Whatever he was—for a moment—he flew: 
A Conversation with Jeffrey Thomson about Museum of Objects Burned by the Souls in Purgatory – curated by Tiffany Troy

Jeffrey Thomson is a poet, memoirist, translator, and editor, and the author of multiple books including: Half/Life: New and Selected Poems from Alice James Books (October 2019), the memoir fragile, The Belfast Notebooks, The Complete Poems of Catullus, and the edited collection From the Fishouse. He has been an NEA Fellow, the Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, and the Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Fellow at Brown University.  He is currently professor of creative writing at the University of Maine Farmington. 

Museum of Objects Burned by the Souls in Purgatory, his latest collection is titled after a small gallery of the same name found in Rome and devoted to mediations on religious relics and works of art. They explore the narrative power these objects carry—the way we imbue totemic figures with both meaning and story, and the potential they have to define the world.

Tiffany Troy: How does your opening poem, “The Foot of Mary Magdalene” set up the rest of the collection that follows? For me, the opening poem placed me in a world filled with reliquaries and monuments, and combined the biblical, mythical and historical.

Jeffrey Thomson: That was the first poem I wrote for this book, though I didn’t even know it was going to be a book. About five years ago, I was going to teach at the Convivio conference in Italy, and I brought my son with me. He had just graduated from high school. He wanted to go to the Vatican Museum, and it’s terrible, so I said we’re not going there. I said we can go to St. Peter’s. We went to St Peter’s. It was a blazing hot day and the line was two-hours long in the middle of the square to get in. We’re just walking back, and I see the Church of St. John the Baptist, and off on the one side is this beautiful silver bronze foot and inside are the bones from the foot of Mary Magdalene. It just really struck me. I went back and did some research and I started reading about Mary and historically what happened to her historically. There were stories I didn’t know like being set float in a boat with her sister and Lazarus. The poem just came kind of quickly from that. 

I’m glad that it sets you in the world because that’s important. This world is a little weird, a few oddities floating around in it. I didn’t put that poem first in the book because it was the first one I wrote, but because of some of the things you’re saying, and also because it ends in this space of uncertainty. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are uncertain about what their future holds and I thought that was important because hopefully these objects in the book are hopefully giving the reader a way into trying to find and think about the story in these objects. Then, hopefully the book moves from that kind of space toward a kind of resolution that’s the idea.

Tiffany Troy: My next question is related to what you just said about how the first poem in the collection ends in a question. Why the title Museum of Objects Burned by the Souls in Purgatory, which is also the title of a poem within the book? 

Jeffrey Thomson: There is actually a literal Museum of Objects Burned by the Souls in Purgatory in Rome, just a little bit north of the Vatican’s Church of the Sacred Heart of Suffering. By museum, I mean it’s a room not much bigger than a bedroom full of little objects some money a book or two, some clothing. It basically looks like a lot of these objects somebody drew fingers or hands on them with an old wine cork and a candle.

When I started thinking more about the project of the book as a project, I started going around to a lot of the churches in Rome and in other cities, looking for stuff like this. Just literally going in, looking, and seeing what’s there. It was really interesting because it feels to me that all these objects are about the desire for some sort of spiritual connection or contact. Even if the object is fake, the desire is real. That’s important. It’s just a compelling title to me. 

The purgatory part is interesting as well. I wasn’t thinking about purgatory as much as I started the book. But toward the end of my writing of the book, we were in the middle of that pandemic, which was a kind of purgatorial space. That gave this a kind of resonance. We are the ones looking for some kind of meaning or connection in this purgatorial space we’re in right now. That resonance is completely fortuitous—not that the pandemic is a good thing—but that resonance wasn’t there when I started. I just like the title.

Tiffany Troy: You have talked about how a lot of the poems are based on real places that you traveled to, including Italy. What is your process in writing the “found poems”?

Jeffrey Thomson: If you watch the way the found poems happen in the book, the first couple are real found poems, like the piece from the Egyptian Love Potion or the selection from Pliny. Those are real and I didn’t change those at all.

