Jeanann Verlee - Choking Hazard: raucously confessional poems, full of blood & guts, sex & booze: A nest of wasps. They wore lipstick. Just for you

Jeanann Verlee, Racing Hummingbirds (Write Bloody Publishing, 2010)

"Racing Hummingbirds examines, critiques, and at times delights in one woman's navigation through the many worlds of manic depression and her struggle to maintain humanity in the process. Jeanann Verlee's debut collection is a series of narratives, prayers, and conjurings which address gender, sex, race, poverty, survival and heartbreak with such stark intimacy, you will find yourself living inside. These poems cannot possibly be about you, yet they are. They cross boundaries and reclaim hope. They are as the opening poem suggests, nothing short of communion."

"Racing Hummingbirds ought to come with a warning: Choking Hazard. I read some of it while eating my dinner: I don’t suggest this. The collection is raucously confessional, full of blood and guts, sex and booze. It’s poetry with its teeth bared, entrails hanging out, completely and unapologetically naked.
This is a book ready to take a look at the underbelly of life. It is a book about dysfunctional, destructive relationships, about abuse, butcher, murder, and rape. A lot of hearts get ripped out of a lot of chests – literally as often as figuratively – and that line gets blurry real fast. If you read the first couple poems and find yourself imagining them in a slam competition, there’s a reason for that: it’s a collection meant to be read (maybe yelled) aloud.
But though the book brims with violence, it gives no clear answers about who’s at fault. It’s more complicated than that, as even the victims have their guns drawn. Often the reader arrives at the scene of the crime to find all parties dripping with blood; good luck untangling the mess.
Verlee’s work often draws from unexpected sources – everything from newspaper clippings to vintage photographs, as in “Girls for Sale.” Her sympathies lie with the excluded, downtrodden and powerless, and her evocations are sympathetically imagined and often heartbreaking. One of the strongest of these occurs in ‘The Dolls,’ which centers on Josef Fritzl’s daughter, whom he locked up and raped repeatedly, forcing her to bear his children. Verlee makes something beautiful and wrenching out of the horrifying subject, and the last lines stare at you like a creepy doll’s face: “Father look! / they all have your eyes.”
Verlee is brave in her use of form, speeding from prose poetry to free verse and back, playing with long lines and short, each poem ranging anywhere from three pages to three lines, some tightly packed and others full of space and air. The point of view careens from person to person, often within the same poem. Sometimes, dream-like, one person seems to represent or morph into another. The speaker’s young daughter in ‘Untruth’ suddenly transforms into the speaker’s mother, raising questions about the legacy of violence and heartbreak. ‘God Replies’ takes on the Louise Gluck-style voice of an omniscient creator, who surveys recent world events but leaves us with little more than ambivalence.
While God makes an appearance now and again – along with communion wafers melting on tongues, floods, prophets, miracles, resurrections and other Judeo-Christian themes – there are no easy answers here about salvation. It seems more likely that the depravity and violation will go on, the hurt lashing out in retaliation. It’s a book that traces the cycle of violence from cause to effect and back. That might explain the dizziness.
Yet it’s not a book empty of love, and though jarringly realistic about the world as it actually is, it contains hope. Some of the most startling moments come when we discover a speaker’s unconditional love for someone else pushing up like weeds through a city sidewalk. ‘Holy’ describes the perfection of a single moment: two lovers lying on the floor of a bookstore (reading poetry, no less.) It seems improbable that this is where joy finally resides, but there you have it, fleeting and unexpected. And doesn’t that feel a lot like real life?
At times, the collection borders on self-indulgence. Nobody wants to assume autobiography, yet I can’t help hoping Verlee changed the names in ‘40 Love Letters’. Some of the poems read like dirty laundry lists – fearlessly but disturbingly public.
Anne Sexton famously noted that, “Poetry led me by the hand out of madness.” I warn you now: Racing Hummingbirds will lead you by the hand into madness. But if you can hang on long enough, it will lead you back out too." - Megan Scarborough

