“We Make Our Own Ghosts” – A Conversation with Jessie Janeshek

Nobody has contributed more poems to our weird little zine over the years than Jessie Janeshek, and it’s not even close. It’s because her poetry so perfectly captures that easily-recognizable-yet-hard-to-define quality known as “flappiness” that we look for in the work we publish. (One of her recent contributions, “Delicate / Cheap,” was posted here last week.) Jessie has had poetry appear in other excellent publications like Potluck, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, and Anti-Heroin Chic, among dozens of others. She’s also the author of numerous chapbooks & collections, including The Shaky Phase, published earlier this year by Stalking Horse Press.

Jessie recently exchanged emails with our managing editor Joseph P. O’Brien about her poetry, as well as the sorrow of nostalgia, the allure of Golden Age Hollywood, and the ghosts of our own creation…

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JO’B: To me, your poems feel both spontaneously, almost subconsciously crafted, and yet also meticulously assembled from vintage / antique parts. How much subconscious spontaneity and how much meticulous assemblage would you say plays a part in your writing process?

JJ: I really like this description of my work, so thank you! It’s both lyrical and accurate. I would say that many of the phrases and images used are subconsciously generated. I take a lot from dreams and memories, and I jot down random phrases that come into my head, often while I’m exercising or just ostensibly focused on something else. I also use lines from films, articles, songs, etc. Putting these parts together on the page is where the “meticulous assemblage” comes in. I’m very deliberate about how the parts come together to make the whole. I recall reading an interview with Kim Addonizio quite a few years ago where she referred to her revision process as a “comb-over,” a need to go back through her work and fill in the sparse parts. I do something similar in subsequent drafts of my poems; my writing process often feels like a layering process.

(Here’s a link to the interview with Addonizio. I found it again by googling “kim addonizio” and “comb over” to make sure I wasn’t going crazy.)

JO’B: Do you practice any particular rituals or traditions to write, or to otherwise activate the more creative / intuitive realms of your mind?

JJ: Nothing too interesting or magical. It is usually a little hard for me to get started, if only in the sense that writing is harder than reading news articles on my phone or watching TV or petting a cat or listening to music or just existing. So, I usually put my phone in another room; otherwise, I’m tempted to mess with it any time I get stuck for a second. I usually sit on my couch. I have a journal of on-going notes, as well as a clipboard and a stack of typing paper with notes like more than an inch high. Sometimes I look at them; sometimes I don’t.

I usually have a glass of ice water and something caffeinated. Eighty-five percent of the time it’s strong coffee with a bit of cream and one sweet and low; the other 15% of the time it’s diet pop. (I was told the other day that my use of the word “pop” to describe a carbonated beverage is “so colloquial.”) Sometimes I light a candle or three, but not always.

I will say that even though it can be hard to get started, I’m much happier and saner if I’m writing for a bit every day or at least every other day. If I don’t write for like a week, my brain really starts to feel out of whack.

I write in the afternoon. I hate the morning, and I like to do my reading at night.

JO’B: In your recent interview with Kailey Tedesco for Rag Queen Periodical, you said of your poems’ speakers that “most of the time they’re just nostalgic and sad.” What are your personal feelings about nostalgia? Do you generally see it as a sad thing?

JJ: Yes. As I learned in a college course on Greek and Roman literature, nostalgia literally translates to “a longing for home.” Looking at a past, a home, that I know I can never get back to, is sad to me. The rational part of me is well aware that I’m seeing things from the past in soft focus, both on and off the screen, and that the past has its flaws, just as the present does. The irrational part of me thinks the pasts—and I make it plural, whether it’s my adolescence in the 90s or the 1920s of a film I’m watching—are so much better. And I can never get back to them. And the irrational part of me is where the poetry comes from.

JO’B: Do you indulge in nostalgia from time to time? Do you ever try to avoid it?

JJ: I don’t know if I consider it an indulgence because, again, it is always tinged in pain for me; although, I guess there’s the notion that we can take pleasure in sadness. But I don’t try to avoid it, because a lot of my ideas come from thinking about my past and reconfiguring childhood experiences or imaginings in different ways. And, of course, that personal past is broadened into a cultural past with my use of the old movies and such. So, I’m thinking about the past and how time’s passing and I’m getting closer to death and how everyone in those old movies is dead—all stuff I assume I’d be thinking about were I not a writer?—but at least by being a writer and exploring those thoughts I’m getting something out of it.

JO’B: Your poetry frequently references– sometimes even features–  famous Hollywood actresses from the early-to-mid 20th Century. Do you have any particular favorite film performances by any of these Golden Age Movie Stars? What about them resonates with you?

JJ: In the song “Brownsville Girl” (recently marginally in the news with the death of Sam Shepard because Shepard co-wrote it with Bob Dylan) Dylan’s speaker sings:

Well, I’m standin’ in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck
Yeah, but you know it’s not the one that I had in mind
He’s got a new one out now, I don’t even know what it’s about
But I’ll see him in anything so I’ll stand in line 

It might be my favorite Dylan song, and those lines from it are pretty much how I feel about my top actresses of the 20s and 30s who include Jean Harlow, Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and the relatively lesser known (now) Norma Shearer, Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins. I’ll pretty much watch them in anything pre-code. I’m a little pickier about post-1934 stuff, although not much. Even if the movie isn’t so good (and some of them aren’t), their screen presences hold enough interest for me along with the history I learn from watching and researching the films. And, of course, the fashion! That said, if someone’s looking for some films to start with, I’d recommend Rain, Baby Face, Red Dust, It, and Trouble in Paradise for starters.

