A Conversation with Jenny Molberg
BY HEIDI SEABORN
Jenny Molberg is the author of Marvels of the Invisible (Tupelo Press, 2017), winner of the Berkshire Prize, and Refusal: Poems (LSU Press, 2020). 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 associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, where she directs Pleiades Press and edits Pleiades: Literature in Context.
Click here to read four poems from Jenny in this issue of The Adroit Journal.
Heidi Seaborn, Interviewer: Your second collection, Refusal, is an amazing book. It’s powerful. It’s painful. It’s beautifully written. You must feel so good about it. As you know, Adroit published a review of Refusal where the reviewer, Kara Dorris, describes the audacity of this collection to confront and respond to domestic abuse. In our conversation, I hope to dig deeper into the subject of domestic abuse and what it’s like to live and write through it.
Jenny Molberg, Author: Thank you so much. Yeah, it’s been strange to release a book during COVID, but I’ve gotten personal messages from people for whom the poems resonate, and for me, that’s the most fulfilling response I can imagine. There’s an added layer of publishing the work, too—the fact that the poems created a dangerous situation for me and my friend, who was also a victim to a specific situation I address in the book. We faced legal ramifications that stemmed from the poems. We had to go to court twice together, driving several hours to another city. Though it was a painful and difficult experience, to relive past abuse and hurt, I did learn a lot about the justice system in this country—the way it fails victims of abuse, and the ways in which an abuser can use the court system to continue controlling his victims.
HS: Wow. I didn’t know that.
JM: Yes, this created an additional level of anxiety surrounding the book, but the fact that it exists is empowering for me. The poems feel like reclamations of power. The work’s mere existence demystifies, or destigmatizes, much of the fear, for me personally and hopefully for readers. Silencing is such a real part of the experience of abuse and can last for years after a relationship ends. I challenged myself to refuse that silence, though it was frightening, in order to give myself the gift of courage I didn’t have.
HS: I think the whole book is about that reclamation of power and salvaging of the self. To me it feels that way. As an aside, in my first collection, Give a Girl Chaos, I have a section about an emotionally abusive marriage and resulting divorce that is based on my own experience. I tell you this because I too have lived through domestic abuse and, even long after the relationship is over, the continued gaslighting.
JM: Oh my God, Heidi, I’m so sorry. That’s similar to my experience, as well, and I feel for you so much that you dealt with that. Even after an abusive relationship, that person often still wants to have control over you. It’s amazing how much a person who’s abusive can hold on to that need…
HS: To control. To do it through the legal system is really … intense. And honestly, it’s poetry. Even when rooted in life experiences, it’s poetry.
JM: That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot with Refusal, because there seems to be a shift happening in terms of how we consider and confront the confessionalism of poetry. I often feel grateful for this particular art form: “Oh, good. I can make metaphors, and poetry is this way of creating healing out of trauma,” where the art itself can speak beyond the experience. But then I’ve had a lot of people say, “I’m so sorry you experienced this.” It’s the literal reading of a poem, to assume it’s completely autobiographical, and sometimes that purely autobiographical reading can put a person at risk for potential punishment or a threat of violence. But if we read the poems as metaphorical, perhaps based on personal experience rather than a literal retelling that we might see in creative nonfiction, could help our community of readers protect a poet.
HS: The most wonderful thing is that we can take trauma and turn it into art and imagine within that realm. We can broaden the experience to be something that anyone can read and find it resonates because they’re putting their own imagination into it. But many readers blend speaker and poet.
JM: Right. It seems to be a unique risk for poets—to conflate the author with the speaker, which is something I ask my students to be aware of—not a New Critical reading, but one that can separate the work from the biography, while letting the biography inform the reading, as when we read Plath or Sexton.
I’ve thought a lot about abuse in the reading I’ve done and therapy in terms of how it relates to a larger cultural toxic masculinity and gaslighting—the way we often see this in our homes, workplaces, and government.. I think that people—not just women, of course—who are victims of emotional, verbal or psychological or physical abuse are caught in the cycle that’s simultaneously personal and global. When we see this kind of toxicity and gaslighting working in other realms of our life, it sadly reinforces the power of that behavior. In my reading, thinking, writing, I was trying to investigate the cycle, the love bombing, and the reason why we allow ourselves to continue in that cycle.
The trick of abuse has to do with a lot of different factors, I think. It has to do with the victim feeling powerless, losing a sense of self, the repetition of behavior when someone comes back and says, “I love you. I didn’t mean that,” and the sad, cyclical belief that the person is speaking truth. For me, that cycle of belief and the proof that refuted it chipped away at my own sense of self.
