« Katie Hartsock | Contents | Genevieve Kaplan »

Gregory Lawless talks with Jennifer H. Fortin

Goodbyes Are Nothing to Write Home About: An Interview with Jennifer H. Fortin


GL: Mined Muzzle Velocity, your first book of poems (all of which are written to look like postcards) begins with equal parts humor and omen, and with a signature mix of lucidity and obscurity: “Late last night a stranger told me (we were / both influenced) he Liked my shoes & Get / home safe.” After this parting, the speaker goes on to make both cryptic and exigent disclosures about her travels and the eerie, almost supernatural nature of correspondence: “It’s clumsy that / you have to stop the mail when someone / dies […] Surely things keep coming years after.” The speaker says that she, and by association, her postcard to her reader, hopes “not to detonate.” The speaker also claims that she always writes “in the part [of the postcard] they cover / up,” and I wonder about the connection between how your poems are fueled by danger (i.e., detonation, an anxiety over the possible explosion of the written self) and mystery (the part that’s covered up). How do danger and mystery interact in your poems and inform your writing process?


JF: Each moment of life (& maybe of death?) is fraught with Danger. The degree to which people (& animals, & things!) are conscious of or care about this varies, but I’ve felt it strongly ever since I can remember. No matter how carefully & precisely I keep my lists, plan, & eliminate the spread of, & lock up after myself, possibility is there—as opposed to the actual—& lots of those possibilities are risky ones, underneath which battle other possibilities, etc.


This is all pretty obvious, but I’m surprised that there aren’t more things exercising their powers to inflict harm. & this doesn’t account for Dangers that kind of just unfold—that aren’t instances of intentional damage.


Loss, for example: there is always the Danger of loss.


I’m stunned that the ground doesn’t open & just swallow us whole, whole civilizations.


Is it as hard for others as it is for me not to step off the edge of the very high roof? We’re always fighting all these weird pulls, compulsions.


Mystery: like Danger—it’s everywhere, always, the inability to know fully, the obliteration. Tell me what isn’t so obscure that it begs for speculation. Mystery hurts in a subtler, better way than Danger. It’s a warm inflammation, a protective reaction to Danger.


Mystery makes Danger bearable.


GL: MMV alternates frequently between violently disordered language and bursts of clarity. Sometimes the former can be eerily beautiful: “The pursuit / moon slams at our sensations” (29). Or nightmarish and apocalyptic: “jazzy black-eye / fascist teeming” (35). But then there are these stunning and crystal clear pronouncements: “I speak in paragraphs” (49); “I’d rather miss the happy things” (50). Could you explain why you move between these two modes of speech, and could you also characterize how these modes interact in your work?


JF: I move between modes of speech naturally, as do we all. We speak certain ways depending on our moods, our audience, how sharp we’re feeling. I wanted to accurately represent this fluctuation in these poems, & the postcard form was very helpful in this regard. Because of their spatial restrictions, we’re open to various & varying modes of speech. Personally, I know I require at least some amount of disordered language before I get to clarity.


In its role as a receptacle—a safe!—the book served as a place for me to store language as I proceeded with the writing. In writing the poems, I’d say I tended toward more chaotic/disturbed language, & storing it all in one place together allowed for me later to dig through & locate occasions for insertion of more transparent moments.


GL: One of the poems (on page 31) in MMV reveals that the speaker will “scope out possibility.” This seems like a kind of jazzy reworking of the lines from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, when Marcus Andronicus says to his reeling brother, Titus, “O brother, speak with possibilities, / And do not break into these deep extremes.” Your poems are often interested in running counter to Marcus’s advice, scoping out possibility through the deep extremes of travel and fractured correspondence. Could you say a little bit about how your poems try to “scope out possibility”? Do they do so by pursuing “deep extremes”? Or am I terribly, terribly wrong?


JF: You’re wonderfully right. It’s how I live in the thick of Danger that makes habitual, repetitive things seem extreme, even if, superficially, they are not. I’m grateful, with my left foot off the ground, my right stays put until the left returns. EACH TIME.


This is an exhausting way of life, ever mustering up the courage to confront & tamping down the urge of paralysis. & please don’t get me wrong—I live in an otherwise safe area, geographically, in relatively safe circumstances.


Here I speak of vaguer Danger, which warms me up exceedingly & acts as a telescope.


GL: MMV is a spitfire title, full of shattering evocations. Could you talk about the meanings you were trying to set in motion with this title, and why, at a certain point in the book, you use the title phrase but replace the word mined with mind? How important is the cohabitation of those two words for both the title and the book as a whole?


JF: Kudos for noticing the slight change from “mind” in the poem to Mined in the title.


The poem’s “mind” came first, & when the time came to name the beast, it became Mined.


The poems are written by a speaker on the go, moving through time, but also markedly through space (travelling). There needed to be speed in the title. Muzzles, of course, are interesting to anyone concerned with language/thought/sound—& muzzle velocity is just a crazy thing. Mine = possession, excavate, landmine, underground. Undermine, hoard. Muzzle on the mind to keep it from hurting & hurtling deep into space.


There: I’ve sketched out the actual thoughts involved with your question instead of trying to explain them indirectly. I hope that works!


GL: When you were writing these poems, did you have an escape project that let you work with something outside of the postcard poem? Or did you bind yourself to that form until the book was done?


JF: My escape project was living in New York City.


At the time, there was nothing else writing-related, except my usual correspondence (letters). I wanted to keep Dear & Yrs. close to me.


GL: So what have you been doing since MMV was published? What new poems and projects are afoot? What are you reading, writing, and thinking about these days?


JF: I’m reading an amalgamation of local news, poems, New Yorkers (which I applaud for consistently drawing me in on topics I might usually gloss over), & how-tos of beginning grant writing for non-profits.


I want to be more careful to take readers with me as I go these days. In my newer writing, I’m trying to lead you along, to show my thinking more, like a mathematical proof or a walk, take this step, are you with me?, now this one, etc., until you end up BAM with me somewhere new or at least stranger than you might have realized. Technically speaking, to accomplish this, I am gutting prose pieces I’ve written & making them poems. The line of thought is the framework; having it already in place is really helping me out.


Missing people, those ultimately found & not & not yet (which interest me in different capacities), have been on my mind these past months. I’m not sure what to make of this yet, but the thoughts will likely insinuate themselves into my new work somehow.

« Katie Hartsock | Contents | Genevieve Kaplan »