Jessica Bozek - Stitching together a post-apocalyptic history from the scraps of fairy tales, war memorials, hunting songs, and disparate scholarship, she traces the violence that humans inflict upon one another.

Jessica Bozek, The Tales. Les Figues, December 2013.


Stitching together a post-apocalyptic history from the scraps of fairy tales, war memorials, hunting songs, and disparate scholarship, Jessica Bozek’s The Tales traces the violence that humans inflict upon one another. As the central narrative of the Lone Survivor becomes revealed through the mouths of various perspectives, Bozek investigates the language that victims and perpetrators alike use to make sense of (and attempt to forget) the aftermath of violence. From ordinary objects–family photographs, sweaters that unravel, old batteries, and lightbulbs–to the remnants of destroyed art and architecture, an annihilated nation is brought into reality, and the Lone Survivor’s story is simultaneously documented and invalidated, becoming “a memorial that will disintegrate over time, gray and fray as most of the dead did not have a chance to.”
“Like the best dystopian offerings, The Tales is composed of the actual, complicated by the intellectual, and amplified by the whimsical: think Anne Carson meets The Canterbury Tales.” – Sina Queyras

Jessica Bozek calls her spurts of narrative in The Tales poems, but they aren’t, quite. Except for the sprawling middle section, Bozek’s short book is made up of justified blocks of prose such as this:
The loon’s lesson.
Now under funerary green, the citizens are cut off from the surrounding lands. A loon teaches them that they can dive down into their own small lake and come up in another lake. The cost of this transport is that all communication must happen underground.
The spurts trace the trajectory of someone called “The Lone Survivor” after a cataclysmic war known by its aggressors as Operation Sleep. The Lone Survivor makes his way into the world of the attacking nation, seeing visions of thriving life as he tries to hold onto his own past. From what I can see, he is eventually banished to a sort of reservation/museum-type installation, where reparations are attempted as time progresses. The political implications here are explicit, and welcome. But the value of the tales is mostly, I think, in their language, the way Bozek tells this story. Not through poems exactly. Nor, though, through fiction.
Of course, Bozek can call her work whatever she wants to call it. Poetry. Prose. Visual art. (The book is, indeed, beautiful, printed with all the white space that such short blocks of writing require, black endpaper, a red and gold Russian starkness on the front and back covers with a typeface of the same ilk.) But The Tales reminds me more of the hybrid work I am used to seeing from Tarpaulin Sky, in books like Kim Gek Lin Short’s China Cowboy and Sarah Goldstein’s Fables. In fact, The Tales earned its publication by winning the 2012 NOS (Not Otherwise Specified) Contest with Les Figues Press.
Bozek’s work here strikes me as one in a string of very compelling books of very short prose that are both language- and narrative- oriented. Such writing, I think, performs its work in a different space than poetry or prose. Where poetry, I would argue, creates much its value in the relationship between words, and more traditional fiction creates value in the relationship between paragraphs and events, Bozek’s hybrid vignettes seems to do their work between sentences, redefining causation, its images evoked with some clarity and yet set beside other images that would not “normally” come after them. The effect is a sort of circling-around, an attempt to penetrate the ineffable that is almost Zen-like. The shorts’ slow spiral tends toward some wordless meaning, I envision, drawing a picture in the readerly mind of a world with qualities so magical as to be literally inexplicable.
Part of this world is what we understand as dystopian, in the tradition suggested by the preface on “Operation Sleep,” by the book design, by words like “reparations” and “the State Museum for the Justification of Military Action.” But there’s something in the prose that is beyond words, too. In this vein—that, perhaps, of poetry—it is important to recognize that priority is given not to the narrative overall but to the effect of individual pieces. Symmetry is not a priority in this volume, and I am glad for it. Each piece stands for itself.
Which may be one reason why Bozek uses the word “poems” to describe what she’s written here. Another reason, I might guess, is her sheer personal investment in each piece, the compression of so much thought and feeling into so little language. The text of the book is followed by a full complement of back matter, sometimes outwording the vignettes themselves, as with one of the many with the title “The Lone Survivor’s Tale”:
I shed clothes in remembrance. The braided cables on my sweater unravel from the neck as I wind through the tree trunks, making a cyan tangle. When there is little left, I bite down to keep the cuffs.
Jessica Bozek explains, in her notes:
“The Lone Survivor’s Tale (I shed clothes…)” is based on a pair of small Francis Alÿs paintings I saw at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. However, the museum must not have these paintings any longer, and I can’t find any evidence that they exist. It seems that Alÿs also enacted the unraveling in a series of public actions called Fairy Tales in the mid-nineties. I do not know whether the paintings of a man in an unraveling sweater precede Alÿs’s unraveling of actual sweaters.
As glad as I was to have these iterations, I was even happier without them, for it is exactly the gaps in The Tales’ information that make it so compelling. The book’s middle third, the only section written in what would seem visually to be more explicitly “poetic,” ensues when the Lone Survivor “unspool[s] the words of those lost.” Across a series of mostly blank pages are scattered fragments of images and speech, remnants of some mostly erased world. The blank, here, is visual. In the rest of The Tales, it is conceptual, a blank in mental imagery, evoked in the way of the koan. So that we simply believe Bozek when she says:
I have begun weaving nests from the fallen hair on the floorboards and furniture. I leave these nests on high things outside. I want to be useful to the birds.
There is something more here, some ache, some weird impulse of energy and sadness toward a relevance that will never be relevant, not even to the few birds that remain to the Lone Survivor as companions. Not to mention the sheer image of a nest of fallen hair, wispy and whisked away in seconds by the wind.
But then, again: it doesn’t sound as good when you try to explain it. Which was why I was so happy to let Bozek’s Tales just breathe. - Dennis James Sweeney

