Jon Boisvert was born in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, and now lives in Oregon. He studied poetry at Oregon State University and the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland. His first book, BORN, was published in 2017 by Airlie Press, and a chapbook, EGOCIDES, is new from above/ground press.
His poems “SNAKE,” “ECLIPSE,” “CABIN” and “BURIAL” appear in the eighteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “SNAKE,” “ECLIPSE,” “CABIN” and “BURIAL.”
A: Snake: I grew up watching the creatures living along the small creeks of southeastern Wisconsin, and water moccasins in particular. When I began the project that became EGOCIDES, those lenses of rebirth, self-destruction and trading places opened me up to these snakes in a new way. That they are a live-birth snake rather than an egg-laying snake, and especially that they may reproduce asexually felt relevant. They aren’t just another viper: they embody questions about what it means to be a parent, child, and individual.
Eclipse: This poem expresses one of the major themes of the project, that of trading places. Through a bit of movement, a change of lighting, I become you. And don’t you expect things to be different after an eclipse? Aren’t you disappointed when the world returns just as it was? I am, and I think that disappointment reveals very old, very deep desire for magic in the sky.
Cabin: There’s a little Zen monastery in Oregon called Great Vow. I participated in a ceremony there once, where I and others whose children died very young walked into a little nearby woods and chanted and left small presents for those we’ve lost. It was fall; the sun set early, and as we all wept and left our gifts on the ground, owls began to hoot. Since then, I’ve associated the forest with letting things go. So in this project, with its cycles of creation and destruction, the forest was a pretty obvious place to visit.
Burial: Like all of these poems, “Burial” is curious about the violence in love, about two people continually undoing themselves to embrace and embody each other. This poem also borrows from some friends’ experiences of mock-burial ceremonies. Listening to their stories led me to question: if I were being pressed to death, what would come out of me? The answer was more questions.
Q: How does this work compare to some of the other writing you’ve been doing lately?
A: It’s certainly a less-populated environment than the poems in my first book occupied. In BORN, there’s a community, a lot of characters and personas. In these poems there’s you and me, and occasionally our parents, and that’s pretty much it. And there’s a lot more open space. The result, for me, is a relatively quieter collection, with room to build a more-complex relationship between the I and the you. And while there’s still some magic and some violence, the characters have agency and investment in what happens; there’s more mental and emotional activity on their part, and a bit less action.
As always, I wrote these poems, in part, to digest what’s really going on in my life, which right now is a lot of self-reflection inspired by a strong, loving relationship. But these poems also make room for my criticism of the ideas and traditions of love and marriage. Which is good. I don’t think I’d be as interested in this topic without that tension.
Q: When you say “collection”: has this grouping of poems shaped themselves into a manuscript? Given you’ve a single full-length title published, are you noticing a difference in how your second manuscript came together, compared to that first?
A: I had a big mass of poems accumulate over the last two years or so, and inside that mass maybe a third of them had a similar sound and were driven by the same feelings or events. So I put them together and started looking for an axis to line them up on. What I found was part narrative, part geography. Both are incomplete or imperfect, which I how I prefer things.
This part of the process was pretty similar to the time I spent arranging the poems in my book, BORN. Recognizing this similarity helped a lot; I could move more quickly, because I was improving upon a process rather than creating one. And, of course, the fact it’s 20 poems and not 60 made it easier, too.
I don’t really see this specific group growing into a full-length collection, though. I’ve always wanted to do something intentionally chapbook-sized, and right now I feel pretty satisfied. To have allowed myself this set amount of space to explore one thing was very fun, and being able to think of this set of poems as “finished” or “whole” has been inspiring. I feel free to move on, like maybe I’ll find another 20 poems that all go toward something else someday. This sort-of boundary or containment aspect is probably the biggest difference between writing this collection and writing BORN, even more than the difference in length.
Q: You seem to favour a variation on the American prose poem. What influences brought you to utilizing such a form, and what do you feel the prose poem allows that you might not be able to achieve otherwise?
A: Two of my favorite poets are Marosa di Giorgio and Russell Edson. Both wrote in prose-poem forms, but what matters more to me is that they wrote narratives that are at once straightforward and bewildering. Their grammar and syntax and all that stuff is really functional—it stays out of the way. Their stories, though—and their people and places—are such rich puzzles, full of magic and feelings and social critiques.
