Back to Issue Forty-Six


A Conversation with Jenny Molberg



Jenny Molberg is the author of Marvels of the Invisible (Tupelo Press, 2017), winner of the Berkshire Prize, Refusal: Poems (LSU Press, 2020), and The Court of No Record (LSU Press, 2023). She coedited the Unsung Masters Series collection Adelaide Crapsey: On the Life & Work of an American Master (Pleiades, 2018). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, The Missouri Review, Poetry International, Boulevard, Copper Nickel, The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets, and other publications. She is the recipient of a 2019-2020 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as scholarships and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers Conference, the C.D. Wright Conference, Longleaf Writers Conference, and Vermont Studio Center. Molberg holds a bachelor’s from Louisiana State University, an M.F.A. from American University, and a Ph.D. from the University of North Texas. She is an Associate Professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, where she directs Pleiades Press and edits Pleiades: Literature in Context.


Jenny Molberg’s poetry touches a distinct chord inside of what it means to grapple with relationships, womanhood, trauma, and existing systems of repression. You’ve maybe read Jenny’s poems and feel like you know her, or that she can deeply see you, or even that you see yourself, finally, somehow. This gift Jenny has of making everyone feel like a friend—with her North Texas charm and boundless energy, love for the process and teaching of poetry, and dirty jokes—is truly unique. Jenny is one of the smartest, kindest, and most fun yet seriously dedicated poets working today. I had the fortune to catch up with her in the middle of her book tour for her third book, The Court of No Record. We talked about her poems, the journey this book takes to speak loudly against silence, female writers who influence her work, and the kind of honesty it takes to write a persona poem that resonates with high school students and middle-aged moms alike. 


Kate Sweeney: First, thank you for taking the time to talk about The Court of No Record with me! How is the book tour going? 


Jenny Molberg: Thank you, Kate! The book tour has been splendid. A whirlwind, sometimes exhausting, but consistently exciting. It’s been particularly special to lead workshops at the Unbound Book Festival and the River Pretty Writers Retreat, where I’ve gotten to witness some transformative writing and learned a great deal from the workshop participants. The highlight of the book tour was my reading at Penn State University, where the incredible Shara McCallum hosted me and my mentor, David Keplinger, at her graduate student poetry salon. It was an intimate setting, and reading with David at his alma mater was a memory I’ll forever cherish. He was reading from his book, ICE (forthcoming from Milkweed this fall), and one of the students asked how I saw his teaching reflected in my work; this question made me cry, as I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. Not only did he teach me to be the poet I am, but he also taught me how to teach poetry with passion and compassion, and to strive to be an ethical editor and active member of the literary community. 


KS: That is incredible. It’s amazing to have these moments of perspective and to think about the impact of influence on our work. I just want to jump back for a second and talk about how this book feels like such a departure from Refusal (which I love and have pored over). You seem to have left behind the variety of forms that you were experimenting with in Refusal. Not to compare the two, because I feel like each work is its own, standalone, amazing book of poems, but I’m so interested in the moves poets make from book to book—what the body of work looks like over a lifetime. I feel like Refusal asked me to look in a lot of directions, almost to buffer the trauma of difficult content—the visual poems, epistles, the contrapuntal, the Demogorgon, Ophelia. In this new book, I’m being asked not to miss a thing. Even in the miniature re-imagining of the crime scenes, there is a lack of hiddenness in this book. Is that the way the poems came, or was that an intentional openness you were ready to bring to your work?


JM: That’s such an interesting question—thank you. When I was writing Refusal, I was in the throes of post-traumatic stress. I think personae, fixed form, and invented form allowed me to write into my own silencing and trauma with a mediated approach—something akin to the experience of self-distancing with trauma memories. I was afraid to say the thing because of physical and emotional fear, but I do think this allowed me to be inventive in my approach to form—as with the imaginary hospitals in Refusal, I had to invent a place for healing, as it didn’t exist in a safe space for me at the time. With The Court of No Record, I’ve been considering a practice of craft against silencing. The U.S. court system protects First Amendment rights; however, a longstanding bias against women and nonbinary victims of violence and an inherent pact of silence in cases of intimate partner abuse leads to a dearth of resources for victims who must prove, with hard evidence, their own personal truth. In “Arts of the Possible,” Adrienne Rich writes, “The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way—certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized people generally, but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels.”

