Jeff Alessandrelli is the author of the book-length fictional essay And Yet (2022) and the poetry collection Fur Not Light (2019), which The Kenyon Review called an “example of radical humility … its poems enact a quiet but persistent empathy in the world of creative writing.” Alessandrelli directs the nonprofit book press/record label Fonograf Editions.
Kelly Krumrie is the author of Math Class (Calamari Archive, 2022). Other creative and critical writing appears in journals such as DIAGRAM, La Vague, Black Warrior Review, Full Stop, and The Explicator. She writes a column for Tarpaulin Sky Magazine called figuring on math and science in art and literature, and she’s a contributing editor for Annulet: A Journal of Poetics. She holds a PhD in English & Literary Arts: Creative Writing from the University of Denver.
Jeff Alessandrelli: I first heard Kelly Krumrie read from her new novel Math Class on January 25, 2020 at the art gallery Union Hall in Denver, Colorado. I remember it distinctly because A) a short three months later the United States would be profoundly different and B) it was a weird reading, in a good way. I tend to kind of zone out at readings. Sometimes because I myself am reading at them, so it’s an anxiety thing, and other times because…I guess it can be hard for me to focus, and the harder I try the more my mind wanders. But on January 25th in Denver, for whatever reason, I was locked in. Kelly read first, and there was a subtle but defined energy to her reading. It had body. At that point I don’t think the book was done, but she read a section from Math Class involving the main character Jo’s train crash, and after hearing it, I was mildly disturbed. Not because the events depicted seemed extraordinarily harrowing—the vibe was more unsettling and atmospheric. Instead, it was Kelly’s language that drew me in. Hearing her read, I heard echoes of disparate writers, from Gertrude Stein to Bruno Schulz, but the story was completely and uniquely hers. I was thus very excited to talk to her about Math Class’ journey from idea to publication, creative writing as math and vice versa, and authorly expectations, among other wide-ranging topics.
Kelly Krumrie: I’ll copy Jeff’s introduction by saying that I first heard him read a few years ago—I can’t remember when, before the 2020 reading—at a house in Denver. He read from his chapbook Biggie Smalls Skateboarding Superstar, and I loved hearing from it because I love both Biggie Smalls and (watching) skateboarding (who doesn’t?). I continued reading his poems and interviews and reviews since then, up to And Yet. Even though I had a running start to his work, I couldn’t predict what And Yet would be like. As I read it—and I don’t think this is a spoiler—I kept thinking the book’s form would change, that it would settle into something else, something more ordinary, like fiction I’m used to seeing (no offense). But it didn’t, and this didn’t-ness, this playing with and pushing against any expectation I had for it as it wound its own unique shape on the page and in my brain, made me so curious and excited to talk to Jeff more about it.
JA: In a previous email to you I described Math Class as an “immense spindly narrative tone poem” and I stand by that designation, with the caveat that the poem-elements of the text are in service to the book’s Catholic school/math-class narrative. As a kid, I was wretched at math and that wretchedness has only increased in my adult years. I’m curious how the book took its initial shape and where the story came from. Are you one of those rare writing and math type of people?
KK: Oh, gosh, no, I’m not. Or maybe I became one, but late. I was also always wretched at it, and that was tied up in terrible (and adolescent) feelings of insecurity and hopelessness. I failed classes and refused to do my homework because I felt like I couldn’t. I was a reading/writing/art person and that was that. But in my late twenties, I was working as an assistant teacher at a Montessori elementary school, and I had to help kids with all their work, including math. Montessori math is truly beautiful—most of it is “materialized,” meaning there are objects the kids move around. For example, they might count beads, add and subtract them, then move on to recording abstractions on paper. Heavy, wooden cubes, lessons about math history. The method made total sense to me. Everything clicked. It was like I was learning from zero and I became immensely curious. Later, I had my own middle school classroom, and I had to learn to teach pretty high level (for me) math. I went to trainings and practiced and did the work and read tons of books—especially ancient proofs, early Greek stuff. I fell in love, basically, but mostly with the language of it. I think Math Class contains a bit of my adolescent hopelessness mixed with my present-day, big-eyed curiosity. The book came from kind of a dare for myself—to see what I could make from this experience.
I’ve been wondering about your “immense spindly narrative tone poem” description since you sent it to me. Would you describe And Yet the same way? The books are vastly different; however, they’re both highly fragmented and make ample use of source materials. And Yet is at least half (more than half?) composed of quotations interspersed with the narrator’s memories and wonderings. I love citations and bibliographies in creative work. Tell me a bit about how that came to be. Did you just start reading and…?