Soon after the end of that relationship, I called my mom and said, “I don’t trust my own perceptions. This is a feeling I’ve never felt before.” I’m a person who is typically grounded in reality, or so I thought, and could trust my gut instincts about people, could trust that the way I perceived something was probably somewhat accurate. Then I lost all of that. I thought, “I’ve lost my mind.”
I couldn’t see things clearly. I didn’t know how to identify myself in certain situations, even social situations or relationships with family. The experience of abuse did what it intended to do, which is drive a wedge between me and my family, me and my close friends, and to alienate me from my support system. I think we self-identify with the people who support us and our place within this community. When you’re taken out of it on purpose, you start to lose grip on your essential selfhood.
That was the most important work that I did in therapy and the biggest thing I was grappling with in writing the poems. The poems are an effort to try to make something that reminded me of who I am.
HS: Yeah. I’m envious that you could root yourself in poetry because I wasn’t writing poetry through my situation. Twenty years of an extremely difficult marriage and then a previous one before, which was also abusive but in a different way. And I couldn’t write through it.
JM: I’m so sorry. I wish you had. But I’m so glad you have now.
HS: Yes. The ability to reflect on these abusive relationships through writing poetry is incredibly helpful for me in terms of thrusting that power elsewhere. It’s not gone, but it can’t hurt me anymore.
JM: That’s exactly it. Once you come to the end of one piece of writing about one part of the experience, at least you can compartmentalize it within the confines of a single poem. It’s interesting that you had previous experiences of abuse in relationships, too, because so had I. This has actually been a source of gaslighting for me—I’ve been told that because I had been abused in the past, I was imagining it in the present. I realized, though, that I wasn’t imagining abuse in the present, of course, I was recognizing it from past trauma.
Past experiences with abuse, unfortunately, equipped me with the ability to identify what could (or, most likely, would) escalate. I think, thankfully, that the experience of having a past physically abusive relationship helped me to stop the next abusive relationship before it went further.
HS: Exactly. I too had a previous relationship that was physically abusive. In my desperation to get out of it, I jumped into something that was extremely emotionally destructive. Then became trapped because I had three children and didn’t want to disrupt their lives.
JM: I’m so sorry. I’ve learned that there are so many reasons smart, strong victims are controlled into staying in toxic relationships.
HS: I know, right? But once you’ve gone through that and come out the other end and can get to a place where you can trust yourself enough to love again.
JM: Yeah. I feel that I wouldn’t take back that learning experience, because the wool has been pulled from my eyes. I see things so much more clearly, both personally and globally. I feel that I can really see our President, for example—his abusive and gaslighting tactics are actually textbook.
HS: Yeah, right. The biggest gaslighter of all time!
JM: True, once you have experienced abuse and gaslighting, read about it, and dealt with it in therapy or writing or some other outlet, then you see those hints of that behavior blow past other people because toxic masculinity has been so normalized. I’ve sometimes seen it in family dynamics, though I have a father who is supportive and kind—but toxic masculinity gets into the crevices of a lot of our familial behavior in this country.
HS: It is. You’re living this and you’re writing through it. Tell me about that experience, how to be in the middle of it? Because it took me years to put it to the page.
JM: I had been married briefly to a person who was not abusive but was controlling. I got out of that relationship and, unhealthily, jumped right into another relationship—one that became abusive. For a while, I was feeling lost because I had bought into the heteronormative idea of what a marriage should be. I had lost my innocence, and my selfhood was vulnerable, so it was easy to fall into an abusive relationship that, on its surface, seemed more exciting and fulfilling. I realized later that I had been normalizing the cycles of abuse—there’s an element of thrill to the ups and downs.
I was writing through that, and then I started to see an honesty trickling into my poems about the situation. When I go back to my notebooks during that time, I can see evidence of my lost selfhood and my suppressed anger.
I think that once I finally got out of the relationship, the writing really started to flow. Poetry had never been that cathartic or energetic; the poems seemed to fall from the sky. It was exciting but scary, too, because I thought I needed to hide this vulnerability and anger from my own work and from the outside world. I slowly realized, though, if I put the poems out into the world, I might actually reach someone who was struggling or open up a dialogue that is not happening enough.
I wavered for a while, going back to the relationship and then ending it again. During this time, I had sent the poems out to journals, so I withdrew all of them and let myself be silenced again. After a few months, I realized how bad it was, ended it, and then became very afraid. I was afraid for my life for two years, and some of that fear has never fully dissipated. I lived alone at the time—I was afraid to go to sleep or bathe and bought a security system for my house. I engaged in internal gaslighting that still resonates—the thinking that it’s over-the-top or unnecessary to feel the instinct to protect yourself. The police, when I did engage them a couple of times, didn’t do anything to help me. The systems that are supposed to support victims of abuse in this country are deeply broken.
