Ellen McGrath Smith on Nobody’s Jackknife

mcgrathsmithphotoELLEN MCGRATH SMITH teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. Her writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Los Angeles Review, Quiddity, Cimarron, and other journals, and in several anthologies, including Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Smith has been the recipient of an Orlando Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3 magazine, and a 2007 Individual Artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her second chapbook, Scatter, Feed, was published by Seven Kitchens Press in the fall of 2014, and her book, Nobody’s Jackknife, was published in 2015 by West End Press.


nobodys-jackknife_book-coverBook Title, Press, Year of Publication:

Nobody’s Jackknife, West End Press, 2015

Synopsis: The book centers around a core of companion poems exploring alcohol addition and yoga practice but branches out from that core to explore form, love, and acceptance.

What do you think makes your book (or any book) a “project book”?

It began as a project I set out for myself while I was working on my doctoral dissertation. As a recovering alcoholic, I was asked by a friend at a party if I was comfortable being around people drinking. I told her that the closest I ever got to a buzz now was when I did yoga. From there, I went home and listed every alcoholic beverage I’d ever tasted or wanted to taste, then made another column where I listed the yoga asanas I associated with each drink. I began to write them as companion-poems but, not far into the project, I noticed the “Paradise Lost effect” (early modern English literature was part of my dissertation, and Milton’s epic was on my mind a lot at that time). In Paradise Lost, some of the best—most textured and energetic—poetry was in the sections involving Lucifer and Hell, while the sections focused on God and Heaven were quieter, the language less gnarly and interesting. Similarly, in the companion poems, I saw that, when I was writing about yoga postures, it was easy to fall into “calm, affirmational yoga-teacher voice,” which can be great for contemplation but doesn’t always make for good poetry; on the other hand, the poems about drinking and addiction were incredibly sensual and pulsing with emotion and energy. So I began to let the boundary between the two columns blur, which led to poems that also engaged with issues beyond my own addiction and yoga practice, as in “Downward Facing Dog,” a reflection on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina through the lens of the yoga posture by that name; there is no reference at all to alcohol in that poem, although the image of water as potentially destructive seemed to me related, as did the role of denial both in addiction and in the failure of leaders to plan for the safety of vulnerable populations.

So, it began as a project, and as I began to work on the manuscript form, I wrote and selected poems that, I hope, bring out the larger themes and concerns behind my alcoholism and my yoga practice; I also hope I was able to bring my alcoholism and yoga practice out of the sphere of private struggle and healing to connect with a wider sphere of struggle and recovery, from the unlearning of racism that our country is tasked with to the need for all of us, but particularly women, to live in and through our bodies in the face of objectification, toxicity, and violence.

Why this subject (or constraint)?

It was where I was at the time. When I stopped drinking, I had to deal with the emotions underlying my depression and anxiety, and both writing and yoga were instrumental in that years-long process: writing, because I have always been a writer (even when I’m not writing), and yoga, because that writerly approach to the world needed to be shut off sometimes, at least for me, because language had melted into the same hard-wiring that predisposed me to anxiety and depression. The project kept me aware of these relationships during a time of stress. From a purely poetic standpoint, working on a dissertation that involved a number of poets of both early modern England and twentieth-century America, I was inundated with influences, forms, and topoi. By setting out on a project that was very close to two contrasting paths I had taken in life—drinking to escape from and harm myself, yoga to stay with and nurture myself, with predictably different results—I was able to filter those influences in a way that was close to me. And I had writer friends who supported me in the project, got to know it, and provided important feedback on what I was doing before I was even sure what that was.

Are you comfortable with the term “project book”?

I’ve heard that term used with some skepticism, as in a brief review the sharp poet-critic Elizabeth Hoover did of Nobody’s Jackknife, in which she (thankfully) said that my book avoided some of the traps of project books, and by that I inferred that project books could perhaps lapse into gimmick, the tail could wag the dog or something like that. But before hearing that, I’d never thought of it as a bad thing, but I suppose it can be a reductive label, depending on how the term is used. When used disparagingly or reductively, the term might imply that there are other books that are, what? —inspired, spontaneous, unintentional. That hidden corollary seems like residual romanticism, or it carries traces of various schools of poetics that are distrustful of artifice, method, or effort. I don’t like to romanticize the writing life or writing process. Sure, there are lots of moments of inspiration, spontaneity, and indeterminacy in the writing process—and I can say that there was a lot of that happening for me with Nobody’s Jackknife. But (and my dissertation is actually about this) I’m just as distrustful of a poetics of authenticity, sincerity, and immediacy—because I know that creating those effects takes artifice too; the difference is that “raw” poetries often hide that artifice (like buying pre-faded blue jeans with holes). I guess what I’m most distrustful of, when it gets down to it, are any labels that disparage what other poets are doing. If I’m living in a van and writing on the backs of buffalo in Wyoming, it’s still a project if I understand project to be “something I’m doing, something in which I am currently engaged,” even if there’s a certain amount of derive, or “drift,” to it.