JA: I have friends whose kids go to Montessori schools—-some are fervent advocates, others less so—-but I’ve never really thought about how the curriculum is different than in public or other private schools. Interesting…if I’d encountered the “materialized” form of math in my youth, maybe things would have been completely different for me, as it does seem to resonate with how I learn, which is hands-on and tactile. I can’t imagine ever teaching anyone math, but, like you, I am an innately curious person, and the idea behind the actuality does deeply compel me. (It’s the same with science. I used to dislike it in middle and high school, but now I love reading articles—particularly about the universe and space—that I only half-understand.)
As for And Yet, I suppose I’m most interested in voices other than my own, which maybe sounds weird coming from a writer. I wrote the majority of the book in mid-2018 and I kind of fumbled my way into it, although I did have some “shadow texts” (to use a phrase from the essayist Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel) that I knew I wanted to dig into and explore. And Yet is about shyness and sex and selfhood and those are topics that I don’t think I’m an expert on by any means, hence the endless references and citations. On some level I supposed I wanted to write a commonplace book that still had a solid narrative, one with a centralized “I” character who changed as time passed. I’m mostly a poet, so writing fiction—even if it has an essayistic feel—pushed me away from some of the overt ellipticism that I gravitate to. (I don’t think ambiguity is a four letter word. I think it has nine rich letters.)
Character and characterization is something I thought a lot about while reading Math Class. Although Jo is the focal point of the text, there’s a chorus-like feeling, with Lucy and Caroline and Ana and Thea and Tessa and Kat all playing significant roles—as well as the teacher-nuns at St. Agatha, teaching and hovering. (Might have just been me, but I felt a lot of nun-hovering in the book.) How did you think about characterization while writing Math Class? In my opinion, the characters are strongly defined and yet still alluringly fuzzy—there’s a fertility interiority to each that resonates. Further, Jo’s train crash, the central plot point of the book, happens relatively early on in the text, and after it everything is different; there’s a stillness that pervades, both within Jo and the other characters. As its creator, how did that crash come about for you? Did you plan its occurrence from the start or did it instead materialize as you were writing? (Sorry.)
KK: Oh yes, nuns are hovering. I remember always feeling like I was in trouble! And a choral group works well for all of this: singing, saints, angels, nuns, piles of numbers and overlapping shapes. In my creation of the book, I gave each of the girls a shadow person, a saint or a scientist, that helped me build them. They evolved as I was writing, so they’re not true, close models of other people, but inspired by them. For example, the character Maria, who is a swimmer, came from the mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi whose legacy is something called the “witch curve,” which looks like a wave rolling over a circle. Late in life, Agnesi became a nun.
As for Jo, I knew early on that something kind of catastrophic would happen to her body (beyond just being a sixteen-year-old girl), something that might happen to a saint or martyr, but I didn’t know what until I was prompted to write a story in the form of a word problem, which I didn’t end up doing. Instead, I came up with this workaround via the idea of a train traveling, that classic calculation disrupted. What’s the plot line of a math problem? The character development? Something like those factorial/sequence things where there are arrangements of outfits? The answer at the end? What if you get it wrong? Or don’t understand the problem at all? Your observation makes me think about the form of the classical geometric proof, where there’s an enunciation at the beginning.The mathematician says what’s going to happen: I’m going to prove that x equals y—or whatever. Then they prove it, step by step, and the conclusion is kind of anticlimactic: now x = y. Or sometimes, as in the case of Euclid, he doesn’t even say it, he just says “therefore, etc., Q.E.D.” and assumes you see it.
That’s interesting to me, just leaving it. I’ve been reading a book on Ancient Greek geometric proofs and their relationships to the diagrams that accompany them—Reviel Netz’s The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics. Netz’s argument is essentially that the two coevolved and are dependent on one another, even though many of the drawings were lost while the texts remained. In a way, albeit retroactively, this is kind of what I was thinking about with the drawings that accompany each of the sections of Math Class as well as the source texts I list at the end. The novel, the diagrams, and the gestures to other texts are (for me at least) inseparable—though not physically as embedded as they are in And Yet.
This also reminds me of an argument made by the mathematician Brian Rotman about the nature of mathematics: he believes that math is intrinsically tied to writing. That the act of doing math, with a pencil, is what makes it and is the only time it really exists. The number “4” is nothing outside of its use by a human. So, if he’s right (I don’t really care either way), and math only exists when someone is doing math, is creative writing the same way? This goes back to your comment about ambiguity and thinking about the movements of genre within/around And Yet. You’re a poet writing a novel that’s essayistic and like a commonplace book. It’s fragmented and meditative. Reading And Yet, I’m kind of *doing* And Yet, right? (The innuendo in that question is good for a book about sex.) Maybe this is a big or stupid question, but when and where does writing exist for you? How do you imagine And Yet manifesting itself?
