interview: Jaclyn Dwyer
Jaclyn Dwyer is a writer based out of Tallahassee, Florida. Her poetry has been published in journals such as PANK and Ploughshares. She recently spoke to us via email.
Can you tell me a little bit about your life growing up? Where were you born?
JD: I was born in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, a town named for a meatpacking plant. I grew up in a subdivision on the fringe of suburbia and farmland. There was a golf course across the street from the subdivision that was sandwiched between a working farm and some woods that later became a park. It seemed like they were always cutting down trees, breaking through cul-de-sacs to build more homes all around us, like the world was literally expanding as we grew up.
If you could sum up your adolescence in a word, what would it be?
You have a bachelor’s in biology. How, if at all, does this inform your poetry?
JD: My background in biology informs my writing quite a lot. I’m still incredibly interested in science, particularly in the body, and I tend to gravitate toward visceral images. At the same time, I try to rein that in so the science doesn’t distract from the primary content of the poem.
I’m reminded of the poets Gottfried Benn and William Carlos Williams, both of whom were practitioners of medicine. Did you ever think about becoming a doctor?
JD: Yes, I did. I was pre-med in college and actually worked in a medical school for about a year after college. However, while I entered undergrad exhilarated by surgical shows and interested in dissection, I left disgusted by it. As I became increasingly queasy by blood and incisions, I found my way to writing.
Your poetry deals with issues of the body. Not in the way that Benn’s does, with cancer wards and cadavers, but certainly in other, sometimes equally macabre ways. You write of scoliotic bones and shucked skin. What appeal does such imagery hold for you, and to what purpose do you employ it?
JD: I’m interested not only in the body as scientific specimen, but the body as art object. I love to watch contortionists and gymnasts twist their bodies as a way of challenging the standard standing form. For that particular poem, I was most interested in sound, and so those images come not just from the violence and aesthetic of form but sound as well.
Images such as these give your poetry a sense of intensity and immediacy. One might argue that your work could be considered confessionalist, although I think your use of “you” is contrapuntal to the insular “I” of traditional confessionalist poets. It doesn’t feel like you are writing, but that a speaker, removed, is writing to some other equally foreign but ultimately identifiable individual. To that extent, you manage to harness the power of confessionalist poetry without retreading worn ground. Would you agree?
JD: I do tend to gravitate more toward using “you” in my poems in part to distance myself from my speaker in the poem. So many times when I’ve written a first person poem, readers have tried to map what they presume to be my biography onto the poem and criticized my authenticity and authority to write on various subjects. Using the second person in place of that confessional “I” gives me the immediacy and intimacy of the first person and yet also places what I feel is a comfortable distance between my speaker and myself. In this way, I think that readers come to the poem more open to its content and its possibilities.
In her 2001 essay “Getting Poetry to Confess,” Clare Pollard wrote that “to revert to a confessionalist mode now might be to reaffirm the cultural image of the ‘Mad Poetess’.” What do you think of that statement?
JD: I’m reminded of “‘Mad Girls’ Love Songs: Two Women Poets—a Professor and Graduate Student—Discuss Sylvia Plath, Angst, and the Poetics of Female Adolescence,” a discussion between Arielle Greenberg and Becca Klaver. In it they both acknowledge the trend toward condemning contemporary readers who are interested in reading or writing like Plath, but ultimately reaffirm the importance of Plath’s work and her influence on a number of contemporary female poets. The essay talks about Kim Addonizio, Danielle Pafunda, and Denise Duhamel, among others, whom Greenberg calls “reminiscent of Plath” and whom she praises as “Plathy.” Klaver refers to Olena Kalytiak Davis, Brenda Shaughnessey, and Cate Marvin as “descendants of Plath.” While I understand Pollard’s concern after being condemned as “Plathian,” I think there are bigger concerns for me. One, the term “Mad Poetess,” and two, that “mad” is a term uniquely reserved for and ascribed to women, and that when readers come to confessional poems and poets, they are reading for the life and not for the poem, a problem that may have begun with Plath.
Pollard posited that poets might be consciously avoiding the passionate and the personal for fear of being stuck with such a label. She argued that this had a negative effect on the world of poetry and the public’s interest in poetry. Do you feel that, today, this might still be true?