Did you allow yourself to break your own rules?

As I mentioned, it became clear not far into the project that I needed to stretch past the original “two-column” companion poem address. For instance, I superimposed one of the yoga poems as a text box on top of one of the full-page drinking poems; my publisher didn’t like this for the manuscript, but that version can be found in an issue of Ghost Town, an online lit mag out of Cal State-San Bernardino. Also, since the “project” part of the book began in the early aughts, there were newer poems that emerged later that I wanted to include in the manuscript, as they took some of the themes and inquiries of the yoga/alcohol poems in other directions (maturity and wisdom helps a lot!) even though they weren’t explicitly part of the book’s procedural premise. Going from poems of loneliness to poems of love and partnership was part of the book’s arc, and that was primarily because that was the arc of my life in the span of time during which I was making that book. And, very late in the game, I broke the companion poem rule by assembling “The Locust: A Foundational Narrative,” which was a nonfiction hybrid piece that included a yoga posture and touched on drinking but intercut with other narrative threads. This ended up being the book’s first section, and I think it functions as an autobiographical matrix for the shorter lyrics and more impressionistic poems, the way the prose section “91 Revere Street” functions in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies.

How important was it for you that each poem could “stand on its own” or that the poems should rely on other poems in the book, or on the premise of the project itself, to succeed? What challenges did this present for you when writing single poems or structuring the book overall?

While I love the idea of poems leaning on one another in suspension, and I resist the traditional notion that every poem in a book should stand on its own, more than half of the poems in the book had been published in journals or anthologies before the manuscript was accepted for publication. The only section where there aren’t freestanding, individually titled sections is “The Locust”; I was lucky that it was published as a whole after it won the Orlando Prize in Creative Nonfiction. I’d been shopping it around only briefly before that happened. Though individual segments could have been pulled out and published as freestanding verse or prose poems, I would have felt odd doing that.

I am working on another project, Shaken: A Recycle, which works through Shakespeare’s sonnets in ways that interact at times thematically with the first lines of the sonnets, at other times in a purely formal or aleatory way. I admire a lot of collections that eschew the marking of each poem with a title; titles sometimes seem like tombstones to me. Myung Mi Kim, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Robin Clarke have written books welcoming the contingent nature of fragments that are experienced as recursively pulled backward and forward yet given momentary durational existence on a given page, and I hope this more recent project of mine can inhabit more of that sort of aesthetic.

At any point did you feel you were including (or were tempted to include) weaker poems in service of the project’s overall needs? This is a risk, and a common critique, of many project books. How did you deal with this?

I have lots of yoga and alcohol poems that didn’t get into this book, probably because I didn’t want to saturate the collection. So in fact, there are actually strong poems that didn’t get in, but also weaker ones that didn’t belong. I think I knew that, once I started thinking of a manuscript, or experience for readers, rather than just a project, the best thing to do would be to fold in other poems that were not explicitly part of the project. As a result, poems that had been destined for other book manuscripts—like “The Latching-On Song” and “Traum Song”—found a home in Nobody’s Jackknife because of nuances they added to the core poems. In turn, I think they gained new kinds of meanings. For instance, “The Latching-On Song” is a poem that tries to render what it felt like, phenomenologically, to nurse my daughter when she was a baby (she’s a young adult now). Putting it in this collection made me think about how addiction may come from an unconscious longing for that idyllic “latching on” moment that is always just out of reach; at the same time, its presence in this manuscript was also a reminder that there have been moments off of the yoga mat when I have experienced the full presence of being a body and being in that body.

Did you fully immerse yourself in writing this project book, or did you allow yourself to work on other things?

I stretched it out over many years, between working on my dissertation and working on other poems and prose. With poetry, I don’t experience as much magic when I try to push through to completion. I need to approach and avoid. The immersion will sneak up on me when I show up, but I know that when I get to a project demanding immersion, it’s not going to happen. That’s true of any kind of immersion or peak experience, and my yoga practice especially has taught me that. Show up without expectations, and the rest will come. Or it won’t—and that’s a sign that you may need to turn your attention elsewhere. Just the other day, my yoga teacher Karen Conley suggested, almost as an aside, focusing on the knuckles in your hands while holding a low plank position; that changed everything for me that day, because shifting the attention to my hands helped me to forget the strain in my abdomen and thighs. Now, when I go into plank expecting that to work again, maybe it won’t, but the takeaway is not to have some fixed “solution” but, rather, to shift your attention from the thing you’re forcing, continually, forever, and that perhaps is what living is.

