Jessica Piazza is a poet focused on obsession; one whose articulate passion of poetics hinges on the early influence of her grandfather. As an amateur playwright, his work never came to full fruition. He wrote regardless; the essence of artist without the particulars of an academic support system. He passionately “art-ed” on his own: on cardstock, on grocery lists, on lessons to his granddaughter, and the sound of an old typewriter.
Intimacy, lust, and morality creep into the conversation as we delve into Piazza’s new book, Interrobang, forthcoming from Red Hen Press in August of 2013. We are squatters in the dense familiarity of beauty, fear, and passion. Her poems suggest saturation. Not in the traditional definitions of cultural worth, but rather a request to entangle our collective “hot, hot mess.” In these poems, authenticity means fear and lust, which fiercely reveal who we really are, at the same time “occlud[ing] our true selves.”
And how, according to the author, do we pursue this authenticity in real life? We have hope. A call to, “celebrate what possibilities come of our flaws and tragedies … [which] makes us human.” Also, to accept that “our human lives are dosed with terrible and wonderful both, and that both are equally important.”
Jessica Piazza is the author of two poetry collections: Interrobang (Red Hen Press, 2013) and the chapbook This is not a sky (Black Lawrence Press, 2014). Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, she’s currently a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. She is a co-founder of Bat City Review and Gold Line Press, and a contributing editor at The Offending Adam.
1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?
My grandfather, David Krane, was a Ukrainian Jew living in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. As a teenager, he used to walk over to Manhattan Beach—a pretty South Brooklyn neighborhood overlooking the water—from his crowded Brighton Beach tenement and watch the picturesque sailboats and neighborhood fisherman along Sheepshead Bay. One day, staring at the water, he swore to himself that some day he’d have a family, and that they’d live in a house overlooking that bay.
As a poor, uneducated Jew in Brooklyn in the forties, he did everything he could to achieve that dream. He became a salesman of what he called “gifts”: knickknacks and tchotchkes for the home. He was the quintessential mid-century sales guy, with his sample suitcases and his brill-creamed hair and his trips to sales conferences in Chicago. It took years, but he bought that house overlooking the water. It’s the house where my mother and sister still live.
But here’s the thing. There was another side to my grandfather. Dave was a lover of words and language, a joke teller, a talker, a huge reader of huge books. He favored biographies, histories and those novelists whose circumstances were most relatable to him: Issac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, those Jewish brothers of his from Eastern European heritage. He taught me to read when I was four, and treated every tiny, silly poem and story I tried to write like it was Pulitzer Prize worthy. And busy as he was at work, he signed up for every single continuing education class he had time for, from literature courses at Kingsborough Community College to writing groups at Brooklyn College.
He’d been through the depression, my grandfather. It wasn’t easy on our family, or anyone’s family, I guess. But as a child, I was confounded and amused by the lingering aftereffects those years left on my beloved grandfather a half a century later. I couldn’t understand why he’d take used paper home from his office, cryptic sales codes and inventory information typed on the front, and insist we use the blank backs for everything we wrote down, from his notes to my grandmother’s grocery lists to my childish drawings. He’d spend nights at the typewriter, working on assignments for his college classes, eating a quarter of a banana he’d saved from breakfast, mashed with some sour cream. A symphony would be on the record player in the background, always. I wish I could say I remembered which ones he loved, but I don’t. I just remember his face, his expression wavering between intense focus on writing or reading and dreaminess when losing himself in thought, narrative or the musical phrase.
What I also remember is this: he made me love words. My childhood was a difficult one in many, many ways. Those moments when I’m surprised I didn’t end up on drugs or in trouble, that I went to college and became a teacher and a writer…those are the moments I think of my grandfather and his influence most. And it wasn’t just that he passed on his knowledge and tastes. It was his love of the thing itself, his passion for the art and the craft, that made me who I am now.
