Jessie Janeshek’s full-length collections are MADCAP (Stalking Horse Press, 2019), The Shaky Phase (Stalking Horse Press, 2017), and Invisible Mink (Iris Press, 2010). Her chapbooks include Spanish Donkey/Pear of Anguish (Grey Book Press, 2016), Rah-Rah Nostalgia (dancing girl press, 2016), Supernoir (Grey Book Press, 2017), Auto-Harlow (Shirt Pocket Press, 2018), and Channel U (Grey Book Press, 2019). She earned an MFA from Emerson College and a Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Read more at jessiejaneshek.net.
Allison Pitinii Davis: In his review, James Diaz writes, “Much of contemporary poetry takes a walk on the mild side. Even what we would consider edgy dangerous verse most often has a mattress man waiting down below the jump line. But parachutes and safety protocols bore the living hell out of Janeshek’s characters.” I found the lack of sentimentality and vulnerability in these poems so needed—the language isn’t forced to serve morality and thus retains its spark and integrity. Do you think of your work as pushing against this age of more autobiographical, “heartfelt” poetry? Are there projects that you feel your work is in conversation with?
Jessie Janeshek: Thank you! I hope my work reads as amoral. My poems provide a space for me to explore what interests me as an artist, and most of what interests me as an artist is dark human behavior—particularly the treatment of women—examined with a dark sense of humor, so I certainly hope they’re not read as having some moral “message.” I don’t think morality necessarily has a place in art; I don’t think art needs to “teach us a lesson” to be valuable, and I don’t think the merits of art should be based on the life of the artist. I also know that’s a very unpopular opinion today. At least weekly I see a tweet or a Facebook post about how “we” shouldn’t consume a person’s art because of the life they lived or are living or how “we” shouldn’t consume a person’s art because of “questionable morals” within the content of the art. And these are progressive people saying these things! I understand where people are coming from and that they are usually well-intentioned; however, I also think judging the merits of a creative work on the morality of its creator or its content may take us into dangerous territory toward a reverse censorship of sorts. I think it’s fine and often necessary for a person to choose not to read a certain writer because of their own personal beliefs or moral code, but I don’t get this movement of telling the whole “community” not to do so. It amazes me how many people seem to be up on moral high horses these days. It’s strange and also rather frightening.
I write poetry because it’s the genre that seems to work best for what I want to say mostly because of poetry’s space for ambiguities and flexibilities; however, I dislike a lot of “poetic” poetry. (So, I guess that means I dislike a lot of poetry?) Though I appreciate Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” and share it with my workshop students, I am, of course, coming to poetry from a much different place than Lorde was. Writing poetry feels like an indulgent, gratuitous, Romantic act, at least for me, in that I’m lucky to live a life that gives me time to do it. (I would be creating something no matter what I was doing with my life; I’m talking about the luxury of being in academia and having a lifestyle that gives me time and space to hone my craft, publish, etc.) Because I see the time and space to write poetry as a luxury, it kills me when people have to clutter poetry up with “pretty” language that’s trying too hard. Like, poetry as a genre is already trying pretty hard. I definitely wrote “prettier” poems when I was younger, and I cringe reading those poems now. So, I suppose I do consciously avoid anything particularly artificial or precious sounding in my work because I find it grating in others’ work.
As for projects my work is in conversation with, there are a number of contemporary poets whose work I really admire (Sandra Simonds, Karyna McGlynn, Simone Muench, Danielle Pafunda, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Brenda Hillman, Michael Sikkema, Kenning Jean-Paul García, Jennifer Martelli for starters), but I can’t say I really see my work talking to theirs. I just like what they’re doing, and they’re all doing vastly different things. I feel more of a kinship to singer-songwriters and how their projects evolve from album to album, probably because I listen to music fairly constantly and definitely do so more than I read, although I try to read a lot. I tell people that Bob Dylan taught me how to write because he did. I listened to him incessantly in high school and college and still do quite a bit now; although Desire is my favorite album and Blood on the Tracks is second, I have this great memory of driving my dad’s red Ford Escort and playing Highway 61 Revisited on cassette constantly. Remember auto-reverse? In my 30s, I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from Jenny Lewis and Neko Case. I wouldn’t have called Lana Del Rey an inspiration in the past (although thinking about it now I’m not sure why since we’re actually doing similar things with ideas of stardom and gender), but I found her latest album Norman Fucking Rockwell influential because the personal/artistic mythology she’d been working through in her past four records really coalesced in NFR. All the stuff she’s been trying to do finally clicked, and the songs layer on top of one another symphonically and thematically with a lot of reverberating lines and imagery. I like all her records but this one is by far the most cohesive and most authentic. I listened to this album for a couple weeks straight trying to figure out what it was about it that kept me so interested and, while doing this, I realized the poems in MADCAP are succeeding similarly to her songs in the ways they work together and against each other; I also realized that a lot of stuff I’ve been exploring since about 2006 finally came together pretty well in this book.