"There’s no easy way to read Jeanann Verlee’s Racing Hummingbirds. Her subjects include rape, incest, death, and all manner of abusive relationships. At the same time, however, they’re not poems of accusation. Rather, they’re poems that try to make sense of the world and, more importantly, poems that strive to forgive and comfort the ghosts that haunt the victims in all of us. In “Unsolicited Advice to Adolescent Girls with Crooked Teeth and Pink Hair,” for example, one can’t help reading the poem as a desperate attempt at turning back the clock, at reaching back in time to offer advice to a former, naive self. That the endeavor can only fail — on the literal plane, anyway — only enhances the urgency of the piece, even as it underscores the poem’s relevance to burgeoning victims in the here and now. I’ve been through it, too, the poem seems to say to the girls named in its title, and I’ve made it to the other side. Or, more to the point: You’re not alone.
Of course, Racing Hummingbirds is not just about victimization. It’s also about moving on — as in “40 Love Letters,” which, as the title suggests, consists of 40 brief notes to past or potential lovers explaining in no uncertain terms why each relationship simply won’t work out. Then there’s Verlee’s uncanny ability to examine heartbreak from both sides of the equation as she does in “Beautiful: A Legend,” in which a human heart stored in a Ziploc bag signifies both the best of intentions and the worst of all possible outcomes. Verlee also has a gift for pithy turns of phrase, as in her short poem, “Men,” which deftly re-works the themes of Dorothy Parker’s “General Review of the Sex Situation” by arguing that two out of three things that men want are completely useless to her.
As visceral and searing as it is compassionate and forgiving, Racing Hummingbirds explores the darkest reaches of the human heart in order to demonstrate that although we are all flawed and damaged, we are, more than anything, capable of great beauty." - Marc Schuster

“Fierce and formidable, Jeanann Verlee is poised to make an indelible mark – much like a razor slashing silk – on what's become a comfortably placid poetic landscape. Her unflinching and uncompromising stanzas will change the way you move through the world.” — Patricia Smith

“To describe Jeanann Verlee as a poet with a dark history of regret and risky weaknesses would be to miss the spare beauty with which she manages to revise that history and the playful way she can celebrate—even forgive—frailty. The poems in Racing Hummingbirds may all be redheads, but they have more tattoos than you might think. And all those pretty rings will only make it hurt more when curled into a fist.” — Taylor Mali

“Jeanann Verlee is an American woman. She is growing up and she's not always pleased about it. She's the skin-kneed girl at a carnival bug-eyed and in awe of everything around her, but the colors she reports, and the tales she tells of what she's seen there and how she's survived it all, are at once lurid and gorgeous. Excavating the worlds of mental illness, unrepentant sex and drug use, has seldom seemed both so visceral and lovely. She draws you into her imaginings and her several unrelenting pains, and through them the poems emerge as risky covenants of survival. They will heal and break you down. They will exalt everything in you.” — Roger Bonair-Agard

“Any storyteller can recount powerful experience. Jeanann makes you feel something powerful is happening in the telling. It is when safety dissolves that we discover possibility. She’s dangerous. It’s a special person that will make you wish they were your villain.” — Brian S. Ellis

“Verlee took two encores to thunderous cheering and applause. Many of them seemed to have been waiting all night to hear the last poem in her setlist, ‘[u]nsolicited advice to adolescent girls with crooked teeth and pink hair,’ and they were not disappointed… by the time Verlee delivered the final line, ‘When your mother hits you, do not strike back,’ most of the audience was on their feet.” — Cassandra DeAlba

“As a Writing Workshop teacher, I often speak with my students about writing from the heart, working with complicated material, and the need for deep revision, but no amount of telling can compare to the showing that Jeanann Verlee's visit to our school accomplished...” — Emily Moore

“There are writers that provoke a spark and voices that burn down the building altogether. Both are necessary in the war of words. This woman on fire leaves foundations splintered, smoking and bare. She personifies courage and makes pain look beautiful in its startling color of truth.” — Mahogany L. Browne

“Jeanann is an amazing writer and performance poet who captures one's core condition by italicizing what it is to be human.” — Bruce George

“Coming from the non-slam side of poetry it was refreshing to see a facilitator who not only helped with performance but also helped with the content of the page.” — Thomas Fucaloro

“Sure, any girl can grow up to be Jeanann – but only if she knows words for the blades they are, and only if she wields them fiercely.” — Patricia Smith

