In Conversation with Melissa Studdard
Jessamyn Smyth is the author of The Inugami Mochi (short stories), Gilgamesh/Wilderness (hybrid-poetry), and Kitsune (winner for the New Women’s Voices Series in poetry). Her writing has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, and her plays have been produced by Boston Playwright's Platform, Arena Civic Theater, The Paul Alexander Gallery, and many more venues. Her works have garnered a long list of prizes and fellowships, including a Robert Francis Foundation fellowship, an artist’s grant from The Vermont Community Foundation, and a Welcome Hill fellowship. As well, she was an honorable mention in Best American Short Stories. Having previously taught at Quest University Canada, The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and several other schools, Smyth is currently faculty at Bard College's new microcollege in Holyoke, Massachusetts, a micro-campus of Bard making university education possible for women with children. Smyth was the founder, creator, and Editor in Chief of the literary & arts journal Tupelo Quarterly. In the following conversation, she discusses the wild as a map to inner experience, vulnerability-as-strength, non-human-centered relationships, the cartography of grief, hybridity of form, and much, much more.
Melissa Studdard: I understand your new collections, The Inugami Mochi and Gilgamesh/Wilderness, have been compared to the works of Annie Dillard, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Anne Carson and that they are fundamentally about an alternative way of experiencing the world. Can you start by telling us why you think these comparisons might be relevant to your work, and what is unique about the perspective/world experience?
Jessamyn Smyth: A little while back, in Crossing Open Ground, I came across Barry Lopez describing “sublime encounter with perhaps the most essential attribute of wilderness—falling into resonance with a system of unmanaged, non-human-centered relationships.” This sentence stopped me in my tracks in a recognizing-kinship sort of way, because for better and for worse, the sublime awe of this encounter is where I live and how I experience the world, both as somewhat feral human and as writer. My work is deeply engaged in both literal wilderness and the psychological dislocation and relocation that is the result of traversing inner wilds.
This sounds super lofty, and it’s not, or not always: even in the most mundane, daily interactions, some of us are not entirely anthropocentric in our experience, in how we see, in how we write, and that changes things.
So Dillard, Yourcenar, Carson—these are immensely flattering comparisons. If they hold, maybe the parallels inhere in the fact that I write from a profound, personal location in the animal and mythic, with fervor for wilds and now, bone and blood, intellect and yes. And for seeing in an active way that changes everything. I deeply love reading, teaching, and talking about all three of them because if we're paying attention, we see that they dismantle the notion of domestication—in women's writing and how it should be seen, in how we engage our wilds and our worlds.
Our vision is not the same after reading Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” for example: raptors, rodents, wild and domesticated brains and the necessary, deep interactions between them have all become legible in a new way. She engages the relationships between the animal and human world with a level and stoic gaze one can viscerally share in her sentences, and the open reader will have their perspective transformed by that.
Both Yourcenar and Carson have been (among other things) groundbreaking cartographers of the landscape of grief, particularly in Fires and Nox, and that is certainly the territory I’m walking in Gilgamesh/Wilderness [forthcoming from Saddle Road Press]. It’s a ferocious place, grief, and one we spend a lot of time, energy, and money trying to avoid in contemporary capitalist cultures of positivity, to our detriment. That avoidance is making us sicker, less capable beings. When beloved Enkidu—the clay man, the animal man, the wild man—is dead and Gilgamesh goes mad with loss in tablet eight of the Epic, what is that? Really, deeply: what is that? And why, and how? And where, what, is the through? We need to know that. We have always needed to know that. For me, the wild itself is not separate from or antagonistic to the inner experience: the wild is the map.
It was Alexander Chee who first connected what I was up to on the page with Yourcenar, years ago, and though I love her writing, I remember at first I didn’t see it: I revise hard to achieve the most compressed and yet simple lines I can find, treating even long works as boiled-down prose poetry dense with imagery and layered meaning, while I think of Yourcenar as being more expansive and colorful than I am at the sentence-level. Maybe the common ground is the mythic structure paired with the urgency of language-as-lifeline, which I absolutely share with her as a central force animating the work. The necessity of telling on ourselves, of telling the truth about the terrible strength of vulnerability.
