“What does it feel like to know you’re talking to god”: A Conversation with J.D. Schraffenberger on American Sad” – curated by Wendy Chen

American Sad by J.D. Schraffenberger is one of the most moving chapbooks I’ve read in a long time. Published this January through Main Street Rag, the collection reckons with a complicated family history, questions the grief we inherit from loved ones and the world around us, and considers the possibility of rebirth and belief through the weight of our sadness. I had the opportunity to ask Schraffenberger a few questions about the process of putting together such a stunning work.

Wendy Chen: The poet Dan O’Brien describes American Sad as “oracular,” a term I find most fitting for the collection. The poems move with such visionary grace in their descriptions of apocalyptic landscapes, landscapes that are entangled with brutal truths about mental illness and grief. Were there any poems that were particularly difficult to write for you?

J.D. Schraffenberger: Most of these poems were difficult for me to write, which was one of my goals in writing them. That is, in some of my previous work I felt I was more or less in control, not only of the craft but also the material, ideas, and so on. Letting go and giving up control is scary, leading me to dark scenes, to nightmare, and yes to apocalypse. The hard poems for me to write are always the ones that end up mining those events from my past that I would rather ignore, much of which revolves around death and suicide. One instance is in the poem “Smell,” which wanders back and back into deep memory, including a vision of my grandmother who died in an assisted living home in what I think is a particularly brutal way. Among other things, she was suffering from dementia, and so this relatively simple line kills me for some reason: “She knew who she was to the end but didn’t know why.”

WC: It’s such a heartbreaking line, and particularly poignant to me as someone who has witnessed a loved one suffer from dementia. One of the qualities I admire so much about this chapbook was indeed its fearlessness in witnessing the devastating moments of life.

I was particularly struck by the sense of rhythm in all of your poems. To return to the description “oracular,” reading this collection feels as though we are hearing these poems as oracles spoken aloud to us. Does the rhythm come first for you when composing poems? Or some other quality?

JDS: I don’t know if rhythm comes to me so much as I am always trying to go to it—and I’m not just trying to be clever! Perhaps in those more “controlled” books I mentioned I knew the rhythm I would be entering into because I was steeped in certain received forms. Even if I wasn’t writing a sonnet, I carried the ghost of a sonnet’s music with me to the page. With American Sad I always felt like I was chasing the music, never able to fully catch up but occasionally running in unison.  

WC: One of the poems that have remained with me is “Roadkill,” a poem about animals rising up from death. “There’s a reason the roadside dead have returned,” you write, “They’re telling us a story of the end of the world[.]” Much of the collection feels like it is telling us this very story about “the end of the world” or about endings in various forms. So often, endings, as you make clear, are not really endings at all—but a jumping off point for resurrection or new possibilities. What is it about the subject of endings that draws your attention? How do you think about endings within your work?

JDS: Yes! I’m so happy that this poem has stayed with you—just as images of roadkill stay with me and can be if you open yourself up to the experience, quite beautiful and pitiful and awful and perfect. We are constantly confronted with little scenes of death, the bodies of animals splayed and contorted, blood streaked on the pavement. And yet we are all somehow able to make it to work on time and pretend that we didn’t just witness some terrible and artful image of suffering, of death. I’m not being morbid—or maybe I am—but these mundane animal deaths remind me of all of the other deaths we witness and experience: personal, cultural, planetary. Perhaps I have a naturally eschatological soul, but I’m drawn to endings as the things that so often frame and give meaning to our lives, in the same way they give meaning to narrative. I am obsessed, for instance, with learning the last words of famous people—as though there might be some magic we can learn, not about the afterlife but about this life. In one of my poems I say, “The only reason to tell a story is to get to the end,” and I believe that. We say Once upon a time because we want to hear happily ever after. Maybe I’m making this up, but I seem to recall reading somewhere that John Updike said all stories should end with this sentiment: And nothing was ever the same. In this way, you’re right, I see endings inevitably as beginnings as well.

