blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
 print preview

A Correspondence with Jesse Lee Kercheval
Conducted April 12, 2023

On April 12, 2023, Jesse Lee Kercheval participated in an email interview with Blackbird lead pagebuilder, Danielle Kotrla. Two of Kercheval’s poems appear in this issue of Blackbird, “Xylophone” and “Zephyr,” as well as a nonfiction essay, “Sharp.” Several themes focused on are translation, human connection, drawing, and textual form. Kercheval writes: “In the middle of a worldwide plague, I gave myself permission to include poems about all the deaths in my life, about grief, without diluting those themes as I might have done in an earlier book. I sensed the world was with me. I was also thinking long and hard about the meaning of life and the importance of love.”


Danielle Kotrla: Congratulations on the recent publication of I Want to Tell You! What was the guiding question for this collection? How did the book take shape in response, and how do you see this book as both different from and in conversation with your other books of poems?

Jesse Lee Kercheval: I Want to Tell You is the product of the pandemic, especially of the early days of the lockdown, even though COVID-19 does not appear in the book and some poems were written earlier. The pandemic gave me an intense desire to communicate, to speak directly with the reader, and I put together a collection written in that urgent voice, including the poem “I Want To Tell You,” whose title is really the theme of the book in five words. In the middle of a worldwide plague, I gave myself permission to include poems about all the deaths in my life, about grief, without diluting those themes as I might have done in an earlier book. I sensed the world was with me. I was also thinking long and hard about the meaning of life and the importance of love.

But those themes are present in all my books, though in less intense forms. My first book of poetry, World as Dictionary (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1999), deals with the death of a dear friend from a brain tumor but also with the birth of my daughter. My second collection, Dog Angel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004), is about both my children but also the death of my parents and—it is often pointed out to me—God. My third, Cinema Muto (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), is a book of ekphrastic poems about silent film and the silent film festival, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, I attend in Italy each year, but it has those same themes of family, love, and loss tucked in there.

My fourth, Extranjera / Stranger (Editorial Yaugarú, 2015), is a bilingual Spanish / English book published in Uruguay about my time living there, learning Spanish, and growing to understand that country which has become my second home. My fifth, America that island off the coast of France (Tupelo Press, 2019), is a consideration of what it has meant to be to be born in France but raised in America, with the confusion of identity that it involves. In other words, it considers the meaning of home, and definitely has family, love, and loss in the mix, and even a bit of Uruguay. So I suspect a reader would have no trouble tracing my concerns—and my personal history—across all six books.

DK: In conversation with I Want to Tell You, I wanted to ask about the poems of yours that we’re publishing in this issue of Blackbird: “Xylophone” and “Zephyr.” It seems like there are some similar questions and themes being taken up in both I Want to Tell You and this set of poems—I’m thinking of the existential questions asked in “Xylophone” or the questions about identity and place that arise in “Zephyr.” Could you speak to your relationship to form and how you use form to interrogate certain ideas or questions?

JLK: Yes, “Xylophone” with the boy on the beach who cries, “Why was I born?” and “Zephyr” with its declaration, “I have a longing to find God, but am uncertain how to reach him” address questions that are central to I Want to Tell You but also to my earlier books. It might have been my son or daughter in Dog Angel questioning the meaning of life in “Xylophone” (though, in this case, it wasn’t). And the search for God could be in a poem from I Want to Tell You like “Dormition” or “A House Is Never Empty”—or in Dog Angel where I wonder where God is when I am up late and my children are asleep. But I do think the voice in both the poems is more contemplative, more a meditation on meaning, with hesitation and investigation—so a less direct and urgent address to readers and more an attempt to take them along as I explore memories, hopes, and fears.

Both “Xylophone” and “Zephyr” are part of my new book, Tattoo Alphabet, which I started to write after I finished I Want to Tell You. So it’s logical that the concerns of I Want to Tell You are in this book, too, which I wrote, week by week, over the last two years. Tattoo Alphabet is—at least so far—a series of prose poems written in alphabetical order and based on words I pick at random from the dictionary. The plan now is to run from A to Z, then back again from Z to A. But the form is just a vessel, as I think anyone who has ever written in any form, including traditional ones like the sonnet or villanelle, would tell you. It makes it easier to sit down and pour my thoughts into a preexisting shape.

I find the prose poem form lets me move, surrealistically, at times randomly, between two images or thoughts but also easily incorporates found material, bits of research and the odd snatch of dialogue. So it lends itself to this more meditative voice. It’s a very flexible form, though I suspect that one day I will rebel and scatter poems across the page or perhaps in couplets. I am not sure, yet, whether Tattoo Alphabet will be a whole book of prose poems. Maybe it will all come unstuck and take a different form, using some of the poems I wrote this way and other poems in stanzas. I am keeping an open mind. As long as I am writing poems that interest me, I am happy. In a bit, I will pause and consider whether what I am writing is a book and, if it is, what shape it will take.

