Jessi MacEachern lives in Montréal, QC. She is the author of the above/ground chapbook Television Poems. Her first full-length poetry collection is A Number of Stunning Attacks (Invisible, 2021).
Her poems “The Violence of the Hammer is Thrilling” and “It Meant That Much” appear in the thirty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “The Violence of the Hammer is Thrilling” and “It Meant That Much.”
A: “The Violence of the Hammer is Thrilling” and “It Meant That Much” were originally much longer poems that appeared as two separate sequences in A Number of Stunning Attacks. Like the other six long poems in my book, these are works I’ve been reshaping for years.
The original title for “The Violence of the Hammer is Thrilling” had been ‘Rules for Detachment,’ but landing on the new title helped clarify the role of the material object in the detached consciousness of the poem’s subjects. There’s a sort of alchemy between these images (lightbulb, the train platform, the pocket cameras) and the dissatisfied tourists of the poem, though the result is not gold but something far less substantial, far more ephemeral.
“It Meant That Much” is part of my current experimentations in prose poetry. The form is partly inspired by the staccato rhythms of Gail Scott, whose My Paris always accompanies my prose-thinking. In writing these short sentences and ridding the stanzas of enjambment, the unstopped line came to match and strengthen the intensity of feeling. While the images mostly play into the abject, in rhythm there is also a deep yearning.
Q: How do these poems relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: These poems represent an ongoing progression in my writing. “The Violence of the Hammer is Thrilling” carries the violence, abstraction, and even the white space (though, for the sake of the single poem, it has been much condensed) of A Number of Stunning Attacks. In the movement toward prose in “It Meant That Much,” you’re getting a small glimpse at a transformation happening in my current notebooks. I think of it, after Lyn Hejinian’s Positions of the Sun, as an experiment in everyday description.
My poems often work like shadows of the stories caught in their words, but lately I’m trying my hand at drawing the shape of those story-objects. I still like shadow play, but in my daily writing practice I’m trying not to veer away from the actual: whether that’s autobiographical fiction, narrative poetry, or visual experiment. The transformation is obviously not complete in these poems, but I think of these as a bit of a turning point.
Q: What is it about the “experiment in everyday description” that appeals? What do you feel is possible through this type of exploration that might not be possible otherwise?
A: As a teacher and a general advocate of reading poetry, I frequently speak of language’s capacity to change the way we see the world. This “experiment in everyday description” challenges my own ability to manifest that change in what is closest at hand: the wall at which I stare, the closed front door, my own skin. In these experiments, I’ve had to grow intimately familiar with what may be my “voice” amidst the unchanging, rather mundane (though, of course, sometimes spectacular) occurrences of the everyday. I think it’s possible to change this voiced quality from project to project, but I also like the idea of honing something that, for the present moment, may be less prone to total dissolution — at least less so than the collaged and fragile speakers and subjects of many of my earlier poems.
Q: There is something relatively straightforward about the idea of an “experiment in everyday description,” although it is rife with not only possibility but a variety of approaches, from poets such as Frank O’Hara and David W. McFadden to Bernadette Meyer and, as you suggest, Lyn Hejinian. Is your approach, then, one of utilizing the description as a counterbalance against falling too deep into your own head?
A: Yes, I may be chasing after the whole New York School (O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, Notley, Mayer), as well as someone like Eileen Myles, with this attempt to snag a straightforward voice. Like the writing of the aforementioned poets, however, my approach also couples a sort of speculative philosophy with the everyday description. Rather than whittling away at an abstract idea until it becomes a glinting poem-object, I am building description upon description until it becomes a squat language-block dense with, as you say, possibility. The density has led to some interesting experiments in first-person (autobiographical) fiction, while maintaining an anchor that, yes, counterbalances my tendency to fall too deep. That has been, so far, the fascinating function of pure description.
Q: With a full-length debut and follow-up chapbook, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: I feel like the floodgates have opened — so, watch out! For years, while editing the manuscript for my first book, I couldn’t shut up about my writer’s block. I was so precious about those poems that I began to believe my own lie: that it would and should take 10–15 years to complete any one poem. There’s an undeniable beauty to such a finely-honed poem-object (or, so I hope!), but there’s a variety of other methods available and many of them include a great deal more ease. That, in a way, brings us back to the poems in this issue of Touch the Donkey, for in their final revised form they undo some of the tightly-bound latches I had been repeatedly refining while labouring over my first book. Television Poems, my recent chapbook with your above/ground press, is yet another experiment in ease. Hell, the poems were first composed while in a pose of leisure: sitting back and watching a tv show.
Q: Your suggestion of ease reminds me of Fred Wah’s notion of “drunken tai chi,” of allowing the subconscious and the honed skill to compose and play more freely, and setting the conscious mind aside for a while. Are there particular authors or works in your head as you attempt new work?
A: I’ve become very deliberate about the authors who accompany this new ease. Wah is actually one of them; I was recently writing alongside the wonder to be found in Music at the Heart of Thinking. I’m drawn to that book’s lovely marriage of fierce thought and spirited (or drunken!) play, a partnership I find a way of inserting myself into while reading the poetry of certain others, as well — Fred Moten, Erín Moure, Aisha Sasha John.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I am constantly rereading and rethinking my reading of H. D. (especially Trilogy and Helen in Egypt) and, in contemporary conversation with those modernist aesthetics, Lisa Robertson (R’s Boat, Cinema of the Present, 3 Summers). Despite all I’ve just said about ease, I am, in fact, very drawn to and even energized by difficult texts. It’s not an either/or (i.e., difficulty/ease) dichotomy for any of the writers I’ve mentioned, so I, too, like to maintain my jellyfish-vision (a theoretical mode of thought à la H. D.) even while courting something more spontaneous.