Stacey Balkun and Jennifer Hanks
Stacey Balkun and Jennifer Hanks in Conversation
Jennifer: So I just attended a workshop at the Sundress Fiction Retreat with Sarah Gerkensmeyer on New Fabulism. Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak, to me, has ties to this new fiction tradition, one that's primarily being built by women writers. How does the fantastical function in your work?
Stacey: First off, I LOVE Sarah Gerkensmeyer! Her book What You Are Now Enjoying definitely influenced me by showing me how the real world can be cracked open; how fabulism can allow a poem or story to exaggerate or downplay an emotional state. To quote from her interview with The Normal School, “I’m writing about real characters using a surreal slant because to me that’s become the most effective way to focus in on [the characters’] lives and get a good, thorough look.”
And that’s sort of what I discovered too, that the fantastical helps me take a look at what scares me, to get a good thorough look at what’s easy to avoid in poems sometimes.
Jennifer: I also know that you’re editing an anthology of the domestic fabulist that’s all female-identified writers. Did you come up with that idea while working on the chapbook?
Stacey: Actually, after. This happened really quick. I had read Anna Journey’s “Fox-Girl Before Birth” and was like “I wanna write that!” I just kept finding these poems separately and thinking “oh I love this poem, I love this poem,” and then I thought what is going on, these are all magical realism, but somehow different—I didn’t have a word for it. I was calling it surrealist poetry.
Jennifer: Well, that is what I was calling it until I heard this term.
Stacey: That was last spring because I did a Hambidge Residency and I had one Jackalope poem and I left there thinking, “I’m going to write a whole book.” And then it just kind of happened.
Jennifer: The Jackalope poems seem very personal, like they’re taking personal and realistic themes and kind of making them fabulist.
Stacey: This was always so personal. Now the work I’m doing on female surrealists is much more political. What about Prophet Fever?
Jennifer: On the flip side, I thought of my Prophet Fever poems as very persona, not personal at all, like moving toward weird ecopoetics, which I think is more represented in the unpublished poems from the series. But now I have a very personal stake in the chapbook poems that’s related to coming out as genderqueer. But when I was first writing them, I kept saying, this is persona, this has nothing to do with me. It’s interesting how your conception of a series can change…
Stacey: You mentioned ecopoetics. Can you maybe talk a little bit more about how that plays into the series and if that connects to the tension between the human and animal worlds in these poems?
Jennifer: Well, that was a term I came across after I’d already started this project. Prophet Fever started off more directly biblical. When it started, the idea came from a conservative radio broadcast I heard when I was moving to New Orleans. The particular preacher was talking about the “feast of birds” in the Book of Revelations, and then I started writing these poems that were biblical, like they were using biblical language and constructions, like a lot of anaphora, a lot of connecting conjunctions—and this and this and this and so on.
Stacey: And that’s how Prophet Fever starts, right?
Jennifer: Yeah and the first part of the book is pulled for an early poem which was about the Virgin Mary choosing animals over people. It was a really explicit set-up where people were all unsaved and the rest of the world was saved. And so I ran into some poets, but mostly fiction writers, who were addressing the same things, writing ecofiction. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy is a good example. So addressing environmental issues was something I set out to do explicitly and then the project kind of got away from me and ended up being about the relationship between this gay teen, his real mom, and the Virgin Mary who is kind of like a surrogate mother figure. In the bigger book I’m working on, there’s still the destruction of the world, there’s an army of skeleton pets (a lot them are factory farm animals), there’s that sort of stuff. But the chapbook, it really ends up being about the protagonist’s relationship with Mary, and, as with Jackalope-Girl, I feel like it’s a story about choosing one family over another.
To go back to Jackalope-Girl, both of us are working from myth / folklore (You refer to Jackalope-Girl at one point as a “myth come alive”) and trying to make something new. What kind of research was necessary for this project, if any?
Stacey: A little bit, it took me a while to realize I could look up folklore about Jackalopes. There are a lot of website with facts about them which is funny because they aren’t real—
Jennifer: It’s like that cryptozoology-type thing, right?
Stacey: Yeah. I guess there are a couple of poems in particular—“Innoculation” and “Jackalope-Girl Gets a Tattoo”—that hinge more on the facts I looked up: Jackalopes are only born during electrical storms in winter, the only way to catch a Jackalope is with a bowl of whiskey, because it can’t stop drinking whiskey and then it’s drunk and you can catch it. And what else…that the sneak up behind campfires and sing. I guess the poems were more language-driven. If I could find a way to organically fit something in poem, I would. I wasn’t like I needed to do this, and I didn’t feel the need to faithful to it [the lore]. If anything, the myth let me move away from the feeling that I was writing biography or history at all. I was happy about that. Was that your experience?
