I had the pleasure of reading amazing poet's Jessica Goodfellow's book Mendeleev’s Mandala—and then asking her lots of questions. Her first book of poetry, The Insomniac's Weather Report (three candles press), won the Three Candles Press First Book Prize. She's also the author of a poetry chapbook, A Pilgrim's Guide to Chaos in the Heartland (2006), winner of the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition. Jessica was a recipient of the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from the Beloit Poetry Journal,
Mendeleev’s Mandala--let’s start with the book’s title and cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
The title comes from one of the poems in the collection, a poem about Dmitri Mendeleev, the inventor/discoverer (depending on your point of view) of the period table of elements. Since a mandala is said to be a visual representation of the universe, and the periodic table is a catalog of all the known chemical elements, a main theme of the book—the tension between the rational and the spiritual—is embodied in the title of that poem. Plus it has a pleasing sound.
Next came the search for an image that would match. I wanted something that was mandala-like and yet decidedly scientific, and eventually I found images of diatoms, unicellular algae that under a microscope can be gorgeous. The image we selected is by "Rehemat Bhatia," tinted and rotated by my editor Judith Kerman.
Three words: Backward logic prevails.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that you have a love of mathematics after reading Mendeleev’s Mandala, which contains logic equations in many of the free verse and traditional poetic forms you employ (for example, “An if-then statement is called a conditional: If A, Iphigenia, then B.” and also “For Isaac. For his eye. His e – y (chromosome) – e. His I.” from “If-Then, Iphigenia”). How has mathematics stretched your poems beyond the use of words to convey ideas? What do you want the equations to bring to the poems?
I took a lot of math classes as both and undergrad and a graduate student. I do love math, statistics, game theory, and logic though, and those disciplines have informed my vocabulary and my metaphor-making because they are some of the lenses through which I look at the world. However, the math isn’t in my poems to make a statement about how to frame the world, though it probably does that. It’s just there because it’s part of the vocabulary that comes naturally to me; it’s how I think and it’s useful for thinking and speaking clearly. The math doesn’t start out as a formal element in a poem, though that sometimes happens when I step back and see how it could function that way; initially it’s there because it’s clear language that I can use to say what I want to say. However, it’s not always the case that I want to speak clearly; generally math is not as useful as a vocabulary then. But sometimes it still is.
In your poems (and book sections) you easily transition from one theme to the next, and in turn, deftly intertwine multiple subjects into many of the poems. For example, in the second section, which is one of the most powerful for me as a reader, we see your fascination with time (poems about the candle clock, the hourglass, a sundial, a metronome, the clock as a repeating decimal). We’re also introduced to a narrator who confronts what it’s like to be married to a man suffering from retinitis pigmentosa and slowly going blind. This concern also plays out with their 3-year-old son who may have inherited the condition. Tell us a little more about the writing of this very emotional section--and how time relates to the narrator’s struggle.
I do like to intertwine subjects, mostly because I’m interested in what repetition does. Time is the ultimate unifying theme for intertwining, isn’t it, because no matter how disparate elements are, as humans we do automatically put them on a timeline, in relation to one another in the space-time construct that we use to view reality. The clock poems were among the very first poems I wrote in this book, and then many of the others came along, and could be placed around them, which in some ways mirrors our almost automatic placing of events on a timeline.
The more narrative poems, including the one about the wife of the man with retinitis pigmentosa, demonstrate that our bodies, as they become disabled, are clocks that measure the passing of time. A degenerative disease such as retinitis pigmentosa, one that eventually results in blindness, keeps one acutely aware of the passing of time, making one see the passing of time even as one sees less of everything else. And that fact that it is often hereditary continues the notion of time through the generations. It’s an emotional poem because of that, and because it does parallel a situation in my family. However, the story belongs more to someone else than to me, so I generally don’t speak completely openly about it.