WC: In American Sad, you begin with “Kitchen,” a poem about that explores the landscape of the family kitchen and intergenerational memories, and ends on “Church,” a poem about grief, faith, and belief. These two poems frame the collection beautifully: “Kitchen” invites the reader into the family house, while “Church” opens up the collection for us. How do you choose how to begin or end a collection? Are there any collections that begin or end in a manner you particularly admire?

JDS: Thanks so much for your kind words, Wendy. When an artist’s work ends up in the hands of readers like you, it’s a reminder of why we do what we do. Let me first mention a recent book that I think begins and ends brilliantly. Since you mentioned Dan O’Brien, let me recommend his latest, Survivor’s Notebook from Acre Books, a collection of prose poems that chronicles his recovery from cancer. The first poem is called “Good Friday,” and the last is “Afterword.” 

As to framing the collection as a whole, I’m thinking about a class I taught once in which I had students read the first five pages of more than a hundred novels, one each from 1900 forward. It was an experiment. I wanted us to study how novels open, what elements or techniques recur, what craft choices writers made that they would not make in the middle or end, how novel beginnings changed through time. One image that tended to recur was a window, which I read as a symbol for exactly what you’re talking about: an invitation into a domestic space, in this case, a kitchen. Importantly, it was not only an invitation to the reader but an invitation to myself as a writer as I wandered through this personally iconic space in mind. Another similar space is the church. In this case, I felt like the chapbook needed to end more softly. It’s not a hopeful poem, but it acknowledges the desire to access the divine as a way to stave off despair. “What does it feel like to know you’re talking to god,” I ask because, well, I don’t know.

WC: That sounds like an incredible class—one that I wish I had taken myself! One of the most enthralling aspects of this chapbook is how you are able to create a whole world with your poems—a world filled with the wilderness of childhood and monstrous animals. Images and symbols return again and again: packs of dogs, scissors, pianos. How do you think about world-building within your poems or across a collection?

JDS: We usually don’t think of world-building as poets, but perhaps some of the lessons from novelists hold true for us, too. I think the most important element of building a world is to communicate the rules of the reality the reader is about to enter. In my case, the poems announce early and often that American Sad operates in a world of dream, or more specifically, nightmare—in fact, I used to refer to these as my “nightmare poems.” In dream worlds, causes and effects are muddled, logic is skewed, memories mashed together. Regardless, when building a world for a reader, there will inevitably be places that become more familiar even while they retain their strangeness, like the images of dogs and pianos, for instance.

WC: I’m so glad you mentioned dreams and dream logic, which is certainly another aspect that drew me into this collection. I’ve been interested in exploring dream logic as a framework for poems and taught a class on that subject last semester. Your work captures the movement of dream logic—the certainty in the voice of your poems, the sense of inevitability without predictability, the feeling that whatever happens cannot be stopped. It’s a very interesting magic your work weaves.

How do you structure or compose a chapbook differently from a full-length collection? For you, what are the main differences between the two forms? Do you have any advice for those who are putting together a chapbook?

JDS: Because chapbooks are shorter, I think they become more precious—and I mean precious unironically. Each poem is all the more valuable because there are only so many of them. In my case, I felt that the poems were fairly intense. After all, I’ve invited the reader into a world of nightmare! I don’t know if that intensity could be sustained for the duration of a full-length collection. There would necessarily have to be rests and shifts of some kind to sustain a reader’s attention—or their patience. I hope new writers especially will consider the chapbook a valuable form unto itself. If you have any doubts, just read Frank Bidart’s brilliant Music Like Dirt, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize more than twenty years ago. I think that served to legitimize the chapbook as a form in the larger literary world. My only advice for putting together a chapbook is to allow the compressed space to work in your favor, whether that means composing a sequence, a narrative, or in my case, what I would call a cluster.

WC: What was the revision process like for this collection? What poems were particularly difficult to revise?

