Tell me how your first book, Racing Hummingbirds, happened. I heard something about a silver medal.

After seeing a performance of mine, the President of Write Bloody Publishing invited me to submit to their annual blind-read book contest. The competition was steep, judged only for ten pages of material, and I was shocked to learn I’d made the final round. The full manuscript went out soon after and the months of nail-biting began. The fact I was ultimately named among the winners – and would have my first book published by the age of 35 – was astounding. I had assumed I wouldn’t “become a writer” until retirement.

The silver medal was dreamlike. I did not learn that Write Bloody had submitted my book for consideration for the Independent Publisher Book Award until I was announced as a finalist. The President of Write Bloody let me know via email – I read it on my phone and stood on a street corner in Midtown, crying. Within a few weeks, we learned that Racing Hummingbirds had earned the silver medal for poetry and I was invited to an awards ceremony. I brought along my editing team, we over-indulged in free champagne, and I wore the medal around my neck through the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn all night. Luckily, I didn’t cry that time, though my editors did. (Thank you, champagne.)

 

I hear the cover art for Racing Hummingbirds was a fairytale. How so?

Fairytale indeed. I mentioned one of my favorite visual artists, Tyson Schroeder – whom I did not know – in an interview at PANK. Tyson apparently received a Google alert that he had been mentioned in the article and he clicked through to read my poems. He contacted me to say he liked the poems and, after I peeled my giddy self off the carpet, I decided to ask the big question. The cover art had not yet been selected for Racing Hummingbirds, so I sheepishly queried if he would consider reading the manuscript and generating art for the cover – even though my small press could pay only marginally for his work. Luckily, he liked the few poems he’d read at PANK so much, he nearly leapt at the opportunity. Within days, he sent six designs. I narrowed to two favorites but couldn’t decide between them, so I asked Write Bloody to allow one each for the front and back covers. Win, win, and win. Tyson and I remain friends and have plans to collaborate on a children’s book in the future. [Swoon.]

 

What is next?

I am currently working on a new manuscript, another poetry collection. Recently, my life has taken some dramatic and unexpected turns, bringing me to an unexpected flurry of new work. The poems tell the story of a single turbulent year. The manuscript is now sitting with editors, awaiting next steps. Exciting.

I continue to run the Urbana Poetry Slam reading series at Bowery Poetry Club, continue to serve as a poetry editor for Union Station Magazine, and am trying to gauge the feasibility of crafting a one-woman show (I have a handful of peers who brought the idea to me a year ago, and I’ve been hedging). Where writing for the page is concerned, I hope (as mentioned) to begin collaborating with Tyson Schroeder on a children’s book, and have two stale pieces of long fiction which I would like to give some attention.

 

As a poet becoming noted for her “dark side,” some assume you dismiss celebratory poetry. Do you? What about comedic poetry?

I envy artists who can convey hope. This sounds trite even in writing it, but I am serious. I try to write a carpe diem poem and it feels false and contrived. I envy the optimists their optimism. It isn’t that I’m a dragging sadsack in real life, I’m actually kind of spirited – I just haven’t developed the skill for writing those details out with any real success. Funny poems are my greatest envy. I relish the moments I laugh aloud on the subway while reading a poem – a poem! It makes me shake an angry, ironic fist.

 

Regarding your new manuscript, you’ve adopted a line from a poem in Racing Hummingbirds as its title. How does that work and how has that informed the structure of the new collection?

The line, “Said the Manic to the Muse,” was the alternate title for my first book, appearing in a poem which examines the life of a woman who died at a psychiatric hospital in Brooklyn in 2008. As this entire collection deals with various dynamics of mental illness, specifically those relating to manic depression, I felt the title better represents this manuscript. The collection is structured in three sections, subtitled by names of female archetypes who serve as muses, (Medea, Jezebel, and Kali). The poems communicate in two ways: first, the collection as a whole is a near-chronological telling of one tumultuous year in my life, detailing chaotic episodes of mania, depression, and psychosis. Second, each section relates directly to its muse. Whether real, literary, or mythological, each of the selected muses are best known for their less-favorable attributes, despite being incredibly complex figures. The poems ask the reader to question the unexplored sides of these figures—and the author.

 

When your first book was released, you were asked about the brutality that exists in your poetry. Gruesome imagery seems to have compounded in the new manuscript. Why is that? Is there hope or light in these new pages?

