Joan Tangle: A Conversation with Jenny Drai — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

KMD:  Thank you for honoring Tupelo Quarterly as a home for your work.  Can you tell us about the larger project that “Joan-Tangle” is culled from?

JD: First off, Kristina, thank you so much for giving my writing a home. I’ve been blown away by so much of the work I’ve encountered in Tupelo Quarterly and am honored to have my own work appear here. As for the larger project that “Joan-Tangle” is culled from, the answer is two-fold. First, the essay that appears in this issue of Tupelo Quarterly is an excerpt from a larger project, “Identity Exit,” which I have been working on in one form or another for over a decade. As a whole, “Identity Exit” uses the figure of Joan of Arc to explore the marginal space of hearing voices (in the psychological rather than purely psychiatric sense) and living with psychiatric illness, and then on top of that also engaging with and questioning gender. Going from there, I explore the idea of embracing identity at all...or rather, with the idea of notwanting to closely define identity because identity, like writing, can be hybrid and difficult to categorize and/or label. To be clear, I certainly take no issue with what those on the right (and sometimes the left) pooh-pooh as identity politics. Rather, my discomfort stems from a belief that no one should have to perform their identity (preferably in an easy-to-consume, relatable way)—or any aspect of marginalization—to get the attention and care they need and deserve.

“Identity Exit” is in turn part of a collection of hybrid writing, BEWILDERED PHYSICAL SPACES: ASSAYS. Experimental essays, poem sequences working as essays, a few more standard lyric essays, many blending autobiographical writing with meditations on literature, hagiography, art, etc. For example, I write about a personal loss in relation to reading the Old English poems “Wulf and Eadwacer” and “The Wife’s Lament,” then blend scholarly analysis of the monstrousness or lack thereof of Grendel and his mother in Beowulf with considerations of the un/monstrous in my own life and times, taking into account everything from terrifying hallucinations to misogyny in recent presidential elections. In other essays, I explore my own burgeoning sexuality in relation to the implicit warning against female sexual misbehavior present in Seamus Heaney’s famous poem “Punishment” (published in North, his collection about the bog people of Northern Europe), the act of using fashion and makeup to hide struggle in relation to the role of lavish clothing in the Lay of the Nibelungs, and the way so many of us—self certainly included—carry our family dynamics with us wherever we go in relation to the story of the Christian martyr St. Barbara, murdered by her pagan father. (The last, “the arm in the case,” was published in an earlier edition of Tupelo Quarterly.)

KMD:  Your previous books are marked by an archival sensibility and a commitment to literature as a corrective gesture. Oftentimes, the master narratives that circulate within history and culture are at the center of this artistic intervention.  How does this gorgeous new work relate to your previous books and projects?  

JD: In BEWILDERED PHYSICAL SPACES, I am very much interested in imbuing the realm of the personal with some quality we might consider epic—to use a literary term. (Which may be connected to the much-quoted adage that the personal is political.) I’m often struck by what I’ll call the sheer mass of history. Every square foot of earth we traverse—with perhaps some completely uninhabitable exceptions—has been traversed before by the people who called that place home, each with their own story, many lost to time. On a visit to Pompeii, I first had the very specific thought that each of those stories represents a human wish—maybe something about facing the suddenness of an end that came for everyone all at once and the visual representation of that end in the plaster casts. But why a wish? Because we all want something for ourselves or for the collective, right? Even in the face of near-to or totally insurmountable challenges. And therefore, whatever this thing history is consists of the extinguishing of these human wishes. That feels dangerous, sad.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I never considered historical events as dangerous before visiting Pompeii. I remember very vividly waking up one morning in 1989—I was thirteen years old—to learn that Nicolae Ceauşescu, the Communist dictator of Romania, had been executed by firing squad. (A photo taken after his execution was splashed across the front pages of most newspapers that day). In that moment, I was struck by my own relative physical safety as a member of the Romanian diaspora in contrast to the danger I imagined Romanians living in Romania faced during the (violent) revolution that brought about Ceauşescu’s overthrow. Then, at thirteen, history—and history-in-the-making in the specific example of the unfolding revolution—began to feel perilous to the extreme. Later, I came to understand there had/has always been plenty of peril in the United States for plenty of people. At the time, I just wasn’t exposed to it—due to racial and economic privilege but honestly also luck. A lot of this is what I wrote about in The History Worker.