By the time you get to the middle and John Poch’s List of Forbidden Words poem, I start to change the found poem. And by the end, while there’s the found poem that’s just a poem about finding a poem, I’m trying to think about the way that the poem is also an object. If this is a museum of objects then the poems themselves are objects, carrying that same kind of desire as well.

I didn’t plan this, but the way it worked was that by the time I was done with the found poems, I felt like I could be more creative with the found-ness of them. And because the way the book moves that made sense to me. I had a bunch of other ones that got cut. I was just collecting things, like a magpie, collecting these shiny moments of things and then thinking how they might work as poems.

The Facebook found poem is an actual Facebook by my friend, Dan Salerno. The quarantine letter one is also a snippet from an email from my friend who translated by previous book of mine in Spain. So those are real, but the others are much more interested in the idea of found-ness and object-ness of the poem.

Tiffany Troy: What interests you the most about like incorporating the bible and myths in a way the story hasn’t been told before? 

I am interested in how your poems reimagine the self in the positionality or mindset of the reliquaries or personas. I also found interesting how you were able to basically combine meld the sight of the relic or the remains of the actual physical object with faith itself. 

Jeffrey Thomson: One of the rules that I gave myself is that I had to take the object seriously. I had to accept whatever it claimed to be it was. Sometimes that meant thinking about the object as itself. Other times, it meant thinking about what does an object like this mean for me.

There are four kinds of poems in the collection. One is the object poems. Others are tales, which are much more narrative, and in those poems, I tried to get into the voice of the characters more. “The Tale of the Holy Foreskin” poem or “The Tale of the Great Martyr Demetrius” are tales in which my life and biography comes into them more. Sometimes that’s just the process of the poems.

The object poems are often formally different and think about the object as an object. Then there are the found poems. Then there are later poems on the pandemic.

To go back to what I was saying before, taking them seriously means I really tried to inhabit the space that the object lived in. With almost every one of them, I had to go back and do research and read the stories behind it, because usually there’s more than one, and to find a way in. 

Because you’re absolutely right, I can’t just tell the story the same way it’s been told. That’s not interesting, because it’s already there, so why am I doing that? Take St Peter and Simon Magus, for instance, about these knee prints in the stone, which are a testament about Peter’s faith, when there is Simon Magus flying around. He could fly, but what’s that about? That was the moment of interest to me. 

Oftentimes, this is about the practice of creating the poem. Going from notes and going from here’s an object, the gridiron of St Lawrence or fingers of doubting Thomas, and how do I write about it differently? The poems in the first draft of the book were all pretty similar with a similar kind of voice, and the book felt really static to me. So I tried to find different voices and different entry points for each story so that didn’t feel here we’re just doing this again.

I have to find a way to that this matters to me somehow and sometimes the process of writing the poem is figuring out, why is this object speak to me out of all the objects in the world? Then finding my space in that story, whether by thinking about my life and its relation to the story, like the foreskin of Jesus with my son, or the Great Martyr Demitrius, about this guy who kissed me on the mouth at a party a long time ago, and took a lot of courage to do that.

In the Well of Mary, I found these horses. I don’t know why I was interested in the horses, but that interest gave me a way to tell the story.

Tiffany Troy: In some of your poems, you directly touch upon the etymology or origin of things. How does that shape specific poems or the collection overall?

Jeffrey Thomson: The question of entomology is really interesting because the book is about these objects right and the deep history that these objects carry. And all objects carry history. You could trace an object back to its factory or wherever it is made and think about the person who made it, and what that person’s life is like even if it’s you know, a lamp I bought at Target today. But these objects obviously have a more profound and deep history. In following that history, I’m also needing to follow the language of these pieces. 

Language has that too. If we think about the word “inspiration,” right, a word we think about when think about literature being inspired, that comes from the Latin which means “to breathed into.” “Inspirare,” and the idea that God breathes in the top of your head and out come the magic words, right? So for me, part of it is just tracing the pattern of the object, finding its story, and my relationship to that story.