APD: Here’s part two of that question—what I really want to know is if West Virginia and the Rust Belt have any influence on the tone? I recognize the cynicism, the insolence, and the skepticism as the sort of cultural Rust Belt attitude I grew with across the river in northeast Ohio. I think of Jack Gilbert calling for the erotic “Not as/pleasure but a way to get to something darker” in “A Taste for Grit and Whatever.” I also think of a talk I had with Youngstown-born poet Rochelle Hurt about edgy Rust Belt work and she came up with the phrase “experimental trash.” I love the thought of merging the sort of trashiness/class consciousness of home with high experimental poetics, and I felt like these madcap starlets are as much Rust Belt as Hollywood. Am I reading into that? Did West Virginia influence the collection in other ways?
JJ: Yes, WV and the Rust Belt have definitely influenced MADCAP. I was born in 1980 and grew up the daughter of a steel worker in Weirton, WV. My dad worked at Weirton Steel for more than 40 years and made a very good living; he was of that last generation that got into the mill at a time when a steelworking job could support a family, and, though the mill got bought out and much of it was shut down, he was able to work there until his retirement. I grew up with the mill and the Ohio River as a literal backdrop to life. My grandparents’ house has a view across the river of Toronto, OH, and, as a kid, I used to look across with binoculars and watch the cars.
As is often the case, I really didn’t understand or appreciate where I came from until I left, first living in London and Oxford for a full year in college, then living in Boston for two years, then living in Knoxville for six years. Although it was never my goal, I ended up getting a job only about 18 miles south of the house I grew up in, moving back up here from Tennessee, and that’s where I am now. I wasn’t particularly interested in northern West Virginia or identifying as a West Virginian or writing about West Virginia in my poetry until living away from WV enabled me to better frame my identity as someone from here. Even though I had a not terrible childhood and am close with my parents today, Weirton is kind of dirty and dark in my memories (do you know that Simon and Garfunkel song “My Little Town”?); when I think of it, I see overcast skies, slag heaps, and filthy snow even though there were plenty of warm, sunny days and pretty porches and birthday parties and stuff. But the things I like about Weirton, and the northern panhandle more broadly, are the seedy things: wood-paneled bars that used to serve Zima to kids from my high school, locally-owned restaurants with sort of a dead grandparents’ house interior decor, smoke-filled “cafes” (“café” or “café and more” is code for an establishment that has computerized gambling…one time my friend from out of town marveled at how many “nice coffee shops” we had and “Could we go in one?”), rusty playgrounds and overgrown ball fields, and all the weird neighborhoods hidden in the hillsides. I gravitate toward underbellies and like the run-down strangeness of it all; I guess that’s why I have a taste for film noir.
Even with this greater appreciation of the region, though, I still wouldn’t say I’m “trying” to write about WV; it’s more that I’m sort of immediately impressionable and weave wherever I physically am into my writing. So, while I’m living in rural WV and taking long walks on beat-up roads; deer, and foxes, and dead deer, and dead foxes, and weird men in pickup trucks asking “do you need a ride?”, and crushed beer cans and empty cigarettes packs by the creek, and gunshots, and running into hunters alone in the woods (always fun when that happens) are all going to pervade the work.