This interest in fully embodied vulnerability-as-strength is increasingly foundational to my thinking and writing, which I suppose could make Carson seem an odd connection, as a more apparently cerebral sort. I think the parallel there is because I am also a weird Classicist who is likely to insert something like ice bats without notice, I am an unapologetic inhabitrix and celebrant of women’s intellect in a world that is still extremely uncomfortable with that, I do not separate intelligence from deep feeling or compassion, and like Autobiography of Red, The Inugami Mochi is primarily a love story unfolding between an awkward monster and a god—and so, through that mythic leap: between any of us. It is concerned with mortality and loss, yes, but what honest love story isn’t? If by ‘love’ we mean soul- and world-altering commitment to daily, imperfect action that becomes a key opening every door to beauty, and to death. If by ‘love’ we mean all that is best and worst of us. Those devastating final lines of AoR: “…now time is rushing toward them/where they stand side by side with arms touching, immortality on their faces/night at their back.”
To see in a way that changes everything, to bear witness in the most active, Jewish sense of that phrase—to place, to beauty, to humor, to responsibility to love, even to the worst losses, using archetypes from global myth and sacred story—is for me to become both more fully engaged in the meaning of the world, and more fully conscious of the lack of meaning. It is comfort and existential dread in the same prickly skin. It is to become fully responsible for one’s choices, to go deeply into relationship that risks everything and be willing to honor the consequences in mourning, and to understand that catharsis is not optional if our species is to thrive.
That was a really long answer, but I get excited about these things. And I know myself to be in a long lineage of writers and artists I call ‘the skinless freaks’—people for whom the liminal and extra-human are not just archetype, but lived, real, daily experience. It’s definitely not unique, this perspective. It’s just an uncomfortable one. And necessary, I believe.
MS: In The Inugami Mochi, Cecily and Dog think together, in conversation—it’s like a trance or spell—a wild and ancient incantation of spirit. And it’s also very new, like before babies “know” they are separate from the world they inhabit. Can you talk about how the relationship that Cecily and her familiar spirit have with the world is no longer precisely human or animal, making them both simultaneously larger and more insightful/magical/intuitive and more isolated from their kin? Is this an archetype that you can point to in other contemporary writings? In ancient writings? What is it about this magic that paradoxically isolates while broadening?
JS: This kind of complex, extra-human, divine and daily relationship does show up in various ways all through ancient story. In the titular Japanese myth, the pairing of the dog god and his master/servant is both honored and feared; it’s understood as necessary curse and extraordinary blessing. The witch and her familiar are an instantly recognizable global archetype showing up all the time, but in modern life we have domesticated this relationship into some kind of shallow and sentimental kitsch warped away from all usefulness or power. I’m deeply interested in the details of how these relationships still occur, how they are still powerfully present and transformative in their more primal forms.
In the epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first written stories we have, the central relationship is of this kind (even though it's contextually complicated). There’s a lot of sharp-edged mystery, chaos, complexity, danger. It’s not nice, and it's certainly not sentimental. The gods create Enkidu the wild man, the pure spirit of animal, mud animated by divine breath, specifically to domesticate and civilize the vile hero-king. But what happens instead, at first anyway, is the reverse: Gilgamesh corrupts Enkidu, and together, they become an even more powerful and destructive force. For a while, nothing outside of their pairing is very real to them. It’s messy, messy, messy with unintended consequence and sideways impacts—and also with awe. Before that, the passionate union that makes of them one being in two bodies happens in a caesura in the tablets: we don’t see it. We see them fighting to the death, then a bunch of lines are missing, then we see them kissing, and bonded as few bonds ever occur: we must fill that caesura ourselves. How does soul-and-world-changing love happen? What is that? Why is that? Messy. Even before that, how Enkidu himself is domesticated, civilized, is peculiar: silverware and sex? Really? And yet, it is true to the open reader: we recognize his transformation in the temple, brought about by his interaction with the human-sacred, as being both a gain and a terrible loss. It’s complicated and messy, and so: powerfully true.
The archetype of the wild/animal/extra-human being who comes into relationship with the ‘civilized’ human world, transforms and saves it, but cannot survive in its brutality is magnetic for me, as is our simultaneous longing for and rejection of that figure. Enkidu is fascinating and beautiful because he is all species and no species, more human than the humans and not human at all, flawed, profoundly vulnerable, immensely powerful. Gilgamesh, our Hero, is two-dimensional for the first long bit of the story, while Enkidu is the topology; it’s the loss of him that (eventually) makes of Gilgamesh something three dimensional and connected.
