At any other time, Rebecca Jessen calling her new poetry collection Ask Me About The Future (paperback, ebook) would have very different connotations. So it’s important, as you read the following email interview with her about it, that you keep in mind that like Rome, poetry collections aren’t written in a day, and that day wasn’t yesterday, last week, or even last month.
To start, is there a theme to the poems in Ask Me About The Future?
The title is a bit of a giveaway I think!
So, did you set out to write poems around this theme or did you realize a theme was naturally emerging as you were putting this book together?
Once the collection was finished, and I began ordering the poems, I noticed the three strands: past, present, and future presented themselves quite naturally at that point. And, of course, there is crossover; I wanted the book to be fluid, and to read fluidly and seamlessly, too. All of the poems in some way or another encapsulate some aspect of the self or life across our / my personal and political histories.
In many ways, the most germane ideas in the collection arose in 2017 while I was undertaking some postgraduate study. My thesis was concerned with the notion of queer utopias and applying this radical idea to everyday queer life. The research itself was hugely influential in terms of the poems that arose from that process, and I found that to be a great launching pad for the book. The year after, I had a very fallow year, poem wise, where I wrote maybe 3 poems. The year after that, during the last few months of putting the collection together and writing new material, it became clear to me the ways that I had grown, and how that growth shone through in some of the newer poems in the collection.
All of the poems in Ask Me About The Future are free verse. What is it about free verse that you either like or just feel works for what you’d like to express?
I think part of it might be to do with my background and education. I didn’t grow up reading the poetry “classics,” which delved into more traditional poetic forms and we weren’t really taught these at school in any in-depth way. I’ve gravitated to free verse because of its lack of constraint; the fluid nature suits my style of thinking. I also found that I was able to construct my own versions of form in this collection — if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.
In saying that, I’d love to write a brilliant villanelle one day. Or any of those forms that have a repetitive refrain — I’m interested in how they can drastically shape and shift the meaning of a poem through nuance.
There are also a bunch of poems in Ask Me About The Future that are printed sideways. Is there a significance to this, or is it just because the lines were so long they wouldn’t fit on the page?
Oh, surprisingly I’ve been asked this question a few times, as people seem to really dig the sideways orientation of some of the poems.
As it happens, this was more of a technical constraint because some of my lines were too long to fit in portrait across the page. But one reader noted that it made the act of reading more present because they were occasionally jolted into changing the orientation of the book. Win win!
Are there any writers who had an influence on any of the poems in Ask Me About The Future but not on anything else you’ve written?
Special mention to the work of the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, whose book Cruising Utopia was a particularly resonant influence on my collection. I think because many of these poems were written while undertaking postgraduate research, many of those writing influences are scholarly. Another special mention for Jean Baudrillard’s America, which had such an immense sense of openness and curiosity about the world and the American landscape, (from a different vantage point) that I really connected with.
What about non-literary influences; were any of the poems in Ask Me About The Future influenced by music or visual art?
You may have noticed the rather long Notes section at the back of the book. A lot of these poems were borne through consuming the work of other artists. The poem “After Woolf Works” was inspired after seeing the Royal Ballet perform Woolf Works — a stunning triptych exploring Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Many of the poems are found poems, the material for which was sourced from a variety of sources on the internet — ranging from news articles to BuzzFeed listicles. The first poem in the book, “Self Portrait 2017” was inspired by a local exhibition (Making Modernism) of the works of Margaret Preston and Georgia O’Keefe — this one is another found poem, and the lines are mostly taken from the plaques that accompanied the paintings.
Another thing that can influence a poem is hearing it read aloud. Is that something you do, do you read your poems at open mics and poetry readings?
I certainly read my poems aloud at any opportunity, whether that’s at poetry gigs or by myself in my bedroom. I think reading aloud is so integral to knowing the rhythm of a poem and to getting that rhythm right.
One poem that was radically reworked was “Time-lapse,” but this was after hearing my girlfriend (also a poet!) read and record it for me. She suggested the rather drastic measure of slashing half the poem away, leaving it to its barest elements. To convince me she recorded the newly halved poem, and once I listened to it I couldn’t disagree.
Now, some of the poems in Ask Me About The Future previously appeared in such publications as Cordite Poetry Review and Rabbit Poetry Journal. Are the versions in Ask Me About The Future the same as they were in those journals?
I’m not sure a poem is ever really finished, but I think there are iterations that feel right for the time they are written and published, and this is definitely the case with many of the poems in the collection. Individual poems don’t necessarily go through as rigorous an editing process when accepted for a journal as they do when they go into a book, where you might work with both a structural editor and a copy editor, as I did.
Most poems in the book are similar versions of their former selves, with some minor tweaks. For example, in the poem, “Some Days,” the line “do you ever notice the way Mum never gives way at roundabouts” was previously “do you ever notice the way Mum never stops at roundabouts” upon its first publication in a journal. These are minute changes that won’t be evident to the reader, but as a perfectionist going over and over my manuscript I tried to pick up any small discrepancies in word usage and their intended meaning.
Individual poems that changed throughout the course of writing and finding their way into the book include, “I’m Not Myself At All” — while the content itself didn’t change very much the form changed radically in the editing process. It started as a fairly standard left-aligned poem and in its final form it’s much more fluid and playful — and I think speaks to the themes of the poem itself.
Sometimes just experimenting with the form of a poem can alter its meaning and reading and this is something I learned from the process. Another poem, “Time-lapse,” which I mentioned earlier, was published in the journal Stylus Lit, [but] underwent some serious editing to the version now in the book, and I think it’s stronger for it. While I liked all of the lines in the original poem, I came to realize that the poem was stronger in its shorter form.
Finally, if someone enjoys Ask Me About The Future, what poetry book of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
Tracy K. Smith’s Life On Mars. This is one of those collections that I return to often, and I have such huge admiration and respect for Smith as a poet. The collection has a spacey-Bowie bent to it that nicely complements some of the themes in Ask Me About the Future.