Once upon a time: Jessica Young

JessicaYoung

Photo © Jessica Young

Every so often we talk to past Structo authors about what they’ve been up to since appearing in the magazine. The latest in this irregular series sees poetry editor Matthew Landrum talk to issue eight poet Jessica Young.

Your poetry appeared in issue eight last summer. A book release, publications, relocation – a lot has happened since then. Could you tell us about some of your recent opportunities and happenings?

My biggest happening has been finalizing everything with Alice’s Sister (WordTech, September 2013), my book that re-envisions Alice in Wonderland.  Working with my editor, we uncovered some anachronisms (e.g., technologies and musical composers from the wrong generation) and place-issues (e.g., cicadas and trilliums popping up where they don’t naturally occur) So it’s been a process of carefully combing and re-combing through the whole book to ensure that each detail belongs.  Suffice it to say that I’ve learned a lot about mid-19th century England!

Interesting! Anachronisms are something I’ve never had to think about while writing poetry. I imagine several of the pieces where this occurred had already been printed in literary magazines. Was it difficult reworking lines or sections of poetry long after you had finished the manuscript? 

Reworking certain poems long after finishing the manuscript—and yes, after publishing maybe a third of it in literary magazines—was both difficult and surprisingly easy.

The surprisingly easy part was the emotional distance I developed from the material.  At first, I was so attached to all of it.  The thought of changing even a single phrase was unfathomable.  I had crafted it so tightly.  But then as the months passed and I moved on to other projects, I lost that attachment.  In my final rounds with my editor, I was not only open to changing parts, but eager to do so.  I took out or reworked entire poems, reordered what was left, tweaked individual lines, etc.  I watched the manuscript improve with those changes, which offered reinforcement.

The hard part was how much of it needed attention.  These anachronisms… they came up everywhere.  No matter how many times I went through the manuscript, I found more of them.  A piano with 88 tuned keys?  Wait, when did pianos get 88 keys? or I use the word ‘tattle-tale’, but that sounds too new. What’s the etymology of tattle-tale?  When every other word or idea might be a problem, it’s tricky to stop scrutinizing.  I finally had to admit to myself that it was endless—that I could read my book, day in and day out, for the rest of my life and always find something that needs work.  And at some point I just had to give it the okay.

Releasing like that is scary.  We want people to love our books, and we also imagine them reading our work and judging it, and perhaps judging us based on it. This means that there is pressure to craft something flawless and beautiful.  I recognized quickly that flawlessness is an impossibility, and that whether or not readers find beauty in my book is largely beyond my control, so really I wanted to make sure that I didn’t over-edit to the point that I stopped seeing the beauty in my own words and story.  I’m really proud of myself for that, and it makes me even more excited for the book to come out.  The book took more work than I ever imagined, but it’s better because of that work, and I’ve come to feel deep affection for it and its characters.

This manuscript seems like a very specific conceptual undertaking. Were you writing non-Alician poetry at the same time? Are there ideas you had to put on hold or big concepts you would like to tackle going forward?

In the time between writing Alice’s Sister and editing it closer to the publication date, I started on a whole new project that seems to have fallen flat.  It was to be a series of astronomy poems, but I ended up feeling like the whole concept was a little forced.  I had a dozen poems that worked, but couldn’t get beyond that.  So I stopped pushing myself with the thought that maybe one day I’ll pick it back up.  I hope I do!

In the meantime, I’m writing whatever comes to me.  And really, more than working on a specific project, I’m trying to just improve my general writing skills.  I feel like I tend to write these really looooong and ruminative poems, so I’ve been working on shorter forms.  Likewise many of my poems are in the first person point of view, even when fictional, so I’ve been trying to work my way out of relying on the “I.”  There is, simply, so much left to learn and work on.

What’s next after the book comes out?

From here, my hope is to take a little time to enjoy the feeling of publication.  Host some readings, hold the book in my hand, gaze at it on my shelf, etc.  And then, back in!  I have a lot of poems that are not linked by a plot or characters the way Alice’s Sister is; each one is narrative, but each exists as an individual poem.  I’d like to wade through them and see if there’s something larger there.

With that said, working with an overall narrative structure ended up being this absolutely thrilling experience. So I’m tempted to choose a new story and just pick it apart and build it back up, as I did Alice in Wonderland.  Beyond just having fun with it, myself, I do believe that there’s something truly special about poetry books with an overarching narrative.  I love that they bridge so many worlds–the accessibility of story, the beauty of poetry–and feel that they are thus open to more readers.  And it seems like inviting people to read more, especially to read more poetry, is a worthwhile and important endeavour.

So I guess for now the best I can say is: Time will tell!

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