Interview with Jennifer Martelli

Jennifer Martelli


is the author of The Uncanny Valley (Big Table Publishing Company, 2016) and My Tarantella (forthcoming, Bordighera Press). She is also the author of After Bird from Grey Book Press. Her work has appeared in Thrush, [Pank], Glass Poetry Journal, Cleaver, The Heavy Feather Review, Italian Americana, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. Jennifer Martelli has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes and is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry. She is a book reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly as well as the co-curator for The Mom Egg VOX Folio.

Interviewed by Christine Jones, founder/editor of poems2go

P2g: In “Pachydermianism” there’s an underlying tension (which I believe every good poem needs) between change and constancy. There’s the jewel that may change color… but never its shape. The elephant may change…he may be a cow. He may become a she, an African, lucky enough to have ears shaped like her continent. But she will never forget. Dare I ask, was this purposeful?

JM: Yes and no. It began as a poem about religion. I’m a superstitious atheist, but was raised in a religion, and I appreciate the rituals and mythologies, which are comforting still. So, I tried to “design” a supreme being: what would it look like? Choosing an elephant certainly wasn’t original, but I wanted the elephant to have meaning to me, all her parts. I wanted her to be beautiful. So….like any god, there would be shape-shifting with a constant core.

P2g: “Pachydermianism” is in long couplets, and “Miss Ice River” reads similar to a script. In other poems, such as “Festival of the Eclipse”, and “Dog Days” you utilize white space as part of your craft. How do you choose the container that will hold your poem, its shape and form?

JM: My default is writing in couplets, with longer lines. Usually, when I’m drafting a poem, that’s one of the first forms. “Pachydermianism,” since it concerned itself with transformation, was able to handle—or could be handled—in these longer, reaching lines. I liked how it read that way. But some poems, like “Festival,” seemed denser in their conception—I wanted the feeling of buildings, avenues, chunkiness. So, the form, at times, comes very organically, easily; other times, I’m moving things all over the page! I’ll talk more about “Miss Ice River” in the next question, but yes, it was pretty much dialogue (which is interesting, since the language was sign language).


P2g: In “Miss Ice River” who is the speaker signing to, and why signing?

JM:” “Miss Ice River” was one of those gifts. I saw a video of a man who rescued a deer from a frozen river or lake. The man was deaf and communicated via sign language. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I used his words almost verbatim.

P2g: Tell us about some of your curations with Mom Egg VOX Folio?

JM: Curating with Cindy Veach has been amazing. We’ve really taken the time to think about what’s on our minds and what might be on the minds of other women. So, our topics have ranged from body image to the #metoo movement. It’s fascinating to see how women respond in such different ways: the language and form of the poems is brilliant and smart. We hope that we’re showing a diversity of voices, too. It’s been a great experience organizing the poems: which poems should go next to each other, which poems speak, have a dialogue. We also choose the one piece of art—this has become my favorite part because we look for an image that encompasses all the poems. It’s the last thing we do with the folio. It’s like a mini-book. I love working with Cindy because she is so meticulous and smart.

P2g: You say “Without poetry, I’d just be sitting on a barstool, smoking, with a pile of scratch tickets.” Fortunately, you have poetry. How do you feel lucky?

JM: I was able to find a supportive community of writers, first when I lived in Cambridge, and then almost two decades later, up here on the North Shore. I can’t write outside of a community, so in that way, I was lucky. Alone, I have no real way of accessing the part of me that creates. I’m not interesting, engaging or creative on that barstool, believe me!

P2g: In other interviews, you’ve spoken of your appreciation of Bishop’s , also Marie Howe’s ability to speak directly to the reader. Are you thinking of the reader when you write a poem?

JM: I do think of the reader. I want to convey something to somebody; if not, why bother? For me, that doesn’t always mean crystal clear narrative poetry; but I’d like to have my poems speaking to someone, preferably, the reader. I love that about Bishop: read “Poem” or “The Waiting Room.” You can hear Marie Howe do that, too, especially in her latest book, “Magdalene” and in “What the Living Do.” They’re talking to me, to you, whomever is reading. I admire the confidence that someone is reading, listening, to their experience. There’s a mutual respect, almost a compact between the speaker and the reader.