Jennifer: At first I was stuck in…I went to Catholic school for twelve years and have a really complicated relationship with that. I knew I wanted the Virgin Mary to be one of the central characters in Prophet Fever so I was writing a lot of third-person poems from Mary’s perspective. I thought she was going to be the primary narrator, and these poems were really different [from the ones that ended up in the chapbook]. They were kind of capital “P” poems I guess, a lot more formal. And then I wrote one poem in the series from Wren, my protagonist’s, voice and I was like, this works a lot better. I guess I have to throw all these away start over with this voice.
Stacey: So you knew all along that you were working on a project?
Jennifer: Yeah, I knew all along I was working on a big project, but there were so many false starts, and I’ve gotten rid of so many poems so all the poems can be in this voice that ended up working. In the voice of a teen! Which I hadn’t really done before.
Stacey: Me neither! It’s hard.
Jennifer: It’s hard and it’s weird and I am not a gay [cis] boy.
Stacey: I’m not Jacaklope.
Jennifer: Well, everyone’s a little bit of a Jackalope. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Stacey: I am very much—mostly—a Jackalope. That was total lie.
Jennifer: While we’re on persona, for me, the switch to first-person was a really liberating switch. Being able to embody this character that has this agency and sexual freedom I didn’t have as a teenager and writing about all these “low” teenage things—Cheetos and selfies and porn.
Stacey: There’s a lot of cereal and videogames in those poems.
Jennifer: Yeah, there’s a lot of cereal! But how, for you, was switching between voices? In Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak, you have Jackalope-Girl in first person, I think you have Antler-Girl in first person, but you also have a third-person narrator. And I was wondering how that switch was for you? Did you decide to consciously make that switch or was it more organically like…this poem needs to be more of an overview. The book’s first poem, which I think is called “Myth,” seems like a more of a narrator’s overview?
Stacey: For me, it’s something I do in revision a lot. A lot of my drafts start in second person, oddly enough, like that’s how I begin and then it’s a revision process. I put every poem through both. I think there’s something to be gained and lost from both first and third person. I mean, talking about myths and legends and stories that we tell—third-person to me sort of creates that vibe. It’s that “once upon a time” factor. You wouldn’t retell a story in first person. Maybe you can also speak to this, but when you’re creating a character you’re going so far from your normal that first-person can help ground it and bring it as close while pushing it away. So was that what you experienced with Wren too?
Jennifer: I had one of those, I guess Eureka or “oh, I know what this is now” moments when I wrote the poem published in Menacing Hedge (!) as “What Home Was.” It’s the first poem I wrote from his voice, and it’s where we meet his mom for the first time. It definitely allowed me to feel close, like I was inside the poems in a way I wasn’t able to be before.
Stacey: I feel like it also takes away a wall for the reader too. If it’s first-person, as a reader reading it, you’re both doing the speaking and being spoken to. As opposed to reading a third-person story, you’re telling it.
Jennifer: It’s in your mouth in a way which I also liked for the Prophet Fever poems because they were literally about someone becoming a prophet, becoming a god’s mouthpiece.
Stacey: So in that whole middle section of your chap, since that’s sort of what we’re talking about, there are only three poems in the table of contents that have titles—what’s the deal with that? What kind of power comes with naming or not naming?
Jennifer: When I published them individually, they all had title (not very good titles). But I realized when I was putting together the manuscript that those section poems all felt like part of one big story. What I’m hoping is to build the full-length into a verse novel with a pretty linear story. A title can do so much work—it can propel, it can frame, it can cut against what the poem is saying. In my new OZ project, I have a lot of titles that lead right into the poem. But with these pieces I just felt like why have people stop and start after every page.
Stacey: It would have felt way more broken up. Instead, as a reader you read it straight through.
Jennifer: That leads into a question I had for you. So my chapbook is linear and yours is not strictly so. I feel like the poems in Jackalope-Girl are functioning in some other way, not in a way I find unsettling or disruptive, but I was wondering what you could say about Jackalope-Girl’s trajectory as a character and also personally how you feel about the poems’ arrangement. For instance, the chapbook ends with Jackalope-Girl learning how to speak.
Stacey: It’s funny because when I thought about their arrangement last I was like it’s more or less linear—I mean, she’s literally getting born in the first poem—but it’s really not, is it?
Jennifer: I mean it starts with her birth, but then we kind of skip around. Presumably she’s speaking by the time she forms a relationship with Stag-Boy and her mother Antler-Girl. So I just wondered, did the order come together on its own?
Stacey: I guess so, when I wrote the first couple of poems I wasn’t trying to do a project. I thought, oh, cool this is an imitation, and then I had this idea where I wanted to make a cartoon. I was like this will be great, a Jackalope comic book—
Jennifer: That would still be cool! There’s no reason why you can’t still do that.
Stacey: That’s what I was thinking and then I just ended up writing a lot of poems really quickly, and I actually found that many of the poems I already had that I didn’t really know what do to with found a home in here. Like “Jackalope-Girl and the Family Photo Album”, which was one of those poems that’s, you know, the one you love that no one else does. And the same with “Jackalope-Girl Imagines her Birthsisters as Kites.”
Jennifer: I wondered if you had separate intentions for those imitation poems.