I find it – for lack of a better term – fun to describe difficult situations with a bit of macabre. Further, using physical brutality as metaphor for psychological undoing is incredibly functional. Where it is virtually impossible to rightly describe the inner workings of any mind, let alone the tortured one, offering detailed imagery through extended metaphor pushes the reader (one hopes) toward a visceral reaction. The goal is to illuminate psychological and emotional damage through jarring physical imagery. Ironic as it may be, I find some of the humor and light in this new collection to be directly associated with the gruesome. Absurdist, if you will. And yes, there are still other poems which spring hope – even humor – without any gore.

 

Where some tackle feminist issues largely from sociopolitical perspectives rather than by sharing personal experience, your work predominately emerges from the latter. How would you separate your work from the typical feminist collection? Would you claim a distinction at all?

I suppose I don’t have the choice but to claim some distinction. However, I also don’t view myself as an expressly feminist writer. I write feminist as much as I write punk rock or redhead or drama geek or trailer park. Simply, as a feminist, the undercurrent of such in my voice is never far from the surface. Where craft is concerned, as a reader I am personally always more moved by show over tell. Where rhetoric often states, personal situations illustrate – allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. I long to read human before politics because politics only exists through the human condition, and I prefer to sit at the core. I hope my work communicates in a similar way.

 

You’ve studied theatre, and apart from performance poetry it seems as if you’ve walked away from that part of your life. How did that transition come about and how has it allowed you to access the emotion when reading/performing your poetry?

Like many actors, I moved to New York eager, ready to sit in long cattle call audition lines and wander through studios slinging headshots. While I typically claim that life-things took over (i.e., divorce, finances, etc.), I must also admit that I just burned out. The hustle must be as enjoyable as the reward and for me, it was taxing. However, the education and experience I have in theatre informs everything I do on stage. While I’m certainly not “acting” during poems – the character is obviously myself, not one I have to spend time preparing to become – the functions of timing, facial expression, vocal nuance and emphasis, beats, and even basic projection greatly assist my performances of poems. I can more readily see where a poem needs a certain amount of push or pull – pinpointing the emotional root and working to deliver it cleanly. My theatre experience has also helped with stage presence and curbing nerves (the jitters never go away, but can become less debilitating with time and experience). As with all craft, I have a long way to go.

 

You say you collect tattoos – I’m most curious about your poetry tattoos. Whose lines of poetry? Which is your favorite?

The collected poets (so far) are: Marty McConnell, Eboni Hogan, John Murillo, Angel Nafis, two “anonymous” writers, and, yes, I admit I also have one of my own lines. (It was the first of my text tattoos – I wanted to break the unspoken rules boldly.) After that, I didn’t want to stop. Each line is tattooed in a different style font – and my right arm is starting to look like a magazine-cutout ransom note, which delights me. Whenever I run into a line that punches me in the sternum, I know I’ve found the next collectable. Author reactions vary. Some are charmed by their inclusion, others seem wildly uncomfortable. What can I say? I’m a creep.

Arguably, they are all favorites because I went so far as to have them permanently put on my body. My current favorite line is neither poetry nor tattooed. From Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, the line that clocked me in the jaw: “…it looks like clinging to an anvil in the middle of the sea.” Because of its notoriety, I’m unsure if I’ll have it tattooed or not—but, probably.

 

Why are you asking yourself questions to which you already know the answers?

[Toes the ground.] [Shrugs.] I dunno. TNB asked and I—uhm, well… I’m not good at “no.”

 

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JEANANN VERLEE is a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellow and the author of three books: prey, finalist for the Benjamin Saltman Award (Black Lawrence, 2018); Said the Manic to the Muse (Write Bloody, 2015); and Racing Hummingbirds, silver medal winner in the Independent Publisher Awards (Write Bloody, 2010). She is a recipient of the Third Coast Poetry Prize and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize. Her poems and essays appear in a number of journals, including Adroit, BOAAT, BuzzFeed, VIDA, and Muzzle. She has served as poetry editor for Winter Tangerine Review and Union Station, among others, and as copy editor for multiple individual collections. Verlee performs and facilitates workshops at schools, theatres, libraries, bookstores, and dive bars across North America. She collects tattoos, kisses Rottweilers, and believes in you. Find her at jeanannverlee.com.

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