Did you ever lose momentum, bore yourself, or worry that your project could not be sustained for a full-length book? How did you push through?

The attention-shifting approach is a way to fend off that boredom or torpor or hopelessness with a project. Trust that you’ll get back to it, go away, and then go back to it when the opening in yourself appears—ha, maybe that opening is something as simple as sensing the boredom with something else you started doing when you got bored with the first thing.

As you were writing, were you influenced by your experience or perception of how project books are received by readers and editors (either positively or negatively)? Do you feel differently about your book being defined as a “project book” now that it has been published than you did when you were writing it?

My writing has always tended toward range, so when I started focusing on a project, I became more relaxed: There were parameters to what I was writing out of. It was an enormous relief. The only negative feeling I had was when I found a book of poems on yoga by a poet in a Barnes & Noble. It was hardcover, from a good publisher, and I thought, “Oh, I finally found a focus that could actually appeal to a lot of readers with an interest in yoga and spirituality, but I didn’t finish it fast enough and someone’s beat me to it!” I bought it, took it home, and told myself I wouldn’t open it until my manuscript was finished. When I finally looked at it, it was mostly meditative, the sort of poems a teacher might read to the class while they lay with their eyes closed in savasana. Only a few of my poems would be used that way; I’ve got too many sharp edges in my work, I think! That other book is a good book. But I’m glad I didn’t look at it, or I would have become discouraged and market-minded. I didn’t need that.

Do you have a sense of whether the fact that this is a project book helped position it to find publication more easily? Has it helped you find readers?

I’ve done a couple of readings and workshops at yoga studios and have heard of some people buying the book for family or friends who do yoga, but the publisher is primarily a literary publisher; in fact, John Crawford, the publisher, asked me to add the glossary to help him and other readers like him, who aren’t familiar with yoga (which in my mind seems fairly ubiquitous these days), to better get the poems.

As a reader, are you drawn to project books? What project books have influenced you or have you enjoyed, and what do you think makes those books successful?

One of my favorite project books, although people don’t call it that, is Gertrude Stein’s 1914 Tender Buttons. I love Harryette Mullen’s project revisioning Stein’s project, as well as Mullen’s S*P*RMK*T and Sleeping with the Dictionary. David Wojahn’s rock and roll sonnets in Mystery Train and Charles Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy were nice discoveries for me, too. More recently, when I told someone about the Shakespeare project I’ve been working on, they told me about Jen Bervin’s erasures of the sonnets in Nets (and this time, unlike when I discovered someone else had written a book of literary poems on yoga, I let myself read them!).

What effect do you think the prevalence of project books is having on poetry in general?

I think it’s great that poets have multiple ways to envision their work. In a sense, project books may come from poets’ envy of prose writers, who often can leave off from and pick up on something from one day to the next. Also, I think the project can be a nice buffer between poet and audience, so that poetry isn’t so much about the persona and personality of the person. It can be that way sometimes. Maybe the project is a way toward negative capability, or at least a way to change up the usual way of seeing poetry as emanating from a single subjectivity? Why not? And for younger poets, it’s a super-great way to get out of the angsty corner.

After completing a project, how did you transition into writing something new? What are you working on now? Another project?

I’m always working on several things at once, whether they be stated “projects” or just poems, stories, or essays I needed to write on a particular day—it’s that business of redirecting my attention to something else, which can mean that I don’t finish bigger things as quickly as I like. So it feels like I’m always transitioning in some way. But, yeah, when a bigger thing has been completed and put to bed, the horizon of possibility can be exciting and also overwhelming. Another project can be a way to transition. Or just a bit of writerly anarchy for a while to see what sticks and what you seem most likely to stick with, which depends on so many factors including what you’ve got to do to make a living (and as a result, what’s most feasible under those conditions) and what it is that makes you energized. I do try to mark bigger transitions, taking a page from the Monty Python’s Flying Circus playbook: “And now for something completely different.”

What advice can you offer other writers, particularly emerging writers or poetry students who may be using the project book as a guiding principle for their own work?

Make your project focused enough that you’ll feel committed to returning to it again and again, even after long hiatuses. In fact, allow for long hiatuses or be okay about them, so that you will continually infuse your project with new perspectives, constantly redefining what it is you’re doing. And you’ll want to constantly redefine it so that it doesn’t become mechanical. If the project is the cathedral, remember that the people with their stalls set up outside the cathedral—like the poems that don’t obviously belong to the project—may well be a part of the whole experience, too. Choose a project that is going to challenge you but that is also going to draw on who you already are as a person and a poet—and be willing to let the project change who you are as a person and a poet.



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