He died when I was twelve. We were cleaning out his things, and we found a box of plays at the back of his closet. Not one play…a box of plays he’d written over the years that not a single one of us knew about. As an adult, I can look at those plays and realize they’re okay. Not great; just okay. They are clearly derivative of his favorite authors, but the voice is good and compelling. Still, that isn’t the point, is it? The craziness is that the man spent his life pursuing a dream he knew couldn’t come to public fruition. He just wrote because he loved it. He bought his family what he considered a dream home, fulfilling one life goal, only to put another on the sideline. He was the purist sort of artist, the kind I rarely meet because they aren’t often part of this crazy circle of privilege and stimulation that universities, artists’ communities, writing conferences, nonprofit organizations and small presses provide. They’re on their own, and they’re still doing it. And I know I’m so lucky to be a part of this creative world, and I know it’s what my grandfather would have loved for himself, and would be so happy I found. But there’s something so moving about the artists who go it alone.
Point is, I love Eliot, Steinbeck and Millay. Willa Cather is an inspiration and so is E.A. Robinson and so is Shakespeare and so are my wonderful friends and contemporaries, writing poems and stories that blow my mind. I like geeky fantasy novels and thick, highfalutin tomes we were all supposed to read in high school but didn’t. I like poems by old white guys and young minority chicks and some of everything in between. I’m a reader in the broadest sense.
But my favorite writer? David Krane, my grandfather. And that hasn’t changed over time. And that won’t change. In my life as a writer I will forever try to live up to the example he set for me.
2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
The first version of my answer to this question basically looked like the acknowledgments page of my forthcoming book. So, instead, if you want to know all the amazing writers who’ve helped me do better work and navigate the sort of artistic existential crises you usually only find represented on teen-angst riddled one-hour dramas, check that page out. Though, maybe I should shout out to Jill Alexander Essbaum specifically, because she has been a friend, writing partner, mentor and example to me, creatively. I mean, I have a lot of amazing peers who do immaculate and exciting work, but Jill’s the one whose rhyme and trickery and craft-joy have most influenced me directly. We all have that one poet—sometimes a friend—whose work we wish we could write. Jill’s that, for me. And the great news is it’s gone both ways…we’ve influenced each other so much over the years, we’re thinking about taking this partnership on the road, vaudeville style. (I kid. But damn, that would be epic.)
3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?
An Attempted Life of Letters: A Chronology
College: I wrote narrative free verse, to so-so effect. There were a lot of feelings. I fell in love with my poetry professor, who broke my heart. I wrote one sonnet, which was the first thing I ever published. I worked for a U.S. poet laureate. I accidentally insulted another U.S. poet laureate on the phone.
Post College Mania: I tried to keep writing free verse and kept mostly failing at it. Every time I wrote something formal, it made me happy. I hated not being part of an artist community anymore, so I took classes. I started a reading series called Speakeasy with girl I met in one of those classes, Rebecca Lindenberg. Because we started hearing and reading so many more poets, we wrote somewhat better poems. Another former U.S. poet laureate flirted with me shamelessly.
Grad School: I took a hard right turn into writing pretty much only formal poems, mostly sonnets, with intricate but barely perceptible slant rhymes. I started poems that would eventually become the seeds of my first manuscript. I co-founded a poetry journal. I heard a former U.S. talk about riding the rails as a hobo, and I told him I would very much like him to be my honorary grandfather. He seemed pleased.
More Grad School: Rhyme hit me like a slap-boxer in an elevator and I couldn’t get enough of it. I went crazy with formal poems infected with heavy internal and end rhymes. (That’s basically what my forthcoming book from Red Hen Press, Interrobang, is like.) I met some amazing writers, and I’ve been blessed to have interesting conversations with so many of them. Not surprisingly, one of those was a U.S. poet laureate. She was dope. My poems kept along the same lines, but I felt like I needed some poetic change soon, soon.
Lately: I’ve been feeling a little more loose, so the rhyme has stayed but the form has unraveled, which led to the poems in my forthcoming chapbook, This is not a sky (Black Lawrence Press). I have nothing to do with any U.S. poet laureates at the moments. But considering my trajectory….
Future: …possibly Natasha Trethewey should worry. Writing-wise, I have no idea where I’ll go next. I’ve been practicing broadening my genre range lately, so seeing some cross-genres stuff from me is a possibility, as are some straight up stories and essays.