Also, I do think my experience growing up in this region may have been unusual; it wasn’t until adulthood that I realized how distrustful of art and education a lot of people around here are. Neither of my parents finished college, but my dad is a big reader of all types of writing and my mom has always had pretty offbeat, artistic taste in music, television, and film. My maternal grandfather was a voracious reader who worked as a journalist and then became the Director of Public Relations at Weirton Steel. My grandfather also wrote poetry, short stories, and plays for pleasure; I have an enormous binder full of his work. So, I was always encouraged to read, watch, and listen to “weird stuff” by my family, and I was never discouraged from becoming a writer and was never told that such a thing would be ridiculous. Now I think choosing to become a writer was kind of ridiculous, but my family has always had faith in me.
APD: The voice is a total tour de force—it’s both “pitch-perfect,” as Joseph P. O’Brien writes in their review, and it’s also just unstoppable. There is the influence of the fast-paced dialogue of film noir and screwball comedies, but there is also something quieter, longer, rawer—“the library non-light that fills me with dread” (“Madcap/Kitten Flick,”134). Can you talk about the project of the voice? So much of the voice is paced by caesuras and line breaks rather than punctuation—how did the formal decisions impact or help sustain its momentum?
JJ: Thank you. I could lie and come up with some fancy answer here, but one of the best things about being done with graduate school is not having to do that anymore unless I feel like it. I try to keep the voice consistent in an individual poem (unless the poem benefits from a shift in voice[s], which is often the case), but I don’t worry about voice in a macro sense as in how a voice operates in an entire series or collection. I used to, but I’m kind of over that. It feels kind of fakey to do so? I write in the voice(s) I hear and punctuate and arrange the poems on the page in the way I hope they’ll be read. I’m not a spiritual person, but the closest I get to being any sort of medium is when I’m “listening” to that part of my brain that’s talking poetry and writing it down. When I make a conscious decision to start writing, that part of my brain usually just starts chattering. A lot of it is dross, but some of it’s good, and I get it down and then shape it while editing. As for the “longer, rawer” quality, I mean, yeah, I’m pretty (usually functionally) depressed, and writing helps explore and depict those feelings in a stable way that can sometimes be artful, but I’m also usually able to find humor in it, so I hope that comes through as well.
APD: I was excited about the marriage of gender politics and aggressive word/rhyme play throughout. There are too many examples—some of my favorites are “They say exit the abortion and civilize your rivals/ live until the 70s in a wood-paneled hotel/in Milwaukee lighting candles” (“Strange Interlude,” 102) and “I have been patronized/now I want to get paid” (“Madcap/We Touch Base as Harlots,” 96) and “I was the new kind of blonde/ appetitive longlegged automaton” (“Bad Bridge, Devil Red Rumble Seat,” 63). And the ending of “Madcap/Big Shiny” that alludes to William Carlos Williams: “how pink ice can kill you/outside the warm restaurant/lined with dead chickens” (93). Can you talk more about the relationship of politics, gender, and form—is there a formal politics implicit in the rhymes, the lack of punctuation, the multiplicities, and the linguistic acrobatics?
JJ: To expand upon what I said in question #1, I like using non-poetic and even “ugly” language and imagery. To expand upon what I said in question #2, I like creating cold, perhaps sort of seedy settings. I also like writing poems that don’t end in a “comforting” way. I remember a chapbook I wrote in graduate school and how one of the other writers in the class commented that “there’s no release or closure at the end” like that was a bad thing, but I was like, “Oh, ok, cool.”
My poetry has always been led by language. I have fun putting language together. In my MFA program at Emerson, I got a lot of feedback that my poems had “beautiful music” but no one knew what the heck was going on (they usually said it more nicely than that, but I got the message.) Reading some of those earlier efforts now, I almost wonder if there was something wrong with part of my brain (although I wonder this when I think about a lot of past decisions on and off the page. I definitely wasn’t eating enough in my 20s). Something I have consciously attempted to do with my work as it has evolved is to maintain the unique (I guess) ways I use language while also filling out the narrative aspects of the poems. I would not call myself a narrative poet by any means, but I think my more mature poems can sort of layer into a cohesive story or stories when read in bulk.
So, I’m not working with any sort of consistent, conscious plan or manifesto when it comes to formal politics although I think part of what’s behind the verbal aggression in MADCAP is to write in the persona of a shimmery starlet with the mouth of a sailor because ugly language and profane language are (still) considered unfeminine and improper. Profanity and/or crass language can be useful to jar the reader especially since a lot of these words have their roots in insults against women (bitch, pussy, douche, cunt, etc.). It amazes me how bent out of shape people get about “bad words” while at the same time not realizing how sexist and pro-male much profanity is.
