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Common Ancestor: An Interview with Jenny Irish  photo

Jenny Irish and I sat down to discuss her stunning debut, Common Ancestor, with Black Lawrence Press. Her prose poem, "A Brief History of Motivations" was published on our site in December.  


Hi Jenny! Oh, my goodness. Common Ancestor is a stunning collection, and I can’t wait to get my hands on your second collection with Black Lawrence, I Am Faithful. This is a collection filled with heart and playfulness and word play. It is wild collection. It is a collection that innovates the prose poem, and it plays with the feminine persona.

I’m also really happy we published your prose poem, “A Brief History of Motivations” in December. I’d actually like to start with a further discussion on the form of the prose poem:


What draws you to the form of the prose poem?

Thank you so much for the kind words, Dorothy! That’s so nice to hear about Common Ancestor. And, I was really pleased to have “A Brief History of Motivations” in Hobart among such good company!

As someone who writes both fiction and poetry, and whose poetry leans into narrative, I’m comfortable with text in blocks, but I’m also really excited by what can happen in terms of language and word play in something identifying as poetry. There’s a lot more I can “get away with” sonically in poetry. I think that shows in this collection; there’s a lot (a lot!) of rhyme and a lot of play with rhythm in the Yeehaw Chainsaw section of the book.

Having a big chunk of writing without line breaks for pause or emphasis also creates a different effect. I can stack a lot of rhymes and build—I hope!—a kind of breathless intensity when I’m working in the prose poem form using blocks of text.

These pieces are prose poems, but they’re also persona poems. And of course, the persona poem can take any form, but what do you see as the relationship between the prose poem mixed with a deep study of the persona?

In this case, I think the form is about both voice and access to character interiority. The two primary speakers or filters—Red Wreck and Leatherface—have very different voices, but each is supported by the form. The long lines and absence of breaks, the ability to build a frantic or tumbling rhythm, I think, supports the anxieties and internal conflicts that both figures are experiencing. Narratively, I’m also able to really move through time. There’s a linear progression of events within individual poems (which is very uncommon in my stories) that allows readers to be with Red Wreck or Leatherface for a day, or even see a decade of experience that very much informs who they are in the present.


Speaking of persona, I’m particularly interested in the character of Red Wreck. I imagine that the character on the cover: the bunny with breasts is a representation of her? I also love how her name is a signifier: “Red Wreck is a wreck. She has been for many years, unnoticed since early / girlhood when she was a little throb and a pulse no bigger than a / Chihuahua’s bulbous eye” (“Red Wreck Watches PBS”).

Yes! The naked blue rabbit woman is absolutely Red Wreck, but it’s also representative of the idea of women as meat, and then pushing beyond that, how people are turned into consumables.

Many of the poems in this book return and return to the different ways that bodies are commodified. When I decided to call the book Common Ancestor, I was thinking about the relationship between its two halves. The first is looking at very real-world violence, particularly—though not exclusively—violence against girls and women, which is frequently sexualized. But the second is structured around characters from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which enacts a different kind of violence. In that medium, it’s violence for entertainment, and while I am interested in that, I am also building the lives of these figures. The women in the family, who are largely absent from the movie, narrate parts of the Yeehaw Chainsaw section of the book. They have access to past events and offer different perspectives.

Common Ancestor is such a strong study of language. I finished almost every poem thinking, “Wow, that’s really a riddle.” I love how the opening poem, “Red Wreck’s Writing Has Been Described as Associative” sets this precedent for the “power of association.”

As I described above, this is a collection of heart, and in this first poem, the heart is mentioned a couple times, like “Do they bring to mind a human heart?” and “Now, having exchanged one life for another, / her mother buys a heart on occasion.”

How does this concept of “heart” work with word play and riddles and associations? I think a lot about how these poems end.

I am in love with associative movement. I heart it, and there’s so much that can be done with a heart and the warren of associations there.

