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If only we didn’t try to be bigger than our hearts with our hearts

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Jenn Marie Nunes will publish her first full-length book, AND/OR, this spring with Switchback Books after winning the feminist press’ inaugural Queer Voices contest, judged by Dawn Lundy Martin.

Jenn and I both graduated from LSU’s Creative Writing MFA program in 2009. We were each other’s first friends as we tried to navigate the weirdness of Baton Rouge, grad school, and being non-Southerners in the South — so her first book, and the opportunity to interview her about it, mean a lot to me.

Jenn is an Assistant Professor at Southern University at New Orleans, a yoga instructor, a performer in the New Orleans Poetry Brothel, and author of five chapbooks.

Room 220: First off, Jenn, congratulations on your book! Can you talk about how this manuscript began?

Jenn Marie Nunes: One of the first pieces I wrote is the first piece in the book, “DEFINITION THE BODY.” It began as a response to something one of my students at the time had written. She had this very long explanation of how a guy should show his love for her that involved flowers and warm baths and candlelight. I was super frustrated by this because it felt like she was parroting back all of this fairytale stuff we’re told. On one hand, that parroting might keep her from exploring what love and romance and making love—  sexually and otherwise—might actually mean to her because she already “knew” what she should want. On the other hand, the parroting seemed like a cultural failure of language—  like the only way she could think to express herself was through clichéd language that both had the potential to preclude her ability to explore herself in her life and also her ability to explore or express her own self in her writing, to find her own language.

Maybe she wasn’t specifically talking about sex in that comp essay, but my feeling congealed around the language “making love,” “sex,” and “fucking.” Maybe it’s because, imagistically and conceptually, I’m particularly bothered by the way sex tends to be depicted as either sweet and gentle and full of love or rough and pornographic and perverted. This dichotomy bugs me. All of the best full-of-love sex I’ve had has been at times sweet but also rough and “perverted.” Not to mention the inherent perversion of lesbian sex.

So I’m grading this student’s essay and I’m having a really hard time not tearing it apart. I want to challenge everything she’s saying. I want to challenge her on her image of romance, her descriptive ability, the value system she’s working up, and at the same time I’m asking myself: Well, is there really something wrong with flowers and candles now and then? On top of that, there’s this part of me that’s also feeling a little uncomfortable with myself, like maybe my liking it doggy-style, etc., actually makes me that slut—that one—and not the reclaimed, feminist one—that one. But obviously I can’t put all of that on my student via her comp essay. It wasn’t that I needed to tell her that her ideas were all wrong—like F—but that I needed to explore where all of these things intersected or could intersect. I now had this language, “love making,” stuck in my head like a bad song, and I wanted to tear into it. So I began “DEFINITION THE BODY.”

Rm220: Your book uses experimental poetry practices—abstract language, found text, prose, footnotes, fragments—to explore themes of queer sexuality and gender performance. For readers who aren’t used to reading contemporary poetry, do you have any suggestions for approaching your writing? In other words, how do you want your book to be read?

JMN: I have a hard time labeling my own writing as anything except feminist. That one’s important to me, but I feel a little uncomfortable with the label “experimental”—and definitely with “avant-garde”—because of the connotations those terms have gathered. The terms have been around so long they seem to imply a certain set of rules or expectations to be met. And I’m not sure what it means to write “experimental” poetry. I don’t think to myself, “I’m going to write something experimental/avant-garde.” Cathy Park Hong describes the avant-garde in “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” as assuming, maybe requiring, “that poetry should be ‘against expression’ and ‘post-identity’” and that it should “truly escape the taint of subjectivity and history.” If that’s the case, I’m not there.

That said, I don’t really think about the poems in AND/OR as “poems.” After reading part of the manuscript, one of my non-poet friends said, “I feel as though I am reading an inner monologue, like you are showing us a thought process instead of telling us one.” Maybe that. At the very least, the form and construction are definitely informed by my subjectivity rather than a particular idea I had about what poetry should be.

I don’t know what to tell someone about how to approach my writing, whether that person is used to reading contemporary poetry or not. I don’t think this book is difficult to read—if you read things—although it looks strange on the page. But of course I don’t think it’s difficult, because I wrote it. I do think that it asks the reader to do work—to feel unsatisfied and agitated and uncertain and to do the work to stay in that space.

