Lauren Burgess interviewed Jerika Marchan virtually in May 2019.
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Lauren Burgess: This book is really important to me. When Katrina hit, I was ten years old, living in Slidell with my mother. An oak tree fell and broke through the roof of our house, then the rain came and ruined the rest. My dad stayed behind to help people, which added to my fear. Everything was tragic. Two moments in SWOLE embody the confusion and then the guilt I felt after evacuating. You write “except/why is the water rising/if the storm is gone” and, “even me—I would be a hypocrite because I had to turn away from the TV because it was too hard to watch.” These sentiments are crucial. It did keep rising—watching it on TV, listening to the adults ask the same question as me—why is it still rising? I remember turning away from the news, too, and I didn’t understand at the time what a levee breaking meant or why it made me feel so bad to watch from the safety of New Iberia. Thank you for writing this for us, for forcing us to watch again.
Did you write any of these poems during Katrina, or was this project part of the grieving process later? Do you consider writing to be an aid to grieving? To memory?
Jerika Marchan: No, not consciously. I didn’t set out to write a book in the beginning. The fragments started coming to me in the winter of 2012-2013, when a teacher mentioned that “by now you should be aligned to a poetics” or a “political poetics.” I think part of me freaked out because I still didn’t know what I was or what I stood for, much less what I wanted to say or if what I said would mean anything significant.
In my MFA program and in a new place, I struggled a lot with impostor syndrome, so I gathered as much stuff as I could that felt true and real, to ground myself in all the things that even remotely felt like my life, the stuff I could recognize. The pieces came together when I least expected it and in forms that flowed organically with my impulses. I wasn’t trying to write toward Louisiana, but I was desperately homesick and also it was freezing cold for seemingly forever, so all I could think of was the climate of home—so in my mind it was summer, summer, August, peak heat in New Orleans…this was a preoccupation that led me smack into a very specific summer.
Do I consider writing to be an aid to grieving? No. Not really. I think it could be for some people, but I don’t think of it as such for me. Not at this point. Writing feels more like a necromancy. For me, not an aid to grieving, but an act of grief, what comes from grief. It’s not a balm. And for memory? Sure—maybe. I think writing can be utilitarian and useful, yeah. Lists are utilitarian (for the sake of remembering), and a lot of my poems are lists, but is that purpose what I’m grasping at most? No. Yes, writing can be considered an aid for memory, but no, that’s not necessarily why I come to writing. Not to remember but to make sense of memory.
I’m learning to be patient in my grief, whatever shapes it takes. I’m trying to let it be fluid, coming and going. For me, it’s become something never to be solved or exorcised or “handled.” It may or may not run parallel to, or go into, my writing.
LB: Can you speak to your use of New Orleans-specific AAVE when discussing Katrina, and then more specifically the impact it had on writing SWOLE? How does this vernacular inform your identity as a New Orleans poet (if that is how you identify)?
JM: This cluster of questions might resonate through my answer in ways that may veer toward the reductive, so I’m just going to pop it open a bit. I wrote SWOLE for home—and that place is there and isn’t there. New Orleans (the dream) is slipperier than this book (or any book at all) can hold. New Orleans (the place) is bigger than one voice can say, which is why it’s important to keep grasping and saying, even as we sink slowly into the ocean. New Orleans isn’t an identity to me—it’s something I try to pull close to me to understand how to be human. (Other times, she tries to swallow me instead—another way of understanding how to be human—)
As a general comment, it is fucked up to write anything about New Orleans that is devoid of black and Creole people. This place and its culture and its sound are their legacy. What we eat, what we dance to, how we treat people—that is part of their legacy and their gift to this place. Life here is saturated with this culture. You cannot unhear it. You should never try to. We could lose it one day, along with so many other things, under the heft of gentrification, political and economic instability, political and environmental destruction…
Collage, palimpsest, masking, transliteration, mondegreens, the fragment, the code switch, the erasure—these were modes that I used to organize the debris/the writing, mostly because these are the modes through which I process the world. This is how I sort through stuff. I write because I am trying to figure out where my language (the stuff that erupts out of my heart and out of my face) comes from. (I don’t feel naturally or easily coherent or articulate, in like a standard, buttoned-up way. I have to work really hard to be understood, turn myself inside out with that effort. It makes me really anxious to say that explicitly—like I’ll get kicked out of some club for not perfectly legibly articulating everything all the time.)