Red Wreck is an adolescent girl, and that’s a time when the heart, I think, is really raw, really exposed, and it’s also a time when girls are learning their hearts—a time full of excitement and disappointment. Heartbreak is a kind of wreckage. On a literal level, the butchering of an animal is a kind of wreckage. Hearts literally move blood. So, in the first poem, I have anatomical hearts and the symbolism of the heart, which gave me blood, emotions, and consumption, and I can use each of those to make further associated linkages. It’s like looking up something on Wikipedia or the online etymology dictionary…it could go on forever! To have heart means to be strong. Eat your heart out, we say. I give you my heart. Keep me in your heart. You broke my heart.

And when we talk about family, we often talk about shared blood. Yes, there can be biological connections, but also shared experiences, traditions, and traumas that reverberate through generations. For this teenage girl, I thought a name that activated associations of both unregulated emotion and bloody mess felt accurate. There’s also the linkage of blood—in this case menstrual blood—and girls being sexualized, regardless of age, emotional development, or interest.


And going off the previous question, I am in love with “Red Wreck Starts an Essay on Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband. I especially love the lines, “consider how a cliché comes into being: it is / an expression worth threadbare, overused because it is grounded in readily / recognizable truth.” I love how the poem works with the juxtaposition of love and hate and how it ends with this quote from Socrates: “From the deepest desires often come the deadliest hate.”

I think a lot about clichés in writing: how to avoid them, when to use them, etc. I tend to go off on the philosophy that if you introduce a cliché, you not only want to “flip it” to make it original, but you also want to use it excessively. But of course, that’s just my take. What’s your take?

My take! Okay. I think how a cliché is incorporated into a piece of writing is really dependent on the intention of including it.

A cliché is a phrase where the language has been so flattened by overuse that it’s lost all impact. The trick, I think, related to what you said, is to go to the source image or original intention of the cliché and zap it with some lightning to reanimate it. Or, I think we can intentionally use a cliché to draw attention to the use of cliché and how/why a particular cliché now fails. So, I think it’s about either pointing to a cliché as a dead body, or bringing that body back to life. Either way—a dead body in the space of the poem, or a re-aminated corpse—it can be unexpected, effective.

I now want to talk about what’s feminine and wild about this collection. I feel like there’s so many markers of daughter and mother and woman. And part of those markers isn’t just feminine signifiers, but also other juxtapositions present in the poem that then bring these feminine juxtapositions to light, for instance, in “Red Wreck Starts a New Job,” you’ve got these great juxtapositions: “ping or pong,” “schoolgirl/matron,” and “before/after.” Can you talk more about this?

An intention of the book is to capture what it is to be a girl at a time when she is having experiences and gaining knowledge that change her understanding of the world, and push her, in many ways prematurely, toward womanhood. There are certain challenging experiences that I think are not necessarily exclusive to girls, but that I suspect most women will recognize.

That said, there’s also a specific lens over this experience—a class lens. Though I don’t know how explicit this is, when I was writing Common Ancestor I was thinking about the traps of multigenerational poverty.

In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre there’s also a class element. The reason the family eventually turns to cannibalism is because of economic downturn. For generations, the entire family has worked at a meat packing plant. It’s all they know, but the plant closes, and in their rural area, they’re increasingly desperate. They have their family home, but no work. Without any resources, they eventually turn to grave robbing and hitchhiker-hunting cannibalism.

There are certain events, certain experiences, that people can’t go back from.

And of course, talking about the female and/or feminine isn’t a binary, so I’m wondering how you subvert/avert that?

The book is invested in examining traditional gender expectations. Leatherface, at one point, dresses in an apron and puts on a mask made from woman’s face to serve everyone tea. He expresses himself by putting on masks made from the faces of other people, and also seems to believe that certain tasks or behaviors can only be performed/expressed by either a male or female persona. It’s troubling and resonates with me that the masculine is explicitly linked to violence and the feminine to caregiving.

