“How porous a self is, how it spins away from a core, picking up bits of environments, people, and ideas.”
Jenny Sampirisi is the featured writer for Issue 51 of Papirmass. Movement, sound, and words step and misstep together and against one another in Sampirisi’s genre-jerking poetry. Hard to pin down, hard to confine, hard to ignore, her poems will snatch you up, spin you too fast and then drop you, and you’ll feel every moment of it on your skin. Her poem, Mouth Room, will appear alongside art by Angela Dalinger.
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Hi Jenny! Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
Hello Papirmass! Thanks for including Mouth Room in this issue. This a big question with a lot of trinkets of the self to hang on the tree. I’ll try to keep it ordered. Here’s an expanded bio:
I grew up in a rural town (forest/swamps/fields/farms) north of Toronto, in a shoddily-built house that was falling apart physically and metaphorically. Though the rural small-town has become a cliché of Canadian writing, I can’t deny that the combination of immense and diverse landscape, the claustrophobia of a small town, and the entropic house I grew up in has had an impact on everything I’ve written since.
My first book was a novel called is/was (Insomniac Press 2008) that reads like a long poem. It is a collection of dark, filmic vignettes of a family in the country. They confuse their bodies and their homes with the encroaching landscape while the rest of the town searches for a missing girl. My second book, Croak (Coach House Books 2011), is a dramatic poetry collection. The characters (Frogs, Girls, and Narrators) gradually fuse together and to their environments as they encounter the “pollution” of language. Eventually they become the Frogirls, grotesque hybrid creatures who attempt to sing, dance, and play.
My style is hard for me to pin down. Is/was was measured and slow. It was attuned to details and images, physical gestures and confused selves. But it was deeply influenced by film techniques and photography. The characters blended together and with the landscape. Attention was given to shadows and colour, long lenses and close-ups. Croak was theatrical, near operatic, and borrowed from baroque dance and music techniques, so it has a deliberate staginess. Between the two, what stands out in terms of style is likely how comfortable both books are with uncertainty and their stress on the flexible or illusionary boundaries between natural and unnatural worlds. Both also play with the idea of a collective-I where a self becomes multiple and contradictory. Both are framed with a narrative told through vignettes.
I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor. In terms of awards, I’ve won the K.M. Hunter Artist Award for Literature which is given to innovative artists early in their careers. Croak was named one of the top 10 books of 2011 by the Globe and Mail. I’m also a teacher and I just won the Deans’ Teaching Award at Ryerson University in Toronto for the work I do with first generation Canadian students. I’ve been published in journals and anthologies in Canada and the US. I also do visual poetry and that has been shown in galleries throughout Canada, the US, and Europe.
Your recent poetry collection, Croak, reads like a performance, even bending the genre of poetry towards theatre. Do you ever perform the work? When you do, does it include the costumes and directions in the book?
Croak is full of stage directions, costuming, and sets. I have staged it twice with dancers and musicians, but when I do, it’s more of an interpretive challenge to the performers than a re-creation of the text. Since the creatures of Croak are physically in flux, the stage directions in the book are intentionally impossible to perform for humans with the expected number of limbs. Some of the stage directions require that the performer “grow an extra limb” or lose one, or that they use their tails. Others require that their legs split open then fuse back together or that one eye does something different than the other. They also must become like cartoons, turning teeth into xylophones and such.
“Between the two, what stands out in terms of style is likely how comfortable both books are with uncertainty and their stress on the flexible or illusionary boundaries between natural and unnatural worlds.”
But Croak was written with the input and influence of dancers. Many of the movements in the book (and the book itself) were inspired by Danish performance artist Kitt Johnson’s incredible solo show Rankeford (you can see some of it here: http://vimeo.com/29948406). When I workshopped a very early version of Croak with Toronto dancer Megan English, she brilliantly placed colourful plastic expandable tubes around her limbs and neck and danced while trying to awkwardly remove them. As they expanded they made noises that sounded like frogs, and further disrupted the flow of her movements. When they finally came off they made a popping sound. Her performance opened up what I could do with Croak on the page both in sound and movement and influenced much of the editing phase of the book.
If there are dancers and musicians among your readers who might want to give this a go, I would absolutely love to hear from them.
Your piece, Mouth Room, is being published in our March issue. Is it part of a larger project or a stand-alone piece? Could you tell us about it?
Mouth Room was a concerted attempt to write “a poem”. My previous poetry, Croak, only works as a whole book. Its component parts don’t stand alone and that was done intentionally to highlight characters who were individually fragmented yet fusing together in unexpected ways. When I completed it in 2011, I felt lost. One night I said, Jenny, sit down and write a Poem with a capital P. So Mouth Room came out of this small experiment of writing something with the whole story on a single page. But it’s disingenuous for me to say that it’s a stand-alone piece. Ultimately my brain doesn’t work that way. I work in long arcs. I need to exhaust ideas over the layered time of multiple poems. So Mouth Room has a lot to do with a larger project I’ve been working on that’s currently bouncing between titles.
