blackbirdonline journalFall 2019  Vol. 18 No. 2
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A Conversation with Jessie van Eerden
captured April 3, 2019

Brandie Gray: My name is Brandie Gray and I’m the Lead Associate Editor emerita of Blackbird and a third-year poet in the MFA creative writing program here at VCU. I’m here with Jessie van Eerden, who has graciously agreed to sit down with me today for an interview. She is here in Richmond to give a reading later this evening at VCU’s Cabell Library as a distinguished guest of our Visiting Writers Series.

Jessie van Eerden is the author of two novels, Glorybound, winner of the Foreword Editor’s Choice Fiction Prize, and My Radio Radio, as well as the recent essay collection The Long Weeping, winner of the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award. Her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, Oxford American, Willow Springs, and other magazines and anthologies. She has been awarded the Gulf Coast Prize for essay, the Milton Fellowship, and a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Fellowship. Jessie holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa and directs the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

And I’d be remiss not to mention that Jessie’s essay “What I Want Your Voice to Do,” which appears in issue v17n1 of Blackbird, was recently selected as a 2018 nonfiction winner by Sundress Publications for inclusion in the Best of the Net anthology.

Congratulations, Jessie, and thank you so much for being here today.

Jessie van Eerden: [laughs] Thank you.

BG: So I want to start off with a question about your essay that appears in Blackbird. The central focus of the essay, which the title itself suggests, is voice. The essay opens with a biblical narrative from the New Testament—the seventh sign in the Gospel of John—the raising of Lazarus. In the first section of the essay we hear the voice of Jesus calling Lazarus to “come forth.” Then Lazarus himself is given voice, but only through interior thought: “Leave me in peace, Lazarus thinks, rigid with fear, please leave me alone.”

The essay then braids sections of your own life as an educator with this imagined narrative of a young girl named Mindy, who attends a middle school in the same county in which you grew up. In this imagined classroom, you are the teacher who has given Mindy voice through poetry as she writes about her mother’s overdose. It is then made clear in the following sections of the essay that her voice is that of Jesus’s when resurrecting Lazarus.

So my question for you is related to the national epidemic often referred to as “the opioid crisis.” West Virginia is continuously cannibalized by mass media as the state with the highest opioid-related deaths in the country, and your essay takes this issue to task through the motif of voice. What was your intention in addressing a subject such as this? And do you perhaps see yourself as a writer and educator who has given her own voice to this issue with the essay as your platform?

JVE: Well, that’s a very thoughtful question. It’s a complicated essay for me, and kind of a complicated question. It stems from, there was a New York Times editor—whose name I don’t remember—who was kind of looking for West Virginia narratives and someone gave him my name, and so he contacted me, he said, “I’d really love you to do something on the opioid crisis,” and number one, I don’t have a lot of personal experience with the opioid epidemic right now, except to be in the heart of that crisis, and a lot of my students are affected by it at Wesleyan, and also, kind of simultaneous with being branded as “Trump Country” at the same time. So it’s sort of like those are comingling national brands for us as a region. And that makes it frustrating when it’s also your place, your home, your place of work, your place of creative output, as well. So I think when I was writing this essay, I was trying to think about how to overturn some of the assumptions, I guess, about a dismissed population. And it’s probably an impetus in a lot of my work about the region, like I’m really interested in writing about people who are seen in really reductive ways, in a larger society, particularly the liberal academic society.

So my way into talking about this kind of stigma was through a writing workshop that I knew about, that I didn’t know much about except that I’d read about it in the paper, and kind of this notion of this middle school that I knew very well, because I’d played girls’ basketball there, and—[laughs]not well, but it was memorable. And you know, when you’re growing up as a kid and you’re a middle schooler pounding down the basketball court, you don’t know that people in the larger world think you’re basically a lost cause, you know? I mean, you’re oblivious to that. Maybe kids are less so now because we’re so much more digitized and connected, but you know, in my growing up, that was not really in my mind. So I think I wanted to tap into kind of all of those layers, I wanted so say like, “Yes, I have a voice as an educator.” There’s also kind of this workshop that happens in this middle school that I felt like was kind of conducted by an outsider, and so I could sort of put myself in the shoes of Mindy. So I think in some ways this was an exploratory essay to get inside, to try and better understand the opioid crisis, to better understand people who are written off, to better understand it and inhabit what it’s like to grow up now, in the region where I’ve grown up and have come back to in my professional life. And also, complexify the notion of resurrection as this Hallmark-y thing, you know, because there’s something about it to me that’s like, all of these things should challenge us and push us to the edge of ourselves in some way. So I was kind of hoping all of those things could kind of work in tandem.

