Continuing our celebration of National Poetry Month, I am so thrilled to welcome my friend Jennifer Calkins to my blog. I met Jennifer in the MFA program at Antioch University--at the time, she was not only getting her MFA in Poetry; she was also getting her PhD in Biological Sciences. I was, and continue to be, so impressed by Jennifer. Her work is beautifully creepy, full of mystery and shadow and wonder. You can read her chapbook, Devil Card, here. Her first full length work, A Story of Witchery, was published last year by Les Figues Press, an exciting aesthetic-based collective founded by Antioch graduates.
Les Figues says:
Fantasy, fear, and freedom all play parts in A STORY OF WITCHERY, a new book-length narrative poem by Jennifer Calkins. Here we meet Emily, our “small and weedy” protagonist, an orphan complicit (perhaps) in her own abandonment, and who is caught up, as poet Amy Gerstler writes in her Introduction, in a story “entwined with science facts and twisted clinical fictions.” In language rolling and tripping with spare precision, Calkins makes a modern pilgrim progress into the imagination and the dark world of medicine. Rich and haunting images create an environment of seeming familiarity which, like the internal landscape of the protagonist, dissolves only to reform, until finally resolving into a healed whole.The tale begins with this introductory poem:
a story of sorcery, saucy and boldI asked Jennifer a few questions about her fascinating work:
an open mouth
a flash of white and bone
a bone a bottle
a stream of milk
a story of witchery
in which all stories start
the light turns off click
--What was the initial spark of inspiration for this book? Did you
know it was going to be a book when you started to write it, or did it begin as a single poem that opened into a huge journey?
The seed of the book was Emily. Fairy tales have always been a source of great comfort to me and at the time I started A Story of Witchery I was in need of comfort, so the Emily that I envisioned entered into this fairy tale world.
The piece began as a single poem—but, as my poems at the time tended to be long wanderings rather than sparks of diamond, I knew the poem would be with me for a while. When I finished the first draft of The Red Book, I knew I was not done, and that is when I realized I was writing a story that required a book.
--Along the same lines, I'd love to hear about your influences. There are traces of fairytale, of myth, of children's literature, in A Story of Witchery, but it's also unlike anything I've read. What books or writers do you see as your predecessors?
Perhaps more influences than predecessors. Everything I read in some way instructs me and so these sorts of tallies, for me, run the risk of being extremely long. I’ll try to keep the list under control.
Books such as:
Andrew Lang’s collections of fairy tales
The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic
The Master Thief by Camille Guthrie
The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot
Corregidora by Gayle Jones
My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe
Dies by Vanessa Place
The Inferno by Dante
The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley
The Lord Peter Whimsy books by Dorothy Sayers
The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
Darlington’s Fall by Brad Leithauser
Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan
Authors such as:
--You are a scientist as well as a poet. How does the scientific
process intersect with your poetic process? Do you find those
processes nourish each other in any way?
For both, the science and the poetry, what interests me most is mystery because it is in this realm of mystery that one can conduct research, either scientific or poetic. My scientific background, perhaps, makes me more likely to use “objective” language rather than what might be considered more “subjective” language. It also, perhaps, renders me more analytical.
The processes definitely nourish each other—I find when I focus for a stretch of time entirely on the scientific world or entirely on the literary/artistic world I feel an imbalance that must be corrected with a journey to the alternative world.
I have tried to mesh the two, to find a way that they are the same thing...but I actually do not anymore think they are. I think they are each ways of holding a mirror up to “truth” (if it exists) and discovering mystery—and in the use of both we get closer to what “truth” is. We need both because one or the other renders our vision lopsided, myopic. I do not think we are capable, as humans subject to the constraints of perception and cognition, of looking full on the truth and we need these various ways of finding our way to it.
My science does sometimes slip into my writing—as in Witchery—and, lately, find I am feeling more and more compelled to document, in essays and my present fiction/poetry project, my conviction as an evolutionary biologist of the complete unity of life and of the immorality of the hierarchical philosophical construct by which humans view themselves as separate, superior and granted the right to exploit other organisms without reserve. I feel this issue is more and more pressing, both because I want my children to inherit a world where they can be siblings, cousins, and friends to life and because we humans, always a threat to other organisms, are currently near toxic to ourselves and all other forms of life.
--When did you first start to write poetry? How has your poetry
changed over time?
I started writing poetry and stories when I was in elementary school (I still remember a silly poem I wrote when I was 7). Although distracted by a desire to become a visual artist during my teens, I returned to focus on poetry as a craft in college. In general, my poetry has gotten longer, and more narrative—and my present manuscript involves great stretches of prose as well.
--The medical elements in this story are very jarring and powerful. I
was ill a lot as a girl, and the malevolent doctors made me wonder if perhaps you had experience as a "sick girl" as well.
I’ve had several people mention that the idea of childhood illness resonated with them. Anyone who has experienced being a “sick” kid has experienced the impact of this self-definition on his/her personality, self-awareness and self-image.
Like Emily, I was born with a cleft palate, and because of this, I underwent several surgeries as a child and a teenager. During the 1970s there was less awareness regarding the trauma children, especially pre-verbal children, experience during medical procedures and untangling the impact of these medical interventions on my own psychology has been an interesting, but time involving, experience.
--Can you talk about your involvement with Les Figues Press?
I was approached by Teresa, Vanessa and Pam, the founders of Les Figues and friends from my MFA program, because they wanted to publish Witchery. It seemed a perfect venue as, despite general interest in the text, other publishers were uncomfortable with its experimental (but not experimental enough) nature and its unconventional length. I was also familiar with the other texts chosen for the first series, including Dies, Grammar of the Cage and Requiem, and was very happy to be published alongside those manuscripts.
The year following the publication of the Materials series I joined as a member of the Board of Directors and this year I will be taking over grant-writing for this now non-profit organization. I like Les Figues’ emphasis on understanding the aesthetic a writer pursues—and the manner in which disparate texts can intersect in the aesthetic dialogue. I also like that Les Figues produces strange work—work that does not fit length wise or otherwise into characteristic niches. Les Figues keeps the door open to any school of writing as long as it is intriguing.
--Any words of advice for aspiring poets?
Know why you write. To persist it is necessary to find satisfaction in the writing itself, not validation from the world at large. And read—It’s fun!
--What are you working on now?
I am working on a first draft of a manuscript that combines fictional prose, poetry and drama—some of which is fantastical. The intersect of the text is a fabled door—one connected in some way with death. In the narrative sailors mutiny, archaeologists make dangerous discoveries, governments torture, artists create, and nonhuman beings such as pigeons and palm trees occupy a space on par with humans in opposition to their present state of lesser citizenship.
This piece seems to be emerging out of some combination of my worldview as an evolutionary biologist, my deepening interest in the practice of yoga, the current frightening political clime and my present state as an enamored mother of two.
--This sounds absolutely amazing, Jennifer. I can't wait to read it! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your stunning work.