Rebecca here. The day before attending her fabulously-generative and imaginative workshop, “Writing as the Character in Poetry,” hosted over Zoom by Lit Youngstown, Jessica Fischoff and I chatted about all things writing and editing right now.
Jessica Fischoff is the author of The Desperate Measure of Undoing (Across the Margin, 2019), and editor of the upcoming Pittsburgh Anthology (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2020). She is also the owner/editor of [PANK] Magazine and Books, and American Poetry Journal. Her thoughts on editing appear in Best American Poetry and The Kenyon Review. Her writing appears in Diode Poetry Journal, The Southampton Review, Prelude, Creative Nonfiction, Fjords Review, and Yemassee, among others.
Jessica, I adored your poems in The Desperate Measure of Undoing. There’s so much mystery to be unraveled—from age-old stories from the Bible, from Greek and Roman myths. Your poem “I’ve Been Spreading My Legs Like a Wishbone” (perhaps the best poem title, ever) ends with: “free me from this sentence / of splintering, weave me back into the rib.” What do such cultural stories and myths mean to you? What do they mean for your poetry?
Growing up, I was an only child, so I did a lot of playing pretend and fantasizing to entertain myself, and I got really obsessed with ancient history and mythology. I read a lot of books based in ancient Egypt and Rome. And I think it’s always been a seed in my head—the fantasy of different gods and the cultural and sociological aspects of these stories. Also, going to Sunday School as a kid, you’re dealing with a lot of Bible stories. For instance, the Torah portion for my bat mitzvah was Noah’s Ark, so there was always a lot of interest for me in that story.
The women in the Bible, especially, stood out to me then and still serve as good characters. I think when I was writing these poems, I wanted to talk about feminism in a way that was more about the strength in being a woman than it was about fighting against some kind of oppression. That’s where my obsession with Eve came in and that expanded to other women in mythology.
I remember you reading “Oh,” which is the last poem in the collection, at a literary festival. It starts: “Eve, / How often do you think of me? / The house now, the kids, and / Everyone needs to eat, I know how tired / You are to mother the world” It’s so striking. How did that poem come about?
It’s funny, that poem came from a prompt to write about a villain. So, I wrote it from the perspective of the serpent, like a letter from the serpent to Eve. It was a good starting point for all the poems that came after that, where I realized you don’t have to write as the character—but you can write about the character through other characters, through other lenses.
While bolstered by old stories and myths, your poems are very much body-centered: so many different kinds of bodies—human, plant, animal, celestial. “The Diagnosis” begins: “The Gardener heard only: You can live / As an orchid or die as a man” In a poem like that, what’s the impetus, the natural world or the human body?
I wrote that poem when I was in Wales for a week-long writing program one summer. I stayed at a retreat center, and it was quaint and beautiful and had a little garden, where I spent a lot of time, writing. I knew I wanted to write about a garden but felt really overwhelmed by that, and at the same time, my father had had a cancer, sarcoma, that he got from the radiation that treated his colon cancer. In that process he had his leg amputated, a catheter, and other interventions. Before this, he’d been a marathon runner and a really active person—so that was hard to see.
As I was writing, I realized there was a correlation: I started with the flowers but wanted to incorporate this thing about my dad, which I’d never written about before—because I also felt cancer was hard to write about. And my dad was realizing all these things were going to happen to him, medically, and there was the question: Do you want to live, if you can’t be a person the same as you were? Unlike in the poem, my dad is still alive and well and doing great. But that idea of orchids and how delicate they are—that’s where that connection came in.
Your poems are so arresting for their imagery. Can you talk about that?
I begin with images a lot, striking photographs that I see on Instagram, for instance. The poem “Medusozoa” came from seeing a jellyfish at an aquarium. “Dead Animals” came from a photo of a squirrel that had died in winter up in a tree. I start a lot with an image or a basic concept or prompt that can serve as a canvas for me to go from. I like looking at obscure images, and thinking, how could I write about this?
The collection on the whole is so gorgeous. How did the look of the book come about?
The cover image with the woman and the snake and apple was done by a friend, an amazing artist named Zephren Turner. I wanted him to incorporate both Eve and Medusa, since the jellyfish-Medusa poem was also a starting point for me with this collection. So, I was really lucky to have that illustration. As for the rest of the art, those were choices I made working with the publisher’s designer. I wanted it to feel like a garden, like you were outside whatever reality you’re reading the book in. I didn’t want to rely so much on imagery that it became a picture book, but I wanted it to begin and end with these floral images—and I got lucky that the designer was able to do that so well.