Tracing the history of words and thinking about where the words come from and how they speak to us of this forked path of history and meaning. The objects do the same thing.

Tiffany Troy: I love how tracing the history of the words and objects parallel each other for you in your writing process.

What is writing for you? What is the role of the poet to you?

Jeffrey Thomson: Writing is a process of learning. I go into these moments or objects without knowing where I’m going to end up. I begin in one space and trying to end up in another.

I tunnel my way through lots of drafts, and think about the way that language works. I try to follow what the unconscious part of my brain wants, rather than the conscious part because the conscious part wants to be liked, for everybody to think I’m smart, but the unconscious part is where the interesting stuff happens. I try to follow that and think about the reader and what does the reader need. Where does the poem need help, or more information, better imagery or connective tissue? But the initial process is always just about discovery, learning, and moving and playing around with language.

The role of the poet is a harder question. We’re in this cultural space, where there is a lot of poetry and there are lots of lots of people writing really beautiful stuff. But the audience for poetry is really small. At the same time, people really do turn to poetry when they need nourishing in times of stress or times of grief or times of joy. We turn to poetry in funerals and wedding because it speaks to us in really deep and resonant ways.

I don’t know if I write with that in mind or that I’m that conscious of it. When I write, I’m really just trying to figure out what I think and know and I care about as I work through poems.

Maybe, then, the role of the poet is not something that I don’t get to decide, but we decide as a culture. We have a moment like with Amanda Gorman on the inauguration stage and people blow up in admiration of her and think about poetry in a new way. I think that’s a beautiful thing, and I’m really glad she did that. So hopefully, there’s more attention paid to poetry and poets. But it’s still very much a niche thing. Yeah?

Tiffany Troy: I was interested in the answer to this question because I was reading the “Tale of the Alphabet” where you wrote about the alphabet and the idea of how writing fixes the past and keeps the gods at bay.

I found it interesting because despite that, it’s almost seems as though your poems is like a way to see what is magical or the faith in these objects. I thought that is such a beautiful thing to do, and I think that you definitely sort of achieve that. So when you talked about the role of the poet, I’m thinking that even if it’s not a conscious process, you are writing towards something you are interested in, and that interest still reflects our idea of being a poet in that way.

Jeffrey Thomson: But I mean the “gods at bay” line was me thinking about Greek myth and the way that every time the gods get involved in a mortal’s life, even if they liked them, that just blow that mortal’s life right to hell. 

I’m interested in that moment of this is from that story I found in Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, which is a gorgeous retelling of a number of myths. But I’ve  always been interested in that moment, right before literacy, the last time when the gods sit down with humans. 

And the time before preliterate societies like culture that came up with the Iliad was a different kind of magical space. I think these objects in the book speak a lot about that pre-literate space of magic when the veil between two worlds was thinner. Each of these objects is some way about crossing that veil, about going back to a space into a space where the gods did sit down with you for a meal or the gods engaged with humans. That liminal space of transition interests me.

Tiffany Troy: What are you working on now? 

Jeffrey Thomson: I finished the final revisions for the book over the summer. I really revised this book I think harder than any other book that I’ve ever written partially because the forms of the poems are all very different and the forms need to be exactly right to make the poems work. Each poem needed its own set of rules.

At this moment, I have a novel that I’m trying to trying to finish and sell. I don’t have any new project yet and that’s okay. I’m very much a writer who wants a project. I don’t feel the need to make myself write anymore. I will come across something that I’m interested in, and because there’s lots of things that I’m ignorant about in the world, I will stumble upon it in some place and we’ll go from there. 

Tiffany Troy: Any closing thoughts for your readers?

Jeffrey Thomson: I just want to thank you for taking the time and for reading the book. I hope people are interested in a weird little book about magical objects and the Trojan War and the pandemic and finding faith in the smallest things.