Talking Poetry with Jessie Lynn McMains and Sir Winston Purr-chill
Jessie Lynn McMains
Kristin: You are a former poet laureate of your town Racine, Wisconsin. That is so impressive to me and, I am sure, all my readers. How does one garner such a distinction? What responsibilities did you have with that post? Were you required to read at lots of public events? Were you sad when this tenure ended?
Jessie: My mom saw something in the local paper in spring 2015, saying they were taking applications for the next laureates of Racine and Kenosha Counties. She suggested I apply for the Racine position. I nearly talked myself out of it, trying to convince myself I “wasn’t really a poet.” (Long backstory short: poetry was my first writing-love, but for years and years I focused mainly on prose.) But then I thought: “Well, I’ve got nothing to lose!” So I applied, and to my surprise, I got the position! I was Poet Laureate for two years, during which time I read at many public events locally and represented my literary community at events in other places. I also gave a couple talks, led a few workshops, and collaborated with many wonderful people. The best things about the position were that it got me to start taking (my) poetry seriously again, and the connections I made with people in the Racine and Kenosha literary and arts communities. I was incredibly sad when it ended—a little afraid that what with no longer being Poet Laureate and having a new baby (I gave birth to my second child right around the same time my tenure ended), I would lose that community and those connections. But my friend Nick Demske (one of the main reasons we even have a literary scene in my town!) assured me I wouldn’t lose anything, that my friends and community would still be there even if I had to take a break from things for a while.
K: I am very tied to my geography in my writing. How does your geography affect your writing?
J: It affects my writing more than almost anything, to be honest. Wisconsin is one of my biggest inspirations, particularly southeastern Wisconsin and Door County. But there are many other places I’ve lived and/or spent a lot of time, and those factor into my writing a lot, as well. Namely Chicago, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and California.
K: Another thing I admire about you are one absolutely cool punk rock writers I have run across who is also a mom —- and a new mom! That is just incredible to me. You run a press, write amazing kick ass poems and have two children. How do you do it? And how do you look so together managing it all? Do you have advice for others — like me who lose our sanity publicly on a regular basis?
J: Oh gosh, I only look together online. If you knew me IRL you’d see me having near-breakdowns all the fucking time. I cry at least once a day, and I often snap and yell at my older kid and then feel terrible about it. I don’t know how I do it, to be honest. I have a partner, which helps, though he works full time outside the house so the bulk of the childcare still falls on me. Housework doesn’t get done as often as it should, because my priorities are writing/press/kids, not vacuuming/dusting/washing dishes. Also, I have zero social life. I haven’t hung out with any friends in a non-work-related setting in months. I need to change that, cuz I’m an extrovert and this lack of friend time is making me feel depressed and isolated.
K: Somewhat on this same theme, I saw a tweet you wrote recently about internalizing the stigma of being a mommy writer. I am very aware of that stigma. It is very real. How does being a mom inform/influence your writing? What is your favorite poem you have written about being a mom? Do you think you are a better writer than you were before a mom?
J: It influences my writing in that, even when I’m not writing about being a parent, I feel that I’m writing for my kids. I think if, nothing else, my writings will be a way they can know me better when they’re older. A way for them to know how I felt about the early years of their lives, but also to know about my past before them, and my life outside of them. My favorite poem I’ve written about being a mom is, as yet, unpublished. It’s about the things I won’t tell my children; about the half-truths I allow myself to keep them in that innocent state of childhood wonder just a little longer. And I’m not sure if parenthood has made me a better writer, necessarily, though it has done two things: 1. It has made me more vulnerable, which has made me more open in my writing. 2. I procrastinate less than I used to, because I have such very little free time that when I get a spare moment I use it.
K: I know that you are working on a full length. Can you tell us what it is about? What art and music influences the work? What personal events in your life does it reflect? Or is it an invented collection? How did you organize your collection?
J: The full length has some personal elements and some invented elements (and really, the invented elements are just different ways for me to describe the personal), and also includes elements of historical (non-personal) narrative. It’s about all the different kinds of ghosts and loss. There’s a lot of violence and trauma and death in it, but also a lot of beauty. It’s full of wild girls and spells and prayers and monsters. It takes place largely in Wisconsin, but there are other landscapes in it as well. It will be organized in sections, and that’s the hardest part for me, really. I can write and revise the poems more easily than I can figure out which poems go together in which sections.