I’m fascinated by these very old tensions about wildness, domestication, grief, civilization, purity or sacredness and what that is and is not, love as active mode of transformation, hubris and cruelty, cowardice, courage, tenderness, despair, and how these experiences shape, mis-shape, re-shape the world in the crucible of relationship—especially when the relationship itself is located outside the domesticated sphere, in wilderness of some literal or metaphoric kind. And like all of us, I’m plagued by these themes. They’re in all the Ancient Near Eastern stories, the Greeks, Inuit and Tibetan and African myth, the stories of all peoples. They're also in our contemporary poems and novels, grade B horror flicks, graphic novels and comics, our daily lives.
We know, on some level, that in order for there to be substantive transformation, some kind of profound boundary-crossing must happen. Those crossings cost a lot.
Cecily and Dog, in their small, daily, normal-world way that is as much shaped by awkwardness and humor, shopping lists, deer carcasses, and IUDs as it is by epic themes of mortality and acquisition of wisdom, have made this kind of boundary crossing: between human and animal, civilization and wild, hubris and humility, life and death. They have each let go the primacy of their own species and become this other, hybrid thing at the crossroads, so their small, daily, normal world is transformed. They definitely do not know they are separate, because in fundamental ways, they are not: that is what creates the incantation in which they live. That’s what lifts the mundane to the sacred. That’s what sets them apart from the usual baby-talk nonsense about “pets,” which is antithetical to their relationship.
But that oneness, that thinking together, that extra-human synchronized breath and heartbeat and vision and world-creation others can sense and crave and resent and be changed by is actually not magic at all. It is something they consciously risk, consciously build, and consciously live and die even though it sets them apart-from and costs so much—and I think that’s the point.
I have a tendency, obviously, toward hybrids in both form and subject. In The Inugami Mochi, I made what can probably be best described as a novella in interconnected short stories that is fiction, magic realism, fable, and creative nonfiction all mixed together at a crossroads. Mainly I did that because it is what the story required of me. But I am always conscious that crossroads make us stand outside of our domesticated vision, at least for a moment, right? They’re liminal. They’re places where all sorts of boundaries between worlds are crossed, they’re metaphor for deep choice, decision, and responsibility—and meanwhile, we’re standing there with sore feet from cheap shoes, dust in our mouths, sun-blind and sweating, sometimes brave and present and resplendent, sometimes just wanting off the hook.
For me as reader, all the best writing puts us in this symbolic and simultaneously earthy place, regardless of content. But there isn’t a lot in contemporary writing that goes head-on at the animal familiar and how that relationship sets both human and animal apart, how it changes the world both for them and for those who glimpse them clearly. Phillip Pullman did it in his fantasy/YA His Dark Materials trilogy, and Matt Bell did incredible things with the collision between human, animal, and mythic in In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. But I don’t see the animal familiar very many places, and almost never in contemporary literary fiction by women, which is a weird gap. So I wrote it.
It's been interesting to see some pretty overtly gendered response and assumptions. People (who haven't read it) say: "Oh, you wrote a book about your dog! How sweet! I love dogs."
No, that's not what I wrote.
I mean, I love dogs, too. Dogs are cool. But The Inugami Mochi isn't that kind of book.
MS: Based on the Japanese iteration of a trickster fox spirit, Kitsune, your poetry chapbook offers another treatment of the animal human connection. Animal spirit becomes possession rather than familiar. Can you say something about the difference in cost of boundary crossing when the human has less agency? And also discuss your choice to use the structure of Classical Greek tragedy to “contain” the uncontainable trickster?
JS: I have this theory that the basic nature of tragedy is that character does not, in fact, change. Behaviors can, and often should and must—but fundamental character does not. It’s a bit heretical, in a time of self-help culture and a corporatized belief that positive-thinking-creates-reality—but to me, all evidence shows these beliefs to be false, and all tragedy can be understood as a series of character-driven inevitabilities. For some tragic writers, the gods get the blame. But in Euripides in particular, I have always seen a much more existential understanding of how that machine works, and it has something important to teach us, I think.
The archetype of the Trickster, specifically the trickster-lover (which a kitsune often is, in both Japanese and Korean myth), gave me rich language and image for a collision between characters who are profoundly unable to meet each other’s needs. Unable to meet, even, each other.
I think many of us have had the painful experience of passionately loving quicksilver, and feeling terribly starved by that while also having agency of our own: in Kitsune, each of the lovers has a ravening hunger, but they cannot feed each other. The poem “Carnivores” gets at the nuances of agency in that, I hope: “Fall, you bastard,/she says. Fall. Her muscles/bunched. Some day, you will./And I will be ready, and we will be one.” But he doesn’t let himself fall, and she doesn’t let herself eat. “Enter the Dragon” also gets at their fundamental inability to even recognize the other: “curling, shining/scales of yes/sung, shed, fallen…blown by incomprehension/into corners, dry drifts…still iridescent, each still/containing the whole/and matchless yes.”