You play with words and the definitions of words, both in this book and in many of your other poems (as in “Landlocked”: “the words landscape and escape don’t share a root.” and “Thistle”: “This is thistle./ Bus is bustle./ Kiss is castle./ If only.”) At times, this tactic also offers much-needed levity, especially in the poem, “The Blind Man’s Wife Makes a List of Words She Must No Longer Use”--where you offer many “blacklisted” words (Venetian blinds, blind alley, blindfold, eyelet, keep your eyes on the prize, can’t believe my eyes, unsightly, sight unseen, blindside, see red, see if I care, eye of the needle, evil eye, roving eye, bedroom eye). How did this word play evolve in your work? When did you become conscious of it and how do you see it working for you when you craft poems?
Words are symbols first and foremost to me, as are numbers. In that sense they’ve always been manipulable elements, leading easily to wordplay. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t take words seriously. But I actually have to take wordplay out of my poems sometimes because it can be distracting or overdone. On the other hand, in praise of wordplay, as you noted it can sometimes introduce humor in poems, but it also often suggests pairings of words that wouldn’t be obvious when thinking about sense only. I believe that words that sound similar sometimes have some kind of historical resonance, a deep and (as time passes) often an increasingly tenuous resonance. I think that words carry ancient wisdom and connections that may no longer be obvious in the modern language, but that is nonetheless there in some cases, and if you listen to the words and follow the sound pairings, you might be tapping into a repository of primal knowledge, a blurry record of collective human experience. Etymology I likewise find fascinating, so that shows up on occasion. Both the sound and sense histories of words can take you really interesting places, I find.
Which isn’t to say that some similarity in sounds isn’t pure coincidental. It is, but now that we are making connections between those words, it won’t be in the future. So that’s part of what a poet does.
The third section of your book contains a series of 12 prose poems about a girl whose favorite color is eigengrau--the color, also called “intrinsic gray,” that’s seen by the eyes in complete darkness. This girl, married to a blind man, seems on the fringe in terms of the ways she views the world (for example, from “The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau Gets Married,” “When her husband asks her what her favorite color is, the girl whose favorite color is eigengrau says, ‘Nine.’ ‘Galileo,’ she says, ‘was born on the same day da Vinci died.’”) Does this girl reflect the unique ways you translate the world in your poems, which take on many different free verse, prose blocks, free form (or for example, an hourglass shape) and of course, more traditional forms?
This was a fun series to write, but the girl is definitely a persona. She has a lot of my autobiographical elements in her story, but she isn’t me, and the way she sees the world is more simplistic and more extreme (fringe, as you say) than the way I do. It all began when I read about the color eigengrau, and I immediately thought how terrible it would be if that were your favorite color, because you’d have to explain it all the time, and then I wondered what kind of a person would have that color as a favorite, and this character came to me. I’m quite interested in color, so I put a lot of information and quotes about color in the poems, and I really enjoy repetition, so I had fun weaving certain topics in and out, for comic effect mostly. But, for the record, my favorite color is green.
I’m interested in the parallel you have drawn between this idiosyncratic character and my use of various forms. I enjoy form, but think that form always has to be in service to the subject matter, to the effect, the poem as an entity. Forms are extreme in the way that this character is extreme—there is a clarity to form and to this character. But forms, though clear, don’t depend overly on simplicity, as this character does.
You live in Japan--and we see references in your poems to Japanese gardens, the cremation ritual for Aunt Hisako, among others. We also see references to historical, biblical and mythological figures. How have where you live and these various figures rooted in your work?