Stacey: These two are ekphrastic. Looking at paintings is something I do when I don’t know what to do and I want to write, look at ridiculous surrealist paintings and see where they take me. But then, to me the order just felt very obvious. My other book, the manuscript I’m still dealing with, I’m struggling with the order but this was just like ta-da!
Jennifer: Gar-child, my chap coming out from Tree Light Books, was like that too, I wonder if there’s something about the fairytale…
Stacey: Maybe it’s more freedom, fairytale logic. Hansel and Gretel escaped the witch, rode a duck home, and that was that. Maybe fairytale logic gives you more of a path…or less of a path.
You know what it is, now that I think about it. I feel like it’s not necessarily linear, but it’s linear to how I learned about my adoption. My parents never hid it from me, but it’s linear to what learned about when.
Jennifer: It’s linear in relation to your own personal history.
Stacey: That’s it! And why “Jackalope-Girl Before Birth” comes in the middle. My family history came in bits and pieces so I think that’s why these poems are the way they are…that’s so funny.
Jennifer: It makes sense! Like I didn’t know why I was so committed to male narrator for Prophet Fever until I came out. Then it became clear that he was a way to work through some of my…gender angst.
Stacey: Speaking of order, can you talk about the punctuation [in your chapbook]? Because there’s a progression with the commas.
Jennifer: This is where I get to give Margaret Bashaar at Hyacinth Girl her due! Originally, the punctuation in the chap was a bit all over the place, because each poem was operating by its own set of “rules.” Margaret suggested that
Stacey: And what about the forward slashes?
Jennifer: The slashes I hadn’t really used very much before. They really came from reading other contemporary poets like Danez Smith and Emily O’Neill, who both use them to great effect. When I was editing out loud and then poem was moving fast enough, I tried the slashes out.
Stacey: That’s exactly what I picked up on too. My note on #8 is manic.
Jennifer: I hope #8 is really fast and scary because it’s where Wren transforms into, well, zombie skeletons. While we’re on punctuation, I can talk about the epilogue quickly. I included an epilogue poem because I wanted the chap to end on a “cliffhanger,” at least as much as a poetry chapbook can. The sermon Wren is about to give in “Bone Heel Sermon” is just one of a bunch of sermons he’ll make while traveling around the country in the full-length version. But I’m hoping this ending, where you don’t find out exactly what he’s going to say, will be enough to make people want to know what’s the next. And that people might pick up on the fact that it’s larger project. To that end, does Jackalope-Girl feel like a finished project to you? Or do you see it as part of something larger?
Stacey: Before that, I wanted to say that Prophet Fever feels like of circular too. To me it almost felt like vinyl, because you could just go back [to the beginning], to the epigraphs: “Then I say do not return to what you have vomited and I say…”
Jennifer: Yeah, that works too! And I wouldn’t want people to be like, well this just ended so abruptly and left me with no closure or way back in. Honestly, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak felt very final, very self-contained to me.
Stacey: Yes and no, I’m working on a fairytale collection now, and some of the poems from the chapbook are in it, along with a little apple child, witches, and a lot of Eve and Lillith poems oddly enough. Originally, I had the Jackalope-Girl poems in there because I wanted it to read like this very broad collection of fairytales, but the other day I went and pulled them all out, because I realized they are contained in the chapbook. It’s there space.
Jennifer: Does that feel good?
Stacey: Yeah, it’s weird, this is not the first project I’ve worked on but it somehow ended up being my first book. It’s very different from what I think I usually I do. So it’s been a very strange experience to be like, “hey world, I’m a poet, here’s what I wrote.”
Jennifer: I feel like that a little too. I really didn’t think the first book I’d ever have out would be a, well, pre-apocalyse teen persona chapbook…So what’s your other chap that’s coming out like?
Stacey: The other chapbook is coming out from ELJ, and it’s called Lost City Museum. I’ve been working on it for a long time—it’s much more set in the real world, there’s a lot of water imagery, it’s a lot about losing my dad.
That’s what I think is really awesome about chapbooks though—you can do so many different, focused things. I really love the chapbook as a form because you can take that idea and go way deeper than a single poem, even though that idea might not be sustainable for a full-length.
There’s so much of what we’re talking about [in terms of content] in the speculative / sci-fi world which is totally separate from this “literary poetry world.” That’s my vision for the domestic fabulist anthology— poems like Ansel Adams’ are winning freaking award and they’re about creature people—it’s time to put the speculative and literary together!
Jennifer: That was a pointed interest of mine when I started Prophet Fever. I mean I named my protagonist’s wolf after Lyra Silvertongue from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. World-building is possible in poems!
Stacey: It is—possible and necessary!
Jennifer: I think we’re about wrapped up! Thanks so much, Stacey, for talking about your gorgeous chapbook with me, and thanks to Kelly Boyker at Menacing Hedge, for taking my first batch of Prophet Fever poems in Summer 2015. And for letting us do this interview!
Stacey: Yes—thank you Jen and Kelly! This was so much fun, and I’m so glad our books got to share this space.