"JEANANN VERLEE is an author, performance poet, editor, activist, and former punk rocker who collects tattoos and winks at boys. Her work has been published and is forthcoming in a variety of journals, including The New York Quarterly, PANK, decomP, Lung, The Legendary, and Spindle, among others. Her poems have also been included in various anthologies such as Not A Muse: The Inner Lives of Women and His Rib: Poems Stories and Essays by Her. Verlee’s first full-length book of poems, Racing Hummingbirds, was released by Write Bloody Publishing in March, 2010. I recently read Racing Hummingbirds, one of the strongest poetry collections I’ve ever read, and Jeanann and I had a great e-mail conversation about her book, her poetry and lots of other things.
Why are you hiding your face in your author photo?
- Does it appear that I’m hiding? The cut frame/focus of the photo was the photographer’s vision – I enjoy that it is not a standard headshot. This one was selected to evidence my quirky sense of humor. I tend to appear somber in most professional portraits, so the publisher pushed for this one.
You’re a fan of letter writing campaigns. Who have you written to lately and is there power in letter writing campaigns? Have you had any success protesting in this manner?
- It’s been a while since I found myself stirred up enough to send out a barrage of letters, but for a long period this was my primary activism. The power, like most things, lies in numbers. So while I can’t know if there are 3,000 – or 30 – other action letters piled up to voice protest, at least I know I count for a plus one. It matters. Most corporations accept a 1:10 ratio – for every one voice, ten others agree but remain silent. Regardless, the typical response is a placating form letter. (Ease down, little activist, we’re not the bad guys, we promise!) The one tangible success I personally received involved complimentary drink coupons from Starbucks after a surge of no-more-curdled-soy-milk letters. Score 1 for the little gal.
I read that you have a theatre background. How does performance work influence your writing?
- I strive to disallow performance ideas to influence my writing process. I work to write for the page. Later, working through edits, I review the piece to see how it sounds/feels aloud.
What do you enjoy about performing?
- I enjoy taking risks. Changing a room. Being different. I enjoy the body as instrument and the control in delivering the words as I hear them in my head.
How can I cure my stage fright?
- I’m not sure you can! I spend a good half hour ‘twitching’ in a dark corner every time I go on stage. If I ever lose that feeling, I’ll know I’m not taking enough risks.
I am really interested in how poets structure their collections. How did you assemble Racing Hummingbirds? How did you decide on lullaby/metanoia/butcher/fireflies/lullabies (reprise) as the markers, if you will, for each section?
- Lullaby, fireflies and butcher were predetermined section titles I’d been carrying around for a long time. Many of the poems found in lullaby are either “growing up Jeanann” tales or pseudo-mantras. I wanted a title that would work incongruously with the darker tales. Dirge (as an example) might be too logical – whereas lullaby lends itself to something eerie. I was smitten with the imagery of fireflies for the various snapshots of people found in the poems from this section; I envision them glowing in a jar in my hands. Butcher arrived when I realized I had a significant number of poems referencing cutting (cutters, the cut, cleave). From there, anything expressly raw, inappropriate, reprehensible, or violent found its home. Metanoia is a title borrowed from a poem of mine which was ultimately omitted from the collection. I determined that despite passing on the poem, this header remained necessary (it’s one of my favorites) because each poem in the section is reflective of such metamorphosis. Finally, lullaby (reprise) works with the opening section – as bookends, or perhaps funhouse mirrors.
Several of your poems included a brief note about a current event or injustice. How do the (often terrible) things that happen in the world inform your work? As I read some of these poems, like The Dolls for Elizabeth Fritzl or Resurrection, I couldn’t help but feel that you were trying to give those people a small measure of justice and then I thought about the phrase poetic justice and I wonder, do you think that there can be justice in poetry? Is that what you’re trying to do with that kind of work?
- I’m unsure what my poems might do for the likes of Charles Chatman or Elisabeth Fritzl or the family of Esman Greene, but I suppose I have some small hope that bringing their stories to a different platform might ignite larger discussions – or analysis – of history, law, injustice, oppression, and human rights. Even if one conversation is sparked – be it in the home, classroom, bookstore, or poetry venue – I can’t help but think we have all taken a small step. A conversation can change an opinion. A changed opinion can affect a vote. Art for social change. A slow evolution, not unlike letter writing. These poems in particular serve no actual justice to anyone. We’ve lost Esman Greene. Charles Chatman and Elisabeth Fritzl lost almost the entirety of their lives, if not (reasonably so) their minds. It fills me with rage, but I can’t undo. Perhaps after reading resurrection, a reader may research Mr. Chatman, find that he is now working with an organization striving to push DNA legislation and increase the frequency of such testing for Texas prison inmates. Maybe someone will write a letter. Maybe someone will send a check. Maybe somewhere – a small tectonic shift.