In the Wreckage section of the book, there’s an expectation that women will experience violence at the hands of the men in their lives. Women are conditioned to accepted domestic violence as part of their experience and boys are pushed into violence as proof of their masculinity.

I think if we take that beyond The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and think about boys and girls, men and women, there’s something happening there too in terms of learned behavior and ways of approaching and treating people based on gender.


And more on wildness: I’m reminded of your stunning piece, “The Wild Women of the Navidad.” I love how you open: “we, tongue to rough elbow, the point of an arm, then circling to the soft / jointed bend where the inside is the opposite, soft as the skin of a baby’s / cheek when it is warm…”

Do you have any advice for bringing out “wildness” in a poem, either in terms of language or content or both? It’s also an interesting juxtaposition because the prose poem is a block of language, but your poems have so much uncontained wildness.

Oh my goodness, you’re so kind. Thank you, Dorothy! I love that you found these wild!

Here is my “tip” for writing a wild thing: let the work go where it wants. Don’t worry when you’re drafting: just write. Revision is a necessity that comes later! I had to not worry about what these poems were doing when I was first working on them. If I had, I would have become self-conscious, created restrictions for myself, and the poems wouldn’t have happened.

Going back to form, I think prose poetry encourages me—I’m only speaking for me—to go crazy with narrative compression and pacing. Imagine a block of text as brick: how dense can that brick be? How tightly can the materials that make it be packed?

How did you get inspired to write persona poems based on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

I took a persona poem class! When I wrote the first Leatherface poem, the exercise asked us to pick a “pop culture” figure everyone would recognize without using their name. There’s a famous scene at the end of the movie where Leatherface “dances” with his chainsaw as Sally, the last victim, escapes. I thought that it would be a fun to complicate that moment—generally interpreted as Leatherface flailing in rage—and have the character be both ashamed and relieved to see Sally survive. I wanted to turn the moment into a personal reckoning for Leatherface.

(Here’s the scene, if you want to fast-forward to about 3 minutes into the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmOsTJWPHFQ )

When I was little, my favorite babysitter’s favorite movie was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He used to let me stay up late and would have serious conversations about its artistic merits and political undercurrents.


Okay. Here’s a very typical question, but an important one nonetheless. What’s your writing process like? What about your editing process?

That is an important question, because I think everyone comes to their writing differently and there’s no “correct” way. There are techniques and tools we can use to support productivity, but no “correct” process.

For me, pieces aren’t planned. My writing often sprouts from the seed of a sensory experience: sight, smell, sound, touch, or taste. I love how a scent has the ability to transport us to another time and place. I can also get caught on sound, on a rhythm, or a rhyming phrase and then end up writing something spiraling out from that. I actually remember: “calcium wreath of tight-fitting teeth” and “never trust your heart to a part that spreads apart” were how the cannibals in Common Ancestor started rhyming—with those phrases.

I write both poetry and fiction and things that are in-between. The editing process is different! In poetry, I think the shape of the poem—the space holding it, or the space it’s holding—is vital, and then how the poems are put together as a collection. Any piece can stand alone, but when the poems are read together, the ordering should be drawing a reader forward and supporting the narrative.

And finally, can you talk about your upcoming projects? I’m so excited for them, Jenny! It’s such a pleasure talking to you, as always!

Oh, thank you Dorothy! You know how much I enjoy talking with you too! And thank you for asking about projects. I have a story collection, I Am Faithful, that is just out, and I’m working on two things: a novel and a poetry collection. The novel is set in Maine, where I grew up and very loosely involves a cult. The poetry collection is a research-based interrogation of morality panics. “A Brief History of Motivations” is part of that collection.

It’s nice working on a long form piece and short form pieces at the same time. If I’m struggling with one, or don’t have the time I’d like to do the thing I think I need to, I can flip to the other. I’m hoping to have a really productive Spring and Summer. Cross your fingers for me!

image: Common Ancestor by Jenny Irish