Future Caveat: The only thing I know will stay the same is my penchant for writing in projects. Once I began writing the poems inspired by clinical phobias and clinical philias in Interrobang, I couldn’t stop. The chapbook poems are all written after famous paintings. I’m writing short stories based on old-time superstitions. I’m obsessed. And I’m obsessed with obsession.
4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
Yes. I’m a terrible traitor and I deserve admonishment. I love good poetry, it’s true. Good poetry is the very best literature in the world…nothing can touch it.
Bad poetry is the very WORST literature in the world. (See here.) And so much, so terribly much is bad. So much, also, is tolerable but not lovely. So much is talented but not exciting. There’s so much poetry out there, and even though reading bad poems isn’t actually dangerous (according to William Matthews, anyway), it isn’t fun.
Thus, my go to is often contemporary fiction, where even the bad stuff can be palatable if there’s a decent narrative to follow. The truth is, you’ll probably more often find me with a novel in my hand than a book of poems. My closet skeleton, secret shame.
5.) What are your plans for the future?
The same as every one else’s, eventually. Oh, you mean besides the morbid inevitability of dying? Ah, okay.
Then I guess: writing more poems, publishing some stories and essays, getting married in March, becoming Dr. Piazza (finally), getting a professorial job, having 2.4 kids (wait, umm), moving to the suburbs (no, actually, that’s not true at all), retiring in Florida (gah, that’s my least favorite state!), skydiving (that will never happen, despite what my fiancé wants to believe) and, and…
I don’t know. Some of those things are true. The future is unknowable and whatnot.
6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?
I am a fan of women writers…twenty years ago, a hundred years ago, and today. I wish we would support each other more, in this field and in others. Obviously I see stuff like what Vida posted about women not getting published enough in the big magazines and it pisses me off. PISSES ME OFF! Is it a coincidence? Maybe. But even if women are not purposefully and systemically kept out of the literary world because they’re women, there’s this weird fascination I’ve noticed with what I call “sensitive boy poetry” that’s been bugging me a lot. These pieces written by male poets in which the sentimental rears its head, but then gets undercut by a modern, sort-of-emo-but-still-chest-puffing masculinity. Signs of this poetry include: lots of pop culture, some shock value violence and sex peppered with swoon-worthy love lines, lots of workaday woe and Phillip Levine- and Larry Levis-style gritty-but-philosophical realism. The poetry business—as a business, as a scene—is eating that up…and frankly I’m not sure why it’s so dazzling.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s some amazing sensitive boy poetry out there. Some of my dearest friends write it and some of those poems are completely, utterly killer. I just think that there’s this weird cultural privileging of a very self-conscious sentimentality (as opposed to just straight authentic sentiment) in the poetry world right now; especially the kind delivered by straight, white males. And I know I’m rambling a bit, and I know I’m possibly not exactly answering the question, but when I’m asked about women writers it’s really hard not to point out how many people I run across who are all really surprised and/or excited if you’re a female poet and not totally wacko or hippy dippy or writing all womb poetry or something. Like that’s so rare.
Anyway, the funny thing here is that I’m not a particularly sentimental poet. I just wish we would broaden our scope. That we would look less at the poet and more at the poem—and I guess this includes not privileging female poets just because they’re female, either. I don’t know, maybe we’re all just writing for one reason, really, and I’m complaining but that’s just how men do it. I don’t fault them.
7.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?
As mentioned, Jill Alexander Essbaum. Rebecca Lindenberg (though Love, an Index got so huge I’m guessing you already have!) Elizabeth Cantwell, whose first book is dropping soon from Black Lawrence Press. Heather Aimee O’Neill, a poet, novelist, and journalist who you’ll be hearing a lot from very soon. Kelli Anne Noftle, whose first book from Omnidawn is a show-stopper. Sara Johnson: if you see a poem by her in a journal, read it.
Of course, this is just poetry. Damn, there are so many. Don’t even get me started on fiction. Or, hell, do. You can find my email easily enough if you’re really interested in recommendations.