BG: So it’s interesting that you mentioned Trump Country, which leads into my next question.

JVE: Uh-oh. [laughs]

BG: [laughs] So I recently read a book of historical essays—which maybe you have, as well—but it’s written by Elizabeth Catte and it’s called What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.

JVE: She’s a prophetess, in my mind. [laughs]

BG: Yes, it’s a wonderful collection of historical essays. She is so angry, and it’s so wonderful to read that work.

JVE: Well, she’s angry, but she’s hopeful. You know, she’s got both of those doses.

BG: Yes, that’s how it’s successful. She’s angry and also hopeful. Yeah, she breaks down that book splendidly, and so, as you know, the book was written as a response to the 2016 election, which, you know—and the book also deconstructs the politically-charged image and media portrayal of Appalachia as “Trump Country.” And in particular, I wanted to talk about her essay titled “The (Re)discovery of Appalachia.” So Catte makes the assertion that “Before 2016, the last time the nation took such an obsessive interest in West Virginia’s politics was in 1960, when JFK and Herbert Humphrey did battle during the state’s Democratic primary,” and then she goes on to explain how Lyndon Johnson’s administration adopted JFK’s commitment to addressing Appalachia’s poverty by declaring “an unconditional war on poverty in America.”

So it was interesting to me because I read your collection first, and then I bought that book at a bookstore in Asheville on one of my trips there. And I read it, and I was like oh, this reminds me so much of your essay, “Woman with Spirits.” So in your collection, The Long Weeping, there is an essay entitled “Woman with Spirits” which captures the exact historical moment that we’re talking about with Catte’s work. Your essay addresses a relative of yours named Eliza, whose home was invaded by Johnson’s photographers during his “poverty tour” through the Whetsell Settlement, which also happens to be the place where you grew up. In the essay, you always address Eliza directly and give testimony to the humiliating nature of those images. One such address reads: “You never saw yourself in the way they saw you, framed and cropped for a project.”

And after reading that, I’ve been teaching in my Honors 250 course—Expository Writing—and it’s an emphasis on the ekphrastic essay. So we recently read bell hooks’s essay “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life,” and I can’t help but be reminded of what you’re doing and what Catte’s doing and what bell hooks is doing; I think it’s all connected. And bell hooks writes in that essay about the divisiveness of image making—particularly in African American communities, black communities—so the divisiveness of image making and how the camera is a powerful yet dangerous tool, dependent upon the nature of the individual gazing through its lens. And within that essay hooks states: “All colonized and subjugated people, who, by way of resistance, create an oppositional structure within the framework of domination, recognize that the field of representation (however we see ourselves, how others see us) is a site of ongoing struggle.” And I believe this statement to be true, and I’m interested in what else you might have to say about how people view a culture outside of their own. I think it’s also true that most people, like Eliza, are accustomed to serving as passive subjects for others, but wish to be seen by the world in their own image. So I’m wondering what you perhaps would say to all of that.