Though poetry cannot serve as evidence in a court of law, it can break silences and change dialogues, empowering those who have suffered under the boot heel of patriarchal power. Poetry has become, for me, a practice of breaking silence to say the unsayable, both personally and politically. That comes with the difficult act of having to look at it square in the face, or, as you put it, to not miss a thing. With the crime scene poems, I wanted to challenge our cultural obsession with the violent perpetrator, and to think more about victimology instead—how can we look closer at the lives of victims, rather than the aftermath of the violence enacted upon them? To speak openly about violence is to dismantle its silencing power. The worst, in some ways, had already happened to me, so I felt emboldened to write more openly into that negative space of silencing. Also, my work in EMDR therapy allowed me to access some memories of violence while protecting myself against retraumatization. 


KS: “The practice of craft against silencing” is so powerful and speaks directly to the title of this book. The way you have laid out the sections is itself a journey of all the different “records” possible in a lifetime, an inventory almost. The first section uses memory as a container of no record, the second concept of an actual court that is litigating what we write, what we are allowed to erase, what is quite literally allowed to be a record of the time we are alive. Poetry as a written account of memory, the erasure of it, the work of art as record, and finally the bitch persona poems and the Jennifer poems that wrap up the book so beautifully in the book’s third section—a persona as an account of who we are. Can you talk a little about the title and how it’s so beautifully woven throughout the content of the poems themselves? 


JM: First, the title speaks quite literally to a real “court of no record”—that is, in some states, civil cases are heard in general sessions courts that do not retain their records. To me, that is a problem of accessibility—it literally marginalizes or silences those whose cases are heard in these courts, and if a case is appealed to a higher court, there is no record from the previous hearing. This means, too, that if a petitioner or respondent cannot afford to hire a private stenographer, there will be no record of evidence and testimony introduced in a hearing, so it’s also a problem of financial accessibility. This literal erasure is horrifying to me—it’s something I’ve learned through personal experience, and in my opinion, it embodies the active marginalization and silencing of victims constantly enacted by the U.S. justice system.

Thank you so much, Kate, for seeing how that thread is carried through the three sections of the book. I was thinking about it in similar ways to your description: in the “evidence” poems in the book’s second section, I wanted to transcribe, in a sense, evidence of abuse that will not be heard in court. I wanted to record the ways in which empathy, an act of the imagination, fails when it comes to our cultural relationship to victims on a larger scale—that is, it is the failure of an entire community of people when we obsess over the minds of violent perpetrators and participate in the active erasure of their victims’ lives. And with the “Bitch” poems, the personae poem series in the third section, like “Bitch Under a Tree Eating Wendy’s” and “Bitch Interrupts a Wedding,” I wanted to make a record of myself working through my own internalized misogyny—the feeling that I was a “bitch” when I spoke up for myself, or confronted a situation with literal facts that those in positions of power did not want to hear. This goes back to your statement about not missing a thing—that if we actually question the systems of power that proactively silence people, and look at the manipulations of language that allow those in power to enact this silencing, we shed light on the absurdity of power.


KS: It’s so powerful how you refuse to go around, but head straight through the maze of embodied poetics, challenging systems, relentlessly unearthing challenging subject matter and never turning away. And also, I love the way you bring pop culture into your poems. I know that people shy away from naming the moment in which we live, referencing Twitter or Wendy’s, as examples, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on timelessness, and why as post-contemporary poets we’re so obsessed with neutrality when it comes to the language that names what we’re immediately interacting with in our environments, in place of, say, a red-throated warbler?  


JM: Ha! I think that was my exact intention when I was writing “Bitch Interrupts a Wedding”—the patriarchal messaging that I (and many of us, I’m sure) have gotten from poetry gatekeepers that there is no place for pop culture in poetry, but there is a place for the scientific names for birds or plants. I was thinking about the privilege that comes with the pastoral—that to live in a world where a poem is only interested in naming more “universal” or “permanent” things like birds or plants is to actively ignore the way we’re wiping them off the face of this planet. Isn’t it possible, and devastating, that Wendy’s could actually last longer than the red-throated warbler? A rejection of pop culture signifies, to me, an erudite poetics interested only in what is “timeless,” a canon that actively erases what is timely: the languages, allusions, and artifacts of specific communities. I think a spicy chicken sandwich can say a lot. And, a side note: I just learned from Rick Barot in his fantastic poem, “Virginia Woolf’s Walking Stick,” (The Galleons) that the Wendy’s poem is joining a literary Wendy’s dialogue—in Barot’s poem, he mentions Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, which is wild. What is even more interesting to me is the way Barot balances Virginia Woolf and Wendy’s in a single, stunning poem.

