Interview with Jan Verberkmoes

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P2G 2018 FALL QUARTERLY INTERVIEW FEATURE:

JAN VERBERKMOES

Interviewed by Sarah Kirstine Lain


Jan Verberkmoes is a poet and editor from Oregon. She’s currently a Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University and has poems forthcoming in The Paris Review, Bennington Review, and The Indiana Review, among others.


INTERVIEWER

It’s always such an honor to interview emerging authors and learn more about their journeys. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to poetry, and in particular, to the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts?


VERBERKMOES

It’s an honor to be included here! Thank you for your interest in my poems. I came to poetry relatively late, and in a sort of a roundabout way. I’ve always loved literature, but I was opened up to some of the possibilities and intricacies of language during an exchange year I spent in Thailand when I was 16. I hadn’t been out of my language-element before then, and the experience was like poking around in a perpetual fog, with every emotion I’ve ever felt ratcheted up to ten. After that I bounced around between majors as an undergrad at the University of Oregon—linguistics then English then German, but never creative writing. It wasn’t until well after school, when I spent a year in Germany as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, that I started noodling around with poetry. Reimmersed in that state of limbo—the hazy landscape between two languages—I found myself turning to creative writing just as often as my German dictionary to grapple with those experiences that resisted expression. The music and rhythm of poetry, like the rolling cadence of Thai or the ricochet of German, was a language of its own—a new, compelling way to give form to experience. That year in Germany was a transformative one. I realized that poetry was at the intersection of all my interests, which spurred me to look into MFA programs. The jump then from the University of Mississippi to the Stadler Center was a natural one. The Stadler Fellowship gives its fellows training in editing and arts administration (my dream career), while also giving them time to complete a first manuscript. Luckily for me, Bucknell is also within commutable distance to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where I’m doing research for my current project.


I found myself turning to creative writing just as often as my German dictionary to grapple with those experiences that resisted expression. The music and rhythm of poetry, like the rolling cadence of Thai or the ricochet of German, was a language of its own—a new, compelling way to give form to experience.


INTERVIEWER

You were formerly a John and Renée Grisham Fellow at the University of Mississippi. How did your experience as a fellow and candidate in the MFA Creative Writing Program shape your writing?


VERBERKMOES

I’d go one further and say that it didn’t shape my writing, so much as it gave me the time and means to coax it fully into existence. I entered the program at a point when I still didn’t have a strong sense of how I wanted to write. Because the Creative Writing faculty are invested in their students as individuals and not interested in turning out a certain “kind” of poet, they challenged me in productive ways, always, but never tried to push me into a particular camp. In my cohort, students were allowed space to get better at their own thing organically, whatever thing that might be—and from what I hear, that’s not as common as one might think for an MFA program. I was also lucky in that the three other poets in my year were all sparkly, brilliant writers and generous readers whom I adore. And one final, perhaps unique, aspect of program that I loved: its credit requirements are weighted heavily toward literature seminars. That meant I was nudged into some deep corners of the canon that I hadn’t been to before (hello Topsell, Drayton). I ended up finding that much of my inspiration for poems came out of those classes in the English department and the unexpected alchemy that happens when half your brain is working on a seminar paper, and the other half is trying to write a suite of poems.


INTERVIEWER

Congratulations on your recent work appearing with publishers like Ecotone, Nashville Review, Propeller, and your award with Indiana Review, to name a few. You’ve been busy! I see themes of nature, light, and violence throughout your recent publications. Can you talk about the ways in which these poems speak to each other thematically and how you see them coming together as a collection?


VERBERKMOES

Thank you! I’m always surprised and delighted when someone wants to publish my poems. What are the odds! With the exception of the poems in Ecotone, Quarterly West, and some that are forthcoming elsewhere, everything I have out at the moment belongs to my first manuscript. That collection is particularly interested in the slipperiness of its subjects’ ontologies, and the ways that language creates and complicates that particular instability. With this ontological slippage as its guiding force, the series inhabits a tainted pastoral landscape that mirrors the speakers’ and characters’ subjective psychological landscapes. These landscapes grow out of the disorientation one experiences when reliving memories of trauma and loss, and how that experience can make the familiar suddenly become strange. In coping with those disorientations and their emergent landscapes, the speakers of these poems often grasp outward, toward the nonhuman as though toward some integral sense of self that lies beyond the human body and its boundaries. The sequence as a whole builds layers of these physical and psychological discontinuities and instabilities through a range of forms: syntactically truncated elegy, fragmented lyric narrative, and a few longer meditations on loss. That’s the idea, anyway.


The poems attempt to thicken, de-linearize, fold, and otherwise complicate their disorientations through scenes of the human and nonhuman encountering each other (and the human encountering the self as nonhuman) within those unstable landscapes.


INTERVIEWER

I was fascinated by your poem in Ecotone: “Petronia petronia jyekundensis / Rock Sparrow /  Steinsperling [collected September 4 1935].” Per the footnotes, this poem speaks back to a 1930s project by a German SS officer and zoologist, Ernst Schäfer. How did you come upon this project, and what inspired you to write back to it? Moreover, can you expand on how you see poetry as speaking to history, science, etc.?