The Bodyfeel Lexicon Cover

Jessica Bozek, The Bodyfeel Lexicon, Switchback, 2009.

In this elusive debut collection, Jessica Bozek presents a system of moving parts, of animal lunges, and sudden lootings documents epistolary and fragmented that form, re-form, and deform language. Staged as a fiction via the paratextual sleight of its introduction, The Bodyfeel Lexicon chronicles and catalogues transformation as a way of evading and understanding bodies and selves. Readers might register the shuttlings of the book's interlocutors as playful linguistic performances of the animal transformations they devise for each other. The Bodyfeel Lexicon flies at several altitudes, the demarcations of which threaten dissolution at every turn.

Although most poems in Jessica Bozek’s debut are phantoms that evade unambigious comprehension, Bozek creates a tangibly pensive and doleful mood that saturates. The Bodyfeel Lexicon’s concept provides a semi-stable framework for readers. In “The Peary Assemblage: On the Remnant Correspondence and Ephemera of an Unidentified Wolf and Leon Szklar” – a ficticious editor’s note to the collection – we learn that “Wolf” and “Leon” (also referred to as “Leo,” “Szklar,” “Leopard Szklar”) are the primary speakers in the poems. The note explains that the correspondence between Wolf and Leon Szklar, two lovers, was found in a wolf den by a third party – the narrator of the editor’s note. The letters and other fragments, we’re told, were concealed in the skin of a caribou.
The subject of much of the letters and fragments can be labeled transformation. Human beings are in a constant state of becoming, and this fact is implicit in and central to these poems. The series of letters begins with childhood memories. In one of the first epistolary poems in the collection – a letter from Wolf to Leo – Wolf confesses a deep need for a protector, though whatever she requires protection from seems largely imagined. Wolf notes that when she was a child, a “bag lady lived in the space between the wall & [her] bed.” She feared the bag lady. Her fear is the product of a typical youngster’s developing imagination. Like so many children that sleep with the protection of stuffed animals, Wolf finds comfort and safety with her lion pillow. Wolf says of the lion on her pillow, “ If ever [the bag lady] tried to crawl up from that narrow space, then he would raise his head from the pillow, lift it high through the opening & roar.” Part of growing up is learning one’s limitations, identifying fears and gathering forces or defenses against that which may harm.
Throughout these letters, Wolf and Leon share fears and childhood memories; however, the letters often don’t seem to speak directly to one another.  Each speaker gets lost in his or her own preoccupations. Both Leo and Wolf are portrayed as solitary and isolated. Their letters are their only true connection to one another, to another human being. While they address each other in their letters, each seems to be speaking to his or herself rather than the other. In fact, Wolf especially seems to be willfully extracting herself from society or any kind of human community. In one letter she implores Leo to “Divide with [her].” In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry learns that Voldemort has stored parts of himself (his soul, his essence, his core) in other people and objects. These objects are referred to as horcruxes. In a similar way, Wolf and Leon seem to be storing parts of their consciousness in these letters and eventually in each other. It’s a form of protection. By dividing one’s self into many parts and hiding these parts in people and objects outside of the self, one can remain safely detached.
But even detachment has boundaries. Wolf desires further transformation – animal transformation. In a letter to Leo, she expresses the desire to metamorphose: “In the winter my tail will keep me warm. Ingenious, the rounding up / of self, the animal coiling.” She gathers herself as an animal would do to keep itself warm, but for humans the act might be more indicative of the need for protection – safety rather than body heat. Because Wolf has no human contact beyond her correspondence with Leo, her animalism is exaggerated.
Leo undergoes his own transformation and transformations of understanding. He states:
should have recognized that life would always be topography built up
to be leveled. The reconstructions were similar. Sometimes a ceiling
fan stood in for an air conditioner, but my poorly shaven Adam’s
apple remained. My strong fingernails tore still at the binds. My
fading shoulder freckles kept right on fading.
When my spots come in, come to me.
Bozek’s poems often comment on the body’s landscape and language. Leo regrets his inability to recognize life’s develutionary qualities. The final line of the poem/letter is an admittance of the transformation that is taking place. It is something he shares with Wolf, something that despite their changing natures, they have in common.
In a section of the book called “The Transports,” the theme of transformation continues. There are many passages we must traverse in the becoming of ourselves, and the communications between Wolf and Leo suggest that without some form of human contact we wither, become extremely insular. In “The Leopard’s Prayer,” Leo remembers attempting to form these human relationships or connections: “I kissed / her on the mouth. Ungracefully but long. Eyes glutted shut with / embarassment, I bore down so that she couldn’t protest.” While Leo and Wolf may understand the importance of connecting to others, they don’t appear equipped with the skills to form the connections. In fact, their respective isolation binds them more than anything else. Bozek ends the poem, “I gave up my body / in ever-renewing bits.” We spend our entire lives in constant isolation and transformation, and if we don’t adapt or are unwilling to become, we dissolve.
The peculiar “plot” demands attention from the reader, and the poet could probably be accused of being too top-heavy with her concept. While interesting and romantic, the poems themselves would function more fully without some of the heavy-handed details provided in the editor’s note. The poems reveal themselves in threads that can be followed throughout the correspondence, and the note imposes too much form, too much explanation. But Bozek, if indulgent, is incredibly original. At their best, these poems evoke an atmosphere more than a story – a familiar coldness so strange, it perhaps can only be accessed through strongarmed strangeness.
“The Leopard Transport” ends: “Tell me if you are still you – not physically. Voraciously.” It is important to keep moving forward, or at least to try to keep moving forward, even if we are running stationary. The relationships we rely so heavily on will change over time, and if we don’t adapt, don’t keep up, they will be lost, and we will all become the bag lady exiled to the space between the bed and the wall, alive only in imagination, only in fear. - Melinda Wilson