I have never set out to write about Japan (though there are plenty of non-Japanese writers living here who do), but because it obviously plays such a huge part in my daily life, references to Japanese culture and scenery naturally show up in my work. I was raised in a very religious family, so biblical stories are also in my wheelhouse, as are the mythological and historical figures I studied at school and one my own. The human mind is a pattern-seeking machine, and mine is demonstrably efficient at that, which means that I’m always rifling through everything I have in my experience, looking for parallels to new incoming information. It’s not even a conscious choice, and I suspect everybody does this, but I happen to find it comforting, so I tend to be aware of it. The really interesting times are when a writer isn’t aware of the unconscious connections they have made between experiences or facts or impressions, and two items are suddenly juxtaposed in a poem to great emotional effect, those leaps that Robert Bly wrote about. They happen much less frequently for me, but those are the highly desirable connections and references, in my opinion.
Mendeleev’s Mandala is your second full-length collection, following on the heels of The Insomniac’s Weather Report that was the winner of three candles press’ First Book Award, following on the heels of your chapbook. I could say that you’re becoming an established poet. What’s different for you now than before you published your first book? What advice do you have to a poet who’s trying to publish her first chapbook or book?
I don’t think of myself as an established or mid-career poet. I’m still in the position of having to submit my work to slush piles, most of the time. I do get the occasional invitation to submit or to be interviewed. But mostly, submitting feels about the same as always, with a slightly higher acceptance rate, probably because I’m better at matching work to markets now that I used to be, and that comes with experience.
For poets looking to publish a first chapbook or book, I’d say to aim high as far as publishers go (don’t submit to any publisher you wouldn’t be delighted to be published by), and in the meantime keep writing. It may take several years before you can find a publisher, and if you keep writing in the interim, you’ll have a second manuscript ready to shop around, once the first one gets placed, or in the event that the first one turns out to have been more of a practice book than a publishable one. Don’t let the publishing get in the way of the writing, which is the real thing.
Has motherhood changed anything about your writing--your subject matter, your writing or revising process, the way you view your art or the way it goes out into the world, something else?
My first book The Insomniac’s Weather Report was entirely about familial relationships—that of mother and wife. Marriage and motherhood totally occupied my writing life as subjects when my children were very young. The interesting thing about being a young mother, exhausted and sleep-deprived, was that I did more writing then than I had before having kids, when I had open evenings and weekends. I think many writers find this to be true—the desperation to write (as a result of it being marginalized) can be generative. Listening to my children acquiring language made me think a lot about language, and that was useful. My husband is not a native English speaker, and I don’t discuss writing on a word level with him as it’s not of interest to him, but I can do that now with my kids, as they are teenagers. So that’s new and fun.
What are you working on now?
I’m getting to the end of a manuscript about my uncle, who was killed at age 22 on Denali in a mountain-climbing accident. There were six other climbers lost, and it is one of the worst mountain-climbing tragedies in U.S. history, as well as a controversial one. So I’ve been writing about that, and about its continuing effect on our family.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
I’m always in the process of re-reading David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.
And recently the work of Lydia Davis and Joshua Poteat particularly speak to me.
Purchase Mendeleev’s Mandala from Mayapple Press.
Jessica Goodfellow grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but has spent the last twenty years in California, Florida, and Japan. She received an MS degree from the California Institute of Technology and an MA in linguistics from the University of New England. Her first book of poetry, The Insomniac's Weather Report (three candles press), won the Three Candles Press First Book Prize, and was reissued by Isobar Press in 2014. Her new book Mendeleev's Mandala is available from Mayapple Press (2015). She is also the author of a poetry chapbook, A Pilgrim's Guide to Chaos in the Heartland (Concrete Wolf, 2006), winner of the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition. Her work has appeared in the anthology Best New Poets 2006, on the website Verse Daily, and has been featured by Garrison Keillor on NPR"s "The Writer's Almanac." She was a recipient of the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from the Beloit Poetry Journal, and her work has been honored with the Linda Julian Essay Award as well as the Sue Lile Inman Fiction Prize, both from the Emrys Foundation. Her work has appeared in Motionpoems Season 6. Jessica currently lives in Japan with her husband and sons.
Learn more about Jessica on her website and at her blog, "Axis of Abraxas: A Poetry Blog."