Interview with Jessica Bozek, Author of The Tales
Interview by Kallie Falandays
What got you started on writing The Tales?
I was already thinking about many of the ideas in the book because of the research I’d been doing for a writing seminar called Reading Disaster that I taught for a few years. Shortly after I read a news article titled “Special Forces Carry Weapons, Words” (or that may be my own summary of the article—I can’t remember at this point), I had a text message exchange that grew into a story in my head and created an initial image-home for these ideas. In my text message, I wrote something about a soldier telling his targets bedtime stories to lull them to sleep before an attack. The first poem I wrote (eventually titled “The Revisionist Historian’s Tale”) imagined the content of these stories.
Your book goes from first person in the Lone Survivor's tales to third person in most other tales. Are these poems speaking to each other, in a way? How did you decide to organize the book?
I think that the poems talk around each other, more concerned to articulate their own perspectives and not necessarily aware of the other perspectives being articulated. I just watched Sarah Polley’s wonderful documentary Stories We Tell, which discerns how we put ourselves at the center of every story, to the point that it’s hard to imagine other perspectives. About two-thirds of the way through the film, the audience receives confirmation that the scenes of Polley’s mother and young family are dramatic recreations (I’ve since learned that about half of these scenes are actual historical footage, so the recreations were matched to this footage). We see Polley directing the actress who plays her mother, trying to make some sense of her family’s past, and suddenly, narrative and perspective feel like things that can only get murkier, if we’re really being honest with ourselves. Clarity can’t be Polley’s project anymore. The Tales also attempts to acknowledge the limitations of perspective and to include as many as I could think up. I wanted the Lone Survivor to say the most, though, since he was the imaginative center of the project for me.
How long did it take you to write The Tales, and how long did it take for The Tales to get picked up?
I write really slowly. I wrote most of these pieces over three years, then revised and arranged for six months. I finished the version I ended up sending out just before I had a baby, in the spring of 2012, nearly four years after that embryonic text message. A few months later, after we had some consistent childcare, I was able to think carefully about where I wanted to send the manuscript. That September I sent it to four presses/contests, and got the call from Teresa Carmody of Les Figues in December. In the interim, my mother died from the cancer that had been under such good control just before the baby was born, I was working again, and I was caring for an infant. So, the good news came as a surprise during an emotionally and logistically complicated time, when I hadn’t been able to think about sending the manuscript anywhere else.
What were you reading and/or watching when you wrote The Tales?
In so many ways, this book is a product of what I was reading, watching, hearing—both on my own and for the class I was teaching, about responses to disaster/atrocity. Here’s a not-so-short list: the discussion and controversy surrounding the 9/11 Memorial, Against Forgetting (Carolyn Forché’s anthology), Theodor Adorno’s oft-quoted notion of the links between language and culture, Shigeru Ban’s paper-tube structures for those homeless after natural disaster and atrocity, Paul Celan’s poems, Don DeLillo’s Libra and White Noise, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words, Anselm Kiefer’s paintings, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, Yusef Komunyakaa’s poems about Vietnam, Maya Lin’s memorials, Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog and Hiroshima Mon Amour, W. G. Sebald’s mixing of genres, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Frederick Taylor’s revisionist history of the firebombing of Dresden, Shomei Tomatsu’s photographs in Nagasaki: 11:02, Kurt Vonnegut’s novels (especially Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse-Five).
What are you currently working on?
I’ve been working on a new project that responds to the birth of my daughter and the death of my mother in the same year. I hesitate to call this writing poetry, because I usually don’t write about myself, but other people have. Right now the work is feeling like a lyric essay in distilled segments. There may also be photographs, fictional letters, and a fairy tale in there somewhere.
You run a reading series called Small Animal Project. How did that come about and how does running a reading series affect your writing?