Many aspects of these films are dated, of course, especially if you’re not used to the conventions of old movies. But what resonates with me about these women and the films they starred in is that these films were mainstream entertainment and that most of them explored a woman’s experience in ways that were much more comprehensive and progressive than in mainstream films being made today.

JO’B: Are there any current Hollywood stars who intrigue you in the same kinds of ways as those “Golden Age” actresses? 

JJ: No. I enjoy contemporary films and some contemporary actresses well enough, but there’s no one I’d, say, write a chapbook of poems about. Or even one poem.

JO’B: Your poems also include, particularly in your book The Shaky Phase, an abundance of foresty critters: deer, foxes, bats, owls… If you could choose one foresty critter to be reincarnated as, which would it be and why?

 JJ: You can tell I live by the woods? I think I’d go with an owl. I’m very nocturnal already, and I would enjoy the powers of observation and the dive bombing for prey. Also there would be much less of a chance of getting hit by a car. (Living by the woods means you get to see foresty critters in all stages of decomposition, all the time. I actually almost stepped into a rotting deer on the side of the highway when walking this past spring. Country roads, take me home.)

JO’B: Even though your poems don’t always seem to follow traditional rhythms, they all still possess a very musical quality. Do you ever listen to music, or at least have music in mind, while writing?

JJ: I used to listen to music when writing, but I stopped doing that a couple of years back. I find it really hard to concentrate on more than one thing. It seems to become harder to do as I get older. I don’t consciously have music in mind while writing, but I listen to music a lot when I’m not writing, so maybe it’s just in there.

JO’B: Are there musicians who inspire your work lyrically? Musicians who inspire your work purely in a rhythmic, tonal, or atmospheric sense?  

JJ: I know there was a lot of controversy inside and outside the poetry community when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize. Frankly, though, listening to his lyrics almost constantly in high school and college taught me so much of what I know about how to write. He uses history. He uses the surreal. He weaves everything together in weird and wonderful ways. At his best, he’s an absolutely brilliant lyricist.

Atmospherically and lyrically, I’d also say Neko Case, especially her albums Furnace Room Lullaby and Blacklisted. I’ve seen the term “country noir” used to describe her work, and I feel like that kind of jives with my woodsier stuff.

I was invited by David Gutowski to compile a playlist of songs to accompany my second full-length The Shaky Phase for the Book Notes feature on his website Largehearted Boy, so I’m going to leave the link for that here, if it’s cool. It contains many of the artists who have influenced my recent work, including Dylan and Case, and explains why and how they influence me.

JO’B: Do you have any poems by other poets committed to memory? Do you remember the first poem you ever memorized?

JJ: In high school, for whatever reason, I took a speech class. I had to memorize and recite a poem, and I chose “Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost. I guess I thought it was “dark.” I hadn’t read Dickinson or Plath or Stevens or anything yet. It was my sophomore year. Fall of 1996. I was probably wearing something similar to the slip dresses and tshirts or plaid flannel and wide-legged jeans I’m seeing in stores for juniors this fall. Anyway, I got up in front of the class to recite it, and it must have been terrible in terms of enunciation. I had memorized it fine, but the teacher kept trying to get me to emphasize different words. “I have walked OUT in rain and BACK in rain…” I had to stand at the podium and do this like four times.

I’m terrible at deliberate memorization, but when I’m teaching, I realize how many poems I actually do have memorized. “Daddy,” for one. I’ll start reading it to the class and realize I don’t even need to look at the book.

JO’B: Do you think you’ll ever write a novel or a non-fiction book?

JJ: I’d really like to write a novel or perhaps a biography. I don’t even know of whom, but I love the idea of digging into someone else’s life to avoid thinking about my own…I think that might be a good exercise for a poet even if, like me, her work isn’t completely autobiographical.

But I don’t know if I have it in me, honestly. I write a lot of prose for my day job, but it’s “business prose”…I feel like writing “creative prose” would be excruciating for me, just because I tend to focus so much on each word. I guess I would have to stop obsessing so much and just let it fly.

JO’B: Have you ever experienced any eerie premonitions, prophetic dreams, or other curious phenomena? How convinced are you that there are (or aren’t) supernatural forces at work in our universe?

JJ: I do have prophetic dreams sometimes. In grad school, I dreamt that someone I hardly knew was pregnant. A few weeks later, it ended up she was. This kind of thing has happened maybe ten times or so? The few times I’ve dreamt people died, I felt like I should probably tell them just in case, but I usually didn’t.

I used to experience déjà vu all the time; for a couple of years in my life, it was almost daily, but it doesn’t happen that much anymore.

However, I don’t know if it’s supernatural forces or just some kind of situation where everything’s happening at once and we’re only able to access what’s going on using one level of consciousness, if that makes any sense. I’m so cynical and skeptical, it’s really hard for me to believe it’s anything besides some sort of blips in the brain. I love the ideas of ghosts and ghost stories though, always have. I used to be the one to tell all the ghost stories at sleepovers, and I used to mess around with the Ouija board a lot and try to conjure ghosts in mirrors. There have been many times I’ve really attempted to court the supernatural, but it’s not worked. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing out there or maybe it’s because they can sense my skepticism. I do think we are haunted by our guilt, our regrets, and, to go back to earlier in the interview, our nostalgia. If anything, we make our own ghosts.

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