The larger project was very much inspired by multi-media artist Janet Cardiff’s installation, Inside the Memory Palace. If you didn’t see it, it was a series of rooms you could walk into (named Storm Room, Opera Room, Killing Room, etc.). The rooms are familiar and strange at the same time. The rooms themselves seem to be telling stories, but they’re also wired with automated voice recordings that hint at a larger narrative that you can’t quite grasp. The recordings give you just enough to let your imagination play on whatever objects and atmospheres her constructed rooms allow and blur the line between what is real and what is imagined. Mouth Room is like one of those rooms. My thinking behind it was that the speaker of the poem would enter the mouth of her argumentative lover. Similar to my previous writing, there’s a confusion between self and environment so the mouth is occupied by eroding furniture and a field.
Even though Mouth Room was written six months before I saw Cardiff’s exhibit, I’d been writing rooms as psychic spaces for two years at that point, playing with Gaston Bachelard’s book, The Poetics of Space. Seeing her installations was like walking into a living version of my imagination and has influenced my current project. So in sum, Mouth Room can stand alone, but, it will likely be part of a larger project.
When did you start to feel confident that you had found your own stylistic voice?
This is a difficult question. My gut response is that I don’t think I have or that it’s even possible. I’m speaking here as a person who lives inside her little skull and is constantly revising the nuances of a self. I have always written with the idea, meaning that the style I adopt might change if it no longer serves what I’m talking about. I’m also constantly encountering the work of others across genres and art-forms. They influence me. I evolve with the stimulus. My voice changes.
“I’m speaking here as a person who lives inside her little skull and is constantly revising the nuances of a self. “
That said, I have tics and obsessions, themes I keep returning to, and words I’m not quite done with that repeat across years and projects. The other day I was cleaning out my hard-drive and I found a suite of poems I’d written when I was 23, before I’d published much at all. The words and style of those poems were instantly recognizable to me. The poems were about layers of soil metaphorically used to deconstruct a self. I had the thought that, while I wouldn’t write them now, I have written some version of those poems several times since then. They look a lot like Croak, and in a protean sort of way attempt the themes of both books and my current poetry. It became clear that there are ideas that have occupied me and ways of rendering the world that have become recognizably mine. So if I’ve arrived at a confidence in my stylistic voice at all, it has come from accepting that I process the world and language in a particular way and while it might shift or change or develop or evolve, whatever metaphor you like, the world as I imagine it and speak it seems to have a core sensibility that I’ve very slowly become more aware of over time. My awareness of it will continue to grow and I assume it will encounter a crises or two.
Is there anyone working in the arts right now who is doing what you are trying to do? How are they succeeding? How are they not?
I think most of the work I encounter is trying to do what I’m trying to do at the fundamental level of representing a self and (or in) the world. I see artists across practices who break down boundaries between what is natural and unnatural, what is appearance and what is reality, and what a self might be. I engage with art of all types and find my own obsessions aren’t so solitary at all. I’ve already mentioned Janet Cardiff, Kitt Johnson, and Atom Egoyan. I hear echoes of what I’m trying to do in films like Guy Madden’s My Winnipeg, in Beatriz Housner’s poetry collection Enter the Raccoon, in Alan Reed’s novel Isobel & Emile, in Peggy Baker’s choreographed dance projects, in Renee French’s graphic novels, and even in the musicians I encounter on Soundcloud. Each thing I’m writing seems to have a collection of influences to whom I’m indebted. They accumulate as I go, and as they rub on me they blend together to become some part of my whole. And of course each artist I encounter has done some version of this, too, so I recognize the interplay of influences in much of the art around me.
“I engage with art of all types and find my own obsessions aren’t so solitary at all. “
But to be less vaguely metaphysical about this, I’ve been gulping up the poetry of Alice Notley lately. I love her thought-fragments that suggest more than they say. Her book Culture of One is one I return to often for its surreal narrative of a woman living in a garbage dump meditating on embodied mercy and love while being bullied by other characters. It’s poetry and narrative together. She does long arc books. Books that dwell on an idea until it has been exhausted. She doesn’t shy away from what is ugly about human nature, but you can feel her joy at the whole mad mess of humankind. She figures a collective-I. Her scenarios bounce between calm and frenetic. She also plays between isolation and connectivity in a way that I think speaks to our modern lives. She often repeats the words “speak” or “say” to introduce ideas that aren’t spoken. I love the tension she creates between love and loneliness and the performative aspects of her writing.
I didn’t mean to, but I just realized while I was characterizing her work that I had to use the word “between” a lot. She is a poet who understands liminal spaces, non-existent boundaries. As you read her work you begin to recognize how porous a self is, how it spins away from a core, picking up bits of environments, people, and ideas. I find her work deeply honest in its blurriness.
Jenny Sampirisi is our March 2014 writer.
This is a taste of what’s to come when we release her print at the beginning of the month.
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