10 Questions for Jenny Grassl
- By Catherine Fox
maybe we’ve got it wrong postponing fire dowsing
the stone earth for whitewater whelping green and breathe
how breathtaking the last river in estrus dried a centipede
seen from above fern fen and fringe of locust and its honey
—From “heavenly body menopausal,” Volume 60, Issue 3 (Fall 2019)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote
In second grade, I wrote my first poem. My busy father took time out to walk with me to the top of the road to see a sunset. I was impressed that this was as important as work. The first lines were, "There's one great big fire, most beautiful of all. It comes in the summer, spring, winter, and fall." My father smelled like coffee, sweat, and the heatof the colors. I was astonished when my poem was published in the local newspaper. My teacher had submitted it.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I read quite a bit of contemporary poetry, and although only a small portion of it stays with me, reading it influences my work. I love language, and some of my roots are old. I am no scholar, but I do love Shakespeare. Reconciling a love of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson expands and contracts my creaky house of poems.
Certain books live on my bed. I dip into my favorite poetry to remind me of why I write, and to check how my work sounds in their midst. The books change sometimes, but there is a core of Lucie Brock-Broido, Joan Houlihan, Sylvia Plath, Mary Jo Bang, and recently Jennifer Militello. I also look at Werner's Nomenclature of Color, by P. Syme. For a time I was fascinated with Surrealist automatic writing, including Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault.
What other professions have you worked in?
I worked for years as a visual artist, combining painting, photography, and poetry. I painted layers of automatic writing on large canvases. Following the currents of the unconscious (automatic writing) is like pursuing God, the unknowable.
All along I have worked in retail, mostly designing displays. I find it grounding.
What inspired you to write this piece?
"Heavenly Body Postmenopausal" was inspired by the convergence of two disasters, post-menopause and climate change. I finally realized menopause was only disastrous to the old self. As regards climate change, I had a moment of acceptance, like knowing you have a terminal illness and finally resting with that fact. So even though we must fight for ways to stay green, we have to accept the bigger picture that earth will return to a rock in the universe. I find an eerie beauty in this. Rock will outlast us.
The content, lines, and spaces of this poem, and in my body of work in general, suggest that the words chosen are part of a massive web of all things. White space is a matrix where things can develop. A non-hierarchical structure takes shape. This is not the patriarchal hero's journey.
Is there a city or a place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
The first question I always want to ask of vegans is: what do you have against plants?
This leads to the imagined place at the core of my work. It is a garden or forest where there is a dissolving of boundaries between the human and natural world. Like the usual garden paradise, it is a lost place where our bodies require only a fair share of resources. This place often resembles the land where my husband and I have a cabin. At the same time, I am aware of an afterimage of this paradise haunting my work, an inner place of dissolved boundaries between self and demons, as well as the terror of being at one with, say, vine, bobcat, phantom, and a society of unacceptable injustices. In a paradise with afterimage, I know, instinctively, that eating a tomato is a death in the family.
I do not read it literally, but I love the King James Version of Genesis, except for the anthropocentrism.
Is there any music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Word music. Listening to poets read, reading poems aloud. Although I don't listen to it while I write, country music, the kind with Appalachian roots, lifts or sinks me into places where I like to write.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Priorities: coffee with my husband, then first energy for writing. I write until the poem needs me to look away, or on the days I work at my job, until I have to leave. I also close the day writing in bed. A favorite daytime tradition is to write en plein air. I take a folding canvas chair and table nearly into the pumpkin vine for example.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Either my husband, who is not a poet, or my poet peer groups. Their talents of reading critically and supportively are invaluable. This community means everything.
What are you working on currently?
Poems en plein air from the land where we spend weekends. I have been thinking of the question, why save it? The earth, that is. This informs my work. I have a poem by that name. I write about my baby granddaughter, nature, and larger questions of climate change, posed in my small corner of earth.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished reading Robert MacFarlane's UNDERLAND, one of the most brilliant books I have ever read. For balance, I am reading THE OVERSTORY, by Richard Powers. Also, GHOST OF, poetry by Diana Khoi Nguyen.
JENNY GRASSL'S poems appeared most recently in the Boston Review 2018 annual poetry contest, as a runner-up prize selected by Mary Jo Bang. Her work also appears in the anthology Humanagerie, as well as Ocean State Review and Rogue Agent. Her poems are forthcoming in Rhino Poetry, Phantom Drift, and Radar Poetry.