The Bodyfeel Lexicon is a captivating and unique first collection. It is quite ambitious. How did you first conceive of it?
Thanks! In the months leading up to the first poem I wrote, I was starting to find the one-off poem simultaneously daunting (how do you start over every time?, how do you have something new to say every time?) and suspicious (but, here, I may just mean the poem with a marked turn toward resolution). Something Graham Foust said when he read at the University of Georgia (during my MFA time) about how his poems raise more questions than they answer stuck with me. I liked the idea that the poem could be a thinking-space, more than a revelation-space. It seemed natural to work with the same ideas across multiple poems. And it’s truer to my nature besides – I often have trouble letting a thought go (even really annoying, nonsensical thoughts).
The book is centered around a fictitious correspondence between two lovers. You also have a chapbook with Eli Queen titled; correspondence or communication seems important to you. Can you elaborate on its significance in  your poetry?
 I’ve noticed how interactions, especially in-person interactions, have changed since the ubiquity of text messaging, Facebook, and smartphones. I’m not a Luddite, but I do sometimes miss the days when I had to make a plan and just show up somewhere at a specified time, when I was with a person and really with that person (not texting with someone else), when I ended up talking to my roommates’ family and friends because I happened to answer the phone when they called. I know two phone numbers right now – my own and my husband’s. I like it that my mom still memorizes phone numbers.
But how does any of this relate to poetry? I think that I use correspondence as a site of invention and attention. Wolf and Leo spin intricate fantasies for each other and make a game of long-distance communication (in the matchbook poems particularly). If they were physically together, they might just play Lexulous on their phones or sit side-by-side on the sofa, one laptop per lap.
What about the “Appendices” in the book? “Appendix C,” for instance, redefines certain words. For example, “correspondence / n. Claws across the sky.” How do these definitions, in particular, inform or modify the poems?
 When I read from the book, I like to preface each poem with a definition from the lexicon. So, while a listener (or reader) might associate correspondence with letters, I like to suggest something a bit more desperate and transient.
The appendices in the original manuscript were probably twice the length they are in the finished book. I’d written what were essentially journal entries for Wolf and Leopard, but everyone who read the manuscript felt that they didn’t quite fit. So, most of those poems were published as part of the most recent Dusie Kollektiv, in a chapbook that Catherine Meng produced, called Other People’s Emergencies. I like it that the book has so many appendages.
The book is also filled with language and imagery that suggests transformation. For instance, in “The Leopard Transport” the speaker states, “The bone / lengthening, nose broadening. // Tell me if you are still you—not physically. Voraciously.” Or from “The Leopard’s Prayer”: “I gave up my body / in ever-renewing bits.” We spend our entire lives in the stages of transformation. Can you comment on the process or role of transformation for the speaker(s)?
Some declarations of transformation (such as Leopard’s “inventory at seven months: claws, not yet retractable; sensory whiskers; night sprints; the kind of raspy cough I once found attractive in you after so many cigarettes”) lighten the mood a bit. But, overall, though the book includes markers of physical transformation (including, quite literally, all the animal cell and bone images dividing the sections), I think that they function as distractions from the real, inner transformations happening – the realization that maybe, romantically, Wolf and Leo aren’t right together. They cultivate an elaborate system to map intimacy even as that intimacy seems to have failed. Their tires are flat, but they pedal along anyway.
Both Wolf and Leo appear solitary, isolated from each other, from human kind and at times, from themselves. From what might this solitude stem?
Their solitude is dramatic and (over-) dramatized—of this I am guilty. But it probably stems from the crazy-making that is removing oneself from everything familiar. Historically, I flee. After my father died, at the height of my mid-twenties crisis (everyone has one of these, right?) and a sad, absurd family soap opera, I quit my job, got my very nice roommate to watch my cats, and convinced a close friend to move to Barcelona with me. I was Me, but suddenly Me had trouble with foreign keys, announced that I’d been waiting in a long asshole (culo instead of cola), served bastard cheese on salad (queso de cabrón instead of cabra), shared a room, and started to write poems again after a five-year hiatus. I was humbled all the time. I watched MTV España, could sing along to Las Ketchup, ate lots of canned tuna, played ping pong with strangers at public tables, and gave English lessons to a 42-year-old man who: had one thing in his refrigerator (cod liver oil), still asked his mother to make him sandwiches for hikes, wrapped his arms around tree trunks to feel their energy, and wanted to be able to give motivational speeches in English (this is what we worked toward in our sessions). It was all so different from my regular life in Massachusetts, where  I’d worked 9-5 as a project manager for a database publishing company and worn suits to medical society conferences in giant, freezing convention centers. Being away confirmed my sense that dislocation was crucial to seeing everything with fresh eyes. But there’s an attendant sadness in realizing that I’ll probably never cross paths with the amazing people I’ve met each time I’ve lived somewhere else. Of course, we continue to correspond, but it seems impossible for fleeting friendships to maintain their intensity.