There is terrible pain in this collision, but one is not precisely the victim of the other: one is a hungry ghost who needs some kind of sustenance this world (and his lovers) can’t provide; the other needs his flesh and blood, earthy and right here. So they become tragic. In the kitsune archetype, the animal-human connection does not usually end well. It articulates something about our failures.
MS: I’d love to know more about Gilgamesh/Wilderness. It’s hybrid too, correct? How did the forms find you?
JS: Gilgamesh/Wilderness is indeed a hybrid. In this book, form really follows content/function—it is an exploration of the madness of profound grief: the desolated inner and outer landscapes we traverse when our beloved is dead and we are without compass of any kind. It’s such a fragmentary experience that the writing of it has required fragments and shards, sudden piles of bone and ash, huge risks barely even felt as they are the only bridge.
I’ve always been just gutted by the images and language of Tablet VIII in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The king held his beloved’s dead body until maggots were falling out of Enkidu’s nose, and when the corpse was finally taken from him, his soul-cry is a flood of terrible, devastating beauty and despair. His time in the desert and in his mad quest west is ours sooner or later, though we don’t admit it much anymore, and most of us do our damnedest to evade it. This book happens immediately after we cut off our hair, rend our clothes, cover ourselves in ash, don a lion-skin, and walk west into the wilderness.
My question in this fragmentary walk of poetry and prose, fiction and creative nonfiction, is the question of that great epic: how do we go on, heart-open, in the presence of mortality, of immense vulnerability and loss? Not ‘how do we fix it,’ or ‘how do we duck it,’ but how do we honor it, and really go on, really heart-open? That’s some serious hero-journey, that walk. And what heroism looks like, from inside the rending madness, is shards, sprawls, hazy distances and sharp details in which nothing makes sense, and yet there is a relentless progression, an overwhelming sense of inevitability. My hope is that through a combination of specificity of language and openness of cause, I can create a cathartic resonance for readers in the writing itself.
There are echoes of The Inugami Mochi in that Gilgamesh/Wilderness began in seeing what happens to the witch when she and her familiar are riven. As it unfolded, straight re-tellings of passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh and episodes of the weird, flawed ways people engage when they are badly wounded joined my own experiences on the page. It also became about how loss leads on to loss, and how soul-death cannot actually be undone: only something entirely new can happen.
When is the book coming out? Do you have anything else coming out or coming up that you’d like to announce?
I’m finishing Gilgamesh/Wilderness now, and the book comes out from Saddle Road Press this spring (2017). Pieces from it appear in Taos International Journal of Poetry and Art, and Life and Legends.
A poem from my current work in progress (tentatively called The Internal Oblique), is coming out soon in Crab Orchard Review, and I’m really happy to have it in one of their final print editions.
MS: Can you tell us more about The Internal Oblique? Can we look forward to more of the classics and folklore informing and shaping your treatment of the human experience of wilderness?
JS: Definitely! My total obsession with myth, folklore, archetypes, and story—what it is, how it functions, and why it matters—is reliably lifelong. It's how I see.
What’s been cooking in my work over the last couple of years has to do with resurrection, and what is involved when we die and come back. Being deeply connected to the Ancient Near Eastern texts, of course it’s Inanna’s ascent I’m most interested in: we read and talk a lot about her descent, but not so much what it costs to come back. I’ve been interested in Lazarus, too, though, lately: what it's like to be him. Ugh. And Sedna has a huge place in the current messes I’m making in drafts. She’s not a dying/resurrecting figure; instead she’s one who makes of her death something new, something animal that creates life for others and requires a very specific kind of engagement in and from us. Her presence under the waves on her throne of bones has always been very powerful for me, especially in my experience of water—which has been integral throughout my life, but particularly in my own resurrections of late. So I suspect what will emerge here will be part myth, part metaphor, and part allegory of recovery from spinal injury through endurance swimming. And something about drowning and keeping on going.
I have no idea yet how I will end up handling the material of The Internal Oblique: right now it’s handling me and I’m just trying to swim with the current! What I do know: there will be a relentless revision of what is currently a sprawling hot mess of more than 700 pages into some kind of coherent ascent. Knowing me, that will probably yield a short book.