Now though? I feel peril all around me. As if the vast majority of us are in danger of being lost to events beyond our control, whether social, geopolitical, economic, environmental, or even pathogenic (in the case of Covid). Despite how much we may desire to simply go about our lives and find ways to thrive. Thus, I come back to the idea of seeing/hearing history as this grand chorus of humans wishing. And the less powerful a person is/was, the more likely their wishes are/were to get lost—or be devalued—in the shuffle. I saw up close the results of this power imbalance on a grand scale—who gets to be the most human—while living in Germany during the refugee crisis. At first, Germany was swept up in Willkommenskultur (Culture of Welcoming), in no small part as a moral corrective to the Holocaust. The inherent worth of the refugees coming from Syria—of each refugee, this man, this woman, this child—was valued. But at some point, that changed and refugees began to be viewed by a growing contingent on the right (and sometimes the middle) as a troublesome horde. Who didn’t matter much at all other than how they could be made less troublesome or, preferably, shown the door. I see this same disregard (and outright racism) levied at migrants and asylum seekers entering the US at our southern border. And of course these are not the only two examples of this dynamic. Take the unfortunate necessity of and negative responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, the world tragedies that trend on social media versus those that don’t, and so on. It’s kind of an endless list, both within the US and abroad.

Mattering is the place I’m trying to write from in BEWILDERED PHYSICAL SPACES. By connecting stories from my own life and times to the epic or other long-standing narratives that have been assigned value by the collective, I think I’m saying: I would also like to matter. I would like us all to matter. In the collection, I write (among other things) about living with schizoaffective disorder, something I manage very well. I’m quote-unquote high-functioning. I do a bang-up job at self-care. Through therapy and a lot of hard work, I have tamed my more self-destructive impulses. But I am always conscious that in this politically charged, late-stage capitalist hellscape we inhabit, something drastic could occur—everything from the collapse of a personal safety net on the one hand to the disruption of the medical and pharmaceutical system due to a civil war on the other—and then I could very easily not make it. And I know full well I am not alone here. But I want to survive. In fact, I wantto thrive. Probably most of us do. These feelings are not original, and yet they are mighty. All of my writing—I think—stems from this place. Of beginning with the mighty and combing through the archive—to borrow your term—in search of a framework to create meaning and sense. And then, hopefully, to find comfort as well. Even in my first publication from Black Lawrence Press, The New Sorrow Is Less Than the Old Sorrow (which lands somewhere between prose poetry and autofiction)...well, there’s this au pair in Germany and she’s young and in love and it’s all very Sturm und Drang and she finds something to connect to in The Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther was pretty sad too. In fact, he died because he was sad. But Goethe? He lived. Finding and describing ways to live are where my literary interests lie.

KMD:  You have an impressive mastery of hybrid literary forms.  How do you define hybridity and what does it mean to you within the context of your artistic practice?   

JD: On the one hand, I think an argument can fairly be made that the very nature of hybridity defies definition. That such defiance—or to use a term less laden with confrontation, such circumvention—might even be the point. On the other hand, I do tend to think of the term hybrid as indicative in some way of the texture of the writing itself...a kind of delicious in-between quality. Is-it-a-poem-is-it-prose-who-cares? Perhaps more importantly though, the notion of hybridity offers a way to approach a piece of writing outside of the framework of genre. Rather than ask what a piece is, a better, more useful question might be: what tools does the piece use and what are its ends? In general, I like things that defy any easy label or description as long as the writing feels like it has organically found the right form. I feel at home in that space, reading and/or making.

In terms of my own artistic practice, hybridity and making new and re/invention are also just plain fun. I’m definitely in love with the process as much as with any results. I really don’t like feeling misery, so I doubt I would write if I didn’t enjoy it. And I also very much enjoy the process of figuring a thing out (in general, not just in my writing life). So maybe I regard each generative idea as the beginning of a new puzzle. All of my formal training is as a poet, and within poetry there is very much this idea of trying to find the ideal marriage of form and content. In my own experience, part—maybe even a huge part—of engaging with hybrid literary forms has meant extending that ideal of the perfect blending of form and content to prose. Or even to genre itself. The term essay famously comes from assay, to try. So what other ways/forms/modes of trying can we create as we write about ideas and in such a way that the ideas we write about also show up in the frame? This is, in my view, very exciting terrain.

KMD:  The poet Myung Mi Kim once said that liminal textual spaces are conducive to risk and experimentation because there is less pressure on them. For you as a creative practitioner, what are some of the unique possibilities of the spaces between established genres?