JVE: Oh gosh, so many wonderful things you’re mentioning. I think that one thing that comes to mind—I teach the portrait-essay form a lot, and I’m glad you’re teaching the ekphrastic. I’m in the middle of that with my nonfiction students right now. And I think there’s so much to be said for radical acts of attention, and how representation of the “other” can be an act of amazing discovery, and not one of domination or colonization. But it’s a very fine line, particularly for artists. And especially when you’re representing a disenfranchised people, or people who just simply have less currency in the culture. So I think one of the things I’ve worked with my students on is—John Berger has a really wonderful book of essays called The Shape of a Pocket, and it’s—of course, he’s an art critic, and has really been known as someone who’s talked about the art of looking, essentially, and the ethics of looking. The Shape of a Pocket—he means a pocket of resistance, in that book—and he talks about the principle of collaboration that’s involved in any kind of portraiture. So I mean he’ll go as far as to say, you know, even if you’re painting a mouse or a landscape, something that’s non-human, that there has to be a principle of collaboration involved with the subject. And that’s a bit mystical to some degree, particularly if it’s not a living person or if—like Eliza has been dead now several years, she died when I was in high school, so my interest in writing that portrait was, was it to speak with her? Or to have her even give assent to my depiction of her?

So already you’re entering into an ethically fraught territory, and when I talk to my students about portraiture, I always say there has to be an element of collaboration, an element of discovery, and it’s going to be uneasy or else you’re not doing it right, you’re not doing it with the proper attitude, because there’s a dis-ease in the power structure, when you’re the person with the pen, or the camera, or the paint brush. I don’t think that that means you run from it. [laughs] But I do feel like you enter in with care. And I think, too—I often use, kind of call upon, pretty important philosophers like Simone Weil and Emmanuel Levinas who are both philosophers who speak a lot about our relation to the “other.” And that—my favorite line from Simone Weil that I often quote is, “Contempt is the contrary of attention,” and that, you know, her vision of attention is—she has a lot written on attention as an art form and as a very strict spiritual posture, but I think when I talk to my students about contempt, I say, “You know, there’s obvious contempt, but then there’s more subtle contempt, particularly when it’s kind of shrouded in pity, or in just simply the idea that you know someone in their entirety, and that there’s not a kind of pocket of strangeness that you can’t access.” I think that can be kind of fruitful, you know, going from those platforms, but I do feel like it’s always uneasy—and even at the end of the “Woman with Spirits” essay, I try to make room, and I think in some ways there’s failure in that portrait essay, because I want to say all portraits will fail to capture someone in their entirety, and they can just gesture toward them. And that that kind of has to be enough, I think.

BG: You end that essay, if I’m remembering correctly, on the image of Eliza holding a gladiola—is that right?

JVE: Yeah, I think with that one the gladiola image kind of traces throughout that book. I think I might—I haven’t read it in a while—it might be that AM/FM radio that also has an antenna like a gladiola stem, but I’m not sure, it might be in simile, I know the gladiola’s mentioned, though.

BG: So with that simile you’re working in figure there, and I imagine that you’re doing the work of representation with that simile, right? So the AM/FM radio and the antenna, you turn it into a gladiola, so you turn her into the image that perhaps maybe she would liked to be viewed as, right? I think that’s also something very successful in that essay.

I’m going to continue to kind of talk to you about this idea of colonizing and subjugating people, so keeping bell hooks in mind. So since coming to work for Blackbird in 2016 as an editor, I couldn’t help but notice and call attention to the volume of submissions I read that address, either directly or indirectly, our current political zeitgeist—it’s quite ominous to say the least. What I read, and you know, it’s poetry, fiction, nonfiction, it’s across the board. And so I’m curious to know how your students writing and understanding of literature and culture has changed since the 2016 election? For instance, is the workshop environment noticeably different or does the writing seem more urgent, perhaps? And, you know, do you encourage students to resist such passive subjectivity or perhaps tell them to embrace an oppositional subculture as an act of resistance, like hooks suggests? Maybe you can speak a little more to your pedagogy in that regard? I know you said something earlier, but maybe, you know, fleshing that idea out.