Eventually, I realized I needed to claim my own bravery, even if it made me unsafe. I sent the poems out, and they started getting published. I started hearing from other women who had the same experience with this man or other people in their lives. The man’s then-girlfriend reached out to me to say she had read the poems and was scared, was feeling crazy, was also dealing with abuse. She told me that she identified with the experience I expressed in my poems. We ended up talking for two hours on the phone that day, and she’s now my best friend in the world. We have a lot of shared trauma that has deeply bonded us.
The abuser’s greatest fear is his victims being honest with each other and banding together. I was reading Adrienne Rich at the time, thinking about how alienation and isolation are such powerful tools and deciding not to let them rule me.
HS: Well, exactly. Because there’s that desire to completely isolate and control. And erase. In fact, I think the opening poem in Refusal, “Note,” absolutely nails that idea of being erased with the image of the origami being folded and slowly disappearing, which is how I felt when living through abuse. I just wanted to disappear, to escape. My constant fantasy was to run away, but I couldn’t because of my three wonderful children. It’s not only that your abuser wants to erase you, you want to erase yourself, too.
JM: It’s very frightening when you realize that it worked. There’s this great TED talk by Leslie Morgan Steiner, who talks about how strong, smart women are not exempt from this kind of control. The societal norm is to think of the victim of abuse as a weak person or a vulnerable person, and we forget that sometimes strength is seen by an abuser as an alluring challenge. Being able to protect and love your children throughout only makes you stronger when you’re living with abuse. I think we often have societal voices telling us we have to stay.
HS: Right and also, for me, I wanted to stay because I had kids, but I also felt the need to try and make this relationship work, like something was wrong with me. Why can’t I make a relationship work? Thinking that I was responsible for that, that it was on me.
JM: I’ve wondered about that. How it is that one person takes no responsibility and the other person is neurotically self-punishing and takes too much responsibility?
HS: Jenny, not to switch gears, as this is such an important conversation that we are having, but I want to talk to you a little bit about the poetry, too, and particularly about your use of form. I think writing in form is such a good way to write through tough stuff because you’re distracted by the form. But I see you using the form to mimic the abuse. Your use of form supports the content so well through some of the forms that you’ve chosen, like the Ghazal. I too used the Ghazal because its repetitive nature mimics the abuse, but the very application of it for this subject subverts the form’s intention. Or the daisy chain form that you invented, which is so circular in its repetition.
JM: The cycle of abuse’s repetitive nature was something I was thinking about both intentionally and subconsciously. The Ghazal’s anaphora embodies this as well as the couplets’ tendency to take leaps. I find the ghazal to be a productive form if you’re grappling with one concept that returns with different meanings or iterations. Other forms, like the abecedarian, allowed me to organize some big emotions. I also found myself inventing new forms to contain and provide structure to chaotic thought, emotion, and experience.
I tried to sit with a thought or theme or a specific experience. It was part of my self-work to say, “Pause this. Think through this. Why do you feel this way?” I think poetry made that distillation possible in a way that other forms of writing couldn’t fully achieve.
HS: It’s such a gift really to apply craft around tough topics. That process of making art out of the trauma is such an extraordinary thing, and to have the ability to get lost in the making is its own therapy.
JM: It might be obsessive, but in a good way. I co-wrote an essay with a friend who dealt with similar abuse and gaslighting. However, though the essay was true and about so much more than personal experience, my ex found out I had a publication forthcoming and threatened the journal with legal action. This is another kind of silencing I’ve experienced, and it was sad for my co-author’s story to get lost alongside it. Poems, with their metaphorical power, can be an urn to contain the fear of what writing more bare prose would risk. In my poems about the Demogorgon, for instance, the monster from Dungeons & Dragons can become signifier for a real-world experience.
HS: I like the idea of the poem as a container for emotion, so you can really feel it in different ways and explore it through metaphor and image. Then apply form to push further but also contain it.
JM: I think there’s also residual anger in those gestures, too, in a larger more literary sense, because I’ve never had a female teacher. Men have held the keys to poetry in so many ways. I remember as a young poet being complimented that my poetry wasn’t too feminine.
HS. I haven’t had that in my short poetry career, but in my previous career in business, it was all male, and that power structure of the little pats on the head and “you go girl— but don’t go too far.”