Considering a craft against silence, I’m less interested in neutrality and more interested in the exciting writing today that resists these vague and oppressive “rules”: queer ecologies; Chen Chen’s “i love you to the moon &”; Rick Barot’s “Virginia Woolf’s Walking Stick”; Diane Seuss’s eyeliner as “war”; Nicky Beer’s “Drag Day at Dollywood,” etc.  


KS: Yes!! Jenny, yes. Brittany Rogers and Anjané Dawkins recently interviewed Toi Derricotte on the VS podcast and Toi was discussing how we, as women, are conditioned to disassociate over the course of our lives. We are always told as children to get over things, to move on, but we live inside of our own narratives and apply our situational traumas to them over the course of our lifetimes. I mentioned this to you, but to that point, can we think about poetry as a form of dissociation: a way to put this trauma into a neat little set of lines and walk away from it? Do you think poetry is yet another way we disassociate from trauma?


JM: One other thing that stood out to me in that fabulous interview was when Toi said, “you can believe two things at once.” That, as poets, we understand that two opposite things balance each other out instead of fighting each other. I also love Toi’s poem, “I give in to an old desire,” which ends with the speaker reflecting on her mother: “…She said silence // was a balm. It sat / on top of her head, something of exaltation // & wonder exploding / from the inside like // a woman in orgasm. One artificial flower // I have desired / to write about for years.” That break after “desired”! I think Toi gets at two opposing forces here that I have thought about for a long time—the “exaltation & wonder” of silence (or, in poetry, the negative space on the page), and the desire to speak what has been silenced. I think your question gets at the heart of this, too, that poetry can both be a way to dissociate from trauma and a way to excavate it, to speak it aloud. In that interview, Toi also said something about how when she finishes a book, she’s done with it. I feel that in a sense, that interrogating this trauma, for me, was a way to let go of it, to speak it and be done with it. I’m not sure that’s necessarily dissociating from trauma—in some ways, it was retraumatizing to write many of these poems—but I think the act of saying it, of writing it, is a way to disempower it and let it dissipate. I think poetry, through metaphor, through the negative space on the page, through ellipses and line breaks and image, can also capture the dissociative nature of trauma—that is, the “exaltation & wonder” of silence, while it is also the simultaneous act of the desire to say the thing, to look at it squarely in the face, and be done with it. Hopefully, a reader who sees themselves in the lines will feel some sense of recognition and release, too. 


KS: You are such a champion of women and female poets and the women in your circle that you lift and celebrate. I loved how in this book you presented the ways in which women also betray each other. The complexity of female to female violence and the intimacy of that betrayal, whether it’s in a family or over a lover, and how we are set up for that narrative as children, these kinds of issues we are conditioned not to talk about, but you dive in head first. Can you talk a little bit about that? 


JM: This is a hard question, one I’ve thought a lot about. “The intimacy of that betrayal,” as you so hauntingly put it, is so layered, and has to be addressed with compassion, I think. As the fictionalized judge says in the book, “You must understand that sometimes people are in different phases of their journey with abuse.” The judge is in a position where, for better or worse, he cannot hear the story of abuse that led to the “truth-telling” of the respondents; he must only hear evidence about the effects of the “truth-telling” on the petitioner, who has taken his victims to court. Speaking of popular culture, I think this is so evident in the Amber Heard / Johnny Depp case—we saw a massive movement of support for someone, based on his ethos as a talented actor, who was proven, in court, to be abusive (and the support continues to come from many female celebrities); simultaneously we continue to see a gendered, damaging, and even violent response to the “truth-teller,” Amber Heard. When that misogynistic response comes from women, it’s especially confusing and terrifying. We see this from women politicians working diligently to deny other women their reproductive rights. All too often, this is even more layered and intersectional, as the privileged woman enacting misogyny can also be enacting racism and classism, attempting to silence women less privileged than her. We see this in the response to the Bud Light ad, wherein terfs and transphobic trolls violently bullied a woman online, weaponizing the phrase “real woman.” We see this in an entrenched, heteronormative culture of women-on-women jealousy, slut shaming, and gaslighting. In order to try to understand this cognitive dissonance, I’ve challenged myself to unpack the ways in which patriarchal culture has influenced and affected all of us to our very core, including me, of course. The patriarchy wants us to turn against each other. This is hard for me, both emotionally and intellectually, but I’m trying to see this violence as ignorance—something that is mutable and a learning opportunity—but our culture has to shift and dialogues about this must be open if we want to see positive change. 