JVE: Well, I can start by saying I think it was hard for anyone who was teaching in the 2016 election. I think that semester—particularly I was teaching a Composition 2, which was for me a radical-listening class, trying to listen to all sides of an issue before you make comments about critical thinking, and there was this sense of like, “Okay, we’re in an era in which critical thought, respectful discourse, none of that is rewarded at the highest place at the table.” So [laughs]it compromises, it makes you feel compromised, and it was also a season in which people didn’t listen to each other, which a lot of people have kind of dissected now, but liberals and conservatives did not listen to each other, and felt very much siloed. And I remember even in my class in that semester I taught Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, that had come out maybe the year prior or something, and it’s a difficult text on many levels, but of course one of the most difficult aspects of it is the accounting of police shootings of young African American men. I don’t know if you’ve read that book, but the page where the names just keep being added, depending on your edition. And I remember I had students of color in the class and white students, and I remember there being a lot of, kind of restless accord with the students of color, like “I went to Walmart last week, and I had that experience,” and a lot of other students in the class basically saying, “This doesn’t really happen anymore.” So like, not hearing, not connecting—so I remember thinking in that kind of environment, number one, things are very broken in our culture right now, but also students are having a hard time not putting up walls at this time, because we’re so polarized. So it’s really hard to hear the other view and not feel like it would eat you up, or something. So there was more entrenchment, I think, in our own little tribes.

Now, in my creative writing classes since then, I mean, I don’t know, I mean it just feels like it just keeps getting more absurd, so oddly enough, I think often in creative writing classes now, it has felt maybe more like a respite, almost. I mean it’s not that we don’t talk about political discourse or issues going on, but I think a lot of times, number one, I think it’s less national and a little bit more local, like we’ll talk a lot about stuff I won’t go into too much, but like—some issues with security and some injustices just within our campus, and so the ability for students to—there’s more of a binding together, and I think in some ways that helps with the helplessness that we have in this larger sense of things being very off, nationally. We also had a suicide last fall on our campus that also was kind of a catalyst for a lot of kind of expression of care and kind of better connectivity among students, and also among students and faculty. So I don’t really know how to answer your question in terms of encouraging like direct resistance, or direct political activity. I’m kind of a believer in some of the older, kind of more ancient practices, you know, in terms of contemplative practices and acts of attention, and I think in some ways those are some of the most radical, even if they don’t have a lot of kind of trending currency right now, but I think some of those basic principles I’m always encouraging in students.

BG: Your attention to syntax and your use of poetic figures tightly compressed into each sentence is truly masterful, and I absolutely mean that. One of my favorite passages from your collection The Long Weeping is in the essay about your mother. The portrait essay is called, “A Good Day.” I’ll quote the exact passage to which I’m referring:

But my laundry hangs black-wet on the line tonight, and I’m still a girl with my sister on a summer night when the day has been long, the length of the burn of the small brushfire by the barn. The loose walnut leaves, which have batted smoke toward the wet cotton of the sheets, have stilled. And, as though reading their stillness like a sign, my mother says she is too tired to take in the sheets from the line, so we leave them to hang overnight.

Now everyone should know why I am constantly in awe of your technical lyricism, and they should be as well after hearing this. So if I may ask, how did you become such a deft architect of language and would you mind perhaps speaking a little bit about your writing process?

JVE: Well, thank you, you read that really beautifully. [laughs] Well, I would say process questions are really hard. [laughs] I did start out as a poet and fancied myself that all through college until I fell in love with the essay, which I realized was an extended poem. [laughs] And then I fell in love with the novel, and in some ways that’s even more extended, but it has different demands, of course. The essay still feels like my home.

But I feel like part of my love of language started very young, and in that particular piece that you read, in that context of the quotidian and a very rural, pretty simple life—sheltered in some ways. But I remember—I mean, I grew up also highly religious in the notion of Sunday service, but also the sense of the sacrament in the daily, so not necessarily the holy separated, or the profane and the sacred being separate things, so I think in some ways, linguistically, that kind of gives a sense of awe toward the most kind of mundane things, and I remember as a child—and I think a lot of influence from my mother—like a sense of wonder in the daily and a kind of love for work, and a lot of that essay is about my mother’s physical work and her care for people. And I wanted to make my mom famous, so that’s why I wrote that essay, even though she doesn’t want to be famous. There was a kind of biblical language and the language of the everyday and the sort of lexicon of physical labor was all of a piece, I think, as a kid—so the sense of the inner soul, the inner life, and the external relational world, in my family, and in my community, and in a pretty low income area, all of that felt like very much imbued in how sentences could come together, and how images needed to be kind of preserved. And I think I started really young wanting to preserve everything, like Joan Didion says, we have a pre-sentiment of loss as writers, and I really feel like—I think I’ve said that before just because it’s always stuck with me, even now, like wanting to back up and preserve something even while I’m experiencing it. And that’s something a writer can’t help. I mean, I’ve kind of given up on trying to stop that impulse, but I think, coming back to the actual essence of language, I think it’s a training of the eye to see metaphor kind of everywhere, I suppose that gets into the rhythm itself. I think now as I write I feel a lot more drawn to segmented pieces and pieces that have kind of unlikenesses brought together side by side in juxtaposition, and I use silence, I think, a lot more. But there is something I always come back to—the well-chiseled sentence that doesn’t sound stilted but it has to be as sharp of an art piece as the whole. And I think in some ways that was put in me as a child, the attention to the smaller things and details.