JD: I actually think confessionalism is still alive and thriving: just look at Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” that recently went viral. Regardless of what anyone thinks about the sociopolitical implications of the poem, it got people—a lot of people—reading and talking about poetry. Nevertheless, I think that the primary issue is that readers are interested only in confessionalist poetry, which suggests that poetry readers want fact, that they are reading poetry as some kind of nonfiction, and I wonder how many of Lockwood’s readers read with the interest of autobiography. I feel that any writers that are selecting subject matter and filtering whatever they choose to write about based on a fear of being labeled are not artists. I don’t sit around choosing, I try not to worry about what readers will think of any given poem, because that presumes that I have an audience, that any given poem will be read and reread in perpetuity. I never make those assumptions about my work. I feel incredibly blessed and sometimes stunned by what actually makes its way into the world, but at the end of the day any writer has to stand behind his or her work.
Pollard complained that critics referred to her as “Plathian” in a damning light. I would not refer to your poetry as Plathian. That said, I can imagine someone using the term “Mad Poetess” to describe you, based on your work. Not that you come across as unstable—on the contrary, you seem very much in control. In fact, the assertion in your tone is striking. Take the following lines from “Your Ex Is a Metal Pole”: Your ex shucks skin from bone. Cyber stalks. Cries rape. Begs sex. She’s a metal pole thrust through a fixed carousel pony, lips pulled back in shellacked scream. Your language is stark and violent. The words clang and vibrate with emotion, but they don’t overflow with it. Your word choice comes across as deliberate and precise. The way you rhyme “pulled back” with “shellacked” indicates that you’re not sitting there trembling with unbridled emotion. Your words punch in a calculated, composed way, which lends the impression that you, the author, are distancing yourself from the speaker. Do you strive for this effect?
JD: This poem is part of a sonnet sequence, and so these poems, in particular, are I think made more precise, composed, and restrained in some way by this form. As I was writing, I found myself overwriting to the end rhyme, then paring back, whittling away until only the stark, sharp sounds remained. Also, my attention on the end rhymes raised my awareness of internal rhymes and sounds, and the poem became kind of staccato and compressed, which creates a kind of dissonance that I think accounts for the calculated punch that you describe.
To what extent do you identify with your speakers?
JD: It depends on the poem. Some speakers I identify with in that the speaker is a woman and so am I. Others are completely invented and imagined selves, projections, and phantasms who surprise me even as I am writing about them. There is almost always some emotional kernel with which I can identify, which I need to write the poem, but I try to ground my poems in experiences far outside of myself so that the line isn’t constantly turning inward upon itself.
Your poems often address similar themes. What motivates your choice of subject matter?
JD: Some of my poems are inspired by things I see or that happen to me, some by stories people tell me, and others by news that I read. I watch a lot of crime TV, particularly the news shows. I’m interested in forensics and psychology (when I was working in the medical school, I worked in the psychology department). My husband is from New Orleans, so several times a year we make the six-hour drive across I-10. During those drives, we listen to Radiolab, and almost every trip one of the podcasts inspires a poem.
You got married recently. Congratulations! Will you tell me a little about the ceremony?
JD: Thank you! Rob and I are both Catholic and were married in a full mass at his parents’ parish. We tried really hard to incorporate as many friends as possible in the ceremony and reception. Rob majored in piano in college, so since he couldn’t play for the wedding, he arranged a Sufjan Stevens song for my processional. His cousins sang at the ceremony and Rob’s dad plays in a blues band in New Orleans, so he played “The Wedding Song” on guitar.
Do you think that, as you settle into married life, your poetry will soften or change?
JD: I’m hoping that my poetry is always changing, so, in that way, yes. I think some people expect marriage to change a woman more so than it would a man (not that this question necessariy implies that), which I think is a little unfair. Marriage was an important milestone in my life, certainly, but I don’t necessarily foresee it softening my aesthetic or fundamentally changing who I am as a writer.
Tell me about the novel you are working on.
JD: For some reason, the second person has influenced me and some of the novel is written in second person. A lot of the same themes in my poetry are present in the novel because those are subjects that interest me.
What do you aim to accomplish with fiction that you would not be able to accomplish with poetry?
JD: I don’t really see my fiction as accomplishing something my poetry can’t, or vice versa. The only real difference for me is that this novel is more narrative than my poetry tends to be (but poetry certainly could be more narrative), and that the novel simply has more words and pages to work with.
Will there be any cadavers involved?
JD: There just might be.
Interview by Sean Redmond.
Photograph by Wil Oakes.