J E S S I C A P O L I
i n t e r v i e w
COMP: Congratulations on the publication of Red Ocher (The University of Arkansas Press, 2023), finalist for the 2023 Miller Williams Poetry Prize! It’s an astonishing, memorable, much-anticipated debut. Would you mind telling our readers, in a few words, what the book is about?
Jessica Poli: Thank you so much! I don’t like to define “aboutness” as an author because I’m more interested in the reader’s answer to that question. But here’s a small and incomplete list of things that are in the book: unrequited love, the messiness of desire, love and loss in the caretaking of animals, slow decay, faith and the sacred, crop loss, period stains, and a bad mushroom trip.
COMP: One of the elements contributing to the book’s cohesion is the recurrence of several images (red barn, runt lamb, dead horse, moon). How did these images develop? Are they, in your opinion, the emblems of Red Ocher?
JP: I like the thought of them as emblems. I’ve always been a little obsessed with barns, and they’ve been showing up in my poems ever since I started writing. Then a few years ago, I read an article that said barns are painted red because of nuclear fusion inside dying stars, and I knew I had to do something with that information. That’s when the title poem, “Red Ocher,” emerged, as well as when I started thinking of the image of the barn as a sort of organizational framework. It was an interesting space for me, imaginatively; it felt like a shelter where I could intimately explore these threads of desire and love alongside grief and heartache. But that’s also complicated, because I was aware that in one sense, the barn, as a symbol of agriculture, is representative of the harm that can and has emerged from humans viewing the earth as a well of resources rather than a living thing. That complicates the pastoral in a way I feel is important, especially as someone who works in agriculture and writes about it. The opening poem, “Balm,” is one place where I was trying to question how I was writing about the human/nature relationship. In it, I’m thinking about my responsibility as a caretaker as well as what it means to write about pain or violence in bodies that aren’t my own—as well as the ethics of depicting that pain in a way that is somehow beautiful.
COMP: We love your centos—all eleven of them! What drew you to the form? How did you “write” them? Did techniques, strategies, or methods for culling quotations evolve?
JP: I started writing centos as an exercise to think more deeply about what the line is capable of as its own entity; I think it’s an incredibly helpful exercise for that purpose, and it’s something I have my students practice in order to think about their own use of the line. I started by gathering a stack of books I loved and paging through them, writing down lines that stood out to me because of an image or sound or something that drew me to the language. I kept careful track of lines in a document organized by author, and once I had gathered a few pages worth, I began piecing them together like a puzzle. It was important to me that with every new line, a new author was brought in—so while a poem might repeat an author once or twice as a whole, their individual lines wouldn’t appear next to each other. There were times when I would have to go back to the books, searching for the right line that would make sense both thematically and syntactically. I’d be looking for a line that started with a verb, or one that ended with a question, for example. Sometimes I’d find what I was looking for, and other times I’d find something that I didn’t expect which would take the poem in a completely different direction. That’s another lesson to take from the process, I think—being open to surprise and to the world of possibilities of where a poem might go, even (or maybe especially) when you think you have a good sense of what it’s doing.
COMP: These poems belong to, or emerge from, their settings. When we shared a few with a class of college freshman, the immediate (enthusiastic) response was about the weight of setting: Pennsylvania, Nebraska, farms, fields, prairies, forests, “barns half-eaten / in the dark.” Can you describe, broadly, what setting means to your poetry?
JP: Setting and place have always meant a lot to me, and so it doesn’t feel like a surprise that they’re so present in my writing. I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania and spent much of my childhood playing in the woods behind my house. After I moved to Syracuse, NY for grad school, I started working at a small family farm, and since then I’ve worked on several other farms in New York and Nebraska, where I’m currently living. All of these places have shaped me in some way, and when I think of them, I usually think of landscape first: the rolling hills dotted with dairy farms in Central New York, or the prairie and the big sky of Nebraska. Setting feels so intrinsic to how I understand the world and my place in it. I think that by giving more careful attention to our surroundings, we can move closer to connection, community, and love.
COMP: You use white space so well: in the blank pages of “Field of View”; in the double-spacing of “Red Ocher”; in the caesuras of “Prothalamion.” How do you make decisions about a poem’s visual layout?
JP: I’m usually thinking about how the shape of the poem and the poem’s content are speaking to one another. “Greenbrier,” for example, uses indented couplets because I was trying to mimic the feeling of the switchbacks in the hiking trail the poem references. “Field of View” is a poem in which all the visible text is in footnotes, but the body of the text is blank (a form inspired by Jenny Boully). Here, I was thinking even more deliberately about form and content. I had already written poems that were speaking more directly to the stories and narratives that the book revolves around, but this was a place where I wanted to think about the things below the surface or behind the scenes—what wasn’t being said. The blank space at the top of each page was also a visual I wanted to include in the book, because it represents the space of the open field, which goes back to that question of setting. Whereas the barn felt like the imaginative space from which I thought about things like desire and grief in very insular ways, the field felt like the space where I could be more wholly present to the world around me.