BG: I see a lot of myself in your work in terms of your attention to detail of the line. You’re a poet, so I’ll just say the line, right? And I really appreciate it, and I look toward—and for—your work for that, so thank you so much for being that person for me, or one of the people. So, you know, you’re talking about preserving language, and that makes me think about the idea of preserving voice. So, harkening back to one of my first questions about the voice of Jesus raising Lazarus, I also want to include the topic of place and the importance of landscape in your writing, as we’re thinking about voice and preservation of language. Outside of the literary establishment, it’s very rare that you get to hear about Appalachia from the voice of someone who is Appalachian, as we’ve been talking about. I myself grew up in southwest Virginia and identify as an Appalachian writer whose work is heavily informed by the region. There are many wonderful writers—such as bell hooks, we’ve been talking about bell hooks, Maurice Manning, Rebecca Gayle Howell, and Silas House, just to name a few—who come from the region and who always return home in their writing, and I count you as one among them.

About a year ago I happened upon the anthology Walk Till the Dog Gets Mean, whose title bears the same name as your essay included within its pages. The entire project is rooted in the very same Appalachian landscape. In your essay you return back home to West Virginia after living in the Pacific Northwest and, I think, Pennsylvania for a while, but it wasn’t home exactly because you come to realize there is only the liminal space in which you exist. And in that essay you are at a crossroads with your relationship to writing and spirituality as you come face-to-face with a demon that takes the shape of a dog.

This pilgrimage brings to mind one of my most beloved works of literature, the Divine Comedy—Dante is lost in a dark wood, being hunted by the she-wolf, and blind to the path that lies ahead of him. And I’ve also read Wendell Berry’s book Remembering, which also draws similar inspiration from the Comedy, you know, the protagonist, Andy Catlett, he’s lost himself and his sense of place after losing his hand in a farming accident. He traveled across the country, and he’s walking the streets of San Francisco at dawn and begins to remember his home and family in Kentucky and returns with his faith newly restored. So reading your essay and Walk Till the Dog Gets Mean made me think of all of that in such a wonderful way. And, in my own writing, such spiritual transcendence is made possible through emotional exile or by physical displacement or simply becoming “homesick,” which, as you state in your essay—I myself call it mountain sickness, and I believe the meaning is twofold: sick of being home and sick from leaving home. Both I believe are allegorical truths, which represent a writer’s journey toward a higher meaning or purpose. So what purpose did writing this essay serve and to what end does writing toward home allow you to stay there and voice such truths?

JVE: I love all your network of connections, it’s really exciting to me. Well, I think for anyone who’s written for a long enough time, writing becomes a salvific thing, you know, and there really is—number one, you can’t not do it and survive in any meaningful way, but you also kind of go to it when everything else has kind of fallen away. So there are several essays that I wrote in the wake of the divorce, which for me—which is actually quite fortunate—was the really first big loss of my life. And I think in some ways grief does a weird thing, it isolates you in some ways, and you think “I’m the only one experiencing this,” but it also does this paradoxical thing where you feel like you’re very connected to other people experiencing grief. And one of the interesting things about writing about grief is it often becomes a really interesting conduit between me and a reader where we just immediately feel kind of an intimacy because grief does that, it kind of tears away the pretentions or the masks that we usually can act like we have everything together. [laughs] And usually we can maintain that, but there are times in your life where you can’t and you just simply look like the mess you really are.

