Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Jessica Garratt

Jessica Garratt grew up in rural Maryland, and since then has lived in Iowa, Ireland, Austin, New York, and now Missouri, where she is a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri in Columbia. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, and from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her MFA. Jessica's first book, Fire Pond, won the 2008 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, selected by poet Medbh McGuckian, and was published by the University of Utah Press in April 2009. Individual poems from the collection have appeared in the North American Review, Shenandoah, Michigan Quarterly Revew, Crab Orchard Review, The Missouri Review, and in the forthcoming Helen Burns Poetry Anthology: New Voices from the Academy of American Poets' University and College Prizes, 1999-2008.


I’ve been attended (in my efforts to fall in love
this month) by the mouse in my apartment, who’s nested
its image everywhere: in a wadded receipt
beneath my bed, in the long-tailed phone charger, dying
beside its socket. It’s hidden in the thistled ditch
my bed becomes when I sit up in the night, possessed
by a dream whose paws are still pressed to the smudged side
of my eyes, searching the sheets for what they see.

Something ate that poison,” I told you on the phone,
“It’s got to materialize eventually.” “Not necessarily,”
you said; and later, “Don’t be afraid.” Afraid? Is that
what I am?
I was surprised. I imagined what would change
if you lived here too—how my private late-night vigils
would un-green, snapped free of their source, collected
for kindling to make a fire in the clearing, and see
if there was enough to talk about (or do) till morning.

With you so far away, and us so new, it’s been hard
to discern the likelihood of love. I’ve culled a nice image
of you as Pilgrim: earnest, straight-necked, boyish
New Englander—and found I was tickled by the thought
of your hard-working love, not yet called to its task—the city
still a wilderness, the hill stifling its light. I can see it
much better during the sprints my vision does
in the unmarked fields between our talks. But,

when you speak, each of your best qualities reveals itself
to be the uncomplicated twin of a subtler brother
you never knew, whose sense of irony, whose mind
like a sweep of moor, and eyes that aren’t always averted
to the sky—never had the chance to rub off
on you. If one such brother had lived, I might tell him
on the phone tonight, how the mouse has finally arrived
dead at the foot of the stairs. How it was midday, not night,

when I found it. How it didn’t seek a shoe or a pillow
or a kitchen drawer to die in, but curled up beside
the front door, as if wanting no more than to leave—
but how really the mouse lay down where it happened to be
when the poison sponged the last fluid from its body.
How its feet are tiny and simple at noon. How
my landlord will come in the morning and sweep
the bare gray fact onto the dustpan’s gray-blue range.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote this poem in 2006, soon after moving into a new apartment. On the night I finished moving in, my sister was over and saw a mouse race across the kitchen and into a gap under the kitchen sink. I never saw it myself, but when I mentioned the incident to my landlord, he promptly deposited some little pouches of poison in my apartment. And then for a week or two, I compulsively projected phantom dead mice onto everything small and hidden – everything potentially translatable into mouse and death. I even had a friend come over once and use my broom to push something mouse-ish looking out from under the bed while I stood at a distance on the stairs. That was the ‘wadded receipt’ I mention in the poem.

Meanwhile, a separate part of me was perched above this bout of hyperbole, observing quietly, and noticing some resonance between my dilated, nearly Gothic visions of this tiny, elusive creature, and my sometimes over-grand projections of imaginative but unapt narratives onto romantic situations that cannot sustain them. So there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between the two scenarios in the poem exactly, but I began to play and see how they could enlarge, illuminate, and scuff each other, once I courted this adjacency. I didn’t know how they would come together ultimately, or what the relationship between the threads would mean.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Well, from the Word documents dated on my computer surrounding this poem, it looks like the first intense round of drafts (there are six of them I saved) happened between August 29 and September 18. But the ‘final’ one (on September 18) appears to be the draft I turned in to my workshop – and it has a whole extra stanza tacked on to the end that doesn’t exist in the version of “Pilgrim” in my book. I know I tinkered around with it for another month or two after this initial burst. And then again more recently, during the final round of edits on Fire Pond.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Before I turned a draft in to my workshop, I ran it by my friend who, at the time, I showed pretty much every new poem to first. He had trouble with the poem as it stood, because he felt that the poem didn’t provide within its bounds a key to navigate or unlock its own meaning. And I remember having this immediate, sort of rebellious reaction to this idea, like, Really? Is that what I should be doing here? I had felt satisfied, in a way, by the manner in which the different elements in the poem didn’t determine themselves too steadfastly, or map onto a chart of analogies. My friend wanted to know what the mouse was standing in for, whereas I think I was seeing the mouse more as an immanence, radiating in its own right, even as it could cast something new or relevant onto other elements in the poem.

Still, I hadn’t quite clarified all this to myself yet, and I took a stab at providing more closure by writing that extra last stanza, which my friend thought made the poem much better. That’s the version I turned in to workshop. In case it’s interesting to see the different sort of gesture this ending made, here’s that alternate ending to the poem:

the landlord will come in the morning and sweep. But,
telling all this to you—well, the thought makes me wince.

Perhaps because it’s difficult, as it is, to memorialize
the dismal, ordinary scenes in a life. But when sunk
in the mind of another, such as yours, they shrink even more,
the way a gravestone shrinks from a spring afternoon
that shines its explanations over everything, coming to all
of last year’s conclusions. What about particulars? What about
grit? Even the imagination crawls up from the dungeon
of the body, each stair a fact on its way to myth.”

After some messing with this final stanza for a while, I finally decided to abandon it entirely. It seemed to expand the poem too much, at the same time as it shut down some of its pulse. It was so explain-y, and I wasn’t at all sure that the explanation was actually the conclusion the poem itself seemed to draw or move toward.