Wolf and Leo share childhood memories with one another in their letters, and yet there seems to be little direct communication. In other words, their letters often do not answer or comment on the content of the previous. What function does their sharing serve?
Sharing stories with an absent other is one way of saying, “You still know me.” That the letters don’t quite correspond might suggest that whenever we’re not with someone in person, we have to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps.
The book also seems interested in classification, definition, particularly of the self. For example, the speaker in “[BOEING 757]” states, “I’ve never had a problem classifying others – .” The implication is that the speaker is attempting to “classify” herself but is having difficulty. In the context of this poem, as well as in a larger sense, is “classify” synonymous with “understand” or “know”?
I would say that classification is always an attempt to understand or know. Sometimes this is dangerous. We attempt to classify what we don’t understand, and classification can sell a thing or person short, at times omits more than it reveals. I continue to have trouble with “favorites” lists – I never want to settle on a single favorite or be stuck with that favorite forever. Whatever we like is just part of the story. The whole story is a myth.
The book contains many animal references, images and allusions. You also run a reading series called Small Animal Project, correct? Can you describe your fascination or relationship with animals?
I grew up with cats (liked their independence and aloofness) and had theories about dogs (or, rather, theories about how certain teenage boys exhibited canine behaviors). I believed that I must be a cat person, and I was for many years. But when my partner and his troubled little shelter dog, Ole, moved to Georgia with me, I started to perceive the world a bit differently. Ole was so attached to us and intensely loving, but he seemed to fear and need to menace just about everyone else (except the giant cockroaches that would come inside during the summer – Ole would protect those from our flip-flopped wrath by preemptively growling at us once he’d noticed one).
We tried behaviorists – one told us that if Ole had been bigger, he’d have been put to sleep already. Our last resort was the Tufts Behavioral Clinic. When I was flipping through my notebook, trying to come up with a name for the reading series, I came across the instructions given to me over the phone by the clinic. They told us to go to the Small Animal building. After Ole died, a few months later from congestive heart failure, and we adopted Clem, a sweet, well-adjusted stray, I started to think about the sadness of trying to change Ole’s behavior. It was miserable not being able to have people over for fear that he would bite them or bark the entire time, but there was something so endearing about his crankiness. He had a very clear sense of how the world should be, but we didn’t understand why he believed what he did. He was pretty much unfixable.
Maybe as a tribute to Ole, I thought of my favorite poems (and art in general) as what defies politeness, keeps me on my toes, refuses to behave the way I might expect, is unfixable. Now, though I grumble about having to take Clem out for hours everyday, I really appreciate the slowness that he brings to my day. I can’t check my email, I can’t grade papers, I can’t think about anything very important while he’s tugging me down the block or stopping to pee on a tuft of decorative  grass. And I know so many of my neighbors (pretty rare in Boston) end up talking to strangers because they want to say hi to Clem. The pup, for me, is an entrance into other (animal and human) communities.
The Bodyfeel Lexicon was published by Switchback Books. What initially attracted you to Switchback?
I liked the idea of an all-women’s press, particularly one that’s inclusive in its definition of woman. I try to read and buy as many books as possible by women writers, not because there aren’t male writers I love, but because I want to support a demographic that hasn’t always been supported. In a similar vein, if I go to a reading and one of the readers seems like a jerk, I’ll be hesitant to spend time with his (or her) work. This doesn’t happen often, but my book budget is limited, and I want to use it on artists who seem like decent human beings.
I see you also have another chapbook forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Can you give us a preview?
The poems in this chapbook, called Squint into the Sun, are straightforward, line-broken, love poems set in Costa Rica, where I had the amazing fortune to teach in a tiny study-abroad program at a ecological research station in the cloud forest a few springs ago. These poems were the first project that stuck after The Bodyfeel Lexicon, which I’d just finished up and started sending out when I left for Costa Rica. While I was there, I didn’t write much beyond the activities I had my creative writing students do, but I spent lots of time looking and listening and marveling, squinting into the sun, I suppose. I also read a lot. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt healthier or that I’ll ever have another opportunity to become jaded by spectacular views. I wrote these poems nearly a year after I returned – it takes me a long time to process my surroundings. Or maybe it comes back to wanting to experience moments as they happen, without too much meta-commentary. So, my life is my life, and my writing is something else, something I do beside life. - Interview by Melinda Wilson