So for that essay, that was when I very, very recently moved back to West Virginia, I was gone for twelve years. It’s not that I ran from West Virginia in the least, I’d always loved my home—it’s a hard place to find work as an academic for one thing, and also I married a Canadian so I was drawn away to his place, so I think I landed in a time I didn’t expect to, in West Virginia, and I was like, this is the first time—this is my adult professional life and my artistic life in this space where I was a child and lived until I was about twenty-two. And there’s that really interesting thing that you feel like, you drive around a curve that you drove around when you first learned to drive, and you’re thirty-five now, and there’s a re-inhabiting of your former self that feels very strange, particularly when you feel like—my family still feels very rooted in the place I grew up. So when Adrian Blevins and Karen Salyer McElmurray put that collection together, in their early stages their concept was so interesting: writing the forbidden, writing what people don’t want to admit, and there are wonderful essays in there, Jason Howard’s essay is quite beautiful about same-sex relationships. I really love Ann Pancake’s essay on gender. I love so many of the essays in there. And even one on being an outsider Appalachian, and what does it even mean when you’re not accepted as an Appalachian, you know? So it’s an explosive book, and I was really thrilled that they took my title for it. So basically, what happens in that essay is there was a little scrap of paper, because I was still living with my parents at the time before I had found a job and got back on my feet, and I had a neighbor whose dogs were mean, quite frankly, so you don’t necessarily walk past his house, it’s just sort of the way it was, you weren’t always sure they were going to leave you alone, and sometimes they don’t, and they bite people. I wrote that on a scrap of paper and at that time also—as with many times when your life falls apart—I wasn’t writing because language was frozen for me, so even though writing can be a salvific thing, it’s also something you can be estranged from when you’re estranged from yourself. So that little scrap was a physical scrap that led me back into writing again, and I just was trying to figure out why do I fixate on that phrase? And what happens if you, you know, metaphorically, walk into and past and beyond where the dogs get mean, and there’s—of course, it becomes an internal thing that a lot of the things you’re afraid of and the things that are coming up in you in a time of loss are our inner demons, so I think it helped me. It’s always a balance. I tell my students writing essays is not therapy. It can’t be the same as a therapy session, but it’s going to be therapeutic. So both things must be true, and you just have to think about letting things sit long enough. I wrote a very rough version of that and had to let it sit for a long time until it was a little bit more like something I could shape as a piece of art for other people and not just something to get something on paper to heal myself. So there’s always a fine line, I think, in that process.

BG: Yeah. At the end of that essay it does take quite a turn. I think I could notice that, you know, when you’re walking by yourself and then, is it dusk, or early dawn? I can’t remember, but it turns into this kind of really surreal moment where I think, you know, like the metaphor, like the allegory then takes over for me when I read that last section, and I really enjoyed that entire anthology, it’s got some really, really good essays by some really great writers in there. I’ve got two more small questions for you—more fun questions, what are you reading right now?

JVE: Oh, that is a fun question! [laughs] Well, besides a lot of student work that’s quite wonderful. I just taught Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon.

BG: Me too!

