An Interview with Jaye Nasir
by Mark Robinson, Mud Season Review Associate Poetry Editor
“Passing somebody on the street and looking into their face and seeing them, their loneliness, their hope, their tiredness. Seeing the color beneath the skin. Seeing everything glow from the inside.”
You mention that you have been writing prose for many years and poetry “far fewer.” Can you talk more about that? I’m curious about what drove you from writing prose to start using line breaks and writing what a reader typically identifies as poetry.
It’s not that I don’t see that poetry and prose are obviously different genres, with different conventions and movements within them – it’s just that, personally, I approach them both from the same place, and I don’t find my prose and poetry to be especially different in voice or content. I think I was writing prose that was very, say, “poetic” for a long time before I started writing poetry, so the transition was relatively painless. I did start out writing what I guess you’d call prose poetry. Just paragraphs. I admit, I began by throwing in line-breaks virtually arbitrarily, just to make what I was writing look more like how I thought a poem should look. But, at this point, I think I really value line breaks. You can deftly control how a sentence flows and how it hits, what’s emphasized, what’s loud and what’s quiet.
While none of the poems in this portfolio are prose poems, is this an area you have explored? Do you have any thoughts on why prose poetry lends itself to surreal imagery/language?
I honestly think things like form and genre are more about reader expectation than writerly intention. I’m just writing: I hardly know what I’m doing. (Do you?) I think a category like prose poetry lends itself to surrealism because giving yourself that label allows for it. If you say, this is a short story, and write something super surreal and poetic, readers might object, might try to put you into a different category. I feel the same way about categories like fiction vs. nonfiction and fantasy vs. reality. I like to occupy the border between these things. I really feel I have only one thing to say, one story I’m telling over and over again. It comes out differently every time, in different forms, in poems and novels and short stories and essays, but it’s all coming from the same place, the same source. It’s the same vision every time, and I just keep trying to put it into words.
In Fable, you take a well-known fairy tale and apply your own spin, which really gives the story new life. What inspired, not the poem, but your perspective of the story?
Fable stands a bit apart from the other two poems as, I’d say, both of the others are explicitly about transcendent vision (especially Something Green; March is more about experiencing one specific thing – early spring – as transcendent). Fable is just, ha, about Little Red Riding Hood, which is my favorite fairy tale. The real basis of the poem (maybe you can tell) comes from my dislike of perfect metaphors, clean allegories. Little Red Riding Hood is often read as a straight moral about not talking to strangers, especially men. Because they’ll eat you up (aka: rape you, murder you, etc.) But I’ve read many claims that early versions of the folktale were more about the transformation from childhood to adult womanhood, a kind of coming of age. In many versions, Little Red outwits the wolf herself and escapes. In one version, the wolf tricks Little Red into eating some of her own grandmother. So, my whole idea was: fragments of the self, fragments of a story. The wolf is the little girl is the hunter. Retell any story enough times and it blurs, undoes itself.
The age-old question—why do you do it?
If you had asked me at any point in the past ten years why I write, I would have said, “Well, when you run out of the kinds of stories you like to read, when you can’t find any book that lights that spark of awe and pleasure in your chest, you have to try to create that spark for yourself.”
It’s only recently that I’ve begun to examine why it is that I love certain books and not others, certain poems and not others. What, exactly, is the source of the spark?
And I think it comes down to vision. To explain this, a little more background: I have struggled with physically debilitating depression since around puberty. Depression is pretty much ubiquitous at this point in twenty-first century America, and I don’t claim any especially severe variety.
When I’m in a depressive state, my vision is altered. I don’t mean “vision” as just seeing with the eyes, but all ways of seeing, of interpreting the world. In depression, the world is blue-tinged, or gray. Everything is empty, lacks meaning. The world is frightening, unresolvable, an endless maze that feels unnavigable. Nothing can grow. Everything is stagnant, stuck, and the self most of all. You feel like a stranger in a strange land. Beautiful things don’t touch you; they look ugly.
The importance of this blue vision, this fearful hateful empty vision, is that its inverse also exists. Yes, there’s the simple non-depressed state of being, where everything is, let’s say, its normal color. But there’s also something beyond that. (Something green?) There’s transcendent vision. There’s seeing color in everything. There is looking at shapeless trash on the side of the freeway and seeing it as beautiful. Walking in the supermarket and seeing the fluorescent light shining on the linoleum floors as beautiful. Passing somebody on the street and looking into their face and seeing them, their loneliness, their hope, their tiredness. Seeing the color beneath the skin. Seeing everything glow from the inside.
So, all of this is to answer your question of why I write. I am writing towards that vision. That doesn’t mean presenting false hope or ignoring the reality of suffering, the endlessness of suffering. It doesn’t mean pretending that really bad things don’t happen all the time. It doesn’t mean the world is safe. It only means that the world is living.