KS: Who are the living female-identifying poets whose work you are reading, whom you admire, and who inform your poetics?


JM: When I write, I always take a few books from my shelf and reread my favorite poems, and then place them in a circle around me as a way to remember that my poems are having a conversation with poets who have changed me and my thinking. The books that I surrounded myself with when writing The Court of No Record included: Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson; Doe by Aimée Baker; OBIT by Victoria Chang; The Country Between Us and What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir by Carolyn Forche; Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey; Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis; Good Boys by Megan Fernandes; Hot with the Bad Things by Lucia LoTempio; Renunciations by Donika Kelly; No Ruined Stone by Shara McCallum; Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, and more. Though she is no longer living, I am almost always thinking about Muriel Rukeyser. 


KS: During our talk you mentioned that your friend taught your book in his high school class and how the students got your poems. What a thrill. Your poetry is so magnetic, it seems to resonate across age groups. I love that living poets are being taught in classrooms all over the country. This gives me hope for poetry. Being that Adroit’s mission is to bring together young, emerging poets and seasoned poets, what would you like to tell those highschoolers who read your book and saw you? 


JM: First, I am truly in awe of Gen Z—my students teach me every day. So many young people seem to have a propensity towards healthy, open, and inspiring dialogue around mental health, a keen understanding of the restrictions of binary thinking, and an admirable distrust of historical whitewashing and literary censorship. One of the high school students in the class asked me why there were so many eyes in the book. This was one of those questions that surprised me—I had not been intentional about this—but their question asked me to see something in my own work. They were talking about the loss of the eye in the poem, “What the Forest Does,” which was literally written after my dog’s eye was removed. The student read this as a simultaneous loss of the “I,” and stated that the dissolution of the self created an impetus for naming the power that dissolved the self, and that the act of naming the thing was empowerment. I am so grateful for such a close and intuitive reading of a poem like that. Writing this book, I was consciously thinking about someone “watching” these poems, but I hadn’t realized that I was doing this unconscious work, which I now see serves as a larger metaphor for the male gaze; in the poem, the loss of the eye allows another kind of seeing—the survival instinct to detect a predator. I love that poems, once you put them in the world, stop belonging to you. Sharing that dialogue is my favorite part of being a poet.

This kind of recognition both saddens me, for those of such a young age to deeply understand what they called “a bravado necessary to move through the patriarchal world,” and it gives me hope, too. There’s so much I’d like to tell them, but first I want to validate their readings of the book and thus patriarchal power, and encourage them to continue to recognize, challenge, and trust their instincts. My therapist once gave me permission to judge, as in judging others’ violent behavior, which was a revelation for me, as I’d been consistently conditioned to deny my gut instinct about people or dangerous situations for fear of being judgmental. But if you judge your own instincts to be strong, and you judge your own voice to be worthy, that is a great way to embark on a journey as a writer, an artist, and a human in this world. This is the kind of judgment that I want to validate through The Court of No Record; the kind of judgment that is constantly erased from the Record. Judgment—or maybe a better word is self-trust—can actually enact empathy for others and the self when it is employed with kindness and compassion. Finally, I’d also tell them to keep creating, keep breaking silences, and keep loving themselves, just the way they are. I can’t wait to see how they change the world. 

Kate Sweeney is pursuing an MFA at Bennington College. She is a 2023 Best of the Net Finalist, a Palette Poetry prize winner, and has poems most recently appearing or forthcoming from Poet Lore, Muzzle Magazine, Northwest Review, OneArt, and other places. Kate is author of the chapbook, The Oranges Will Still Grow Without Us (Ethel).

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