Another Tongue I Don’t Know:
An interview with Jessica Bozek

in another tongue I don’t know
          in this (one) grow goodbye
(“Exhib. 2A”)

Jessica Bozek is the author of The Bodyfeel Lexicon (Switchback, 2009), as well as a handful of chapbooks, including the brand new Touristing (Dusie) and Other People’s Emergencies (Hive), as well as the forthcoming Dear Darkest Sky: Postcards (Dancing Girl). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tends a puppy, teaches writing and literature at Boston University and the New England Institute of Art, and runs the Small Animal Project Reading Series.

GL: I’d like to begin by citing your publisher’s synopsis of The Bodyfeel Lexicon because I think it provides a lucid, detailed introduction to your rich and complex book:
In this elusive debut collection, Jessica Bozek presents a system of moving parts, of animal lunges, and sudden lootings—documents epistolary and fragmented that form, re-form, and deform language. Staged as a fiction via the paratextual sleight of its introduction, The Bodyfeel Lexicon chronicles and catalogues transformation as a way of evading and understanding bodies and selves. Readers might register the shuttlings of the book’s interlocutors as playful linguistic performances of the animal transformations they devise for each other. The Bodyfeel Lexicon flies at several altitudes, the demarcations of which threaten dissolution at every turn.
Your publishers credit you with executing a “paratextual sleight,” which sounds delightfully transgressive, at the beginning of the book. They are referring, here, to the prefatory prose piece called “The Peary Assemblage: On the Remnant Correspondence and Ephemera of an Unidentified Wolf and Leon Szklar.” This piece ‘explains’ how the speaker discovered the letters—which were written by the stars of the book, Wolf and Leon Szklar—in the North American tundra. “The Peary Assemblage” seems to riff the narrative framing devices of great nineteenth-century novels, such as Frankenstein and, much later, The Turn of the Screw. These traditional paratexts usually qualify and contextualize the proceeding narrative, and thereby give readers license to cross over into a new and fabulous realm. Does “The Peary Assemblage…” clarify the impending mysteries of the text by making the book seem more habitable and/or inviting to the reader, as with the above nineteenth-century examples? Or do you see this piece as exemplifying the ensuing ironies and difficulties of the book? For example, the speaker of “The Peary Assemblage” tells us that even the most ‘diligent’ reader will never learn Wolf’s last name (a Nabokovian taunt?), and that Leon Szklar died in a tragic hot-air balloon accident! So: Is ‘The Peary Assemblage’ a literary welcome mat, or a sign telling the reader to beware?

JB: Thanks for the thoughtful questions, Greg. I’d say it’s a bit of both. Most of the letter-poems (those in the sections A Hot-Air Balloon Is Quieter, Slower and The Sequence Between Molars) were written in a fiction workshop that I contributed prose poems to. Some people in the class were frustrated by the lack of traditional narrative (this was a fiction workshop, after all), so I wrote an early version of the prefatory essay to address their concerns about accessibility. And I agreed with them that a brief lay of the land might in fact be helpful, though at that point only about a third of the book existed, and I knew I didn’t want to be too straightforward about the thing.
Because I was already interested in epistolary novels, and had written a (probably very bad) thesis on the eerie connections between Denis Diderot’s The Nun and Nabokov’s Lolita, paratextual sleights, by way of destabilized texts and the epistolary, were on the brain. The other text I was thinking about was Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters, which not only provided a compelling and discomfiting introduction to the verse-epistle (in fact, I think I read poems from The Master Letters long before I read anything classical or Cavalier), but also proved the impetus for the earliest poems in The Bodyfeel Lexicon, the letters between Wolf and Leo. I actually wrote a creative response to Brock-Broido’s language and sense of emergency as an appendix to another grad-school paper.
More than Brock-Broido’s elaborately wrought contrivances, which parade language as a teratological specimen, I was drawn to her polyvocal inhabitations and abandonments, her restless flights from one (animate or inanimate) role to the next in various settings. And what struck me as crucial to The Master Letters, the slipperiness of its personae, was akin to what I had found simultaneously attractive and disturbing in Diderot’s and Nabokov’s novels—a devastatingly gripping narrative undermined by way of paratextual appendage (in the case of The Nun by the “Préface-Annexe” that follows the young nun’s memoir and in the case of Lolita by John Ray, Jr.’s “Foreword” to Humbert Humbert’s confession). In short, I liked the way the books’ self-conscious scaffolding compelled me to read against habit.