DK: The earnestness of wanting to tell, which strikes me as a fundamentally human need to communicate, makes me think of translation. I’m thinking, too, about your recent work in translation with Memory Rewritten. How does the act of telling, and of wanting to tell, factor into your work as a translator, either more generally or in that project in particular?

JLK: The Uruguayan poet Mariella Nigro’s wonderful book Memory Rewritten (White Pine Press, 2023), which I translated with Jeannine Marie Pitas, is a project I worked on after finishing I Want to Tell You. But you are right about the connection, thematically and in voice, between the two. It is why, as soon as Mariella sent me the manuscript, I wanted to translate it. In the introduction Jeannine and I say, “Memory Rewritten is a meditation on the insufficiency of language to contain human emotion and memory—and the paradoxical reality that it is the only means we have to preserve them.”

In the poems about Mariella’s son and the death of her sister, she definitely touches on themes close to me. Translation requires a kind of melding with the author, taking on the author’s voice and coming to know instinctively what choices she would make, so I tend to choose authors who address issues that interest me. Not all their voices are alike. They range from spare and philosophical like that of Circe Maia, the first Uruguayan poet I translated and still the closest to my heart, to an angrier, more direct voice like Idea Vilariño uses in her most famous book, Love Poems, a voice that reminds me of Slyvia Plath’s. Putting down my personal subjects, my ego, and to act as the conduit for another poet’s voice is one of the joys of translating. Translating many poets is like being able to play an orchestra’s worth of instruments instead of just one cello.

DK: I love the opening of the eighth section of “Sharp,” your essay in this issue of Blackbird, and the idea of not enjoying pain or bitterness for its own sake but remembering those moments, nonetheless. I think this type of remembering and why we write, in a sense, are impossible to disentangle. But there’s also a distinction between remembering pain as pain and remembering pain as sharp, and some of the associations with sharpness in this essay were really surprising. Could you speak to what drew you to aligning all these different sensations (physical and emotional pain; the changing of experiences over time) along the axis of sharpness?

JLK: Rereading this essay honestly surprised me. I think I wrote it more like I usually write my poems, moving from section to section instinctively, sort of knitting it together as I go, rather than following a more conscious theme or structure that I often use for creative nonfiction. When I reread it, I was surprised by the connections I made—in a good way.

The impulse for this essay came from a word, something that often happens to me with poems. In this case, a long-hyphenated word: “Ash-good-sharp-love, the nurse tells me, is the word for needle in another patient’s language.” This exchange is now in section three, but my fascination with ash-good-sharp-love—what language could it be from? Was it a mistranslation?—is the heart of the essay. This section builds on how I connected that mysterious language with the language of our DNA, with the genetic testing, which was my reason for having my blood drawn. Everything else just came from turning over and over the meanings of sharp. I realize now this is a long-form version of what I do with the words that I pick to write poems about for Tattoo Alphabet.

DK: I know you mentioned picking up drawing during the pandemic—how has that been a practice that has evolved for you over the last few years, and what has it been like to work on an extended drawing project? I am also curious about the relationship between your drawing and writing. Do you find them to often be in conversation? Is there something particularly satisfying about working in a visual medium that writing just can’t quite grasp?

JLK: I had never drawn at all before the pandemic, not even as a kid. Then, in March 2020, when I was in Uruguay working on translations, COVID-19 shut the country down. My husband and I were stuck in a rental apartment. Everything was closed except the grocery store. It sold colored pencils for kids, so I got a box and a pad of paper. I just wanted to do something besides staring at the computer reading bad news all day, so I started drawing. I took online classes, including one from an old friend back home in Wisconsin. I wrote about this experience in what turned out to be the first of a whole series of essays illustrated with my drawings.

In 2022, two of my illustrated essays, “The Fox Sister” and “Speak Up,” won essay prizes at New Letters and the New Ohio Review. Last spring, I got to take an amazing face-to-face class with my colleague at University of Wisconsin–Madison, Lynda Barry, the queen of comics. We had shared students for years, and it was a great privilege to be in her class. Lynda says that there is no difference between drawings and words. Words started as drawings. We can and should do both.

Right now, I am writing/drawing graphic memoir pieces, which are drawings with just a dash of words. Several are coming out soon, one in New Letters called “Clocks,” and another in Gargoyle called “Pink.” The logical result of my drawing should be a narrative in images without words, but I haven’t managed that yet. Or maybe I should remind myself what Lynda Barry said—drawing and writing is the same thing—and just see where that takes me.  

return to top