Jennifer Moore is the author of the newly released The Veronica Maneuver (University of Akron Press) and the chapbook What the Spigot Said (High5 Press). Her poems have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Best New Poets, Columbia Poetry Review, Barrow Street, and elsewhere, including Memorious, where the poem “The Veronica Maneuver“ first appeared. A native of the Seattle area, she holds a B.A. in English from Mercyhurst University, an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a Ph.D. in creative writing from the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is an assistant professor in the department of English at Ohio Northern University. She generously answered a few questions for Memorious poetry reader Sarah Green.
You seem interested in nested phenomena. I’m looking at “ear inside your ear”; “inside your cough a million coughs”; “husks”; “seeds”. You write in [I Went To the City…], “Doesn’t each history contain another, possible body?” There’s this idea that the seen or heard object contains/hides private versions of its same self, either biologically or fantastically. As your reader I find this upsets my equilibrium regarding my assumed landscape, while at the same time stirring some kind of maternal “aw.” Do you find it soothing or disturbing (or both) to meditate upon latent and/or unseen inhabiting?
As a reader, the poems (or songs, or works of art) that get me going often work like matryoshka dolls—those elaborately painted nesting figures which are opened further and further until some kind of interior core is discovered. I’m drawn to texts that continue to reveal as they are read and reread. The kind of “nesting” imagery you point to might emerge from my interest in frame tales, “play within a play” kinds of structures I relish in a lot of writing that I find myself coming back to.
A preoccupation with “unseen inhabiting” also might emerge from my interest in the relationship between exteriority and exteriority and interiority, or between a speaker and her psychic space. You mention the disruption of an “assumed landscape”; I think of “Lines Written on a Grain of Rice,” which began with my fascination with the Indian art of rice writing, but transformed into a hyper-metaphorical exploration of the claustrophobia I often felt living in the massive urban environment of Chicago. When I was writing some of the poems in The Veronica Maneuver I’d sequester myself in my teeny, tiny apartment in order to avoid being swallowed up whole by the buzz of the world. So the grain in the throat is the girl in the room, the room in the home, the home in the city in the Midwest (contained by an ocean on both sides).
I’m also really drawn to recursion—endless mirroring, replication. The “Corridor of Infinite Regress” in the “Gallery of Unrecoverable Objects”; the twinning in “On Symmetry.” But it can’t just be an interest in that, right? For me this fascination arrives, again, at the likening to how poems can continue to reveal—more and more, little by little—associations, echoes, resonances. I guess every poem’s an ars poetica. I’m drawn to language that captures that sense of enclosure and containment, but also unfolding and uncovering—language that draws us into the heart of the artichoke.
You also seem interested in miniatures: “Lines written on a grain of rice”; “Lines written on a drop of milk”; “Lines written on the back of a tooth.” What is exciting to you as a poet about the constraint of scale?
Ah! Everything is exciting when thinking about scale, which for me often boils down to considering the relationship between extremity and restraint. This often arrives in the form of emotional extremity and formal restraint—moments of flamboyancy or despair or anguish or giddiness which are carefully structured in order to make sense of them. My go-to poet for these kinds of questions is Dickinson, the master of, as Bachelard calls it (in a different context) “intimate immensity.” Her seemingly innocuous, often visually and rhythmically graspable poems reveal immense worlds.
I want the miniature and the immense; I want the immense to be possible via the miniature. Hamlet’s infinite space bound in a nutshell. For me this is what the best poems do: create a world from scratch, a “diction universe” (to quote Anne Winters), something from nothing. All of this together sparks a thrill of formal invention; a glee for what might be possible. But you asked about the constraint of scale…my mode of composition is rarely maximal. Instead I prune away, condense down, and chisel to get to the essence of a thing. Tinkering at such a minute level often leads to a thematic fascination with fragment or smallness in the content of the poem itself: grain of rice, drop of milk. But all of this is to say that no matter the relationship between the extreme poles in terms of scale, the seduction arrives in asking: what impossibilities can I make possible? How do you balance a poem between the intimate and the immense? Scale ends up being a central element in creating that balancing act.