VERBERKMOES

That poem belongs to the project that I’m working on now. I stumbled into it by way of a historical persona poetry class I took in the second year of my MFA. One of our assignments was to write a sequence of poems in the voice of a historical figure. As I mentioned above, I’m interested in the textures of language and especially the places where those textures become rough, you might say— and so for my project I was curious through whose voice I could cultivate a fractured, or blistered linguistic texture. I was also interested in writing poems that would center the non-human animal in the reader’s mind, and have it remain there as the dominant perspective throughout the poetic sequence. With my German background, one thing led to another, and soon I found myself knee deep in writing persona poems in the voices of the birds that German and American zoologists Ernst Schäfer and Brooke Dolan II collected during three natural history expeditions to Tibet in the 1930s. The poems have become an extended exploration of the ecopoetics of the natural history specimen in that they attempt to portray the imagined subjectivities of the Dolan/Schäfer birds as both creatures and as artifacts. These snippets of bird-specimen song run English and German over and into each other, which creates a sort of linguistic meltdown that invites the reader to consider the ways in which the repetition of sounds and word patterns can become the locus of meaning over and above a single word’s semantic value.

In regards to the second part of your question—I see poetry speaking to history and science in so many productive ways, that I’d be hard put to expand on just one. I’ll just say instead that I imagine poetry speaks to other disciplines as one friend might to another: conspiringly, playfully, longingly. With a whine, with a wail, with a shout.


INTERVIEWER

One of the craft constructs that particularly draws me to your work is how you combine the run-on sentence with white space. One construct ties together; the other separates. For example, this excerpt from “Elegy as Insistence: Bulls in a Field” in 32 Poems:

he remembers the ashes back into his sister     when she told him

loss     is no more one thing than the sky is one thing

the pasture behind her eyes     lay wide and empty

Can you expand on your combination of the run-on and white space, and whether or not they bare conscious connection to elegiac themes of loss and memory?


VERBERKMOES

I love this question. It’s one I circled around constantly as I was writing my first manuscript, of which this poem is a part. Many of those poems are written in fractured, halting couplets, riddled with lacunae, which is intended to create a visual representation of the porousness of recollection and the uncertainty one feels when entering new psychological and physical territories. That form in turn creates a reading experience that conveys the uncertain and polymorphous structuring of memory and interpretation. Each gap in the line offers a brief moment of reevaluation: a second to search for or doubt whatever is about to come next, or to suppress one thing and allow another to surface. Conversely, the run-on might be interpreted as mirroring the dizzying continuity that forms as the steps one takes as they descend into grief become inevitable and indistinguishable from one another.


Many of those poems are written in fractured, halting couplets, riddled with lacunae, which is intended to create a visual representation of the porousness of recollection and the uncertainty one feels when entering new psychological and physical territories.


INTERVIEWER

I’m so interested in your ties to animalistic metaphor. I say this because, in a time of identity politics and systemic human crises, I’ve seen a number of poets opting to write about some other (any other!) species. Do you naturally land on the animal kingdom; is this an intentional motif?


VERBERKMOES

But aren’t humans animals? The anthropocentrism and assumptions of human exceptionalism that underlie your question are one of the reasons my own work has taken a sharper turn into ecopoetry recently. Derrida comes to mind here:

Whenever “one” says “The Animal,” … in the singular and without further ado, claiming thus to designate every living thing that is held not to be human, …well, each time the subject of that statement, this “one,” this “I,” does that he utters an asinanity [bêtise]. He avows without avowing it, he declares, just as a disease is declared by means of a symptom, he offers up for diagnosis the statement “I am uttering an asinanity.” And this “I am uttering an asinanity” should confirm not only the animality that he is disavowing but his complicit, continued, and organized involvement in a veritable war of the species.

I don’t know that I would take it quite that far, but you see the problem. Suggesting that writing about the nonhuman animal is a way of escaping, or opting out of, the more difficult subject of human crises, is to reify a false hierarchy. And with the earth’s sixth mass extinction underway, the non-human members of the animal kingdom are hardly a population among which writers might find refuge.


INTERVIEWER

I was drawn to your poem “Temporal Resolution” in Propeller, particularly this line: If speed is desire, certainty dissolves as I approach— How might you relate this if/then clause to making your way through the construction of a poem?


VERBERKMOES

I’m glad you found that line interesting. It’s one I’ve often returned to since writing the poem. It has an almost-logic to it that I think appears elsewhere in my writing, too: one foot in reason and one in instinct. The line itself stems from the physiological quirks of the tiger beetle. They are amazing creatures! When one hunts, it reaches such an intense speed that its visual processing can’t keep pace. When the beetle reaches this moment of blindness, it has to stop, wait for its vision to return, relocate its prey, and adjust its course as necessary. I think writing a poem might be this way, a series of rushing and pausing, blindness and clarity, as you approach some fleeing thing.


INTERVIEWER

This is arguably a difficult time to be an emerging poet in what many are calling the post-truth era. How do you stay true to your work, and what sort of balance do you find necessary between “tuning out” the world and tuning into it?


VERBERKMOES

I imagine if I were a research scientist I would find our current political climate particularly hostile to my career. As a poet though, it’s probably just as difficult now as it’s always been. I don’t know. To stay functional, I think I employ the same kind of short-term amnesia that most of us do when we find ourselves immersed in something awful. The trick, of course, is to keep it short-term.


INTERVIEWER

Are you hoping to continue writing a collection of elegy poems? What’s next for your work, and what sort of goals do you have for your future career as a writer?


VERBERKMOES

The elegies are part of a sequence that belongs to my first manuscript, so those are more or less finished. Over the next year or two I’ll continue working on the Dolan/Schäfer bird specimen poems until I pull together a full manuscript of them. Regarding goals—generally, I don’t have them. Or maybe I do, but I’m just scared of the term. The word has always felt rigid and artificial to me, a way of systematizing desire. But to answer: I’d like to work for a press or lit journal, and I’d like to write good poems. Pretty simple.


I think writing a poem might be this way, a series of rushing and pausing, blindness and clarity, as you approach some fleeing thing.


Published November 25th, 2018