JA: Math as creative writing and vice versa—it makes perfect sense. In the past I’ve been guilty of thinking that math is something that happens in a classroom and then the whole world outside of that confined space is something else. Which is ridiculous—although mathematicians (and scientists) might have set limits to their explorations, at least to a degree, a new mathematical discovery is just as creative as a discovery in any other field. Right? I almost exclusively teach composition at a community college here in Portland, OR (where I live), and my thinking about math has sometimes mirrored some of my students’ thinking about writing: it exclusively exists back there, on campus, Tues/Thurs from 11:00-12:50, and once one is off campus it’s nothing to concern oneself with. So the assertion that “4” is nothing outside of its use by a human rings true to me, in the sense that my life (and everyone’s life) exists within the framework of so many broader considerations that I rarely really consider. (That is my car is made of math, the streets I walk on are made of math, math seeps out of the keyboard I type these words on, and on and on.) And yet those considerations make up who and why and how we are.
That belief of mine easily dovetails with where writing exists for me, at least currently. As I noted above, I wrote And Yet in 2018. It took two years for me to find a publisher and then another two years before the book came out. In a lot of ways that’s a normal trajectory, but the last four years haven’t been “normal” in any sense of the word. Since writing And Yet I’ve taken on a lot more of an active editing role at Fonograf Editions, the nonprofit label/press I co-run. I’ve moved across the country and moved back. I’ve dated people and broken up with them and dated other people. I’ve gotten a new job. I’ve moved again, this time from one quadrant of Portland to another across town. And, most obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic began. So the writing of the book seems like a distant vision, if that doesn’t seem too pretentious. I don’t think I’d write a book like And Yet now simply because I’m a different person. Which isn’t to say I’m not proud of it. More just that the old Rimbaudian “I as an Other” postulation seems more true with this book than any other I’ve previously written. Its writing belongs to the fingers of someone I no longer am.
As for where I see And Yet manifesting in either the reader’s mind or the larger world—I have no idea. Like a lot of writers, my literary Achilles’ heel is expectations—wanting more reviews in bigger places and more general exposure, etc., etc. But since writing And Yet I’ve shifted on that to a degree. I’m more aware of my limitations and realize that ambition isn’t a sustainable mindset. (Paradoxically, I don’t actually consider myself to be that ambitious of a person. Driven, but not ambitious.) And Yet is the last book I plan to publish for a while and if it quickly settles into the sunset—I’m fine with that. If age has taught me anything, it’s that the actual writing matters more than everything else. (Such a trite statement would have made me barf when I was younger, but it’s true nevertheless.)
I’ll turn the question back on you, though—where do you see Math Class manifesting in the world upon its publication and do you yourself have expectations for it? I’m also curious how the University of Denver PHD program played a role, if any, in your writing of Math Class. Did you workshop any chapters or share it with your fellow students or professors? Did the book come into being in Denver?
KK: Thinking about where a topic lives, a topic being only where you do it, is interesting to me. A lot of writing teachers also write, so the work takes place in lots of places. But math? A thing at school, like you say. One of my math education trainers said that to be a good math teacher, you kind of have to be a mathematician—but what that means is up to you. He meant to do it for fun, to practice it, to think about it—like how I both teach creative writing and make it. This makes the topic present outside of the classroom. Perhaps not for the students though, which is something worth noodling.
This also makes me think of the manifestation of And Yet—maybe what I was wondering about was actually genre, which we’ve touched on a bit. When I was reading And Yet, I kept thinking about how the book was taking shape in my mind—as a novel and as a commonplace book. How was it forming itself? What was the story? What happened when I saw a quotation echo or repeat? How was I keeping track of characters? For example, the narrator’s friends and lovers are named only by initials, which isn’t uncommon in fiction, but still a little puzzle, still somewhat abstract, labels like vertices in a diagram. The book caused me to wonder about its own operations and my operations as a reader, and I like when that happens. I had a conversation with a friend, oh, maybe two years ago now, about poetry as a set of instructions for the mind (or heart?). When reading, something happens—the poem makes something happen. And the writer makes the making of the something happen. Fiction is a little different in that it settles you in, makes the movie in your mind’s eye. Poetry does this too, but it’s a little more flickery, perhaps. Math is meant to be completely replicable, like a recipe. This is what I was thinking about while reading And Yet: the recipe.