The words violence and brutality came to mind while reading many of these poems. Those themes play heavily in my own writing and I was wondering if you could talk about that a little–about the brutal experiences your poetic bodies suffer.
- I’m still a little jarred when those words are used in reference to my work. I suppose that may seem ridiculous, considering. However, I have the same experience when the word “abuse” is applied to some of my life events. As I age, I am continually having small revelations about normalcy (and its periodic absence from my life). This dichotomy definitely informs my work. I’ve started to play with it. For example, carnivores, the lamb, and part one of beautiful: a legend, are all fairly common/benign tales – some even celebratory. Yet the poems remain acutely aware of each situation’s inherent difficulties, and illuminate those through the macabre. Absurdist, much like Wonka-esque oversized multicolored lollipops, 36” in diameter – what can you do with those but smash them or hang them on your wall? (String them from the ceiling by polka-dotted ribbons, of course!)
When I read such intimate poetry I cannot help but think that the poet is writing from their own life. How much of your work is autobiographical and how do you negotiate the public and the private in your poetry?
- With the exception of persona or expressly political work, this collection is autobiographical – with poetic license employed in certain circumstances, (a plum is not always a plum). I fail supremely in this public/private negotiation. While I have masked the names of former lovers in poems such as 40 love letters, I have not always successfully navigated the release of some of these tales with my family. Call me ostrich.
Does writing from experience help you to exorcise painful histories?
- Yes. It doesn’t always heal, but it helps me process. Some readers are scornful of this – suggesting instead therapy. I find such scorn almost laughable. The defensive answer involves, can’t afford it, ‘kay, thanks. The advanced answers include emails I will never share from women who explain how they need these poems. Or the high school girl who told me she read swarm to her girlfriends at a sleep over. Or the man who once met me off stage after hearing communion to show me a photo of his infant daughter, uncontrolled tears rolling down his face, repeating his prayer to never hear her deliver such a poem. If we are calling it therapy, this is a group session.
Many of your poems seem to offer advice to a younger self. Is there anything you have left unsaid? Is there any advice you would take back?
- I’m sure I’ve left something unsaid; undoubtedly I’ll soon stumble into a new mistake – or undoing of an old one – and write a new poem. Nothing (yet) that I would take back. I scarcely view myself as any revelatory source of wisdom, just a girl who’s scraped her shins a lot and hopes her future daughters – or any child – can avoid the same.
“Untruth” is a really intriguing piece of prose. It’s like you hold a two-way mirror to the story and see two versions of the same reality reflected back. I’d love for you to talk more about this piece.
- The core tale has reappeared a few times in my work over the years. (I think most poets do this – effectively write and rewrite the same poem.) I was awestruck one afternoon in reading the work of a friend of a friend, (or, rather, a mentor’s mentor), Daniel McGinn. A piece discussing a similar relationship, employing a turn wherein present-day ended with a flashback of the past. In untruth, I pushed that examination – exploring both what I want to be and what I wish I could have had – held up against what really was. I decided that the structure for this would be to first paint a false portrait: the ideal, then deconstruct it. An unraveling, working the reader backward into reality. In titling the piece “untruth,” I hoped to put the reader instantly on guard, ask them to place a constant eye to what may be true or untrue as they read along.
What’s the worst thing you ever taught a boy?
- Excellent question. Tough answer: Some girls (ahem) will let you get away with it.
What does it mean to dedicate a poem to someone?
- Many of my poems have an undefined “you” in the starring role, leaving the reader to surmise whether I’m speaking about self or a friend, a sibling, a lover, etc. By definitively pointing out the actual inspiration of the poem, I am pulling back the curtain – spotlighting the star. We’ve all been the “you,” “he,” or “she” in someone’s tale (whether we knew it or not), and I mean only to honor those individuals in my life when I unmask them in this way.
You were part of the national touring company The Vortex. It can be really difficult to live on the road. What did you love and hate about touring? What did you learn?