Are you able to create, right now, during the pandemic?
I have, weirdly, been able to write a lot more than I thought I was going to be able to. It wasn’t easy in the beginning. I had a lot of conferences and things planned that I was disappointed couldn’t happen. And of course you’re worrying about family and friends and the state of the world. But then everything opened up. On Passover, I wrote ten Shakespearean sonnets, one for each of the plagues, which was really fun. It’s kind of a story of its own, but it ended up being the missing component to the full-length collection I was working on that I just finished, last night. The collection’s called the ologies, and every poem is a different “ology,” a different study of something. Some are more metaphorical; some are more straight-forward. I just sent it out to some contests, and now I’ll just let it ride and see what happens.
I keep waiting for the End Times poems. Do you think writing will change due to the ongoing pandemic restrictions, cancellations, isolation?
I think we’ll see in the next few months a lot of these isolation poems. It’ll be interesting to watch how the pandemic mentality changes things, changes the conversation—at least in poetry. I do wish I’d had a diary going on during all this. It was ironic that National Poetry Month was happening at this time, and usually poets are all geared up and ready to write. You would think, being home, there’d be so much more time, and I’ve written—but I definitely didn’t do the poem a day I’d planned to.
So, your poetry collection was released last year and the Pittsburgh Anthology, which you edited, will be released later this year. Can you tell us a little about the anthology and why it’s important for you to capture your city’s stories in this way?
It’s been really interesting, all the stories and poems I received for this anthology. I was able to get so many different experiences of Pittsburgh from different areas of the city, and contemporary stories and poems as well as those set in the past. Pittsburgh is a big city, but we’re not huge, and to see so many cultural experiences all under the umbrella of Pittsburgh was really great. The city has a strong Jewish community, and with the Tree of Life synagogue shooting having such an impact, I saw a lot of writing about that. There’s also a strong Italian community here, too, so I have some fun pieces about Little Italy. There are pieces about the museums and parks.
Pittsburgh’s gone through such a change; it used to be so much more industrial and now it’s this technological hub that’s redefined itself and what it contributes to the world. We have such a heavy literary scene here, but there are so many people out there writing about the city. The anthology introduced me to a lot of poets and writers I didn’t know before.
You’re also the editor and owner of both [PANK], one of our favorite literary magazines around here, and American Poetry Journal. What’s next for these publications—and for you?
We’re really fortunate that the groundwork was laid by [PANK] founding editors M. Bartley Seigel and Roxane Gay. Being online has allowed for so much contact with writers out there, so [Editor] Chris Campanioni and I have a lot going on. We’re doing a folio collection. We’ve got a book contest going on right now, as well, and I’m really excited because it’s something we started, where the judges for our contests are writers we’ve published, so it’s all in the [PANK] family. We’ve hosted workshops and readings, and we had a virtual book launch on Zoom that was written up in the New York Times, which was awesome. It’s great to be able to celebrate these successes, even during this time.
For American Poetry Journal, I took that over last summer and have an amazing group of editors I work with (Theresa Senato Edwards and Michelle Whitaker). We had our first relaunched issue come out in the fall, and we’ve got much more coming, including a Gods & Monsters anthology that’s still open for submissions. That idea probably stemmed from all my mythology work, but this is an open interpretation to gods and monsters. We’re also doing our first full-length poetry book contest, in partnership with City of Asylum. They’re supplying a month-long residency and travel expenses, and we’re giving a $500 award and book publication. So, that’s an awesome opportunity, since there are not a lot of book prizes that come with residencies.
Coming up for me, I received the Donald Hall Scholarship for Poets from the Bennington Writing Seminars, so I’ll be going to Bennington College where I’ll get my MFA in poetry. I’m starting that in June. They have such a strong faculty and great community, I think it’ll be an amazing experience. I have a number of creative ideas floating around in my head for larger projects and kind of dabble in them all at the same time. So, I’m excited to go there and really focus. I’m always wearing the editor hat, so I’m going to try and focus on my poet hat there.
- Jessica Fischoff’s website: jessicafischoff.com
- [PANK]: pankmagazine.com
- American Poetry Journal: apjpoetry.org
- The American Poetry Journal Book Award & City of Asylum Residency: apjpoetry.org/book-award-residency