Expectations for Math Class? Oh, probably not! Where is it? In the mail. I hope some people find it interesting. That’s all. I did write the whole thing while in the creative writing PhD program at the University of Denver. I wrote a short story first, the summer before I started at DU—it was published in Sleepingfish actually, the Calamari journal. I had read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons for the millionth time, and I couldn’t get the line “What is this current” out of my head, so I started learning about electricity. Then I wrote a few more pieces, and I workshopped them in my classes, which was sometimes useful, sometimes very not useful. (Most of the coursework and the exams are in literary studies, and that thinking helped me more than the workshops, honestly.) Once I had most of Math Class written, I took an independent study with the writer and professor Joanna Howard, and we worked on rounding it out into a novel. For the creative dissertation, students write a book (a collection of poetry or work of prose) as well as a critical component, like an introduction, essay, or academic article. I wrote Math Class, another book-length creative work called No Measure (on submission now), and an article on Stein’s mathematics. I went a little over the top. But I definitely owe the whole thing to my time at DU—it gave me access to brilliant professors, friends, classes, resources, etc. I’m very lucky and very grateful.
Last question: What’s something you learned lately that’s really interesting, that you can’t stop thinking or talking about?
JA: As I’ve grown older I’ve come to think of genre as essentially marketing. That might be an erroneous assertion in certain ways, but it seems to me that the more roundly acclaimed something is the more it’s also deemed “unclassifiable” or “innovative” or all those fairly empty words that still look pretty on book jackets and back covers. Prose poetry is flash fiction and lyric essays are serial poems. Maybe this way of thinking doesn’t work for straight-up commercial narrative fiction. But even writers like Lydia Davis and Cormac McCarthy—who I think of as commercial, albeit broadly so—write texts that are exceptionally poetic and lyrical, and yet their work is categorized as fiction, and their novels are accepted and championed as novels. Math Class is both a novel and an immense spindly narrative tone poem. Whatever classification allows the work to get more into the world works for me, honestly. (Here I will swiftly lament how in my opinion there are hundreds of great books that get published every year that don’t receive the attention or readers that they deserve.)
But I digress: something that I’ve learned lately that is really interesting is something that I’ve known my whole life, but have only been thinking about in more definition lately. Time. It sounds dumb, I know, but all my life I’ve been focused on the next thing—-the next creative project or living space or relationship or book to read or album to buy. Due to the pandemic, though, as well as the fact that I’m now at a certain age (38) that invites honest appraisal and reflection, I’ve started trying to track my restlessness, in a way that I wouldn’t have thought to when I was, say, 24 or 28 or 33. The fact that, stationed within one body, we’re so many different people over the course of our lives continues to trip me out. Moving forward, my goal is to live in the present way more than I used to. No looking back or looking forward or at least trying not to do those things. “Once I tasted time I never wanted anything else” writes Eileen Myles in their recent book For Now. I don’t know what that means, but I’m in the midst of trying to find out.
Also: I’m not a huge TV watcher, but I’ve started watching the Danish political drama Borgen and I’m a huge fan. That show rules.
Both in terms of your writing and your life, where do you hope to be in five years? (Time, time, pangs of time.) And the deeper we move into the 21st century, are you hopeful, resigned, both, neither? Thanks so much again for chatting with me, Kelly. I loved Math Class.
KK: Time! In five years? I have no idea. Part of me sees me in a Mad Max car, like Furiosa but crying, driving across The New Great American Desert looking for water and blasting Lil Yachty’s “Minnesota,” utterly hopeless. Joking, but not entirely.
I’m also 38, and I think I’ve learned something similar recently. I try to save all my cheesiness and earnestness for teaching, or that’s where it comes out, but really, truly, I feel the same way. I’ve had a few big transitions (career change, finishing school, first book) while still wading through this confusing quarantine non-time. (Everyone suddenly looks so much older?) The tumultuousness of the last two years has made the present much more important to me. Who and what do I like? What makes me happy? I’ve begun to identify those things more clearly for myself, and say them, and tell people I love them—I’ve become a lot more gushy. It’s embarrassing but necessary. Because at the same time I do, to answer your other question, feel mostly resigned, futurewise, and angry for innumerable reasons, but there’s hope in present moments, in little expressions of affection, in things like this, here, writing to you.
Thank you so much for this conversation, for your support of all this thinking, for your work and advocacy, for And Yet.