The Colorado Poet, #21, Winter 2012

Interview with Jessy Randall

Interruptions: Collaborative Poems with Daniel M. Shapiro (Pecan Grove Press, 2011)
Injecting Dreams into Cows (Red Hen Press, 2012)

Bob King: Regarding Interruptions, collaborative poems by you and Daniel M. Shapiro. You’ve said, “We both wrote all the poems” and that you two started with collaborations around 2002 giving yourselves assignments like “a 26-line poem where every line has an important word and/or a first word starting with the letters of the alphabet in reverse order” but eventually you stopped setting rigid rules. Still, it sounds like a mysterious process. What did you find you had to give up when collaborating? Or what did you gain?

Jessy RandallJessy Randall: It was sort of mysterious to us at first, too. We weren’t really sure if it would work. At first we made ourselves assignments, but we tried to create the assignments collaboratively, which perhaps helped us get the whole thing going. After we’d done a few poems with rigid guidelines (like the 26-line poem, which we now both hate) we didn’t need the rules as much. I think the thing you give up, when collaborating, is control, certainly sole control but maybe even control in general. What you gain – or what we gained, anyway – was a feeling of freedom, and also, for a while, a big output, poetry-wise. Because if you’re collaborating you have to keep on writing lines even if you don’t feel like it, because the other person is waiting for you.


I think the thing you give up, when collaborating, is control, certainly sole control but maybe even control in general. What…we gained was a feeling of freedom.

BK: Okay, I know you both wrote everything here. Still, I feel there are some definite moves on display. One is to come up with a title or a starting concept that you two (or any number of people) could each add to, like “If You Really Want to Be Mean to Yourself” or “Mundane Dreams.” There are other places where it does feel that it goes back and forth from person to person in alternate lines or sentences or stanzas. Still there are many with a singular characteristic voice that could have been written by one person or one of you two. Did you find these types different from each other in the writing?

JR: Dan has used the term “ping-pong” to describe our method, and indeed, sometimes we would write a poem very quickly, very much like a ping-pong game, hitting the poem back and forth by email with only one bounce to think. We almost never came up with the title first, and many of our first lines didn’t start out as first lines. The first line one of us sent the other would often shape the poem, certainly, and show whether it was going to be a one-voice or a two-voice poem (sometimes we might use “we” right away, for example). We definitely thought about those two kinds of poems (one-voice or two-voice) when we put the book manuscript together – we didn’t want all the poems to be one kind or the other.

BK: There’s an “I” and a “you” in several of the poems here. That seems logical for a collaboration although not necessary. Did you sometimes have an I/you feeling because of going back and forth in writing with someone? Did it help in writing those poems?

There’s a definite difference between the one-voice and the two-voice poems.

JR: This connects with my answer to the last question – yes – there’s a definite difference between the one-voice and the two-voice poems. The one-voice poems generally had to be either a “we” talking or, sometimes, persona poems, where we both tried to speak from some other particular point of view. We could do this by imagining a speaker or by trying to write from the point of view of someone we both know or knew, which was only possible because we’ve known each other a long time (we met when we were in sixth grade, so we’ve had thirty years of friendship).

BK: Big question for me is how do two people revise a collaborative poem?

JR: Ah, that’s the crux of it, isn’t it! At first we were both far too polite to revise well, and that’s why the early poems were pretty crappy compared to the later ones. In the beginning we didn’t ever want to cut each other’s lines, which was a good way to get started, but not a good way to make a good poem. As we got more into the groove of it we got more ruthless with cutting and changing, removing whole lines and stanzas, our own or the other person’s, indiscriminately. Of course sometimes we had to wait a while to see a poem more clearly, and by then we didn’t always remember whose line was whose, so it was perhaps easier to edit. (I shared these questions with Dan by email today and he reminded me that if one of us had a dominant voice in a poem, we often abandoned it altogether, or returned it to the owner, as it were.)

BK: In a recent interview, the composer Phillip Glass, who has been collaborating with the musician Beck to “reinvent pieces,” said young composers were anxious to find their voice. He tells them, "Actually, you’re going to find your voice. By the time you’re 30, you’ll find it. But that’s not the problem. The problem is getting rid of it. You have to find an engine for change. And that’s what collaborative work does. Whatever we do together will make us different.”  Does any of that apply to your experience in collaboration with Daniel?

JR: That’s a fantastic quote and I completely agree with it. Writing with Dan was a way to try out some new voices. Sometimes I get very tired of myself.

BK: Now let’s turn to Injecting Dreams into Cows (Red Hen Press), close to the most interesting book title of the year, I’d say. The phrase comes from “The Consultant,” a poem which has scientists injecting cow-dreams into some cows and people-dreams into other cows and having them keep journals. I won’t be a spoiler and give away the poem, but it does bring up a question: Where in the world did you get this idea? I could also ask that about the couple who make a movie of themselves and sit watching it or the poem “Tastes Like Purple” followed by 11 lines, none of which mention ‘taste’ or a color. In other words, you have a rather fey approach to some of your poems, taking that in both meanings, ‘visionary’ and ‘slightly insane.’ Can you explain yourself?

