A Conversation with Jenny Irish

Jenny Irish is from Maine and lives in Arizona where she is an Associate Professor at ASU. She is the author of the hybrid collections Common Ancestor (Black Lawrence Press, 2017) and Tooth Box (Spuyten Duyvil, 2021), the short story collection I Am Faithful (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), and the chapbooks would-be future-humans (Ethel, 2022) and Lupine (Black Lawrence, 2023). She facilitates free community workshops every summer.

In Irish’s poetry chapbook Lupine, we come face to face with fear. Through a series of dramatic monologues and prose poems, we hear from mythological, “monstrous” figures such as the harpy and the witch. As one speaker tells us, “Like all monsters, I had a mother…”

Another one proclaims, “Dear whole hand, dear heartbroke hunter, dear hamstrung hope. / I am part dog, part wolf, all dead. / I might have wanted a life too.”

In Irish’s deft hands, we encounter monsters we cannot look away from and instead turn to — to hear their stories, their ferocious truths.


Susan Nguyen: One of the first poems in Lupine is titled “A Brief History of Motivations,” in which you write, “Today, we know the mind seeks the structure of narratives. From shadows, we make stories.” 

What were your motivations for writing the poems in this chapbook? Did you go into this manuscript knowing you wanted to write about monstrous and mythical figures, or did you discover that along the way? At what point did you realize you had a “project” book?

Jenny Irish: “A Brief History of Motivations” is the first piece in Lupine that I wrote. I knew that I wanted to engage with the danger that I see as being inherent to fear. We’re living, I believe, in a time when everyone is horribly afraid. The planet is dying in front us. Bodily autonomy is under vicious attack. I think we need to admit that — to ourselves, to our families, to our friends, to our communities, to our political bodies — and that we need to think truly and deeply about fear and how destructive a motivator it is. History gives plentiful examples of fear yoked to inhumane action. In Lupine, one of things I’ve tried to do is turn to the past, to stories of the monstrous and maligned figures inhabiting them, and use that to speak of the contemporary.

In terms of planning, I never do! I’ve had such joy working with other writers who beautifully map out their intents with great specificity and then create these amazing, organized, tidy drafts. I admire it! I think that kind of planning aligns best with more linear, plot-driven work. For me, there’s a seed and maybe it sprouts. I don’t really know what’s growing until it starts to bloom or fruit. If I sit down to write something particular, it doesn’t turn out. That said, I think all my books are “project books.” I don’t know how readers will experience Lupine, but I know that while writing it, there was a loose, associative narrative in my mind.

SN: Speaking of form, this collection contains prose poems and dramatic monologues. What did these forms enable you to do that other forms could not? Were there any times it felt limiting, and if so, how did you deal with that?

JI: There’s so much possibility in the form that I’ve never felt limited. The dramatic monologue, for me, is a compressed narrative that works with the intentions of both capturing the voice of its speaker, and through that, giving voice to its speaker. I’m really interested in sound and breath, and the effect of line length. Blocks of prose draw particular attention to each line and the movement from opening to end, as well as the “density” of the block. I love the permeable boundaries between fiction and poetry that feel encouraged by the neither-here-nor-there quality of “prose poetry.”

SN: I like to think that my poems are smarter than me. Oftentimes when I write a poem, I don’t always know the full extent of the ways in which it is engaging with larger themes in my work, or asking questions that I’m not aware of until long after I step away. When I’m “done” writing a poem, it still has more to teach me. What did writing these poems teach you?

JI: What a great question. Writing is always teaching me about patience. Everyone works differently, but I need to return to things over and over again. Sometimes I need to start fresh. I have habits, temptations in my work, that writing is teaching me to better see and consider.

I do think that writing Lupine also made me think more deeply about the link between discovery and violence. The mythologies of how species become extinct have always struck me. John James Audubon, who I’d always thought of as a conservationist, would regularly, according to accounts, kill hundreds and hundreds of birds a trip even if a dozen would have been enough. He wanted to make a visual record of every bird in North America, and how he went about that was by collecting specimens, and how he collected specimens was generally by shooting the thing he wanted a better look at. That’s been a pervasive attitude, kill it, with both unfamiliar things and things that we admire. That really influenced me in “Sea Serpent” and “Unicorn.” Looking back, I hope “Ethical Concerns” is doing work in that massive, confused tangle of appreciation and desecration.