8.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?
my name is
9.) “Melophobia / Fear of music” examines the extrication of corporeal passion in contrast to an invisibility of assimilation. We recount over cooked familiars: “They’ll tell you there are only two ways: flawed / windpipes that knock like water mains behind / thin walls or else a lovely sound like woodwinds / sanded smooth—no middle ground.” Swirling here is the creativity of a disparate manufactured product versus failure. There is fear in the middle ground, the chaos, the unknown. And so the fear persists in an ever more saturated cyclical pattern. The poem continues, “we know possible is slippery. / As my New York’s an ocean filled with steel, / yourTexas is an ocean, too, of sky. / Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like yourself. / Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like the sea.” Structures can be formulaic and normative but demand an acculturation that embodies the self within its own voice and context. How does this structure pertain to the way fear is structured and utilized to promote assimilation? How do you believe we can alternate our societal structure in ways that evocatively soften corporeal binaries and permit passion?
This is an incredibly intellectual and articulate question, and I’m sorry to say I’m going to have to meet it with a fairly simple answer: in society, as in art, we need to broaden our notions of beauty. I don’t just mean physical beauty, though this obviously tackles one aspect of the question (i.e. how fear causes people to conform physically in order to fulfill cultural ideas of worth.) I also mean that the number one hindrance to a pursuit of passion is fear, and the most significant way our society perpetuates fear is through media ideals of what we should, as successful human beings, look like, speak like and act like.
Of course, I’m also being ridiculous…I’m assuming all this in a fairly free society where most basic needs are met and violence isn’t an every day occurrence. This isn’t true for many people, abroad and at home. But there’s enough privilege and comfort in America for me to fairly say, I think, that people are stymied in the creation of art—and of a satisfactory everyday existence—by fear of what others might say if they pursued their passions authentically.
Which is a hot, hot mess.
In “Melophobia” I do try to tackle some of these issues; the idea that creating beautiful art (or a beautiful life) is always attached to the twin concepts of judgment and authenticity. Like that poem suggests, I think there are many ways to be authentic within the structures of society, even if that requires being somewhat subversive. However, also like the poem, I don’t have any easy answers on how to actually do this in real life. It’s all hard.
10.) There is extreme beauty in the inter-relational loneliness of the poem, “People Like Us”. We read, “Together, we hurt everything we touch; apart, ourselves. How do we choose?” Bodies connect in anatomical collisions that physical the participants in the relationship of a cyclical expose: “I guess some are always attracted to stains”. This extends the pain of the stain and the attraction. Here in the tide, “almost everyone is hiding,” and “all of the porn messages are the same”. Although we survive our crime, we lose arguments; a lament, a loving cup. This cyclical pattern makes it difficult to extract what it means to hide or share the self; we lose intimacy. In this poem, what does it mean to hide and what does this say about our definitions of beauty?
That’s an interesting question. I never thought about the poem as having a relationship to beauty…always more to intimacy, lust and morality.
I never really put this all together until just now, but this poem, like the one I discussed in the last question, also concerns authenticity. “People Like Us” speaks to authenticity within relationships, where “Melophobia” hinges on authenticity of the self.
And you know what? I think maybe the majority of the poems in the collection deal with this. Fear and lust are driving forces, ones that sometimes reveal who we really are deep down but sometimes, especially at the level of pathology, occlude our true selves. (Or, well, the true possibility of our best selves, which I like to think are the authentic versions.) Seeing this as an umbrella theme of the collection is actually an exciting discovery for me, because I never articulated it internally.
That being said, did I answer the question? Probably not. What does it mean to hide in the poem, huh? In this particular piece—one that follows the dramatic back-and-forth of two people in a adulterous and/or abusive and/or destructive relationship—hiding is about a few things: hiding the relationship from the world, hiding our eyes from the truth of how bad things get, and, perhaps the hardest to admit, hiding our desires that exist even when we know they shouldn’t. When we know that those desires will lead to nothing but trouble. Oh, but sometimes those are the fun ones.
Oh, but sometimes they’re not.
