Will Save Your Life and New York Times bestselling memoir History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life. Her poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, O Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, and Paris Review among others. She co-edited with Helen Schulman the anthology, Wanting a Child. She is an Executive Editor and Vice President at W. W. Norton & Company. In 2014 she was honored by the Poetry Society of America for her distinguished contribution to poetry.
Heidi Seaborn: Jill, so happy to talk with you. How are you? And how have you been spending your days during this long pandemic?
Jill Bialosky: Thank you, Heidi. I’m thrilled to be in conversation with you, too. I’m managing the pandemic now that vaccines are available. Work helps to give my days the focus that is needed and during the pandemic’s early days I found ways to pass the time when I wasn’t working. Listening to books on audio while taking long walks was a savior. There were lessons to learn too, about how much time in the past was wasted and I’m trying to hold on to that now. I’m a fairly solitary person so I was lucky in that way.
HS: Is there any book or writer in particular that has provided solace or even inspiration for you during this time? Have you been able to write?
JB: I’ve been listening to many books on tape mostly to accompany long walks which have been essential during the pandemic. I found comfort in listening to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, both beautifully narrated by Nicole Kidman. The intimacy of those novels and the way in which they encompass love and the meaning of home in To the Lighthouse and friendship in Mrs. Dalloway provided succor. I also re-read Moby-Dick for an essay I wrote on Moby-Dick and suicide called “Devils in the Deep” that came out this past May in Harper’s. I love the rhapsodic music of the novel against the adventure story. Pure poetry. As for my own writing, it is a practice I try and attend to daily, and the pandemic hasn’t interfered. Writing has always been what I wake up to before I begin my workday and where I tunnel in on weekends. It’s what keeps me balanced.
HS: I envy you, and others who wake up to write. It seems like such a meditative and productive start to one’s day. Perhaps because I’m on the West Coast, I wake to emails! Tell me how Asylum began. Did it evolve from your daily writing practice? Was it percolating for a while? What made this book?
JB: How did it begin? I can barely remember! I know that it began as an inquiry. One question that kept arising was whether the lyric poem could be sustained in a moment of intense conflict and change that was unleashed in 2016. I wanted to give myself permission to extend what the poem could do. I thought of the speaker on a Virgilian journey questioning evil and whether the human spirit could survive the turmoil of racial violence, injustice, anti-Semitism, climate change. How do we survive? The poem became my sanctuary. There are various threads braided into the hybrid form that became the grounding force of the poem.
HS: You’ve written about many of these topics before, your sister’s suicide, a fatherless home. We all return to that which is defining. Did this investigation reveal any new truths or surprises? Has time impacted your thinking, writing?
JB: Yes. If there is no new insight, no discovery, then the poem has failed. We always go back to childhood, reshaping it, reconsidering it from the perspective of the present. Gabriel García Márquez once said that all of his novels spring from his childhood. With that said, I see Asylum as a poem about community and connection, certainly the community of family, but also of history, and of the natural world. Violence, calamity, injustice on the personal and societal level, affect the spirit and the soul. In Asylum, I consider survival and suicide as a societal question/problem/responsibility. When a person dies from suicide, a wide spectrum of family and community are affected. My hope is that Asylum shadows and radiates these ideas through lyric and narrative juxtaposition and composition. In section LXX, I write about listening to Johann Strauss II’s “Artist’s Life” he composed after “Austria’s defeat in battle, the melody / meant to infuse breath into bleakness, elegy into declaration, creation into harmony, even in a time of ravage and war.” Those are hard-won achievements and describe my ambition for Asylum.
HS: Could you talk about the form Asylum takes—what is described as lyric sections, each numbered with roman numerals? And how the crafting of this work evolved in the writing?
JB: When working on a book-length poem I was conscious of keeping the reader hooked and compelled to the very end, as my hope is that Asylum is a poem one would read from beginning to end, and then, further I wanted each section to have essence and possession of itself. Some of the sections work as stand-alone poems, and others work by accumulation. I was conscious too about offering relief for the reader as some of the material is dark, and I was aware of places where the poem needed to pause and embrace beauty and musicality. In writing ASYLUM, I was conscious too of wanting to juxtapose the forms that make up the poem itself. Some sections are prose-like, others are in couplets, some rely on long lines, others short lines. I employ the use of repetition; sound, rhyme, half-rhyme, enjambment are an integral part of my poetics. In section XXXVIII, in two stanzas, the speaker describes her practice of craftsmanship:
Because her sister was in New York practicing, which is a form of writing,
carefully selecting words & then erasing them, phrase upon phrase,
Hiding & revealing, rhyme & half-rhyme, enjambment & syllabics,
Form & meaning, narrative & lyric, thought & substance,
In section LXXXIV, I use symphonic imagery to describe the horror of personal despair:
the winter a strain of virus
quarantined us far into spring, in which another teenager
somewhere in the city is locked in a soporific fog,
helpless forgotten isolated in aloneness, landscape
shrouded in an unreasonable mask, winter of the symphony’s
grand crescendo—seats of council, judges, assemble to form a decree
citizenry run amok is not a matter of the individual, but society,
timpani, cymbals, snare drum, family of percussion.
