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Autobiography in ten words.

Brawled my way into the world. Survive is my language.

 

Let’s have a quick look at some favorite things. Favorite-ever reads?

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
Up Jump the Boogie by John Murillo
wine for a shotgun by Marty McConnell
Pink Elephant by Rachel McKibbens
“Self-Portrait Of The Artist As Ungrateful Black Writer” by Saeed Jones
“Brown Boy Dichotomy” by Ian Khadan
Pretty much everything by Syreeta McFadden, Ocean Vuong, and Adam Falkner

 

Films?

The Triplets of Belleville, SLC Punk!, The Point, Santa Sangre, The Color Purple, Malcom X, American History X, Red Belt

 

Visual artists?

Tyson Schroeder, Kris Kuksi, Elizabeth McGrath, Michael Hussar, Courtney Brims, Heiko Müller, David Ayllon, Olivier De Sagazan

 

You have a tattoo collection of favorite lines of poetry and other literature on your arm. What lines, and whose? Are you done?

“I am a city of yeses” – Marty McConnell
“our mouths are churchyards” – Eboni Hogan
“the third voice is screaming” – Robyn Davidson
“she is sure as gravity” – John Murillo
“trying to hold the moon because he is the only one without hands” – (the first, my own *cough cough*)
“I, the corset and the rouge” – Angel Nafis
“infinite worth” – Tyson Schroeder
“no one makes it out alive” – Jon Sands
“the heart lies to itself because it must” – Jack Gilbert
“Milagro” – Dodi Espinosa
“bees in the milk” – Shira Erlichman
“clinging to an anvil in the middle of the sea” – Nick Flynn

…And no—so much literature, so little skin!

 

Favorite word?

Autonomy.

 

Last one, for kicks. Favorite eats?

Frank’s Red Hot. Chiles Rellenos. Tacos. Falafels. Tzatziki. Sigara Borek. Cacio Pepe. Pasta forever. Curries. Curries. Curries. Also, Doritos.

 

Ok, let’s get focused. Both your first and second books, Racing Hummingbirds and Said the Manic to the Muse, look at living with bipolar disorder. While at times harrowing, the texts somehow evoke a sense of strength and resilience. Each reads as strikingly honest, or—as some have said—confessional. How autobiographical are these texts? Do you see yourself as resilient?

I’m not a fan of the “confessional” label, but I do welcome “honest.” Yes, these are honest poems. Most are autobiographical, with the exception of the persona work (which I believe should still have threads to the author or author’s stories in some way). “Confessional” holds a certain judgement, as if the author has transgressed somehow and must purge to move forward—but that is often not the case. Certainly not here. I have survived, I have moved forward—we are all in a continual sate of such, right?—and I write from that purview. My work isn’t penance (and certainly isn’t seeking pity). It functions with the purpose of sight. The core human need to see and be seen. Through my poems, I am not only asking to be seen, but actively seeing others who similarly identify. Is that resilience? No. Resilience is the real-world act of living, surviving, staying. This work? This writing? It explores how I survived. It is me shaking my tail feathers, saying, See? I made it through this mess. You can make it through yours. Take my hand and join me on the other side. Each poem I write is a love letter to someone who wants to make it through.

 

How did you come to structure your latest poetry collection, Said the Manic to the Muse?

The poems in this collection follow a rough timeline of about one year during which I suffered and survived an extreme bout of suicidal depression peppered with hypomanic episodes and, ultimately, psychosis. The book is structured chronologically in that the first section looks at the triggering event(s), the second section details the ensuing manic swings, and the final section details escalation into both psychosis and suicidality. Each section is introduced with a correlating quote from different women archetypes: Medea, Jezebel, and Kali. Each of whom navigated grief, humiliation, misrepresentation, and a fundamental misunderstanding of their (re)actions among critics—which is, effectively, the same navigation revealed in the collection.

 

And the title?

Said the Manic to the Muse is a line from my poem titled, “Cross the sea, Esman.,” from my first book, Racing Hummingbirds. The poem addresses the story of Esman Greene, a Jamaican immigrant who was schizophrenic, hospitalized without consent, and died under dubious circumstances in the waiting room of a Brooklyn hospital. The piece works to illustrate an often unspoken commiseration among people who live with mental illness (navigating stigma, ridicule, misjudgment, and the utter robbery of autonomy) and to illustrate how desperately ineffective and dangerous such hospitals can be. This line was the alternate title for my first book.

 

The Nervous Breakdown selected your poem, “Finally I Allow Him the Pen,” from the book to reprint with this feature. How did this poem come to be? Are there Cliffs Notes?

Said the Manic to the Muse looks extensively at one specific relationship with a person who for many years vacillated in and out of love and commitment. This poem is written from his perspective. It is situated toward the end of the collection to serve as a response to the many poems preceding it written from my perspective. I figured, to be fair, I would give him a chance to speak. It was a curious exercise, considering what it might have been to be on the other side. How did he experience loving someone who is bipolar? What words did I invoke? What impact did I make? How scathed or unscathed did he emerge? This poem I what I think he would have to say.

 

What’s next?

I’m working on a poetry collection entitled “prey” which I started in the aftermath of sexual assault. The collection studies a number of predatory relationships I’ve endured in my life, drawing parallels between human and non-human prey. I’m also still (always) experimenting in other genres as well. Essay. Playwriting. Memoir. Children’s lit. I’ll try to keep shaking things up. We’ll see.

 

Where can we read your newest work?

I have new poems recently published at BuzzFeed Reader and Winter Tangerine Review: Reshaping the Bell Jar, and a new suite of poems forthcoming at NAILED Magazine—I post new publication updates here, here, and here. Thanks for seeing!

 

Author photo by Marshall Goff.

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Jeanann Verlee JEANANN VERLEE is author of Said the Manic to the Muse and award-winning Racing Hummingbirds. She has been awarded the Third Coast Poetry Prize and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and her work appears in failbetter, Adroit, Rattle, and BuzzFeed, among others. She has worked as poetry editor for Union Station Magazine, For Some Time Now, and Winter Tangerine Review: Fragments of Persephone. For eight years, Verlee served as director of the Urbana Poetry Slam reading series, where she also acted as writing and performance coach. She has performed and facilitated workshops at schools, theatres, libraries, bookstores, and dive bars across North America. Verlee wears polka dots and kisses Rottweilers. She believes in you. Find her at jeanannverlee.com.

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