JD: Building on my answer to the previous question, those spaces have allowed me to apply the process of blending form with content/function in written spaces beyond poetry and thus to show the sheer activity inherent in any piece of creative writing. Even before I started messing with hybridity, I found myself drawn to experimentation within established genres. While in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College of California, I started thinking a lot about the idea of rupture within seamlessness. Of the doors I could open by showing the work of how something gets made and thereby never allowing the polished or “finished” quality of a made thing—in the case of graduate school, a poem—to be taken for granted.

For various reasons—some related to autobiography as I recovered not just from a literal instance of the sideway-ness and trauma of psychosis, but also, more generally, from the social condition of being ill—I wanted to demonstrate that no syntax, no form, no genre, no whatever happens automatically regardless of how natural or organic the final result appears. In order to stress the fluidity and simultaneously thework/tension of the thing. That a piece of writing is not a static entity, no matter how physically still it lies on the page, but rather a site of constant, never-ending action. (Much like the mostly invisible work it takes to exist as a neuroatypical person in this world.) As a result, a short story or poem or essay or whatever else has in my experience often expanded beyond the expected outlines of those genres in a way that loosens and questions the idea of genre at all. Who knows? Maybe the forms and spaces I’ve found to work/write in—and maybe even live in—have been formed within the pressure Myung Mi Kim spoke of.

KMD:  Can you speak to the relationship between feminism and hybrid literary forms?  

JD: I’m not well-versed in any theoretical understanding of this relationship but I suspect the reason one exists is because as we dismantle and divest from literary forms of patriarchy, we are naturally drawn to building something new in the space that then opens up. Instead of making sense—by which I mean, writing into a well-established form or parameter—we’re instead forging a whole new version of sense on an anvil of our own creation. As feminism reimagines a world without patriarchy, hybrid literary forms question the clear boundaries that previously existed between long-established genres. For so long, many of us were told (whether explicitly in workshops, implicitly by journal editors or book publishers, or in all the spaces in between)...a poem is, a story/novel is, an essay is. Etcetera. But the very notion of hybridity works to dismantle those definitions. Just as feminism at its best offers liberatory promises, experimenting with form and voice as we move away from strict delineations between genre and explore the spaces in between and/or blow up the concept of genre altogether can provide a sense of freedom almost akin to elation. At least, that has certainly been my experience.

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What else can readers look forward to?

JD: Oh my goodness, well, first off I’ve got a few things in the can. A recently completed short story collection in which my protagonists travel deep into personal memory and cultural stories—literature, fairy tales, history—as they unleash their imaginations to confront and sometimes overcome the often confusing circumstances of their lives. Then there’s a novel I’m putting the finishing touches on—drawing from “Beowulf” and “Wulf and Eadwacer”—about a king and his estranged foster daughter who have to find their way back to each other in order to heal the crumbling natural order around them. Then of course there’s BEWILDERED PHYSICAL SPACES.

In terms of what’s next, I’ve been jotting down ideas for a novel that is kind of an extension of my short story, “The Fox Princesses,” published in Alaska Quarterly Review and concerning a violent incident between two friends, one of whom is unwell. I find it concerning that we don’t seem able as a culture to have any kind of sensible or sensitive discussion about what to do in the rare cases when mental illness and violence are connected. Either the sick person is demonized—after all, we live in a country where individuals have been put to death for committing homicide while actively experiencing psychotic symptoms—or the discussion gets shut down altogether by some essentially well-meaning person quoting the (accurate) statistic about how only five percent of mentally ill people engage in violence and those diagnosed with mental illness are much likelier to be victims rather than perpetrators of crime. I’d like to go beyond that to explore how lack of care and regard for the sick person is often part of the picture when things go disastrously wrong. And that when violence stems from—say—paranoia or fear, the very skewed logic behind the act is often self-defense. Finally, to ask if it’s possible to access empathy and compassion for those perpetrators even as we address the behavior in question and hold them accountable while honoring and caring for the victims. Finally, in terms of poetry, I’m happy to say I’ll be participating in the Tupelo 30/30 program in January 2024.


Jenny Drai is the author of three collections of poetry—[the door] (Trembling Pillow Press) and Wine Dark and The History Worker (both from Black Lawrence Press)—as well as the chapbooks The Old Sorrow Is Less Than the New Sorrow (Black Lawrence Press) and :Body Wolf: (Horse Less Press). An early novella, Letters to Quince, was awarded the Deerbird Novella Prize and published by Artistically Declined Press. More recently, her short stories, essays, and hybrid pieces have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and OmniVerse, among other journals. Another story, “A Brief History of One Bath,” was awarded the Gail B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction and published in Pleiades Magazine. She is online at and also publishes Allerlei, an occasional Substack rounding up her favorite books, movies/TV, podcasts, cookbooks, etc.