Beyond the animal and philosophical origins I mentioned in this Coldfront interview a few years back, there were some practical ones as well. Many of the reading series in Boston/Cambridge/Somerville that existed when I first moved back from Georgia started disappearing, along with the opportunities to hear writers who were publishing with small presses and online journals (and less likely to be invited to read at local universities and bookstores, the other venues in town). It made sense to start a series, even an infrequent one, because it meant 5 or 6 more chances each year for local folks, including me, to experience this work. There’s more happening again around Boston (especially at the Woodberry Poetry Room, since Christina Davis and Chloe Garcia-Roberts took over), but these days the timing of readings seldom works out with my daughter’s bedtime, so I’m really happy that, at a minimum, I can go to the readings I’m hosting.
When I started the series, I was an adjunct writing instructor at three different colleges and needed an antidote to what can feel like, on a bad day, too much negative energy expended grading dozens of essays (on a better day, I see grading as an exchange, another form of reader response). But corresponding with writers who want to come or who have already come to read for Small Animal Project, meeting them in person, watching the readings unravel in sometimes-unpredictable ways—that’s been such a positive experience. After one reading, completely spontaneously, a pharmacy student—in attendance because it was a requirement for his creative writing class—started a Q& A with Amaranth Borsuk, Kate Durbin, and Brigitte Byrd. I wish I’d had a way to convey his engagement to his teacher. At a recent reading, Laura Mullen, Julie Joosten, and Erin Morrill read simultaneously, each in a different corner of the room, from Laura’s new book, Enduring Freedom: A Little Book of Mechanical Brides. Julie and Erin read through alphabetical listings of military operation names, while Laura read testimony from returning soldiers. It was haunting to hear these names—some blithe, some sinister—alongside the realities of returning to civilian life. I really appreciate this more performative take on reading, and I think audience members like to be surprised too.
Sometimes things fall apart, but even that hasn’t been insurmountable. When Jen Tynes and Jen Denrow’s car broke down en-route, we thought about having them read from wherever they were. But they were still waiting for help by the side of a noisy highway as the reading was about to start, so I conscripted audience members to take turns reading from a couple of their books instead. That was really fun (even appropriate in the case of Jen Denrow’s chapbook about ventriloquism), and we were all lucky that the third reader, Carrie Bennett, had made it and could conclude the night with some gorgeous poems in her own quiet voice.
What is the best part about having published The Tales?
I love the afterlife of publication—how there is the book, but also individual copies which make their way through the world, sometimes in ways I might not foresee. I’m always interested to see a new review by a person I don’t know, to see how someone without any context reads the book. It’s also enormously special to Skype with a class and see 20+ students holding copies of my book. I am humbled to think that they are devoting whole hours to reading and thinking about it. Their work gives mine a fresh sense of purpose. One a related note, I try to teach small-press books, rather than anthologies, in my own classes, and this experience of seeing my own books taught makes me want other writers to feel this too. Especially when the rewards of writing poetry have so little to do with economics (e.g., I don’t have a tenure-track job), this exchange with students can feel like a form of payment. I hope that doesn’t sound crass. In part, it’s a relief to know that a small number of the books printed are accounted for, and that a press might be unburdened of some of the risk it’s taken to publish the book.
Who are your five favorite contemporary poets?
I have a lot of trouble ranking and even thinking about overall favorites, so I hope you don’t mind if I approach this question a bit differently. I’ve recently heard or read work by the following writers, who have awed me: Eula Biss, Jessica Bixel, Aracelis Girmay, Kate Greenstreet, and Christian Hawkey.
What is the title of the last poem you wrote?
The last poem I wrote is untitled. It’s really just a few lines of fragments, which I envision as disrupting the energy of a sequence of short prose pieces. I might be at the point in my process where I’m a little too comfortable with the form and feel compelled to do something to shake things up. So, I’ve been experimenting with homophonic translation as a comment on intentional mishearing, as it might relate to illness and grief, two of the experiences these new poems respond to.
Do you have any advice for people looking to publish?
Expose yourself to lots of new work, whether by reading journals or attending readings. Then seek out chapbooks and full-length collections by the authors who capture your attention. This is one of the reasons I love running a reading series—it brings new books to an audience who might otherwise have to order them online, which means that they might not end up ordering the books or reading them. I think that figuring out which journals and presses consistently publish work you love can improve your odds of having work accepted there. If you love them, they might love you.