As far as art/music/literature that has influenced and inspired it, here’s a short list: It owes a great debt to the poetry of Daphne Gottlieb and Jeanann Verlee, and a hell of a lot of other poets, but I’m mentioning those two specifically because without them setting the precedent I’m not sure I would have had the courage to write some of this stuff. I’ve also been reading a lot of Galway Kinnell lately, particularly The Book of Nightmares. As for visual art, this particular collection is influenced by the art of Sam Wolfe Connelly and the photographs of Francesca Woodman. Musically, it draws on influences from Rilo Kiley, Neko Case, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Laura Cannell, Natalia LaFourcade, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Judee Sill, Gillian Welch, Nina Simone, and Robert Johnson.
K: You’re a Capricorn like me — another thing about you I find highly appealing. I respect Capricorns because as one I know we have a very serious work ethic. Capricorns are great to work with because we love to work, and we get things done. How do you think it helps you running a magazine, your writing and your life?
J: It’s funny, because when I was young, I thought astrology was bunk because everything I read about Capricorns said we’re uber-practical and, frankly, kind of dull. But I’ve always been kind of artsy and daydreamy, not very practical at all. When I was 19, a local witch-poet did my full chart for me, and then I realized that the rest of your chart has just as much bearing on your personality and interests as your sun sign. I also began to read more about Capricorns, stuff beyond the shallow “all work and no play” stereotype, and realized I am very Capricorn in a lot of ways. Yeah, we do work hard, but we play just as hard. And it’s not so much that we’re practical as that we’re stubborn—if we set our hearts on something, we’re going to make it happen come hell or high water. We’re also ambitious as fuck, and if someone stands in the way of our ambitions they might get trampled—which I think is part of the reason there’s a stereotype of Capricorns being a bit cold and unfeeling.
For anyone who cares about these sorts of things—my moon’s in Pisces (which, according to the woman who did my chart when I was 19, means I was born to be a poet) and my ascendant is Scorpio. I’ll let y’all draw your own conclusions about the trifecta of Capricorn sun/Pisces moon/Scorpio rising and what it says about me.
K: You’re on a small hiatus from Bone & Ink to concentrate on your own writing. I don’t know how you editors juggle both these roles — promoting others, the technical requirements of maintaining a site, promoting writers and then creating your own works, submitting them and promoting yourself. As someone also finishing a full length and who likes to always have a project, I’m wondering do you have another project you’re looking to do next for yourself? Or are you able to ever relax? If so, advice?
J: Ha, I’m not even on a full hiatus from the press—I’m still reading subs for the next volume of Bone & Ink, I’m just not publishing it until mid-September—and I’m still working on stuff for the chapbook series and some other projects I’m collaborating on with other authors and editors. As for my own personal projects, there’s the full-length, and I’m working on a micro-chap manuscript, and I’m doing research for a couple essays I plan to write, and I’m sketching out ideas for my next full-length. Do I ever relax? I mean, sometimes I read a few pages of a book, or take a walk. And occasionally at night I drink a couple glasses of wine and watch an episode of some British period drama on Masterpiece (because I’m pretentious PBS trash), but that’s about it as far as true relaxing goes.
K: With all you do writing and editing wise,do you still read publicly? As someone who has never done that and for readers who may struggle with that concept, what advice do you have for us about reading before audiences?
J: I read publicly once every two or three months. I used to do it a lot more often, but having another baby kind of put a damper on that. I love reading publicly. Writing is such a solitary act, and to have a chance to hear people reacting to my work while I’m sharing it with them, and to have them approach me afterwards and tell me what stood out to them—it reminds me why I write, because it’s a tangible experience of sharing my words and knowing immediately that they’ve made an impact on someone. Of course, that’s also what makes live performances scary. My advice is: pretend you’re in a play. I have a persona when I’m reading (actually, a few different ones—they vary depending on the nature of the event or what I’m reading that night), and this persona may look like me and use my name, but it’s not the same person I am when I’m alone and writing. Also—when I was 16, my best friend was visiting me and we went to a poetry open mic at a local coffee shop. When she got on stage, she introduced herself and said: “If I’m a dork, it doesn’t matter, cuz I’m not from around here.” That became my personal mantra. Whenever I’m reading or performing or speaking publicly, anything like that, even if it’s in my town, I pretend I’m not from around here and never have to see any of those people again.
K: What kind of submissions are you dying to see more of at Bone & Ink?
J: I’d love to see more prose. Flash CNF, and longer lyric essays. Flash and short fiction, especially speculative fiction/magical realism. And I’d love to see more poetry that uses elements of spec fic/magical realism/horror/fantasy/etc.
K: Any cool projects at Bone & Ink you would like to promote? Any big secret Bone & Ink news you’d like to share about upcoming projects?
