Let’s start with the book’s title and your 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 name Strange Tapestry derives from the myth of Philomela, particularly Ovid’s rendition in Metamorphoses. In the story, the princess Philomela is raped by her escort, Tereus, who cuts out her tongue so Philomela can never accuse him. Instead, Philomela wove (“intexuit,” which in Latin also means “composed”) a rendition of the crime in a tapestry, and sends it to her sister as a testimony. Afterwards, in good Roman storytelling tradition, there’s some filicide and unintentional cannibalism.
But you’ve got to wonder: why didn’t Philomela just write a letter? My feeling is that by making a tapestry, she was able to tell a story that was more true than the prosaic truth could have been. It’s like Emily Dickinson says: “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” To put it even more strongly: the truth can only come from unexpected (strange) perspectives. Thus, Strange Tapestry.
I find the cover aesthetically pleasing—it’s a great photo from my wife, Catie. Conveniently, it also offers a number of nice correlations with the book. The wood makes the outline of a weaving loom, but the wood is warped, hence the tapestry produced will be uneven. The wood gives a linear order to the composition, but stops almost all the background scene from getting through the slats.
Three words? I’d pick “fraught,” “multidimensional” and “overdetermined.”
What were you trying to achieve with your chapbook? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
Strange Tapestry is a book about family. It’s a book about growing up with an abusive mother and an alcoholic, suicidal father. Most of all, it’s a book about the conflict between my need to work through these experiences, and my desire to avoid dealing with them head on.
Coming back to the three words from my last answer, I think that all of us survivors find our experiences fraught, multidimensional and overdetermined—and not necessarily in a good way or for the best. So naturally, these are the same attributes I see working in the world of Strange Tapestry. At times, the pieces are relatively direct in their treatment of abuse or neglect, while elsewhere these episodes and family figures nearly disappear, existing only on the margins.
On the subject of margins, the formal aspects of the poems play a major role in shaping this world. Almost all of the pieces are written in blank verse, with many also taking on traditional forms like sonnets, villanelles and acrostics. On top of that, a number of pieces are written in a two-, three-, or even five-column layout that allows reading left-to-right, top-to-bottom, and even backward.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
For shorter poems, my favorite revision method is to rewrite the entire piece. In the process, I usually keep the lines that were really strong and memorable, and drop those that were awkward or weak. It seems reckless, but not looking at what I wrote before really focuses me on what’s important about the poem. Of course, I save each version in case I need to go back.
Strange Tapestry brought some extra composition challenges. The multi-column pieces are intended to be read both left-to-right and top-to-bottom so each clause needs to work both ways; as a result, I spent a lot of time working out the best syntax, while also making sure the meter and form remained intact. I guess you could say my writing process swung back and forth between "pure emotional expression" and "solving logic puzzles."
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read – did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your book’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
This is the first of a set of three sonnets that make up “Leyden Jar,” and I’ve chosen it because I think it demonstrates quite a bit of what I’ve been talking about in this interview.
So, on the one hand, there’s the sonnet form, which encourages some sort of problem statement in the first stanza, a turn in the 3rd stanza, and a conclusion in the fourth—as well as, traditionally, a rhyme scheme. And all that’s there, in a sense. But on top of this neat and tidy structure you have multiple ways of reading. Do you read the first two lines as they’re written, left to right, or as the beginnings of two separate poems: “What growth there was was not / did not spin out whirlwinding” and “in dendrites formed / when the brain”?
As I mentioned before, I took a lot of time massaging phrases and words to work in this multidirectional way. Language simply isn’t designed for this, and I hope you’ll enjoy seeing how this kind of pressure can produce strange, and sometimes beautiful, accidents of language. For instance, consider how “trains” is forced into being a verb in the right-hand stanza “in dendrites formed / when the brain / from years of storms, / coal trains […]”
Finally, I chose this poem because it highlights the omnipresence of my personal history and trauma. Even as I try to escape it through increasingly arcane and restrictive writing, it’s still there at the very top of the page, questioning whether anything below has any meaning at all. And that question is still very much open.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
I’m an obsessive reader of Wikipedia and the Oxford English Dictionary. I work for the college of science at a research university, so I’m always surrounded by astronomy, physics, and that sort of thing. Scientists actually have this hidden treasure trove of excellent-sounding words (“cladistics,” anyone?), so I use Wikipedia to learn more about whatever new word or idea I learned about at work.
The OED is my go-to for thorough etymologies (though Google’s pretty good for a quick lookup and has excellent usage history statistics). I love learning about the history of words, and how they’re related—I think this is extremely important knowledge for poets, and it’s enlightening as well.
What are you working on now?
At the moment I’m working with a few different ideas.
The first is a collection of short creative non-fiction pieces covering various topics of interest to me. I’m excited and a little nervous about this project because I haven’t done creative prose writing before.
Also new territory: I’m working on writing some slam poetry. By this time, it should be obvious where I fall on the “page vs. stage” dichotomy—yes, I’m more of the “never leaves the library” type. But I am nevertheless very interested in the sounds of words, and hope to speak them out loud some time soon.
Finally—and this one is very much in the conceptual stages—I’m following up on my interest in machine language and procedural generation, and seeing how it might apply to poetry. I’ve always been inspired and fascinated by the often extreme limitations which hardware placed on early software designers, and the creativity that came from those constraints.
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
Emily Dickinson, Percy Shelley, WB Yeats, Jean Grae and MF DOOM. Probably have to hide those last two under long sleeves for the job interview, though.
Purchase Strange Tapestry from ELJ Publications.
A native of New York, Justin Parnell lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and cat. He has a degree in English Literature from the University of Utah, where he now works as a grant writer. His poems have been published in Crack the Spine, Epigraph Magazine, and will be included in a forthcoming collection from Medusa’s Laugh Press.
Parnell's interests include independent video games and film. In his spare time, he thinks about the intersection between technology and society, and worries about how much longer the Golden Age of Television can last. Visit him online at justinparnell.com or at JLPWrites.tumblr.com.