JS: Or the scrutiny on what you wear, how you appear, how you claim authority. I had an experience with an older poet who looked at me and said, “You don’t look smart. You don’t look like a poet. You don’t look like a writer. Change your appearance,” and then proceeded to sexually harass me. He wanted me to be dishonest about who I am and then also take advantage of that. In other words, what a lot of these men in positions of power are saying is, “I’m going to take away your self-identification so that I can exploit it.” I think poetry has done that for a long time. It’s a hard thing to acknowledge and deal with, but toxic structures of power in the poetry community are being challenged and must change.
HS: I’m glad you talked about personifying the monster. I also found it interesting that you used Ophelia—a character most of us would consider to be such a victim, sort of pathetic even— and gave her power. You completely reclaimed her as someone who’s got a strong voice and resurrected her from being a Hamlet castoff.
JS: I thought about typical victims in literature and wanted to reexamine them. I read a critic who said that, “Without Hamlet, Ophelia has no story.” And I thought “Let me see if I can disprove that.” I transcribed Ophelia’s lines on their own. In doing that, I realized, “This is such clear gaslighting, and Shakespeare wouldn’t be equipped to recognize that.”
These white male critics have been arguing for hundreds of years that Ophelia depends on Hamlet to have a self. To address one’s own suicidal ideations or someone else’s act of taking their own life is complicated and challenging, and I didn’t want to suggest or condemn the choice to take your own life—more so, I had dealt with those feelings myself and wanted to give Ophelia the agency to make that choice, which her character never had. Men have dictated her narrative, writing her end, taking away her authority, essentially erasing her and gaslighting her by making her unravel.
When I was a young person, I read Ophelia as someone who unravels because of love. Then I realized, there’s a man telling her “I love you. I don’t love you. I love you.” Her father, too, delivering meandering speeches of clichéd ways to live, doesn’t ever understand or appeal to female existence. I wondered what would happen if Ophelia could be in charge of her own story, that alternate narrative must travel beyond the limits of the play.
HS: It’s a really powerful sequence. I think I read somewhere that the last poem you wrote was the wonderful “Loving Ophelia Is.” Which you’ve turned into this daisy chain effect that creates its own momentum that then propels her momentum.
JM: That was one of the poems that just sort of arrived, without much editing. It was a gift from some future version of myself, I think. The only edit I made was to take the word “overbearing” in front of “husband” out and put it back in again about 10 times. Honestly, I am still concerned about seeming like a man-hater, which shows the reverberating effects of the patriarchal gaze. But I also want to recognize in these slight gestures that there are still good men in the world.
HS: I think that’s part of the whole thing. I was also interested because a lot of these poems are set in Spain, which is where I was living for a part of my abusive relationship, too. In Madrid. Spain is beautiful, but it’s a country of historic repression and a male-dominant society, so all that factors in as backdrop. I mean for me, things got operatic at that point in time. The drama just kept rising and rising and rising until finally it blew up, and everything fell apart. But it happened in Madrid.
JM: That’s wild. I’m so glad you know how it feels. It’s a huge relief to be able to share experiences and not have to explain. You’ve lived it, too. And you know that in Spain, you’re surrounded by a lot of machismo and religious, sometimes toxically masculine art. I love Spain and studied Spanish my whole life—but it’s not perfect—part of my experience there, too, was the further alienation of a language barrier.
HS: For me, the history of that place, the culture of that place, was a backdrop for living in an abusive relationship that escalated in that setting. The whole thing felt so intense. It sounds like it did for you.
JM: I had that experience in Spain. I had that experience in Ireland. I traveled to those two places during this period of time in my life. In the little spaces when I was able to get myself up and out, I would take the train to Barcelona or to Toledo, and it was beautiful. Then the oppression returned.
HS: I think the other really remarkable thing that you’ve done is to create the idea of hospitals for what really ails us. When I first read the book, I was intrigued with the concept. Then reading through it again and again, I fell in love with the notion of these hospitals. I want them to be real. And also, your galaxy of friends that end up being the healers. It’s so powerful, inviting people in. Especially because I didn’t do that. I just muscled through, pretending everything was fine. I didn’t want to share the ugliness of what was going on in my life with anyone. I think it’s so powerful that you branched out and brought people in and let them be your healers and then created these imaginary hospitals.
JM: When I was writing these poems for the most part I was living alone in Warrensburg, Missouri. My job was relatively new. I didn’t have any friends in town. I would just sit in this house that I rented and write poems. I always felt like I was sort of issuing out calls for help or support and giving that back to friends from afar when I could. The poems became an internalized conversation. To one friend I said, “This feels like a hospital, our conversation, our shared experience.”
HS: Then turning them into epistles creates that sense of literary conversation and taps into that literary tradition as well.
JM: I thought a lot about collective voice, about using “we.” I think de-centering the “I” is a way of refusing a patriarchal understanding of poetry. Because the epistles arose out of conversations with friends, in some ways it feels like we wrote those poems together.