JDS: Like many poets, I can be an obsessive reviser. For American Sad, however, my goal was to compose the poems by allowing my unconscious mind to guide me, much like a prose poem—or at least the strand of prose poetry we’ve inherited from the French Symbolists. In fact, I’ve come to think of these poems as lineated prose poems, which sounds perverse, I know, but I embrace my perversion! I don’t believe prose poems are actually defined by their lack of lineation. Rather, they’re defined, I think, by a prevalence of a certain kind of syntax marked by parallelism, resulting in what rhetoricians would call a “running style.” The effect of this kind of style is to capture the mind in the midst of cognition, perception, intellection, and so forth. That is, the sometimes hurried breathlessness of the style is not a matter of sloppiness. Rather, it mimics the tumbling forth of image and memory and emotion and sensation without the luxury of time to go back and revise, to craft an elegant sentence, or to stylize the language so that it’s fit for company. It was vital for me, therefore, to revise without losing the trace of the process, without smoothing out too many edges. This is one of the reasons why there is no punctuation at all, not because I don’t have a sense of the grammar in mind—and not to confuse the reader—but to retain that sense staying in that mental moment.

WC: That is so striking that you conceive of these poems as lineated prose poems, and it makes me think of the connection between prose poems and dream logic. The editor of the Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, Jeremy Noel-Tod said in a podcast with Claudia Rankine that prose poems “often seem to narrate a dream world. That the prose poem often begins in some form of waking life and ends up in a fantasy world. And I think that prose is suited to that trick that dreams play on you of thinking that you’re awake.”

The lyricism of your work reminded me at times of Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins, a personal favorite, or the work of Anne Carson. What writers or voices influenced the poems in this chapbook?

JDS: I love both of those writers, so it’s honor to be mentioned in the same breath. The question of influence is fraught, not in an “anxiety of influence” way but in a “your guess is as good as mine” way. However, it’s clear that some influences are deep-seated and therefore unavoidable, like Whitman. Some little allusions to Eliot and Dickinson pop up here and there in the poems, but they’re more like dinner guests than influences, stylistically at least. I think Berryman’s Dream Songs find expression here, and a friend sensed the influence Phil Levine on these poems, and he has certainly been an important figure for me. As you can tell, I’m a product of the American tradition! But I was glad when you mentioned Zbigniew Herbert in a previous conversation we had. I’m thinking of his Mr. Cogito poems. “Go where those others went to the dark boundary / for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize.” I could do worse than go that dark boundary myself.

WC: What are you reading now?

JDS: I loved Percival Everett’s Erasure years ago when I read it. Because of the film version that was nominated for an Oscar this year, he’s getting a lot of attention for his new novel James, which tells the story of Jim from Huck Finn. So at this moment I am in the middle of re-reading Huck Finn in preparation to read James.

WC: What projects are you working on next?

JDS: Speaking of novels, I’m in the midst of writing one! And I know for a fact that poets can also write novels because you have proven it yourself, Wendy, with your forthcoming novel Their Divine Fires, which I have pre-ordered and look forward to reading when it comes out. In addition to that, I’ve been working on an essay that may end up becoming a memoir about passing out, which I have done countless times in my life, suffering from what’s called vasovagal syncope. I’ve also begun writing another cluster of poems that are similar in tone to American Sad but much less autobiographical and I hope funnier. Some people will be happy to learn that I’ve begun using punctuation again.

J. D. Schraffenberger is editor of the North American Review and a professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of two books of poems, Saint Joe’s Passion and The Waxen Poor. His other work has appeared in Best of Brevity, Best Creative Nonfiction, Mid-American Review, Notre Dame Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He lives in Iowa with his wife, the novelist Adrianne Finlay, and their two young daughters.

Wendy Chen is the author of the novel Their Divine Fires (out May 7, 2024 from Algonquin Books) and the poetry collection Unearthings (Tavern Books). Her translations of Song-dynasty woman writer Li Qingzhao are forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2025 in a collection titled The Magpie at Night.