JVE: I was wondering if you’d used that for ekphrasis. It’s one of my favorite essays. It’s really an extended essay; it’s a little book. But I like spending time with Doty’s mind any chance I get, so I loved rereading that, and a lot of the ekphrasis essays in that class, one I really loved by David Ramsey, called “I Will Forever Remain Faithful,” which is kind of a portrait in ekphrasis of Lil Wayne, and his teaching in New Orleans—Ramsey’s teaching in New Orleans, in post-Katrina New Orleans—and it’s a powerful essay, and I think—stuff for class, for sure, I’ve recently—I’m really taken with C.E. Morgan. I don’t know if you know her work. She’s more well known for The Sport of Kings, which is like a horse-racing novel, a really epic, huge doorstop. But her first book is called All the Living and you’re reminding me—I want to write her a note because I’m interested in her because she’s sort of of the ilk of Marilynne Robinson in a way, of sort of being somewhat theologically trained, whether self-trained—I think actually she went to Harvard Divinity School, C.E. Morgan—but imbues in her character, who’s a complicated character, and not always very likeable [laughs] in her sort of selfish actions and sort of miserly way of being in the world, but she has a really, I don’t know, it’s almost Old Testament sort of sense of almost harsh spirituality. But I felt like when I was reading that novel, a sense of spaciousness with the character that I hadn’t felt for a while, probably because I hadn’t read an extended novel for a while, I’d been reading shorter things. So I loved that, and I love recently t’ai freedom ford’s collection, how to get over, so I’m kind of doing some language work with my new nonfiction collection that’s really just in its early stages, but there’s so many beautiful ways ford uses that phrase, of how to get over, of course like in passage, but also how to get over something, how to get over on somebody, so I love that sense of phraseology kind of—and also Deaf Republic, Ilya Kaminsky’s new collection that’s highly narrative and kind of how he also is shaping these hybrids, you know? Like it’s kind of novelistic of the collection of poems, so I’m really interested in those kinds of works that push the genre boundaries a little bit.

BG: And my last question to conclude this interview—you just mentioned a little bit about it—I was going to ask, what are your current writing projects? Is there another novel? You mentioned maybe a collection of essays in the works. If you would like to tell us?

JVE: Yeah, I am about one-third of the way done with the last revision before my agent sees the new novel, so I’m very excited about that. Off and on I’ve been working on it—about eight years—so that’s one of the difficulties in revising it; it has a lot of different vocal registers because of the time away from it and coming back, and it’s a little bit hard to be consistent. Also, it’s kind of switched about three-quarters of the way through from the first person to an epistolary novel, written basically still first person but with an addressee. It shifts a lot of the tone, so I’m hoping to get that done by the end of the month, although that might be a bit of a stretch. [laughs]

BG: That’s soon; that’s exciting!

JVE: It is exciting, it’s also—I’m tearing my hair out, because, like, I know the work I need to do, and it’s the most busy time of the semester, so it’s just really hard to get to it. And get up at five, as I should. The other thing I’m working on is a sort of—it’s a little harder to talk about, because I usually—the portrait essays in The Long Weeping came together over a long period of time and I didn’t necessarily form it as a book from the beginning, so this I’m trying to think of as a book as I work on each piece, and so that’s different for me. So basically it’s a book—the essays have to do with blessings, so there’s a lot of—the piece I’m going to read tonight is one of them, called “Blessed Be the Longing that Brought You Here,” and I have one on—I don’t remember the other ones—a couple other ones, so I’m kind of interested in the concept and the act and the participation in blessing. But basically, it’s tentatively called Yoke and Feather, and I’m interested in, sort of, the, you know, if you think ox and yoke, and being yoked with another, and that kind of human obligation, human responsibility, ways in which we’re connected and obligated to one another, beyond the sort of surface language of rights, and our democracy; it’s something a little deeper. Kind of going again back to Simone Weil’s ideas of rights and obligations. But feather, also there’s a lightness, you know? There’s fancy, and there’s playfulness, and there’s delight—and so I’m really interested—and of course, there’s a very famous passage in the New Testament about, in the gospel of Matthew, “my yolk is easy and my burden is light,” Christ says, and so that’s really interesting to me, because I’m like, “Well, not really.” [laughs] What do you mean, you know? So it’s a kind of interrogation of the etymology of something like yoke because there’s also the yoke of a dress, yoke of oppression, I mean, there’s a lot of fun, where you can just explore language forever. So these are starting to come together, and I think I’m wanting to shape it more as a book than a collection of disparate essays, so we’ll see how they all change. I also just am trying to get some stuff out because working on a novel has really kept me from publishing anything [laughs], so it’s fun to be working on some shorter pieces, just to kind of have something finished for a change. But thank you for asking all of those wonderful questions. I feel very honored to speak with you about all of it.

BG: Thank you so much.

JVE: You’re welcome.  

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