SN:  What books, art, people, landscapes, rituals, and beyond did you turn to when working on Lupine? What did your research process look like?

JI: Rituals! I write by hand! And I write on everything: paper scraps, margins…I lose things! But that’s okay. If it’s important, it’ll come back. I do have a notebook for each project, and I do change pens when I change projects. I wrote most of Lupine in olive green ink in a pink notebook, and now I have a leopard notebook and ice blue ink. No more olive green! That’s a ritual, I realize.

In terms of research, I do read a lot of different things. I often go pretty deep down the rabbit hole and wander around the warren. I read a whole beautiful book about stone wall construction in New England that felt helpful for Lupine, but that material doesn’t actually show up anywhere. In complete honesty, I think 90% of what I know, or end up wanting to learn more about, starts with PBS.

I don’t think I am achieving the same things, or necessarily trying to, but Ai’s work is really valuable to me, as is Alison Benis White’s, Jenny Boully’s, Lily Hoang’s, and Julia Leigh’s.

SN:  In what ways does obsession come into play (or not) in your writing?

JI: There are things, events, images, stories, that I feel deeply invested in and will attempt to research or learn more about. Often, I’ve imagined that these are things I’ll write about, but it’s never actually happened. Or, it hasn’t happened in the way I thought it might. I end up two steps to the left or right rather than directly in front of the thing. It’s like having a crush: I can’t look at it dead-on.

SN: In one of my favorite poems, “Stone,” you write, “To be unheard is to be haunted, the ghost in your own house, the house the body, the body the grave, the grave the ghost, the ghost the absence, and we are back at the beginning again: imagine the ghosts.” What is the relationship between your poems and absence?

JI: Though I don’t think I actually write like them at all, my most beloved authors all work with absence. I love a novella, with its narrow, little spine, that doesn’t need to put everything on the page to be felt, to be understood.

Truths are resistant to being told easily! For me, I think that I can sketch their boundaries, but they’re too big for the way I write, too complex to capture on the page and say: here.

That would be a disservice. An assemblage of factors feels more honest to me. An assemblage of factors feels within my capacity.

SN: I read your wonderful collection Tooth Box, which came out at the end of 2021. That collection also struck me because of its vivid imagery and its themes of girlhood, especially as marked by violence. How do you see Lupine being in conversation with Tooth Box or any of your previous collections? In what ways is it a departure?

JI: First, thank you! I don’t think many people read Tooth Box. Thank you for giving it your time and the kind words.

Being a girl, and by extension, a woman, are experiences frequently shaped by violence. I’m mindful to qualify a lot of what I’m saying with I think, or, for me because I understand we all live very individual experiences, and I want to be respectful of that, but in this particular situation, I don’t think I really need to qualify.

All of my writing has some connection with class and cycles of violence. I have the possibility of a more financially stable life than either of my parents, but to really achieve it, to be stable and secure, I have to pay off all the student debt I’ve accrued. Without a dramatic event, I think class is a very hard position to alter, and in my experience, both lived and witnessed, addiction and familial violence are connected with being trapped in unstable positions. It contributes to a sense of fatalism. Tooth Box is steeped in that attitude, the effort to live differently, and the realities that challenge that.

Though I think there’s some overlap of concerns, Lupine may be a formal departure. Most of the pieces are dramatic monologues, which necessitates a range of voices, thoughts, and attitudes of different speakers.

SN: What are you currently working on?

JI: What a nice question. Thank you, Susan! I’m never working on one thing. There are always a few things underway, at different stages. I’m working on something about grief, superstition, and power that is informed by historical werewolf mythology. There was a lot of reading and learning for what I thought Lupine might be, which has ended up being part of this different project. I’m also really excited to be working on a collection about an artificial womb that gains sentience with Northwestern University Press. It’s written, but I know I’ll be returning to it before it becomes a book in the world.


Susan Nguyen

Susan Nguyen’s debut poetry collection Dear Diaspora won the 2020 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, a New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Association of Asian American Studies, and was a finalist for the Julie Suk Award. Her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net and a Pushcart Prize and have appeared or are forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day series, The American Poetry Review, The Rumpus, Tin House, Diagram, and elsewhere.

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