Photo credit: A Pavhk

You are about to release your third book, prey. Tell us everything.

prey is a themed full-length poetry collection centered around navigating a culture of predation. It details various predatory relationships from childhood onward, drawing parallels between human and nonhuman predators. The book seeks to expose the depth of trauma caused by physical, psychological, and sexual abuse—exploring what it is to become prey.

These poems are both vulnerable and vicious, no one is off the hook. Threaded throughout the book is a series of poems with a variation on the title, “Secret Written from inside a [Predator’s] Mouth” (sharks, snakes, grizzlies, lions, falcons, and more). In this series, I directly compare human and nonhuman predators, revealing the often complicated secrets between predator and prey. In another series, I chronicle the escalation of a relationship with a sociopath using magic realism (and magic) to expose the psychological torture of gaslighting and emotional abuse.

Certain predators make repeat appearances and, at intervals, the book cites known predators from both legal and news sources, each under the title, “His Version.” The final of these is a persona/found poem I wrote in the voice of the last person who assaulted me, culled from his various communications. While I was loathe to give voice to these men in some respects, I also believe that placing the texts side-by-side serves as a powerful tool to illuminate the myriad ways predators gaslight victims and society alike.

I was overjoyed to learn that the manuscript was selected by Aafa Weaver as first-runner up for the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, and then to contract with Black Lawrence Press for publication. The team at BLP have provided a warm, supportive, and generous home for this vulnerable work. I am grateful. The book will be released in August, but it’s available for preorder now.

 

Why did you write prey?

I did not set out to write this book. It demanded to be written.

I have survived numerous forms of abuse over the course of my life: multiple sexual assaults, intimate partner violence and domestic abuse—including one partner who attempted to take my life, and a childhood dictated by alcoholism and periodic physical violence.

The most recent sexual assault in 2010 served as an unexpected tipping point—the mind’s final fracture. Soon after, I was diagnosed with PTSD and have struggled with severe social anxiety, panic, and hypervigilance ever since.

I started writing poems, as I have long done, to intellectually process the trauma of that assault and the public backlash and community furor that ensued. I had soon drafted a chapbook-length collection and thought to be done with it. However, in the creation process, other survivals from my own history began to resurface and I realized that I was evading something much, much larger.

Between my own history, the powerful mirror of other survivors’ stories, and the continued reveal of predator after predator from within my own writing community, I knew I was not done. More work was demanded. More risk. More vulnerability.

So I kept on. Sitting with, facing, unpacking, and writing out a lifetime of predatory experiences. prey is a book, I’ve discovered, that I can keep writing toward without ever being “done.” Indeed, I will likely keep writing toward these traumas for the rest of my days (as one does). But this collection, here, as it stands, is a testament to the will of the survivor. To the keepers of tortured bodies who struggle ever-forward, continually resurrecting. This work is deeply connected to the women to whom I first broke my toxic silence, serving also as a testament to the healing power of community and sisterhood and chosen family. Finally, this book is a testament to the nature of story itself: how necessary our voices, how crucial for each of us alive—as I have said elsewhere—to face it, name it, and write it.

 

Of all the animals featured in prey, which are you?

Over the course of the book, I become raven, grizzly, crocodile, chicken, coyote, vulture, calf, even the fabled jackalope…and more. I am, though, always, ever, a woman.

 

prey sounds damn heavy. Is there any fun in the book?

Being preyed upon is the antithesis of fun, so, no. However, there are tones of sarcasm and biting wit peppered throughout many of these poems. Folks who like-mindedly abhor the calculated, intentional predation of others will find this book has a lot to celebrate. Survival is, after all, survival.

 

What frightens you about prey?

Its predators. And, I must say, their apologists. Behind these tellings are real people who have done real harm. From gaslighting to stalking to rape to murder. It is mind-boggling some days to know that this book exposes them—and me—and that I am still here, with my head squarely on my shoulders, singing it. Like the little goat in Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem, “Song,” Broken Thorn Sweet Blackberry—to whom this book is dedicated—who sang and sang to haunt his tormentors.

 

Your cover is stunning. What was the process?

As I came more clear about the shape of the book and the shape of my own traumas, I knew I wanted the cover art to be a woman’s head mounted on a plaque like an elk—taxidermied. I turned to the internet, exhaustively searching for anything resembling what wildness was developing in my imagination.

Somewhere in my search, I discovered artist Natalie Shau’s piece, “Hunter’s Dream” (an image of a woman with a deer head, struck in the chest by a hunter’s arrows), which was certainly in the vein of prey. I researched more of Natalie’s work online and discovered “Doe Deer” (the mounted upper torso and head of a woman with antlers). That was the right idea—but the 18th century French-style wig invoked (for me) more of a commentary on European history, which I felt would cloud prey. I was greedy for something custom.

Still, after devouring Natalie’s entire body of work available online, I knew—without question—she was the artist I wanted to create the cover for prey. So, I reached out by email and crossed my fingers. She replied right away, more than open to creating a commissioned piece for the book cover. We worked over several iterations, finalizing the artwork much more quickly than anticipated. I asked if she might be flexible in how her artwork appeared in final layout on the cover and again, she was unbelievably accommodating.

Then it sat—a secret between us—for more than a year. Once Black Lawrence Press was ready to start working on the cover layout, designer Amy Freels gave my requests gracious attention. I was offered three initial layouts and asked only for slight tweaks to finalize my favorite one. And I am absolutely in love.

 

When the elephant died, what did you do with its bones?

I strung them together as a marionette and mounted it on my living room wall.

 

The Nervous Breakdown selected your poem, “How Women Begot the Bible,” from prey to feature with this interview. Give us the juice on this poem.

In its heart, this poem is a parable. A simple warning of what will come should an abuser continue abusing. It’s one of the few humorous poems in the collection. A wry, cheeky piece about a woman invoking her lineage of bold, sharp-edged women who, when pushed too far, burn it all down—leaving their abusers reeling.

The core lesson (don’t abuse lest you get torched and left in the ash) is couched in a broader, saucier jab at patriarchy, inferring that those who dreamed up the bible must’ve been stewing in the bitter aftermath known as “consequences” with little more than a heckuva story to tell.

 

Where do you go from here? What is next—and where can we find it?

My latest project is a nonfiction/multi-genre manuscript detailing the story of a young man I knew as a teen who attempted to kill me and then stalked me for a decade. He is a recurring character throughout my body of work, including several poems in prey, but this account is a more prosaic, detailed examination of the most terrifying man I’ve ever known.

I’m never far from poems, though, so stay tuned here and here to keep up with new work. And thank you for reading!

 

Let’s close with some rapid-fire fun facts.

What is your least favorite word?

Obligation.

What are the latest books on your shelf right now, already started or waiting to be read?

Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen

The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic, edited by Mahogany L. Browne, Idrissa Simmonds, and Jamila Woods

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar

Your biggest guilty pleasure?

Audio books. I know it’s cheating. I know. BUT I CAN “READ” IN THE SHOWER, PEOPLE. Relax, I still read. (See above.)

What is your superpower?

Inventing things to feel guilty about. (See above.)

Someone once remarked, “Your daddy loved you so much he named you twice!” Tell us about your double name.

One grandmother “Ann” + one aunt “Jean” = Jeanann. No intercaps. No spaces. No “e” at the end. No, not Jean—never Jean. It’s Jeanann. Only two syllables. You can do it, I believe in you.

TAGS: , , ,

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *