Juliet Cook talks about embodied poetry
and writing Malformed Confetti
Please describe your journey toward writing poetry that reflects on the experience of living in the body. Have you always written this way, or did you come to it over time?
In my teenage years and early twenties, I tended towards writing story poems based on characters who weren't really me (and who seemed more interesting than me) and fairy tale like horror poems and other melodrama that wasn't based on my own real life experience or my own body, so much as me wanting to extract my strong dramatic feelings in a strong dramatic way, that sometimes involved bodily dynamics, but not specifically my own.
As I became a more experienced writer, with more of my own life experience in addition to developing my own genuine feeling artistic style, I became increasingly able to express myself on a more personal poetic level, fusing real life experience with my own thoughts, feelings, and portrayals of the body, as well as my portrayal of how others interpret bodies.
When I was younger, my poetry did not naturally emerge from my brain the way I ideally wanted it to. It usually took a significant amount of revision (from months worth to years worth)to get a poem the way I wanted it to be. When I was 33, after having been working on my poetry for over 15 years, it finally started to flow out more naturally, in a way that felt comparable to being able to quickly write out dream visuals into poetry. Sometimes a whole poem would come out fast and just require minor revision. Other times, just a few lines would come out and would take time to evolve.
I still have times when the poetry isn't emerging and flowing as naturally and every single line that comes out annoys me shortly thereafter and I worry that my flow might be lost for a very long time or forever. But so far, it always seems to reemerge - and overall, my artistic flow and what it creates feels more natural, fluid, and true.
A stroke I had when I was 37 caused an unexpected in-between phase. I suffered from some brain damage, had to re-learn the alphabet and basic words, had mild aphasia and serious memory issues and couldn't spell, read, or write for a while - and after re-learning to read, I couldn't understand my own poems for a while. I was very worried and nervous about attempting to write poetry again after that, because what if I couldn't.
But thank goodness, the poetic part of my brain was not lost. For a while after that, my poetry came out shorter, more abstract, and more visual. In my in-between phase, when I still had a lot of trouble with words, and could only attempt to read and write in small doses without causing brain discombobulation and headaches, I created abstract visual art instead of/in addition to poems.
Currently, I do both the visual art and the poems - and the poems can be either abstract feeling or poetically journalistic feeling or both.
In the past, a lot of my poems included food words and body part words, but since my brain damage mostly impacted basic words, some of the food and body part words got replaced with less specifics and more visual emotional interpretations.
Malformed Confetti reminds me of Grimod de la Reynière’s roti sans pareil, an indulgent meat dish which involves deboning and nesting birds inside of other birds, seventeen birds altogether, until you get to the center, which is a garden warbler stuffed with an olive. Your images nest inside one another until the reader is transported into an alternate reality where “blown up promotional balloons are now bloody crullers, / misplaced phalli, bulbous sausages ready to burst / out their conjoined links” (69). How did you develop this incredibly fearless maximalist style? How has your voice changed from when you were just starting out?
I love that description!
I already described aspects of how my voice has changed, but I also think that over time and based on different life experiences, some of my content has changed from tending towards the grotesque, macabre, and quirkily horrific with a female focus to tending towards the depressed and existentially nihilistic (especially about relationships or anything lasting forever), but I also think my poetry has almost always involved elements of both. Also, I'm certainly not a total nihilist, or else why would I be so focused on poetry and art (by myself and others) and ongoing communication? Maybe for me, the overall deep and multifaceted meaning of life is ongoing self-expression, especially via poetry - and the reason death scars me is because then your self-expression ends.
Malformed Confetti's content as a whole fuses those various parts of me together, since the poems inside the book range from 2008 to 2015 - pre-stroke to post-stroke, since I had my stroke in 2010 and exactly one year later, I got divorced.
I like your description of my creative work as having an "incredibly fearless maximalist style", since aspects of my poetry could be read as excessive, complex, and redundant in a strangely elaborate sort of way. I think those ideas suit me, my personality, and my poetry. Occasionally, I've had times of wondering and worrying if my unintentional redundancy and repetition indicates that I am stuck in some sort of stagnant plateau or purgatorium, but it's not like I don't move up and down, sometimes in different directions; it's more like my overall structure is a misshapen, slightly digressive circle shape that moves around, slightly mutates and diverges, has small surges, and changes over time.
Sometimes when I worry about redundancy or repetition, I think of the art of Louise Bourgeois, which I love. Bourgeois said, "Revisit the same themes over and over again (but also keep experimenting)".
As long as I keep experimenting and expressing myself my way, what comes out comes out, and if the same words and thoughts keep extracting themselves from inside me, in slightly different ways, I think there must be a reason.
My mind feels like the opposite of black and white - and my creative work reflects my mind. My mind cannot be narrowed down into an easy simple sentence or at least it doesn't feel like it can.
SNAKE IN A CAN GAG
1. Oh Darlingtonia, secrete your nectar for me. Oh lewd mucilage.
Oh fleshy funnel cake. Your nectar bribe is laced with poison.
Your forked tongue leaf is purplish-green and beckons me
to dip another finger into your translucent false exit.
2. I wanted to stick my hand down the garbage disposal.
Right before the roller coaster plummeted downhill, I wanted to
grab the scaffolding. I wanted to snap necks, cut veins, throw poison
darts inappropriately. Desire is sometimes rooted in sick compulsion.