This poem, more than most of mine, produced vastly different reactions from people. One reader thought it was a biting and incisive character assassination, whereas someone else thought the mouse really just stood in for the guy in the poem, and saw the speaker as sad and vulnerable. Some looked at me blankly and pityingly when I said I had wanted the poem to be funny. So, in the end, I really just had to stay my own course with this one, and trust my instincts. Which, I guess, is always the case ultimately.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I do believe in inspiration. Or, maybe what’s more true is that I believe in a state of profound concentration. I think when I’m working on a poem might be the only time I ever entirely concentrate on anything. And in that state, I do feel a sense of ‘tapped-in-ed-ness,’ if that makes sense. The world feels more fluid and connective—itself a kind of unified ecstasy—and I am in it, important to it and also not important at all. I remember asking a friend once, many years ago, what it felt like to be deeply in love (because I was pretty sure I hadn’t been at that point). She said, “It feels like you’re suddenly tapped into the world – like the world is letting you in on this wonderful, mysterious secret.” Pretty wise for a 19 year old, right? In many ways, I feel this is a pretty apt description of the experience of making a poem – especially in the early stages of composition.

And as for sweat and tears – I don’t know. That’s not really how I think about writing poems. The ‘work’ of it – after the initial ‘inspiration’ – is absorbing as well. I’m hungry for the process at that point – to keep helping the poem forward, to keep shaping. I know writers (talented, successful ones) who claim to not really like the process of writing. That sounds like sweat and tears. But that’s not at all how I think about it. And at the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever felt that a poem was simply ‘received.’ It tends to feel more like something in between the aggressively active and the entirely passive.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The basic ‘action’ of the poem was pulled from my life. In that sense, many of my poems could be said to begin in ‘fact.’ But I don’t think that means much really. The events in the poem are just the beginning. It’s what happens when consciousness gets to the ‘facts’ and works on them that’s interesting. What begins as experience in the world quickly turns into an imagining of that experience, rather than a recounting of it. What takes over is a curiosity about the nature of that experience, the images that fascinate or suit a certain frame of mind, the ideas that are raised, the psychology that might take hold and cause certain leaps of thought, but also certain actions. The work of the poem is no longer in accurately representing my own state of mind or actions in a particular moment, but in representing a mind, in a more general sense. Dickinson put it well when she wrote: “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse -- it does not mean -- me -- but a supposed person.”

Is this a narrative poem?

In a way; but ultimately I always privilege the meditative over the narrative in my poems. If you imagine the narrative as a paved road, threading concretely through a landscape, my poems generally tend to follow the track of the mind of a person walking along it. Or maybe a cloud of map-savvy gnats floating above it with a vaguely forward movement.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

Well, I remember that I was teaching an American Literature course for the first time. And the beginning drafts of this poem coincided with the beginnings of American literature – Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, the pilgrims, the City on a Hill. It actually happens often enough now, that what I’m teaching at the time enters (or instigates) a poem.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I don’t usually write such ‘blocky’ poems. But these dense eight-line stanzas just felt right for this one. I do think, however, that this poem might mark the first in a string of longer, more meditative poems that triangulate disparate subjects and seek to connect them through the writing of the poem. This now feels like my native way of moving through a poem, but it wasn’t always.

What is American about this poem?

A lot, I think. Obviously there’s the pilgrim metaphor, and the early spirit of American idealism (the sacred beacon of a city, hoisted up on a hill). In many ways, I think that the dialectics and Bermuda triangles this poem (loosely, noncommittally) moves between might be said to be American in their concerns (at least historically, and in literature). Is Nature a sacred forest of Platonic forms? An inert gathering of matter and fact? Evidence of the occult (as in very early American literature)? Reflective of the human imagination? I also think that this poem flirts with metaphor without entirely trusting or committing to it. This seems American to me – the move between lofty idealism and gritty pragmatism (in varying degrees of sly and earnest) – between the hankering for a beacon, and an insistence on bare gray facts. I think (in retrospect, of course) that the poem splashes around in these different American underpinnings. “Splashing around” seems American too.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Oh, well, I don’t know… I think being poets means we don’t have to decide on one way of casting this. ‘Finished’ sounds so burly and sealed, ‘abandoned’ too melodramatic, or else falsely modest. Somewhere in between, I suppose. But I do wish I’d found this letter of Dickinson’s (written to Higginson) before “Pilgrim” ended up in my book – I surely would have included the following lines as an epigraph: “Nature is a Haunted House – but Art – a House that tries to be haunted.”


  1. Fantastic!
    Brian, I have been reading your posts and they are fantastic. Jessica's poem moved me to introduce myself (that I may say hello before being swept away from the door). Hello and thank you both for all the fantastic poetry. I stumbled here while looking for poems by a few of my favorites.
    Thanks and thanks again!

  2. Hello! I was invited by my publisher, Flarestack, to join your Facebook last March and I've enjoyed receiving the emails informing me of each new 'Poem Happening', but have never got round to posting a comment- This time, I just have to - I found 'Pilgrim' so intriguing and moving (and also funny, Jessica). I'm writing this from 'Old' England and must now have my shower and breakfast before going to work. But I'm going to print off a copy of this poem to re-read, along with your own explanations of How it Happened - so much of that reflected my own experiences of this process, especially the 'stab at providing more closure', though in my case, that is what usually happens in my own first draft(s). There is so much else here that I want to say 'YESSS!' to that I'll be sending a link to this page to all the members of a poetry group I attend. (One of my friends in particular LOVES American poetry)
    Thank you Jessica (and Brian, of course,for offering this platform to so many excellent poets) www.christinecoleman.net

  3. Ha. Cool interview, but I was right about that last stanza--it belongs in the poem.

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