Magicholia: A Conversation with Jenny Grassl — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling: Your first book of poems, Magicholia, will soon launch from 3: A Taos Press. What would you like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?

JG: Thank you for asking! Magic, image, imagine, imago—The book celebrates magic as language, exploring a woman’s feelings of separation from the world. Poems tell about her journey, taking place in a time that has created climate change and misogyny, but also ordinary miracles. One poem asks, “Can survivors weave havoc with shine?” In the opening poem, a woman and her dress have vanished. The dress, in the landfill, is the speaker: “Let me tell you the desert in my off-the-shoulder slink—velvet yellow she wore me/ cat-lazed between her breasts...” Continuing with stories of mania, melancholia, and magic, the poetry investigates how magical thinking is the illness but also the cure: In the poem “Shan” the speaker asks, musing in a response to a letter from her enchanted but mentally ill friend, “Is the body all we can manage for a resurrection?/ There is a wing in a stone...”

Poems of re-imagined fairytales, Tarot, and Ouija board offer versions of a woman’s life in the shadow of father-kings and wedded princes. To convey her thoughts when silenced, for example, she opens her own glass coffin as Snow White. She inks tattoos of her story as Thousandfurs, and Briar Rose shouts from the rooftop. Mastering struggle (or mothering it) leads to transformation. The poems have the feel of opening in darkness, suggesting the woman’s emergence from both chrysalis and catacomb, releasing ghosts but also a new body.

KMD: I love the idea of poetry as magic, as conjuring in this work. It calls to mind a lineage of writers who conceived of voice as an alterity or otherness that speaks through the poet, that does not belong to him or her. For Homer, this otherness that speaks through the poet was the muses, for H.D., it was the unconscious mind, and for Jack Spicer it was radio waves from outer space. With that in mind, what is the relationship between poetry and alterity within your practice?

JG: Magic is a voice, allowing me to talk about difficult subjects. Words and fractured music are invocation. The Surrealists and Spiritualists used automatic writing to access magical realms. Although it is not strictly automatic writing, my poetry uses this automatic state of receptiveness to access worldly connections to the otherworldly, making it possible to speak at all. Talking about the end of the world requires altered language to adequately express it. This is the “thick speech” Robert MacFarland speaks of in The Underland. In certain poems I use an invented style harking back to Old English and German. This alterity feels necessary—strange enough to meet the content..

KMD: Your poems expertly use the page as a canvas, as a visual field. In a literary landscape filled with left-margined poetry, this experimentation and artistic risk is compelling. From a writerly standpoint, what are the advantages of using form and the space of page in such a way?

JG: I love talking about this. A visual field or landscape is a magical medium, where image and idea can touch or repel, and conduct electricity. The flow of the poem can also be given to the reader like a musical score—directions for pacing and meaning, via proximities and distances of words, lines, and stanzas. I want readers to swing as they read, an improvised rhythm from left to right and back by the eyes, enabling a trance-like movement, a beat beneath the content, a hypnotic pendulum.

KMD: What role does silence play in your poems? Can you tell us more about white space as a unit of composition within your work?

JG: White space equals time. The spaces between words, and between lines or stanzas are important pauses. Breath, silence—poems require time to experience. I always hope readers can abandon their scrolling minds to fully enter poems. Visually, white space is negative space, and we know from painting and sculpture that negative space tells its own story. It is active and can make or break a work of art. I like to think of silence as an entity, almost a character in the narrative. Isn’t everything we say ultimately like a lonely person in a timeless place? White space is a paradox, keeping time, but also separating us from the temporal. Often my poems are about the more troubling silence of women and the silence of the earth when mankind has vanished.

KMD: You are also an accomplished visual artist. What draws you to poetry as a medium, as opposed to photography or collage? What do the resources of poetry make uniquely possible?

JG: I love both poetry and visual art. I am excited that the book will include some of my woodcuts. The eyes and possibly the third eye are involved with the hand in the making. Poetry arrives uniquely from language spoken by the pink and vulnerable tongue. The hand holds the pen, connected directly to the tongue. I always read out loud as I work on a poem. This stimulates where things touch in the mind, differently than in visual art. The word “whale” might bloom branches of swallowing—Jonah, Moby Dick— that might touch fear, or awe, a whale cow nursing her calf. Maybe ‘whale’ also reaches your own bed, conjuring falling into a black hole, all of this a world on the tongue.  The arms and whole body motion can be involved in drawing, or even capturing a moving image in the camera. But you can’t taste this!

KMD: What else are you working on? What do readers have to look forward to?

JG: I am in a laboratory right now.  Between manuscripts, I am searching to find out what it is that preoccupies me. What moves me to write at all. It is actually a really exciting time. I do seem to be writing about the state of the world threaded through my own life. I explore the disconnect between news and the non-newsworthiness of the day-to-day personal.

Jenny Grassl lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her poems have appeared in Ocean State Review, Rogue Agent, and the Boston Review annual poetry contest, runner-up prize selected by Mary Jo Bang. She has published poems in Tupelo Quarterly, Bennington Review, Lana Turner Journal, Inverted Syntax, Puerto Del Sol, Massachusetts Review, and many others, and she was a finalist for Radar Poetry’s annual contest. Her poetry was featured in a Best of American Poetry blog. Her manuscript DEER WOMAN IN THE DINING ROOM was runner-up for a Tupelo Press open reading.