A lot of the filthy screwball feel of MADCAP comes directly from the queen of screwball herself, Carole Lombard, whom I channel in a number of the poems such as in this excerpt from “Screwball in Brownville”:
You ask me what I’m into
and I pull up my tight skirt
you ask me if I’m dirty
a virgin playing possum
who had to learn blue talk
Behind the scenes of her films, Lombard’s beautiful mouth was often spouting swear words, but she didn’t really swear much until she got into the business, wanted to hold her own verbally with men, and realized that swearing gave her street cred, hence “a virgin playing possum/who had to learn blue talk.”
APD: One of my favorite parts of the collection are the titles. In addition to being divided into the sections “The Close-Up” and “The Long Shot,” the book has many running series—the Madcap poems, the House of Wax poems, etc. Can you talk more about these groupings and the function of the forward slash that appears in many of the titles?
JJ: So, to address the groupings or series, I’m going to quote Charles Simic in an interview with Stephen Ratiner. This is a quotation I used in my dissertation all those years ago, but it’s still the first thing that comes to mind when anyone asks me a question like this:
“A lot of times, notebook entries over a period of time all circle some unspoken core. And then it takes a while to open up and see what you’ve really been after. I have a belief that things that come out of oneself at a given time are all related in some way. The poet is like a fortune-teller who looks into a cup of coffee, the grounds in the bottom of the cup, and sees images, sees through to what he’s after, what these things are about. So you discover your subject, your experience—rather than coming at the poem with these things already worked out…”
I usually write poems in clusters when I’m obsessing over a certain idea, phrase, image, and/or, etc. to “see through to what [I’m after].” Sometimes I’ll circle something(s) for a couple poems, sometimes for 20 or 30 poems, which is how my chapbooks all happened. I really went to town with this clustery stuff in MADCAP; I think it was because I was writing parts of the book in different geographical areas, home in West Virginia, but also in Nebraska, Arkansas, and Georgia during artist’s residencies during my sabbatical. The poems were separated by their geographies but somewhat united thematically.
As for the slashes in titles, sometimes I use them to indicate that a poem is part of a series (i.e. the “House of Wax” and “Madcap” poems), and sometimes I use them to indicate that there are two or more different spirits or feels to the poem and/or to indicate thematic tensions of the poems that are working against each other (“Messy Wife/Messy Life/Daily Motion”).
I will note that three writers (Nate Logan and Danielle Pafunda, both of whom blurbed the book, and Misty Krueger, who reviewed the book on her blog) all independently used the idea of “two sides of a coin” to discuss the poems. I found it surprising that they all used this concept to talk about my work, and I think it might be coming from the two sections (“The Close-Up” and “The Long Shot”) and also the slash titles. As Krueger writes, “MADCAP has a fascinating use of the / in titles and lines to build a relationship between images and force reflection, not exactly by providing a mirror, but perhaps a janus-faced coin that we must flip.”
APD: At your reading that I was lucky enough to attend, you talked about how Invisible Mink, The Shaky Phase, and MADCAP form an unintentional trilogy. In what ways are they speaking to each other, and in what ways do you hesitate to group them? What advice do you have for those of us who also sense that our projects aren’t book-length but trilogy-length?
JJ: Thanks again for attending the reading! All three books—and basically all my work—probe the connections among sex, power, and violence and explore how sex, power, and violence shape our culture’s complicated relationship with women. In my work, sure there are some men, but more importantly there are women: women watching women on the screen off the screen, within the poems and without the poems.