GL: A lot of novelists will sketch their characters for quite some time before they even begin to write their stories. Did you spend time sketching Wolf and Szklar before you started writing the poems? Or did you discover them all at once?

JB: There’s a poem in Brock-Broido’s most recent book, Trouble in Mind, called “Dire Wolf.” That title stuck with me, as did the poem’s last lines: “But in the great white rendezvous, where // I was brooding / Just a while, you get to speak of dire love.” The first letter I wrote began, “Dear Dire Wolf.” That poem doesn’t exist anymore, but it created a way into a poem I’d long (vaguely) imagined—a response to Matthea Harvey’s stunning series “Frederick Courteney Selous’s Letters to His Love” by the woman Selous writes to in the poem. In the poem, Selous accuses his love of having “handwriting [that] is pretty only a bit cramped it has the look / of someone stuck in a living room surrounded by knick-knacks / and patterned wallpaper which you are.” I photocopied that poem and made lots of people read it, even people who weren’t that into poetry. One friend dreamed that Selous’s love was angry at his accusations and at his desertion. Instead of convincing him to come home, she decided to go out and have her own adventure, but one opposite to his. In the dream, she thought that the opposite of Rhodesia must be Alaska and that instead of hunting animals, which Selous details in the poem, she would be hunted by men and “taken on a plough.” I was really envious of this dream (even while I wasn’t completely comfortable with its content). I’d spent so much time with Harvey’s poem that I really wished that I’d been the one to dream a response to it. So, in a sense, I used the paper on Brock-Broido as an excuse to respond.
Something else that was floating around in my head at the same time was a snippet from W. G. Sebald’s Unrecounted. The following poem accompanies a lithograph of Jérémy Seltz’s eyes (all of the lithographs are of eyes, and I have no idea who Jérémy Seltz is/was):

          In deepest sleep

          a Polish mechanic
          came and for a
          thousand silver dollars made me
          a new perfectly
          functioning head

I was drawn to this idea of reinvention, especially reinvention in the wake of some unspoken (and probably cumulative) damage, which I think we all have to differing degrees, whether or not we’re willing to talk about it. So, this poem, like “Dire Wolf” and “Frederick Courteney Selous’s Letters to His Love,” exists as a ghost text (though, now, a not-so-secret ghost text).

GL:: The ‘relationship’ between Wolf and Szklar takes shape around absence. Absence between lovers and/or intimates can of course be oppressive, trying, give rise to despair, etc, but Wolf and Szklar seem to use this absence as an opportunity: they take advantage of their linguistic/epistolary space to construct and deconstruct themselves (as individuals and as ‘a couple’) in fascinating ways. Now, on the one hand, erotic/romantic language can be deeply private, since people often speak a specialized dialect with loved ones. On the other hand, romance and intimacy demands, at times, complete sincerity, stark openness. How did you navigate these conflicting impulses? Do you think Wolf and Szklar achieve greater intimacy by sharing poetic and mysterious language with each other? Are they more in love with language than with each other?

JB: I’ve spent so much time away (maybe a third of my adult life in other countries), so extremes—of communication, of friendship, of intimacy—are familiar territory. The first time I ever went abroad, I went to Russia for a semester. Before that, I’d hardly been out of Massachusetts, and never anywhere besides the East Coast. I had time on my hands in Russia (also, it was winter) and I was lonely, which is not to say bored—I was forever going to plays I couldn’t really understand, to museums, to the ballet because I liked watching the dancers wilt. It’s just that, even doing all of that (plus going to school, drinking tea with my host parents, and reading George Eliot novels), I still had hours alone in my room with my notebooks and my chocolate.
So, I wrote letters and postcards home, almost desperately. I made envelopes from Russian cereal boxes and milk containers and candy wrappers. I sent these off (sometimes three a day to my boyfriend), and some of them arrived in the States a few weeks later, some long after I’d returned, and some probably never at all. I received letters, but the chronology was often messed up, and this disorder and lack of context entertained me more than it annoyed me.
Then, years later, when I was living in Spain, I started to think about how much we’re willing to reveal in letters and emails, often much more than we do in person. I also realized that there were levels of intimacy—written-intimacy and in-person-intimacy—and that these could sometimes not match up. Like when you get to know someone through writing and then spend time with that person, it can be a little awkward, because you have all this knowledge of the person, but don’t quite know how to behave in-person.
So, with The Bodyfeel Lexicon, I think that I was half-consciously trying to make sense of correspondence as a stand-in for, but also unmediated form of, communication. Sometimes it is just about the language (superficial play as flirtation and dare) and sometimes it’s about the intimate space language can enable for Wolf and Leo, a space they haven’t allowed themselves to access without words.