The book I wrote isn’t a facsimile of a single speaker that is (more or less) a thing like me. My friends, family, and neighbors are in there. I tried to write my community in there along with the specter of collective trauma, and I fully accept that the work is never finished. How could it be? There are so many gaps, so many things that aren’t addressed in part because I am so limited in my body, memory, ability, and words. I don’t try to catalog all our losses because it’s impossible. The act of saying doesn’t make the loss stop, doesn’t make the lost thing reappear as a whole thing, doesn’t plug the hole.
I grew up here. I’m still growing up here. I’m running out of space but another time, I will talk about what I’ve learned about Bulbancha, St. Malo, “broken” English, x…, x…, x…, x…
LB: I tried to drunkenly say this to you at Delta Mouth—when I said you had “a knack for callbacks”—but what I really meant was that your work cycles back on itself, as if it is overflowing, the pages of your book like the broken levee once you read the words out loud. Can you speak a bit on this, combining words and doubling back to earlier references, how you embed this method in your form? It’s seamless, the way you interlace babies, women, water, heat, evacuation and rupture, violence and confusion, water, water, water—
JM: Thank you. SWOLE is supposed to fold in on itself and then expand and bury and then pop up again and echo. So far, I haven’t been terribly interested in thinking of poems linearly. For this book, I was working to create an environment where, despite (or inside of) erosion, corruption, obliteration, people // lives // are still real and present. I like to think of the “callbacks” (to use your word) as kinds of interjections, detrituses of memory, swinging between gentle and horrifying and humorous. Also, I wanted to give little floaties of language to hold on to or like…a lot of different doors through which a reader might want to enter the text. At one point, the work was spinning itself a bit too far out, and I was advised to reel it in. (I hate doing this, BTW–reeling stuff in. On the page, it makes me itchy.) My goal, ultimately, is to make work that teaches the audience how to read and engage with it. The “callbacks” are like breadcrumbs…find your way back (or forward) towards another moment, or an experience of déjà vu—the sticky stuff.
When I was younger, I studied classical music and theatre. I learned how to listen carefully to arrangements of sound, the phrasing, and themes, the composition of layers, lots of rhythm. It’s not wrong to read SWOLE as a kind of choral-adjacent work, askew.
LB: This is also a book about violence against women/femmes. Can you speak to the complexities of meeting at such a fraught intersection?
JM: There are a lot of things going on, and a solid way into the book (for people who are finding difficulty entering it) is through the lens of young girls and young women—necessarily because that is mostly what I am and where I’ve been. I was in high school when the events of the Katrina happened, so I was navigating puberty along with all that. So the body changing, the landscape changing, the body threatened, the landscape threatened—this was a very natural and necessary way of approaching the work of this particular book. The body is inescapable, and history is inescapable—even in death.
I found accessing memory from this time extremely difficult but also some of those memories are supercharged. Fear and violence are what we try most to forget but, often, it’s what stays with us irrevocably and informs the way we move through the world, from that puncture forward. It’s what gets turned over and over in our minds—what would maybe happen if l didn’t look a certain way, if I were male, if I were physically intimidating, if I were beautiful, if I lived somewhere else, if I had money, if I were free, if I were safe?
LB: What writers or other artists influenced the impressionist technique in SWOLE?
JM: Thank you for describing it as an “impressionist technique.” I don’t know if I would use that to describe my own work….but I *was* reading Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen. I was reading and working through The Tempest; works by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Susan Howe and Hart Crane; Douglas Kearney’s The Black Automaton; CA Conrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon; LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’ TWERK; and Joyelle McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade. I spent maybe too much time in Aase Berg’s guinea pig cave and thinking about the implications of Marosa di Giorgio’s very scary mushrooms. I watched Pipilotti Rist, Miss Pussycat and her puppets and their show, and also listened to Quintron’s sounds and lived in a real bright, flaming autumn for the first time in my life. I was reading Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double (especially The Theatre of Cruelty) and crying a lot while reading the work of Alice Notley. There’s more and more, but I’ll stop.
LB: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to say about this book or anything else?
JM: Thank you, actually. Thanks for inviting me along, into NDR. It’s a publication that’s meant a lot to me. I still have that last print edition of NDR Vol. 27 from 2010—the thick red one with the black-haired person and the birds—I’ll never be parted from it.
Jerika Marchan was born in Manila, Philippines and raised in the American South. A graduate of Louisiana State University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she lives in New Orleans. Her debut collection SWOLE (Futurepoem, 2018) was the June 2018 poetry best seller on Small Press Distribution and was named a Must-Read Race and Culture Book of the Summer by Colorlines magazine.
Lauren Burgess is a poet from New Orleans. She is an MFA candidate at LSU where she is assistant poetry editor for New Delta Review.