JR: I really wish I could remember how I got the idea for “The Consultant.” I have the exact same reaction to it now as you do. I.e., “WHAT?”

The origin of “Tastes Like Purple” I remember very clearly. I’m a librarian, and one day a student asked for both the stapler and the three-hole-punch, and this caused a cognitive dissonance in my brain, much the way “tastes like purple” might. Purple is not a taste, but still, someone might say that something tasted purple, in particular grape Bubble Yum tastes like purple, in my memory, and not like grape. Similarly (maybe), if you both stapled and three-hole-punched your paper, well, why would you do that? So this poem, for me, is about the difficulty of what librarians call the “reference interview.” Trying to figure out what a person wants or needs when that person isn’t telling it to you straight.

As for “They Make a Movie of Themselves,” it’s not about a couple; I mean, it could be for you, but when I wrote it I was thinking about my son (age nine at the time) and his friends, who were making many, many short movies with a digital camera. They’d make a movie and then immediately load it onto the computer and watch it, and then, rather than fixing or changing that movie, they’d just make another one, and another one.

BK: Some of these poems come from popular culture--video games, the Muppets, card games, phone sex, and the like. Some poets would avoid these subjects—you, frankly, seem to get a kick out of them. What’s going on with your responses to such activities?

Maybe it’s because I can write whatever I want to and not worry about getting tenure?

JR: Maybe it’s because I can write whatever I want to and not worry about getting tenure? I mean, I don’t have to publish in the big-name magazines to make a living or be respected as a librarian, so if I want to write a poem about Ms. Pac-Man, I’m going to do that. The idea of forbidden topics for poems makes me laugh. I mean, I’m sure there are topics I wouldn’t write about, but the idea of forbidding any topic for all poetry, well, that’s just silly.

BK: I also don’t want to misrepresent your subject matter. Many of these have to do with childhood or family memories or your own children and their ‘childhood’ and your motherhood, for that matter. As in the last question, why do such things attract you and how do they become poetry?

I suppose for me the question is why aren’t there more poems about motherhood and fatherhood out there in the world?

JR: I suppose for me the question is, why aren’t there more poems about motherhood and fatherhood out there in the world? I mean, aren’t these subjects that are extremely important to many, many people? I think if you limit yourself to the big grand topics of poetry – death, romantic love, war – well, those aren’t the kinds of poems I want to read or write, for the most part. Not to say others can’t read or write those poems, but, you know, it’s very easy to write a bad poem about death. It’s just as easy to write a bad poem about the Muppets, but I’m more interested in the Muppets, I guess, because I haven’t seen that before.

BK: Several in this book are more or less parallel forms. “I Have a Remote in Each Hand” goes on to alternate “with this one” and “with that one.” Or “Fortunes Too Long for Cookies,” a title which could be a group assignment in a writing class. What does parallelism allow or help create in a poem for you?

JR: You know, you’ve just named two of my least favorite poems in the book, so maybe parallelism is something I should avoid in the future. I do like writing in forms, but I generally don’t like what comes out of those attempts. I guess I like the exercise of it but not usually the result. The poems I like best pay attention to language. They’re not only about language, but they have an awareness of the sounds of words along with the meanings. Whether that comes out as rhyme, parallelism, crunchy chewy words, or however.

BK: Your diction is spare and not given to poetic flourishes. The first poem, “Metaphors,” is a fair example of your diction along with how you like to disrupt conventional thought. It begins: “A duck is like the moon / because a kid can point at both. A house / is like the sky: both hold things.” A few lines later you end with “Whatever I can think of is like twenty million things / that have never occurred to anyone. / This poem is a like a pillow. I hit you with it.” What led to your choice as poet for a spare diction and emphasis on playing with ideas? Any literary influences at work here?

JR: I suppose we can blame Kenneth Koch for my resistance to over-fancy words. When I was a student at Columbia, I took a poetry class with Koch, and at one point he told the class we should stop trying to prove our intelligence or niceness in our poems, that we should just take for granted that our readers thought we were intelligent and nice and go from there, see what might happen. This was good advice for me, though I’ve sometimes had a hard time following it, especially when I get the sense that an editor dismisses my poems for not being difficult enough.

Also, when I was a library intern at the Poetry Society of America, I overheard some young poets complaining about “archipelago poems,” poems that depended too much on wonderful words without anything behind them. Not to say that it would be impossible to write a good poem with “archipelago” or “stalactite” or “azure” in it, but you’d just want to be careful about it.

BK:  What’s next for Jessy Randall?

JR: I’ve been working on a young adult novel, a manuscript I abandoned a few years ago. I’d really like to resuscitate that thing. And Dan and I have been making some diagram-poem-things based on museum display instructions.