GL:: The book’s “Appendices” feature a poetic glossary of sorts, titled “A Bodyfeel Lexicon.” The Lexicon offers a number of playful and cryptic definitions for terms either immediately or distantly related to the preceding drama between Wolf and Szklar. Here, we even get a definition for the book’s title (almost): bodyfeel n. Pathol. The exploration of one being by another as wound. Which is sad, since this definition makes amorous contact with the beloved seem like a lot of pain and misery. Is this definition somehow an ars poetica for the book as a whole? And to what extent are the definitions of ‘A Bodyfeel Lexicon” conversant with Wolf and Szklar’s missives?

JB:: I think you’re right about the ars poetica. To me, these poems came out of my predicament of often being far from loved ones, of needing to write letters to feel closer to them, but also of feeling like what isn’t immediate grows even more distant (though Facebook may be changing that—or exacerbating it, I’m not sure).
That definition you mention, by the way, I lifted from Barthes’s Camera Lucida, one of my favorite books. Barthes says of his interest in photography, “I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think.” He specifies two elements that must be present in a photograph for him to be interested: studium, or “application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity,” and punctum, or “sting, speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” In my own experience, I’ve seldom been more painfully aware of my own bodyfeel as when I’ve been away from everything (but especially everyone and the one) familiar.
Regarding “A Bodyfeel Lexicon” itself, this appendix I intended to operate as a piece unto itself, not unlike Marianne Moore’s Index for Observations or Stacy Doris’s index for Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, both of which make an argument for paratext as text. The fun of Doris’s index is less the realization that Robertson’s dense and wide-ranging essays on Vancouver accommodate both “primal shack-envy” and “pronoun caked in doubt,” and more the juxtapositions of such deeply strange word clusters. Both Doris’s and Moore’s subject indices resemble reference texts and suggest the principle of access to a unified whole. Like a telephone book, the index represents a totality, but an arbitrary one—alphabetical by last name, rather than by neighborhood or street. Yet, the index’s decomposition of the text-proper becomes a form of recomposition, of regrouping by letter. So, the parts stay in motion, shift shape.
The appendix might also be read as an attempt to undercut the suggestion of linearity within the letters, which necessarily act more like montage than they do like collage, since readers moving from front to back encounter the poems in a predetermined sequence. Marisol Limon Martinez’s After You, Dearest Language and Emmanuel Hocquard’s This Story Is Mine: Little Autobiographical Dictionary of Elegy are able to disrupt linearity by way of cross-referenced alphabetical entries, which—in Martinez’s case—contain narratives and evasions of narrative, and—in Hocquard’s case—contain diagrams and theories and red herrings. These fluctuating juxtapositions operate the way I hope The Matchbook Fragments do, but that’s another story.

GL: What other writers or projects influenced your work on The Bodyfeel Lexicon? How have your tastes, reading habits, and fascinations changed since you finished the book?

JB: Aside from the writers I’ve already mentioned, a few visual artists: Joseph Beuys, Ray Johnson, and On Kawara also played a role in my thinking about this book.

The cover of the book is one of Beuys’s “multiples,” a tin-can telephone that I saw on display a few summers ago in the (now sadly closed for renovation) Busch-Reisinger’s wonderful exhibition Multiple Strategies: Beuys, Maciunas, Fluxus. Beuys was an expert myth-maker, and I don’t presume to be tapping into that with the cover. But the tin-can telephone seemed somehow appropriate to the makeshift quality of Wolf and Leo’s correspondence (especially relative to The Matchbook Fragments).
And what I was going for in The Matchbook Fragments, or rather in various appendage projects that I executed in Athens, was something (approximately) akin to Johnson’s mail art. Johnson, known as the founder of the New York Correspondence School, began sending intricate collages to friends and acquaintances in the 1950s. Sometimes the addressee was instructed to “add to and return to” Johnson the piece he’d sent; other times the addressee was merely an intermediary instructed to send the piece on to a third person. Johnson created his collages and letters with a specific person or persons in mind. The link between a given piece and its addressee, or the link between intermediary and ultimate addressee, might be oblique, but it always functioned as an affirmation of interpersonal intimacy. Johnson’s coup was to facilitate a system of art that was constantly in flux and thus difficult to catalogue or exhibit. He further destabilized his pieces by way of his methodologies—he used rubber stamps, often cut up old collages to use in new works, and placed no more value on an original work than on a copy, or a copy of a copy, of that work. Furthermore, while Johnson sold many of his collages to galleries for thousands of dollars (often via hilarious, Byzantine pricing schemes—I recommend the documentary How to Draw a Bunny for a glimpse of this), he also gave them away to friends and strangers. And when someone could afford only a portion of his asking price, he simply removed a comparable portion of the work, like he would give them 25% of a collage if they could only pay 25% of his price. At any moment, compositional integrity might be sacrificed to evade any sense of art as sacred.
Then Kawara: for a while in the seventies, Kawara, whose work is obsessed with documenting existence in time, would send his friend telegrams that always said the same thing: “I am still alive.” These telegram were an affirmation that, by the time they were received, affirmed nothing: Kawara could have been dead. But he was telling the recipients that he cared enough to let them know, and that he figured they would care enough to want to know. There’s a compelling vulnerability in this gesture.