Rm220: Early in the text, in a prose piece, you use the term political: “There are things I take into my body to whole me. There are things I take into my body to stir me. There are things I take into my body to whole them. This is where it gets political.” In another section, you write: “There are certain arguments that will never be won. If you believe in God.” I like how directly (and indirectly) you address the idea of politics: politics of sexuality, gender, reproductive rights, writing—particularly women writing about their bodies and sexualities. The politics of queer identity is especially interesting given the state we live in, Louisiana, which currently does not allow same-sex marriage. Do you see your writing as political? Do you see writing—particularly experimental women’s writing—as a type of protest or activism?

JMN: The pat response that pops into my head whenever this kind of question comes up is: Everything is political. But after you say that enough times, it starts to sound like it doesn’t really mean anything. When I read this question, I wanted to check myself, so I looked up the definition of politics. If you’re playing along, we’ve got influence and power dynamics — okay, everything is political. Or, every choice, every action is political.

Poetry is certainly political, even if the poet doesn’t actively or directly engage in “political issues.” Poetry asks you to put your attention somewhere. It asks you to consider something in a specific way. That is an attempt to influence. Just like where we choose to buy things and what we choose to buy are political acts, putting our attention on a beautiful sunset v. the experience of a bisexual woman v. African-American responses to Ferguson v. a wheelbarrow is choice and a political act. Where we put our attention — that’s where we are. And that has the potential to change—or not change — power dynamics and how we relate to each other. By asking you to put your attention somewhere, and in some kind of way, poetry asks you to make a choice and to take an action.

So, yeah, I see my writing as political. I see all writing as political, but (experimental?) women’s writing in particular. Maybe instead of going on and on about that, I’ll recommend Sarah Vap’s End of the Sentimental Journey. In terms of my writing, I consciously engage with politics — if I don’t engage actively, I fear what might come out. What strange male voice/gaze, for example. What power dynamics are playing on me. I partly write to interrogate my own assumptions and influences — to change myself. And, yeah, maybe those who read my work, too.

Rm220: You mentioned Sarah Vap’s book. Which other writers or artists inspired you in writing this book?

JMN: Jenny Boully’s book The Body: An Essay, because of the way she uses footnotes to ask us to understand a wholeness in relief, and the possibility for footnotes to create space and tension in a text. Since I was thinking about the process or act of defining things, and all of the room for failure there — the questionable nature of defining, period—that seemed really useful. Laura Mullen’s Subject was inspirational in terms of thinking about form and the play of language as disruption and construction. There’s a lot of found language in this book — it sort of cannibalized everything I was reading and thinking about as I wrote it. So certainly the Internet was inspirational, as were Foucault, Baudrillard, and Scientific American.

Rm220: One of my favorite lines in your book is, “If only we didn’t try to be bigger than our hearts with our hearts. If only we never moved & had no need for boxes.” You certainly tear down the boxes of identity with which Americans are obsessed. Similarly, your book can’t fit in a box—it’s messy in its hybrid mixing of genres, at once intimate and distancing, and refusing easy answers. I think this book is necessary, important, and beautiful. Can you tell us what you’re working on next? Do you plan to continue writing on these same themes?

JMN: I have several things in the works, and they do continue the same themes in various ways. I think most artists have obsessions and they spend most of their lives pick-pick-picking at those obsessions in different, and sometimes not very different, ways.

One of the poetry things I’ve got going “attempts expression of our particularly American anxieties about home, authenticity, and identity, and where these anxieties intersect with race, class, and place” through the lens of New Orleans (I’m quoting a grant proposal I wrote; fingers crossed). As a transplant, it’s scary to try to write about New Orleans, but I’m trying to work actively with/around/against the questionable nature of my subjectivity and author(ity)ship. There are some pieces from this project up at Similar:Peaks::, Smoking Glue Gun, and Tupelo Quarterly.

There’s another project that also deals with identity and place, but more specifically with female identity and sexuality — coming of age, coming of body — in a small town in upstate New York, which is simultaneously undergoing its own growing pains. Yeah, that’s me and my town. Many pieces of this project have been published, but I’m in an extensive rewriting phase again. I’ve been working on this one since 2008. Obsession, what?

This article was originally posted on Press Street: Room 220, a NolaVie content partner.