- I was very young when I first toured. It was easier then – before the cubicle, before the dog. Less obligation to be interrupted. Less ritual from which to be parted. I highly recommend it for those who are untethered by family, spouse, pet or job. For those who are, stay organized – come home often. Bring an empty credit card for the just-in-case. Stay sober. Keep maps handy. If you had to blurb your own book, what would you say?
- This may be the toughest question I’ve ever been asked.
Racing Hummingbirds is a nest of wasps. They wore lipstick. Just for you.”
In “40 Letters,” you write brief notes to a series of men that reveal a lot about those relationships and the people you were in them. What would those men write in their letters to you?
- Some would not waste time enough to pick up a pen. Others would detail their buyer’s remorse. Still others might lob a spirited but harmless joke. One or two might even profess a remaining adoration. There are at least three who would enclose grenades.
In 'Carnivores' you write:
I watch her take the dull blade of a table knife
to her chest, (my jaw hanging loose like a broken
screen door swinging in a summer monsoon).
She slices straight through her breast,
breaks off two ribs, sets them on her plate—
blood rivering through the hummus.
I love the way the body is both sacred and profane in so many of your poems. Is that how you view the human body? Are we all animals?
- I’ve come to understand that the violated body often operates under different rules. Each, vastly different. One might view self as object, or, as often appears in my work, filth, decay, or rot. Employing imagery often associated with the butchering of our hoofed, winged, and fanged brethren simultaneously dehumanizes us and exalts them. In some ways, this illuminates the brutality with which we treat our animals – but clearly spotlights our sometimes grotesque treatment of each other. An unquiet parallel. Yes, we are all animals – biologically and metaphorically. As in the wild, it is the lucky few who pass on unscarred.
You co-curate the Urbana Poetry Slam Series. What does that involve?
- There is a great deal of administrative work behind any reading series: securing featured guest readers, promotions, basic organizational matters. Slams further this with score tracking, debating/enforcing rules and game structure, community networking/leadership, and of course banning the periodic raging lunatic. Further, I have served as writing and performance coach for several Urbana teams bound for the National Poetry Slam, in addition to continually working with our community of writers, (upon request) providing feedback and extensive editing work.
Who are some of your favorite slam poets?
- I hope the community is eventually able to shed the “slam” label for poets who are (or originally were) recognized for their poetry through performance or competition, but the answer involves more names than I can succinctly list. A quick snapshot: Patricia Smith, Roger Bonair-Agard, Rachel McKibbens, and Anis Mojgani. From there, I can unroll a vast list of individuals, many of whom are included on the Thank You page of Racing Hummingbirds. Find them. You will be changed. Promise.
How can we create stronger relationships between the slam community and the larger literary community?
- I don’t know. I started writing when I was very young, honed my focus to poetry in college and frankly disregarded the then-budding poetry slam. It was a decade later that I stumbled into Rachel McKibbens and Taylor Mali at a small weekly reading series in Brooklyn where I discovered they were doing what I longed to do – read my work with a deliberate attention to performance; integrate my educational background: theatre performance and creative writing. When I discovered both poets were simultaneously competing in slams – at Urbana, the ol’ light bulb came on. The rest, yes, is history. Being as I was converted (so-to-speak), I can only imagine the answer lies in that transformation. I think Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz (author of Everything is Everything and founder of the Urbana Poetry Slam) holds one of the keys. She has single-handedly invigorated the performance-driven community to submit to literary journals – ushering this (sub)community to conceive of themselves as writers, worthy of a life on the page.
What’s the last great thing you read?
- Erica Miriam Fabri’s Dialect of a Skirt.
Do you think there’s a charm to the dive bar? What’s the diviest bar you’ve performed in? Be graphic. (I love dive bars.)
- Yes! I am most at home in a bar with broken stools, warped pool cues and a crusty bartender draped in full-sleeve tattoos. I’d say the “diviest” bar in which I’ve performed (as opposed to those I frequent) is the Back Fence in NYC. The floor is littered with peanut shells, the vinyl booths are reupholstered in duct tape, the bathroom has no lock, the toilet has no seat, and the star of the Open Mic is an elderly gent belting Etta James off-key from between falling dentures. What do you love most about your writing?
- Playing with metaphor – I delight in the surreal and fantastical. Also, I enjoy that my writing is never finished. In fact, I’ll probably want to change these answers once they’re posted." - Interview with Roxane Gay


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