When I finished the book, I thought it was too grand, too long. The next project that stuck, a sequence of spare love poems, which moves in the opposite direction (toward the lover), is really different. The poems are short, like the matchbook poems, which were the last poems I wrote for The Bodyfeel Lexicon, which I think were a reaction against what I perceived as the book’s early excesses (early in the composition process, not necessarily early in the current sequence). The new poems are different for me in an additional sense—they came directly out of my experience teaching for a semester in the University of Georgia’s study abroad program in the Costa Rican cloud forest. What a way to end my MFA.
In terms of reading habits, they haven’t generally changed. I’m still reading work by writers who tend to be published by small presses and still going to readings where it’s normal for me to not have heard of at least one of the two or three readers.

GL: I’d like you to tell me about the poem you want to write but haven’t been able to write quite yet. Could you describe the poem you aspire to write that is perhaps still out of reach?

JB: That’s a tough question, because when I try to conceptualize before writing, the result is most often stunted or dead. I usually think about ideas only after I’ve written and as I’m trying to trace my preoccupations in a given draft (and draft is probably generous). So, while I like to be at work on a family of poems (when I’m not, I feel a bit at sea), I’ve come to understand that ideas won’t get me where I want to be. It’s only once I’m already working on something that ideas help.

GL: What pleases you about contemporary poetry? What displeases you about it? And how does Jessica Bozek help solve what’s wrong with contemporary poetry ☺?

JB: One thing that really excites me about contemporary poetry is that the lines of communication seem more open than ever—there are so many small presses, online journals, reading series, poetry blogs, publishing collectives—in short, so many ways to find out about and become immersed in what’s going on.
I was recently at a roundtable discussion at Harvard, on the state of contemporary poetry. The moderator kept returning the discussion to the idea of poetry and tradition (i.e., how are contemporary poets influenced by older poets?), but what I really wanted to hear was the participants talk about how contemporary poets are being influenced by their contemporaries (since that’s who we’re able to read more easily today). Tradition is always relevant, of course, but I think it’s less relevant now than it has been in the past, when writers would almost certainly have been reading the same things in school. Maybe the part of me that hasn’t had a coherent education (which might be a suspect thing anyway) wanted to see my distracted reading habits, my interest in literatures not just US American and British, my sense that some total picture is impossible, validated.
I’m not sure that I have a negative diagnosis about the state of contemporary poetry, but something I love is how easy it is for me to read what other people think about books I’ve just finished. That said, I’m happy to diagnose one of my own failings—namely, the written articulation of my engagements with contemporary writing. Every summer, when I have a bit more time, I say that I’m going to write a review a month, and then I don’t (or I write, at most, one). Maybe this summer I’ll finally do it.

GL: Now that you’re free of Wolf and Szklar, do you miss them? Are you enjoying your freedom? What are writing about now?

JB: I didn’t miss Wolf and Leo at first—in fact, I was uncomfortable with and happy to be rid of them. That’s one reason I wrote The Matchbook Fragments, which began as letters between the characters. But I was tired of them, and their ways of speaking, so I decided to cut them up, to separate their utterances out onto individual matchbooks, which I painstakingly made in the late spring hot of my overgrown Athens house, and then to be even more severe with these words—to remove some and reconstruct a message with the remnants.
But then, as I tried to write after the manuscript was finished, I had a hard time leaving it. I kept writing transport poems, until, finally (a year and a half later), I wrote one called “The Transport Transport,” and I thought, well, this has to be the end of it. And it was.
I mentioned the spare poems earlier—they’re going to be published as a chapbook by Dancing Girl Press at the beginning of next year. And, recently, I’ve been writing poems that look and feel a bit more like the letters in The Bodyfeel Lexicon, which is to say that they’re short prose tales set in an imagined world. At times, they revise or appropriate language from an early nineteenth-century captivity narrative, as well as from news coverage of the war on Iraq. So, they’re much more politically aware. But there are also animals (dogs, birds, beavers), always more animals, it seems.
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Jessica Bozek is the author of The Bodyfeel Lexicon (Switchback, 2009), as well as several chapbooks: Squint into the Sun (Dancing Girl), Other People’s Emergencies (Hive), Touristing (Dusie), and cor·re·spond·ence (Dusie). She runs the Small Animal...


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