When you line the three books up and look at the covers, it’s pretty triptych-y: Mink is Knoxville-based painter Cynthia Markert’s haunting flappers, one staring at you boldly; The Shaky Phase is a still of Amy Davis playing a girl named London in Jon Moritsugu’s 1994 movie Mod Fuck Explosion; and MADCAP is this amazing still of Clara Bow, my favorite “sad-eyed flapper.” (Thank you to Beto Cumming for the Mink cover design and to James Reich for designing the covers of The Shaky Phase and MADCAP). In his blurb for MADCAP, William Lessard writes, “…Janeshek brings the subversion of Cindy Sherman to contemporary poetry, using classic Hollywood tropes and other Pop material to comment on gender and the mediated performance of self.” James Reich, my editor at Stalking Horse Press, picked up on the Cindy Sherman connection as well. James knows Jon Moritsugu and Amy Davis and chose the still in part because he felt like Amy’s character London looked a bit like me (so the Sherman-esque-ness), which I loved because this seemed emblematic of the blurring of cultural nostalgia and personal nostalgia; and the blending of autobiography, biography, and filmography in my work. It also seemed especially appropriate that London is dressed in a glittery dress, alone in a bedroom, with her hand on the TV, so, relatable.
Invisible Mink was me figuring out what I wanted to write about and doing so through lenses of old Hollywood. It was pretty dependent on knowledge of the particular films with which I was engaging, although people said they liked it even if they hadn’t seen the movies. They may have been lying. In The Shaky Phase, I consciously tried to back away from so much explicit movie-ness although I didn’t leave film completely, and the book still has cinematic qualities. I wouldn’t say it’s confessional or autobiographical (that might be alarming), but the poems do explore my life in a shielded, coded way. With MADCAP, I decided to head back to old Hollywood but also write as myself (I’m not sure if “writing as myself” is a progression or a regression); another way to think about MADCAP is as a book that (hopefully) takes the best components of the first two books and combines them successfully, to kind of go back to what I was talking about with why I think Lana Del Rey’s latest album is successful.
Where it comes to advice to writers who see their projects extending past one book, I would say to trust your obsessions and see them through until you feel like you’ve written your way out of them. If you can’t stop thinking about something, just keep writing about it and don’t worry. I mean, who cares? If it gets to the point where you’ve overdone your ideas or exhausted them, you can always dial them back in editing.
The only hesitation I have about grouping Invisible Mink, The Shaky Phase, and MADCAP as a trilogy would be that I wrote these books over the course of about 13 years, and if you finish a big project like that, it’s kind of scary to think what’s next? Which leads us to the last question!
APD: Which is, what are you working on now? What new publications do you have coming out? Who are you reading?
JJ: My chapbook Channel U recently came out from the wonderful Grey Book Press run by Scott Sweeney, who has been marvelously supportive of what I do. It is my third chapbook with Grey Book. Channel U (the title refers to Channel U on old televisions; I had one growing up) is about the patriarchy, power dynamics, media static, the late-night ’50s TV horror hostess Vampira—you know, the usual stuff, and great for Valentine’s Day—but I wrote those poems a couple years ago.
As for what I’m currently working on, I don’t know. I mean I’m always writing poems, but sometimes it takes a while to see what they’re saying and how they’re all going to pan out. I have probably close to 100 poems I’ve written since I finished MADCAP in early 2018, and I’m certainly seeing some groupings and such, but I don’t completely know how/if they’re working together yet. I actually hate the process of putting together a manuscript; I find it extremely nerve-wracking and unpleasant. But I imagine there’s something in those newer poems that I can use, and I imagine I’ll eventually make myself put them together.
I will also say, because maybe someone reading this feels the same way, that in our “digital age,” I feel constantly pressured to write more, submit more, publish more, etc., because it seems like everyone is doing so much so fast, and it stresses me out. I try to resist that urge and take my time. It’s tough though. Everything seems so forgettable and disposable these days; sometimes it seems impossible to make something lasting. I should stay off the internet, but I have a stupid sense of humor, and the pull of meme culture is strong.
I generally read mostly poetry and nonfiction (books on Hollywood and books on true crime), but I’ve been reading novels for some reason, moving among Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep, Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, and Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth depending on how literary I’m feeling. I’m also rereading Daisy Miller and The Sun Also Rises and reading Charles Brockton Brown’s Wieland, all sort of here and there to fall asleep. Not that they’re boring, just…relaxing, I guess. Not exactly page turners. I just finished Misty Krueger’s memoir The Roller Coaster: A Breast Cancer Story, which was excellent. (Misty is a UTK English Ph.D. as well as a Jane Austen scholar.) I also read a lot of work emails and the 90 Day Fiancé subreddit.
APD: Thank you, Jessie! And thank you for MADCAP!