What would a poet’s version of a Veronica maneuver be? How do poets (or if not all poets, you yourself) employ stylized distraction in order to stay in the hair-raising ring while avoiding a mortal wound? What is our bull?
I’m hesitant to outline too carefully the bullfighting metaphor, partly because the other resonances of “veronica” are so much a part of the book and its origins: the historical significance of the “holy shroud” of Saint Veronica; the etymology of the word itself (vera, meaning “true,” and eikon, meaning “image”). The poems pivot around these associations in different ways, but all explore the nature of perception, perspective, truth and invention, actuality or illusion.
But in regard to the matador’s ring. The collection’s intensely focused on the relationship and dynamic between audience and performer, and how that dynamic is mediated. When I was writing many of these I was studying the sublime—particularly, Barbara Freeman’s notion of a “feminine sublime.” She writes that one of its central features is the ability to “blur distinctions between observer and observed, reader and text, or spectator and event.” This really struck me, and in some of my poems—particularly those which feature the veronica maneuver explicitly—I’m working with that idea.
This preoccupation might be the result of my background in musical theater, opera and vocal performance; as a young person a lot of time was spent on stage, off stage, backstage—performing, rehearsing, the whole shebang. As a result, in my poetry I think a lot about attention; not only about poems as ways of paying attention, but how as viewers our focus shifts depending on the medium. For example, how the intimacy of a viewer and a painting is radically different from the spectacle of an operatic performance in a space built for thousands. That impulse to create a magnetism, a tug, a beeline between these two poles—viewer/ listener/reader on the one hand and artist/musician/poet on the other—heightens, for me, the necessity of making something worth paying attention to.
Were you thinking of Hopkins’ Margaret when writing “I Went and Caught a Falling Leaf”? If so, I’m curious why your poem’s Margaret-equivalent (the mannequin) mourns for a “you” and not for “Margaret”? Feel free to skip this question if I’m off-base in the association.
You’re totally right on Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall” functioning as the launching pad for that poem. I admire his ecstasy, his formal precision, his experimental leaps; his love for whatever is “counter, original, spare, strange.” In talking back to that poem I wanted the tone to sound radically different, but the metaphysical punch at the end to have the same feel: “it is Margaret you mourn for” becomes “the mannequin mourns for you.” The reader’s implicated in the scenario directly. In Hopkins we’re kind of overhearing the interaction between the speaker and little girl; I wanted my reader to gulp at the realization of her own impermanence. That’s done in the Hopkins, too, of course, but indirectly; I hoped to point a finger, to direct the gaze of the poem to the reader herself.
Because so much of your book is taut with form and wit, I was especially touched by the breezy, simpler respite of “After All That, There Is This”, “Ghost Limb”, and “And Did It All Go.” These three poems strike me as especially, to use therapist-speak, “undefended.” They’re beautiful in a different way than their sharp-tongued siblings. How do you see them fitting alongside the others?
These poems, as well as where they are placed in the book (mostly near the end), play important roles—they act almost as foils for what precedes them. A few moments of silence; of stripped down, open, available emotion. “Undefended,” for sure—nail on the head. Earlier pieces in the collection revel a bit in their own spectacles, and this serves one kind of purpose for one kind of poem, but I didn’t want to build a one-trick pony. Pattern and variation is so crucial for me as a poet, and the kind of variation I wanted was emotional, textural, and that had to come late in the game, and sparingly, in order to (hopefully, possibly) achieve the kind of effect the book might elicit.
I’ve talked with a friend about the idea that, for some books, there can only be a handful of moments which are purely emotionally available. For me as a writer and a reader, moments of acute emotion are often only acute if they’re laid bare here and there—the less pronounced, the more powerful. I didn’t want to pitch the “undefended” tone too high; those three poems offer a sense of necessary quietness. And—even though it’s carefully scaffolded—“The Quiet Game” does a similar thing: tries to lay bare a certain kind of emotional abandonment, though for me the only way to do it was through metaphor. Some things you can’t approach directly—“Success in Circuit lies.”
Interviewer Sarah Green is a poetry reader for Memorious and is the author of the chapbook Skeleton Evenings (Finishing Line Press), as well as the forthcoming collection Earth Science (421 Atlanta).
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