Desire is sometimes strangled by twisted consumption. I wanted
to give you something different. Serve you up mangled flesh.
3. I dispatched my rabid flock of killer carrier pigeons post-haste.
“Bring me back his gonads, girls!” said I
& so they did, compressed into their little silver leg vials.
When I took off the lids, the harvested penis sprang out
like the snake in a can gag. “That gives mixed nuts a new meaning,”
I laughed o my exotic flock of carrion pigeons. They advanced.
4. They may occasionally catch small vertebrates such as rats and lizards
& bestow in bite-size pieces upon my porch or under my pillow.
They can seal the lobes hermetically and form a specialized
stomach. Sometimes I think of my special birds as each made up
of a central ovary and two wings on either side.
A lot of your imagery seems like it would fit very nicely into a surrealist horror film where “a dissecting tray filled with mildewed desecration / will not make anybody swoon, / until [the protagonist’s] beheading” (86). To what extent have other artistic genres influenced your work?
To an indirect extent, I feel like aspects of my creative work have been influenced or inspired by my own thoughts/feelings/personal experiences fused with thoughts/feelings elicited from others' visual art and poetry, horror films, supernatural films and psychological thrillers. I feel like some of my poetry combines aspects of the surreal with parts of my reality. Also included in my poetry are my own bad dreams, different interpretations (and treatment) of feminism, different interpretations (and treatment) of female bodies, and different interpretations (and treatment) of long term relationships (many of which, in my mind, seem too straightforwardly basic and dull and boring borderline trapped and rooted in the outdated concept of proposal and then commitment, even if you no longer continue paying attention to each other as individuals and growing together - rather than the more appealing-to-me concept of continually appreciating and exploring each other as individuals with whom you are connected in unique ways and continue to grow, both separately and together).
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
Ever since my stroke, my reading process and memories associated with reading (and movies and other things too) are different. My reading tends to be slower, in part because I need to concentrate more. While my writing has become more naturally productive, my reading has become less naturally productive and requires more concentration and repetition when reading something new. Thus I tend to read poetry in short phases and small doses, rather than reading an entire new book or chapbook within a week. I tend to be reading small parts of so many different things (and then forgetting details not long after reading something), that I feel uncomfortable about narrowing my reading down to a "read write now" list of books.
Maybe my brain is exaggerating this and/or just processing it my own way, but sometimes I feel a bit upset and overwhelmed in recent years because it seems like my reading process is slower but more focused whereas a lot of people's reading processes seem faster but less focused, as they seem to quickly dive from this to that. My brain doesn't understand how other brains seem to be able to process a book of poetry within a few days and then move on to the next. Sometimes I feel slow and out of the loop and behind the times, in terms of books that came out in the last few years.
This is not to say that I'm uninterested in recent work and that I don't still read; it's more like if I start reading a book in 2018, chances are I won't finish reading that entire book until after 2020 and by then, I feel like more than half the world of poetry readers probably would have been on to the next book (and the next book and the next book) for more than two years - and thus me mentioning a two year old book that I just finished reading might seem outdated.
I have tons (as in hundreds) of partially read (and as yet unread) poetry books and chapbooks on my floors, but instead of naming 5-10 partially read books, I'm going to name 7 online literary magazines that I've been a significant fan of reading the last few years. In no particular order, those would be Rogue Agent - Rag Queen Periodical (which unfortunately is about to publish its final issue) - Bone & Ink - Rising Phoenix - Yes, Poetry - Glass: A Journal of Poetry - Menacing Hedge.
Some Rogue Agent fans are just beginning to explore what making art about the body would look like for them. What advice would you give to someone just starting down the path toward writing poetry that features the body?
Your body is your own and your poetry is your own. Write what feels real and important and meaningful to you, whether it's positive or negative, uplifting or disturbing, scary, painful, challenging, questioning, exploring, angry, or contradictory. Craft your work into your own ideas and adaptations about what you think poetry and expression and poetic communication should be. Set your own personal goals and work at your own pace, using your own process. Don't rush yourself, just keep working your way. Feel free to change your own process and change your mind. Maintain your own genuine passion. Don't fake it. Don't give up on yourself. Don't expect "success" right away, but also define "success" your own way. Feel free to be moved by and inspired by the work of others, but don't copy the style of others. Create yourself and feel yourself grow and develop through your own creations. Read the work of others, read and consider the thoughts/feelings/ideas of others related to poetry, but also keep in mind that your creative work is your own, your creative projects are your own, your creative decisions are your own. You don't need to abide by other people's agendas and you don't need to fit into any particular group. Be yourself.
Juliet Cook's poetry has appeared in a small multitude of magazines. She is the author of numerous poetry chapbooks, recently including a collaboration with j/j hastain called "Dive Back Down" (Dancing Girl Press, 2015), and an individual collection called "From One Ruined Human to Another" (Cringe-Worthy Poets Collective, 2018).
Cook's first full-length individual poetry book, “Horrific Confection”, was published by BlazeVOX more than ten years ago. Her more recent full-length poetry book, "A Red Witch, Every Which Way", is a collaboration with j/j hastain published by Hysterical Books in 2016. Her most recent full-length individual poetry book, "Malformed Confetti" was published by Crisis Chronicles Press in late 2018.
Cook also sometimes creates semi-abstract painting collage art hybrid creatures.
Find out more at www.JulietCook.weebly.com.