J: Vol. 6 of the ezine (which I will put the official call out for in mid-September) is going to be an extra-special themed issue: it’s going to be the issue that comes out around Halloween, so think ghosts, hauntings, horror, murder ballads, etc. There will be more details in the official call for subs, but you get the idea. And, relatively soon I will be putting up a call for submissions for a poetry anthology I want to put together. I don’t want to give anything away until I’m collecting submissions, but I will say it involves music, and persona poetry/persona fiction.
K: What poem have you published lately that you would like to share? (Insert link.)
J: I’m particularly proud of “Saint Anthony and the Ten Thousand Things,” which was published in Vol. 5 of Memoir Mixtapes.
Aubade-Sonnet for the Morning After I Did Not Die
by Jessie Lynn McMains
The night I nearly drowned in the motel pool, my accidental attempt at
A rock’n’roll suicide, she pulled me sputtering from the water, wrapped
Me in terrycloth and toweled me dry. As I coughed up chlorine and dregs
Of pink daiquiri we watched him splash in the shallow end, thronged by
Girls drawn to his slacker charisma. The truth must have shone through my
Practiced partygirl opacity, her blackeyed gaze held mine and beamed
The same. I drove her home and we huddled on the mattress in the corner
Of her small apartment. Banshee-voiced ladies cried death songs from the
Stereo and my blackhaired lady put the kettle on. We toasted survival with
Milky tea and chains of smoke. Then french inhales turned to kisses, warm
Milky skin and is this okay? Yes and we learned how our cracked shells
Could still feel other than pain between cigarette-skinny arms as the night
Waned. Awake with dawn, the sunrise all redpink, a lesion leaking light.
We were injured, but alive. Our black and blue eyes, open, leaking light.
A Spider Mirror Forever Schoolgirl Fantastical List of Fall Pleasures (Coming Soon):
Reading true crime & scary stories against a tree in a breeze.
Finding kneesocks everywhere.
Drinking Pumpkin Spice Lattes until I can’t stand it anymore.
Goosebumps and other bodily reactions to cool weather
An Interview with the Cat Poet Sir Winston Purr-chill
I had the honor to write a forward recently for two cats who penned a poetry collection together. The cats reside with the poet Tara Lynn Hawk, but I am assured that she has nothing to do with this collection. I’m willing to bank all my journalistic integrity on this assertion, and I have interviewed the cat poet Sir Winston Purr-Chill on his motivations, the difficulties of collaboration. He even pays me a sort of compliment as one of his greatest influences but I’m not biased at all. It’s just a fantastic interview.
Kristin: What inspired you and your collaborator to write this collection?
Sir Winston: The eternal urge and desire to create beauty, to leave lettered art for future generations, to uplift and inspire other felines to find their own creative souls. And we need more money for catnip.
K: What poem in this collection do you believe most captures the plight of your kind?
SW: It would be impossible to narrow it down to just a single poem. Day to day struggles are expressed in “Eternal Day Long Frustration”, “To Pee or Not to Pee” and “Ode to the Vacuum Cleaner”
On a deeper, more parapsychological level “Meow - also a HOWL…..” and “Kill the Veterinarian”.
In “It’s Our House (You Just Live Here)”, we mull over the never ending struggle cats have with humans who possess the insanely ridiculous idea that they own us!
K: What was it like collaborating with the Fluff Ball?
SW: Let’s see. How can I phrase this in a professional, kind and compassionate manner. It was pure hell.
The Fluff Ball gets away with much because of his fluffy, part Maine Coon good looks. He sucks up to the humans with his “oh can I sit in your lap let me lick your toes” ploy and his talkative responses. The truth is he is lazy, naps anywhere, sheds everywhere, spends too much time obsessing over the backyard squirrel and will steal your food and your furry mice the minute you turn your back. But I digress. He may be the “looks”, but I am the “brains’. I wrote 99% of this book.
K: Who are your literary influences?
SW: Is it not obvious? Proust, Homer, Byron, Yeats,Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Pushkin, Baudelaire, Stendahl, Sartre, Hemingway, Blake, the Grumpy Cat, the Animal Planet channel, any cat food label and the crazy poet woman-child-lady in Florida who is obsessed with socks.
K: Do you have any future literary projects you are working on?
SW: After my in-depth expose of the racketeering and corruption at the Paris International Fancy Cat Show was rejected by The New Yorker, I have been a bit discouraged. However, I do have a working draft of a biography of Alexander the Great’s war campaign cat, General “Tiddles”. I am also working on a play for off-Broadway about the history of the struggle for cat food purity laws titled “They Told Me it Was Chicken Meal”.