HS: That’s wonderful. Because the abuser is trying to isolate you, to recast and recreate those networks and that sense of friendship. How were you able break out of the cage that your abuser put you in to reclaim your sense of living in the world?
JM: I think that because I had dealt with something like it before, I was able to recognize what was happening. I had this split self. I had this intellectual part of myself saying, “This is toxic. This is dangerous. Call your friends.” Then I had this other part that was trapped in that loss of agency.
In all honesty, I also had some friends who engaged in victim blaming. I learned to identify the friends who could identify the situation and help pull me out of it. The epistles are a way of saying thank you and a way of forgiving myself, letting myself off the hook, not putting so much pressure on myself to carry the weight of what I experienced alone.
HS: If you were talking with someone who was in a similar situation right now, what would you say to them to help them?
JM: That’s such a hard question to answer because there’s an element of safety at stake. I think that the most important thing is to listen to your friends and to let them know that you are a harbor of support and of safety.
I remember my therapist asked me, “Who were you at 16? Are you still that person?” I thought about how at 16, I was a sort of essential form of myself—still growing but convicted enough to have a sense of who I wanted to be. She reminded me that I am still that person. She made me write a list of everything I believed to be absolutely true about myself. This exercise became the poem “The List.” After I wrote the list, she had me cross each item out one by one. It felt both horrifying and cathartic. I thought, “No, no, no. I can’t cross that out—that’s who I am.” But, I had been committing that self-violence in my mind the whole time I was being abused and for months afterwards. I think if I were to talk to someone in a similar situation, I would try to remind them that they still contain what they love about themselves. That there is an essential you, and no one can take that away.
HS: I think you have done such amazing work to find that essential you, through poetry, therapy, friendships. If I had to do it all over again, I would not have kept my situation as my own private battle but revealed more that was going on to friends and family.
JM: Even if you have a friend who’s just checking in with no judgment, that’s actually really useful, I think. As is poetry. In fact, I wonder if poetry can be a form of restorative justice—one that keeps us relatively safer than physical engagement with a person who has abused you.
HS: Well, I think it is for those of us who’ve experienced it and then are able to write about it. I don’t know that it’s completely restorative or completely just, but it helps because it actually creates something completely new and beautiful.
JM: I think that’s so true in a world where it’s hard to find justice. Abuse or even just dangerous power dynamics are still not fully recognized or reckoned with in the legal or professional realms, but perhaps poetry comes first.
HS: I agree. We’re seeing that in Black Lives Matter and the reexamination of our history. The idea of reexamining, of looking through whether it’s our traumatic and dramatic and awful national history or our own personal history. Looking at it with a poetic eye, which forces one to dig deep, use words to sometimes talk about things that you don’t even think you have words for, right?
JM: That reminds me of the opening of Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” when she writes:
“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless-about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.”
Poetry invents a language for saying what’s unsayable. I identify with the idea that poetry gives birth to a thing, by naming it, that has been felt for years or decades or centuries.
HS: How does it feel to be in love?
JM: It feels good, and it feels safe. I think that safety is something that has been a challenge for me to trust. But it’s really nice to be in a place where I’m surprised daily that someone’s not just loving me, but that someone’s showing love—it’s an action that we work to cultivate and protect, and that’s a new, beautiful feeling for me.
HS: Yes, in a way, that’s healthy and wonderful.
JM: Yes, and communicative. I feel closer to myself again. Not because of the relationship but because of the safety of having a space where I can talk and trust. I think it’s still challenging to be in love. I mean, to trust. To not have that flight instinct when there’s conflict. But it’s very nice to have stability. Also, a friend. I feel like my partner is the first person I’ve had a romantic relationship with who was a true, dear friend. I don’t think I thought that’s what it was supposed to be before this. What about you?
HS: Yes. To me I felt … Well, you talked about your 16-year-old self. I feel that, for me, I’ve reclaimed that 16-year-old girl in so many ways. In becoming a poet after all these decades, in falling in love with a man who in every way supports that 16-year-old person who’s now in this much older body. Yeah, that ability to trust and just relax and be myself and not feel like there is danger around the corner, to no longer live in fear of moods.
JM: I love the 16-year-old self, too, because you can drive around and listen to music and sing at the top of your lungs or make a stupid joke and….
HS: You can be you. Jenny, this was so good. This was so good.
JM: I loved getting to have this conversation. I love that we really had a true connection over this shared experience. I appreciate you.
HS: Me, too. I appreciate you. This was really, really special. Thanks, and thank you for writing this book.
JM: Thank you.