HS: The overall effect of Asylum is a mediation that roams across the landscape of grief, history, nature, beauty, while lighting on specific moments. With such a far-reaching, epic project, how did you think about what to include and what to lose?
JB: Thank you, Heidi. I appreciate your sensitive and astute reading of the poem. Isn’t that always the challenge? I’m lucky to have had a few trusted readers along the way to note places when the lyric failed. Tenacity, staying with it, intuition, obsession, the desire to capture a moment in time, kept me in its lock. And of course, many, many drafts toward completion.
HS: Your ability to weave in the quotidian along with the elevated gives this book a sense of being of the moment, but also a timelessness. I think that is something many writers struggle with: to bridge the now with the eternal. Was that conscious, and how did you think about that balance?
JB: I love that you mention timelessness. I don’t know how that is achieved. Perhaps it is one of poetry’s many mysteries. I am listening now to The Magic Mountain on audio. It’s a beautiful, magnificent novel full of depth and perception about time, eternity, timelessness. A brilliant conceit, a comic novel set in a sanatorium for people who are very ill, many soon to die. Timelessness in poetry, literature perhaps has to do with this idea of writing as if on the edge of death, the edge of reason, as if one’s life depended upon it. Those are high aspirations, but if there is no risk there is no gain. I wanted to take new risks with a longer form, knowing that I might fail, but also that I was mining a new method of necessity and I needed the expansiveness to reign in the calamities that drove the poem into being.
HS: The cover of Asylum bears a crosscut of a tree. It’s a simple and beautiful cover that evokes how this work captures time’s effect—that sense of years layering upon years to yield a stronger, taller tree. How has time and perspective impacted your work?
JB: I love this brilliant cover too, and many thanks to the designer, John Gall, for getting it just right. There is a section at the end of Asylum, Ci, about having to cut down a stump of a tree due to disease and hoping it might sprout again. I write about the number of circles inside the bark’s circumference, how many rings, and of course, Asylum has a circular quality, and is in conversation with Dante’s Inferno and its rings of Hell. Trees and forests are images that haunt and color my project. It is hard to know how time and perspective impact my work. I suppose living through tragedy and survival is part of it, and looking closely, clarity and focus. Asylum is in conversation with many poets including Dante, Paul Celan, Sylvia Plath, James Wright, William Blake, T. S. Eliot, poets whose work are deeply embedded in my consciousness. But truly, in the end, it’s all a mystery.
HS: We are living with the deep effects of climate change all around us. You bring the natural world to the page in this collection. How has nature entered your life and then your work?
JB: I find joy and respite in nature. We have a home on the east end of Long Island, and we abut a nature reserve. Much of the natural imagery in Asylum birds, trees, butterflies, bees, deer—are in rapturous chorus, and I wanted to bring that world alive in the poem.
HS: I always read a book’s “Notes” section. And sometimes — I’m thinking now of Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters — the notes are incorporated very much into the experience of the collection. Having recently written a heavily researched collection, I had pages and pages of notes but then cut back for publication. What role did you ascribe to your notes in Asylum? And as an editor, do you have a point of view on notes?
JB: I felt it was necessary to document the research and lines/phrases from other sources that went into Asylum. Of course, throughout history poems have always been in conversation with other poems, but now it seems necessary to document them to avoid unnecessary claims. I like reading the notes section after I’ve finished reading a book of poetry. I find it illuminating to know the sources and conversations from which a poem derives.
HS: How do you think the pandemic has informed poetry now and into the future? How do you think this pandemic writing will stand the test of time?
JB: There have been many poems written about the pandemic, and they are valuable (if they are memorable!) as poems of historical record. I think of Eavan Boland’s poem “Quarantine,” for instance, that was about the Great Irish famine in Ireland in 1847 and locates that moment in time through the prism of two lovers. Or Yusef Komunyakaa’s memorable poems about Vietnam. Or Carolyn Forché’s poem, “The Colonel,” about the atrocities in the late 1970s in El Salvador. Will they stand the test of time? If the poems live up to the recorded moment, perhaps? Surely, the pandemic is itself an historical moment that has shaped all of us who were/are lucky enough to survive it.
HS: As a book editor, how is the poetry landscape changing and what are you seeing now?What is in vogue?
JB: There are so many new and essential voices in poetry, especially among the younger poets. I’m reluctant to comment on what is in vogue. What matters to me as a poetry editor, is the voice of the poet, their vision, and the ways in which craft brings that vision/voice to life. How the poet changes the nature of the conversation about poetry. You know it when you see it. As Emily Dickinson said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
HS: Adroit is a publication with roots in the young, emerging writer and we continue to offer an extraordinary mentorship program and prizes for high school and college writers. From what we see, creative writing is alive and well, and there is so much emergent talent. What advice do you have for the very young writer?
JB: To keep to the course. Writing is a practice, like yoga. You must commit to it and accept the process. Read everything, especially your precursors. I find that many young poets writing today don’t know the poems of Elizabeth Bishop for instance. In my view, that’s a crime. Young poets must know the poets who have paved the way for their generation. If your writing practice isn’t as necessary and urgent to you as breathing, then it isn’t worth the effort. Follow where the poem summons and avoid what’s in fashion, because it is always changing.