Throughout my career in poetry, I’ve been most comfortable as a reader and an advocate for the work of others. I’ve been very fortunate as an orbiter of far more talented poets to review work both here and in proper literary journals. One such superb poet is Jessica Smith, whose latest poetry collection How To Know The Flowers is available now through Veliz Books.
I’m currently in the process of reviewing her collection, but I thought it would be nice to ask her if she wouldn’t mind saying a few words about her new work. Below are Smith’s responses to some questions I emailed her pertaining to her new book and a sample poem from it with a bit of analysis from me. Smith also includes some wonderful recommendations for artists to follow on social media and other literary works to read.
“To try to render memory in poetry, I want to disrupt the conventional ‘look’ of the poem in favor of fragmentation and multilinearity, although the reader follows one track at a time through the poem. The reader can hold multiple threads and possibilities in her head at one time and to reside in the pleasant ambiguity of unresolvable fragmentation. The reader brings her own thoughts and memories to the poem as well, and the white space of the page echoes, for me, that blank possibility, as well as the blanks in my own personal narratives.”
–from I. FOREWORD, How To Know The Flowers
Could you talk about your practice of creating dyes? Your Instagram posts were always so interesting, I think it would neat to hear how and why you got into it. Do you see dyeing as a ritual practice?
After I lost my job (described in the first section of How to Know the Flowers), I was stunned and grieving and didn’t know what to do with myself. I went to a free tutorial about dyeing with indigo run by local artist Doug Baulos, who is one of the most generous artistic people I’ve ever met.
The indigo class resonated with me. I think it was important to do something with my hands, to reclaim my body and my sense of self from the tragedy that had befallen me at my job. I had also been inspired by my friend Katrina Rodabaugh, who’s also a poet and a fiber artist, who had been dyeing with natural materials for years. I had always thought she was so cool, but I hadn’t tried it myself. After Doug’s course, I started experimenting with materials I found near my house and messaging Doug and Katrina for advice.
Walking to find dye plants, spending time in nature to identify different plants, and then undergoing the dye process (which is a lot like cooking soup) was therapeutic. For a couple of months, while I was unemployed, I woke up every day, put on a few large pots of boiling water, and experimented. I think it was also important to me that this was not my primary art. I was writing poetry and keeping a diary at the time, as always, but with dyeing I felt no pressure to be “good” at it. It was just an experiment. Just to see what happened.
Instagram recommendations: katrinarodabaugh, doug_baulos, sugarhouseworkshop, botanicalcolors, torontoinkcompany, rebeccadesnos, maiwahandprints, thewilddyery, kthread
In every ritual practice there are, eventually, wild frustrations. In this poem, ‘Red roses,’ we see how the initial casual rage splinters then seams back together at the end thanks to the ritual practice.
The poems of How To Know The Flowers come out of a work trauma, can summarize what the events (simply as a means to ground readers) that prompted the writing? Given how personal the narrative is, how do you see the work opening up to others?
Without naming names, I was fired for complaining about extensive, ongoing sexual harassment by one of my colleagues. Apparently, this is quite common. Rather than deal with the problem (i.e., the man who is harassing people), it was easier to deal with the person complaining. In a state like Alabama where we have “right to work” laws, there’s very little protection against being fired, no matter how egregious the situation. So although it’s a very personal narrative, it’s also a narrative about something that happens all the time.
There are a lot of books out right now where female poets are really talking about how it is for women. How extensive harassment, rape, and abuse are for us. This book is part of that conversation, but it’s also responding to books of poetry about hostile work environments, my favorite of which is Victoria Chang’s The Boss. This book is so funny, so dark, and so well-written, that if you have ever had a boss you didn’t like, I highly recommend it.
Can you talk about how your love of your son has influenced the creation of these poems, or how what is described in these poems evince a fresh tone of intimacy and mothering?
Awww sure! My son Paul is an only child, and his father and I are divorced. Thus, when I am with him, he has my total attention and we have a special relationship that is more like two galaxies that can talk to each other, than like a hierarchy of parent/child.
My job loss affected Paul negatively, of course. We spent a lot of time on the large, wooded campus from which I was suddenly exiled. So many of my memories of his youth are wrapped up with the campus. My income suffered dramatically, and he will not be able to attend school there as we had always planned.
It has been difficult for him to understand and accept why I was fired– as it has been extremely difficult for me to understand and accept. As offended as I am, imagine being a child– with a child’s sense of justice and fairness, a child’s ignorance of sexism, a child’s trust that people are good and fair– and trying to contend with this story! I have told him things in pieces over the last two years as he has aged into being able to understand things, but it’s still very hard.
Paul helped me gather dye materials and participated in the strange artistic rituals that kept me slightly sane during the period of intense grief that followed my job loss. He recently came to the book’s release party and heard me read from the book, and I know he liked the book, although he (and my whole family) still deeply resents the situation.
As for poetry and children, I think people are trying to reclaim the space of talking about their children in poetry, a subject that was for so long denigrated and called “mommy poetry.” It is impossible to erase the effect that these people have on our lives, whether we’re moms or dads or whatever. There’s no reason a child should be any less a participant in a poem than any other person.
You can get How To Know The Flowers, and Jessica Smith’s other poetry collections at Small Press Distribution.
Jessica Smith is a teacher, librarian and writer. She earned her B.A. and M.A. in Comparative Literature and M.L.S. at SUNY Buffalo and is working towards an MFA in Creative Writing at Miami University. She has taught for 11 years, including English Composition, German, Poetry, and literature survey classes in grades 4k-12 and college. In addition to working as a high school and public librarian, she has archived for the University at Buffalo Poetry Collection, the Mandeville Special Collections Library, and Internet Archive (for New York Public Library), for a total of 10 years of library experience. Jessica Smith’s creative work includes poetry books Organic Furniture Cellar, Life-List, How to Know the Flowers, and multiple chapbooks; she founded name and Foursquare magazines and Coven Press and curated the Indian Springs School Visiting Writers Series and the Treehouse Reading Series at Vestavia Hills Library in the Forest. She currently teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).