Inadequacy of skin and feather

Note: Jaimie Gusman’s new collection Anyjar navigates the proliferating forms of body, memory, and self, through the lens of the Anyjar, which refers to a vessel that refuses any stable shape. A conch shell, the missing part, one’s heart, womb, or nest; a child; death and loss; an incursion, a lament, an invisible sea, or a recalcitrant object catapulted from space (!) — Gusman’s Anyjar forms the intricate ground of poems and speaker alike, encompassing the artist-animal-writer-woman. Nor does the Anyjar rest: “just like that I sighed and the Anyjar disappeared … it could be anywhere,” though these poems do not say where. Its antic mutability mirrors the poems’ speaker, “a two sea” herself. Carried aloft in its own tumult and taking the speaker with it, the Anyjar careens through these poems as profligate as language itself. “Memory is not practical but memory is practice”: all that body holds, spills out, writes her into being, like the knitwork of DNA. Anyjar is the conch shell held to our ears, playfully humming the fabric of (our) making. 

Consider these lines from “The Grandfather Paradox”: 

When Anyjar gets mad
the earth gets low on herself,
stuffs her dress in her mouth.
Nervous habits are acquired
from years of erosion.

All other affects require
the tongue rolling over lace
covered roses, a classic embroidery.
I wore the same as I prepared
for my own eruption in formal disguise. 

We spoke upon the release of Gusman’s new collection, thinking about what the “experiment” and the poem have to do with one another. Gusman’s founding of Honolulu’s Mixing Innovative Arts reading series has made a significant contribution to the literary communities of Hawai‘i, and having given so much of her own time to organizing and writing she has proven herself as an advocate for all things poetry. We studied in the same department at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, though our overlap was short as my first year was her last. I wanted to dive deep into her work — to learn what the Anyjar was and how she developed the idea to reflect anxiety and insistence. — Rajiv Mohabir

Rajiv Mohabir: Jaimie, first of all, congratulations on the publication of your debut collection of poems! Thank you also for agreeing to do this interview with me. I am struck by the epigraphs you’ve chosen to open the book, especially the Susan Howe quote. She writes in Singularities, “All things double on one another / On to pure purpose.” Can you explain your thinking around this quote and its relationship to the “pure purposes” of metaphor in your debut?

Jaimie Gusman: Thank you, Rajiv! I’m excited to talk about Anyjar with you. I was introduced to Singularities in a poetry workshop with Susan M. Schultz when I was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaiʻi. I don’t remember the specific discussion we were having around this passage of Howe’s, but I know I was drawn to the line “all things double on one another”: doubling not only as writing and reading practices, but also as the practice implicit in recalling memory, and the impossibility of protecting any such “pure purpose” or truth. Howe’s work focuses on the challenging language of the personal and historical, a process of reimagining so close to the work I was doing while writing Anyjar.

Mohabir: Where did you write most of the poems in Anyjar? Is there anything about the place where you wrote the poems that was specifically influential for your thinking? 

Gusman: I wrote the very first poem in Hanalei, Kauaʻi, during a writing retreat with the Pacific Writers Connection. I was very fortunate to attend such an intimate space for writers. Kim Stafford was the visiting writer who led our workshops. Most of the attendants were fiction writers, so I had to adapt the prompts a bit. The first poem came from the assignment: write the longest sentence you can write and use a made-up word. And so Anyjar was conceived, inside a beautiful house on the sand in the bay that I was borrowing for a long weekend. I guess the whole concept for the book grew from my grappling with spatial negotiations.

Mohabir: I can understand why spatial negotiations would be important to your sense of the world. In the poem “And like MAGIC Anyjar Is Gone,” you set up an expectation as to what can be contained in this Anyjar — which ultimately is nothing. As I read through this book, I imagine that the Anyjar is an actual jar — but this is totally wrong, even though you describe it as being made of glass, at least partially. How do you want to play with the reader’s sense of expectations, especially in these poems?

Gusman: The space that is us and the space that is not us can often feel like the same thing. I think of this intersection between private and public space as the between space of the real and the not real. Yes, the Anyjar is glass, but through loss and recall “it did not change / it went from glass / to fog then back.” That’s what the poem “And like MAGIC Anyjar Is Gone” is channeling. I was sitting in one of the most beautiful and complicated places in the world among strangers in a workshop setting. The expectation is always product. But the poems in Anyjar are all process. The book turned into a series of experiments that hinge on the playful and serious complexity of language. I think the reader experiences tension when reading these poems because there is a struggle, present in both the form of the poems and the narrative of the book, with the question what is the Anyjar? The reader expects answers, expects truth. But glass does not offer transparency, and fog does not offer shelter.

Mohabir: The word “Anyjar,” with its roots in Wallace Stevens’s poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” plays an interesting role as object, filled with and empty of static meaning; indestructible and inscrutable. The Anyjar occupies both the subject and the object position, actor and acted upon, as does the speaker. You even say in the long poem “The Incredible Conception,” “The artist is assumed to be outside of the bowl, expanding …” How do you imagine the speaker’s relationship to the relationship between object and subject? 

Gusman: I guess this question speaks to the incongruous nature and multiplicity of the Anyjar. The relationship is slippery, as all relationships are. To think you can truly know a thing because that thing knows you is a fallacy. In addition to writing “I am I because my little dog knows me” Gertrude Stein wrote, “The little dog is not alone because no little dog could be alone. If it were alone it would not be there.” What I mean is that in the book, Anyjar appears as an object that is outside of but also part of the speaker. With its duplicitous ability to be transparent/invisible, container/uncontained, object/idea, the speaker relies on the Anyjar as much as the Anyjar relies on the speaker to be some emblem of being. The Anyjar is imagined by this speaker to help solve the problem of self, but the Anyjar is void of identity itself.

Mohabir: What about beauty in this examination? You have lines that stun and point to a kind of meaning in the speaker’s experiences — especially when it comes to the “Lover.” Does poetry, specifically your brand of postconfessional and imagistic modes, allow you to “name this / inadequacy of skin and feather”?

Gusman: While I sort of like the idea of subscribing to a kind of poetry brand (or band of poetry for that matter), I’m not sure that’s true. Whether we think of these poems as having “postconfessional” or “imagistic” modes or not, I think one point the Anyjar makes is that the lens we see the “self” through is necessarily illusory. In art, subversiveness, deception, and multiplicity can uncover something beautiful. I think the line you picked — “name this / inadequacy of skin or feather” — is an important one. It’s from the poem called “Explain the Anyjar” and the lines are “Watch me, as I cannot name this / inadequacy of skin or feather.” So the answer is that poetry does not allow me name this “inadequacy,” but it does allow me to expose it. 

Mohabir: Can you speak a little on what you are currently working on?

Gusman: I’ve always been intrigued by form. As an MFA student I was obsessed with villanelles. I wrote at least a hundred of them, and none of them were good. Investigating formal techniques and ideas as a way to interrupt them is what I’m mostly drawn to now.

While studying secular Jewish culture and radical poetics, as well as feminine forms, for my doctoral degree, I became interested in the Shekinah, defined as the female divine presence of God in the Old Testament. I’ve researched the Shekinah image in both biblical and kabbalistic contexts, and have been working on a ‘feminine epic’ that tells the story of the Shekinah’s banishment from God to Earth. I am a new mother, and my relationship to the Shekinah, a figure considered to be the earthly “dwelling place,” never felt so personal. Breaking through the epic form is full of contractions and contradictions. The manuscript is called Cleave, and I am hoping to show it to the world soon.