Both of these poets use a form that goes all the way to the right margin; their poems look just like paragraphs. The form I’ve been using is different. I find that using really wide margins helps me pay some attention to the words and music, as well as the story. The form still looks like a paragraph, but almost always create a four- or five-beat line. This also puts some pressure on the narrative: something should happen on each line. And using the full-justification, besides creating a visual order I like, alerts me to words that are too long. Long words create larger gaps in the line and make it harder for that line to contribute in a meaningful way. All these layout tools have really helped me develop leaner prose and quicker plots.
As for the prose poem form more generally, I think it offers writers freedom from what, to some of us, can be really distracting elements of poetry. I, for one, have a very hard time deciding where to break a line and why. There’s also something really childish and fun about taking something that’s so obviously not a poem and telling people to pretend it is. It reminds me how much of art is about perception.
Q: You mention constructing manuscripts out of groupings, sorting poems out of the pile. Is this your normal method for constructing full-length manuscripts? It suggests a curious combination of writing poems (as opposed to writing books) and constructing books. How did you arrive at this method?
A: Well, I won’t pretend I’ve got all these manuscripts sitting around. BORN is the only full-length collection I’ve successfully put together, and it took me two years to arrange that. And the early attempts look much different from the final version. I wasted a lot of time trying to isolate by topic: keeping separate spaces for poems about childhood, adulthood, Wisconsin, Oregon, my father, my son, etc. I finally saw that, if I just lay them out chronologically according to the life events that inspired them, they will make enough sense to be a book. Then I was able to finish the arrangement in a way that makes sense to me, and feels honest.
Of course, I did swap a few poems in and out—writing two new ones to bridge some gaps—with the help of editors at Airlie Press. But that part, compared to the years of struggling that came before, was very fluid. The Airlie team gave me a lot of confidence in the book, so making those small adjustments later seemed easier.
So yes, the long process I went through with BORN was a combination of chaos and intent. But the intent to write in a book-minded way didn’t come until very late in the process.
And that’s pretty much exactly what I went through with this chapbook. I had a bunch of individual poems, each written on whatever topic had my attention at the time. I looked through them all (so many times), then finally saw a thread or theme that matched up with real life, and went from there.
I’d say that this process is enjoyable, but not intentional. I’ve tried the intentionally-writing-a-book method and not succeeded. And I love those really focused, project-based books of poetry, but I just can’t do it yet. I can’t really know what I am doing in the moment; I have to dig through it all afterward.
Q: If the individual poem is your preferred unit of composition (over the chapbook, or the full-length collection), how does a poem usually begin?
A: I have two common starting points.
In one, the first lines come first. I don’t know where they come from, but they arrive as sort-of just having potential, rather than having a clear point. For example, a very new poem I am working on begins, “I put a microphone on top of a cactus.” I don’t know where it came from, but I feel like it has potential: it’s giving me a landscape, a character, and some kind of desire. So from there, finishing the poem means unraveling the mystery in this first line.
In the other, I have a feeling I want to write about, but which is hard to describe. So I try to create a short scene or bit of action which I think captures it. In BORN, there’s a poem called “Elephant” that came about this way. Initially, I wanted to write about losing contact with an alcoholic parent. This is a complicated experience, and very surreal. So what fit, for me, was a story of a man crawling into an elephant’s belly and the elephant running away. One reason this fits for me is that it’s not that the father leaves; his intentions are something else. But a force much larger than him—one that also captures other men’s attention as well—takes him.
I use these two methods pretty much equally, and have been for maybe eight years now. I think I’m ready to try something else soon, though.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Again, Marosa di Giorgio and Russell Edson. I was very glad when Ugly Duckling Presse released a new translation of a bunch of di Georgio’s work, I Remember Nightfall, which is terrific. I love going back to her poems because they create and exist in a very complete, unique world. So do Edson’s. Other contemporary books I feel accomplish this are CAConrad’s The Book of Frank, Lisa Ciccarello’s At Night, and all of Aase Berg’s books in English. I’m sure there are many more I am not remembering or don’t know about, though (and maybe you have some recommendations?).