11.) Interrobang is comprised of poems that negotiate fear and love. In some ways these relationships are cyclical, in some transformative; in both powerful. We as readers are asked to consider the relationship of fear to love; beauty to loneliness; victimization to empowerment; lust to intimacy. In “Caligynephobia / Fear of a beautiful woman,” the poem reads, “I carry who I used to be / inside my heart, / a sleight of hurt. // The ugly girl / I was at first / lives in this fist, / my hidden trick. // Those nights when handsome / boys unstick / and exit, quick, / I wake her up // still in my clutch, /enraged. Then: punch.” Violence is possessed by the speaker melded outside of societal constraint where her language sensuously rectifies activity and empowerment. Yet this lamentful fear is adjacent to those “handsome” boys. Where does she get with this punch?
I know so many beautiful women who felt (or were considered) ugly as young girls. And many of those women turned out lovely, sometimes in a classic way and sometimes just because they grew up and owned themselves and their assets and suddenly became sexy to the greater world. I feel like this tiny poem, about just such a woman, tries to tackle a lot of business in a small space.
On the one hand, it’s definitely asserting that no matter how together, beautiful or successful someone appears on the outside, there’s often a story there—one of coming of age, usually one of pain and disillusionment—that is foundational and driving. And those stories are so often the root of our pain and of our brokenness, and of our most animalistic reactions and fears. So maybe along those lines, this poem is a cautionary tale not to take façades too literally, no matter how smooth and lovely they might seem.
On the other hand, the speaker of this poem is a girl who has been hurt. In my imagination, she was hurt and hurt and took it, because she didn’t think she had a choice and maybe she even thought it was the best she deserved. And the day she finally realized she had beauty…that’s the day she decided not to take it anymore. Whether that beauty is physical or a product of some gained confidence…it doesn’t matter, really. She doesn’t get anywhere with the punch physically, I don’t think. Symbolically, though, it’s all about fighting back. It’s about understanding that you deserve better than being treated like shit.
Still. I guess the poem admits she’s still in a position, as you point out, for men to exert power over her or elicit a violent reaction from her. So, who knows? She’s grown, sure. But she’s not done yet. Who is, really?
12.) Extending the previous question I would like you to describe how you constructed your project. There is a quote in which Gertrude Stein emits, “There is singularly nothing that makes a difference in the beginning and in the middle and in the ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking.” In this looping frame of reference our present generation establishes varying points of compelling views that address how fear, love, and intermediary processes change the relationship between the two. What does this say about our construction of these concepts? In the last poem, “What I Hold,” we listen, “I knew this damage was my own; I had been taught such fears. I knew.” Is there redemption outside of this cycle and how do you see this compelling manifestation?
There is redemption outside the cycle. I like to think there’s even redemption inside it, and everywhere. I like to think that redemption exists in spite of the damage passed on to us. But that’s almost easy. The hard part is believing that redemption exists inside the damage we’ve been taught and that we’ve been reacting to our whole lives.
In other words, I’d like to believe – and I hope my poems suggest, or, hell, insist—that even the bad stuff is hopeful. That humanity is, to some extent, the fear and the lust and the sickness, as much as it’s the joy and the celebration and the advancement. To actually celebrate what possibilities come of our flaws and tragedies…that act is what makes us human, I think. And if there’s redemption at all—which there may not be, I admit…it could all just be what it is, which is fine with me—but if it exists, it’s maybe in the acceptance that our human lives are dosed with terrible and wonderful both, and that both are equally important.
And maybe Gertrude Stein is right, here. Maybe I can say this because I live in and am from a particular point in history. One that’s experienced the rise of pop psychology and the primacy of self-analysis, one that’s spawned armchair yogis and video-game addicts, one that’s lived through only a kind-of-war…the kind that touches home through fear, though a spark and a single, isolated tragedy at a time as opposed to a daily diet of death and pain and fear. I don’t know. Maybe I can say take the good with the bad because my bad isn’t so bad. Or maybe only a person who experienced the worst kind of bad can say that and have any authority.
Whatever. I wrote about pathological fear and love because I think obsession is one of the few things that proves we’re alive and we’re human. It’s the human mind and all it’s capable of, times a million, spiraling out over and over again until it’s kind of broken. Until it tries to fix itself. Until it does or does not succeed, again and again. Which is also what we’re capable of.
Maybe the redemption is that. That we try enough times to be whole and happy, without giving up. That we can try enough times to even create a cycle in the first place.