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"The Absolute and Unavoidable Lens": An Interview with Jennifer Militello

Jennifer Militello is the author of A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments (Tupelo Press, 2016), Body Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013), and Flinch of Song (Tupelo Press, 2009). Her poems and nonfiction have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Mid-American Review, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, and anthologized in Best New Poets, Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems for Every Occasion, and The Manifesto Project. She teaches in the MFA program at New England College and can be found online at www.jennifermilitello.com.

Her essay, "The Repairs," appeared in Issue Ninety of The Collagist.

Here, Jennifer Militello talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about associate leaps, houses as sponges, and creating edges.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “The Repairs”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Within the space of a week, the house where I currently live suddenly required several major repairs. It seemed like everything was falling apart at once. The septic system backed up. Ice dammed up on the roof and got under the shingles, causing the ceiling to leak. I then started to notice the smaller damages, the scrapes and paint chips that had happened over time. I began to realize that in some ways a home is made up of the very dilemmas that come with needing shelter. The damage as much as the structure.

Life is the same. Emotionally. Spiritually. A series of major damages punctuated by more minor damages, all forming who we become. The build of all this damage stitches tiny threads, until we wear it like a dress, or like a scar.

The essay then grew out of a juxtaposition between physical failures of the house I now live in and memories of the psychological failures of the home where I grew up. I have been obsessed with my childhood home since my mother sold it, after my parents’ divorce left me struggling to recreate that former comfort and stability for myself. This often means trying to remember how the light fell in the kitchen in the morning, or how my parents’ voices sounded in the halls as I read in my bedroom. What happened in that house became equated with what happened inside me, and I cannot return to it. It’s become a labyrinth, so much so that I often dream of the house while asleep, and every time I drive by it in the present, the past house in my mind slips further away.

This essay contains many memories and images that you must associate with one another, but the connective tissue is sometimes subtle or invisible to the reader. For example, just after a brief explanation of a faulty septic system, you write: “I remember one friend I had. I remember standing with her in a playground in the rain, on the lifted end of a seesaw, eating cake mix by the spoonful from an open plastic bag. I remember the echoing of thunder. When I gave birth, I remember screaming and wondering what I heard, whose untethered voice.” When you take such leaps (in time, place, etc.) from one sentence to the next, you must trust, or at least hope, that the audience will also take them without losing all orientation in the work. How do you calculate the distances and choose the jumps you make? How do these associations come to you, and how do you determine the order in which to present them?

When I write, I work to recreate experience, the way the visual of the moment mixes with memory in the brain. This is association in the truest sense of the word. Everything we see in the moment is filtered through a reservoir of all the other moments we have collected. Memory is the context for everything. Memory and those other moments are the absolute and unavoidable lens.

Writing often relies on a voice to trace us through the experience and make connections, to tell a story that moves from point A to point B. But this is not the way we think. We do not naturally narrate our landscapes; we move through them and things flow and stir and meld into one another and this is how impressions and connections are made. We see things and they cause us to remember. We hear things and they remind us of our other lives.

I seek to recreate this landscape of moments and impressions, like lifting animals out of their museum dioramas and setting them in a more natural habitat. They aren’t dead anymore or held together by the artificial wire of the narrative voice. Their muscles work the way they were meant to. They are brought back to life.

Asking the mind to leap means trusting the brain of the reader. Connections happen in ways that are subtle. I believe in metaphor as perhaps the most essential literary device because it works the way the brain works, in shifts and images and tactics we don’t fully understand. It relies on our network of memories and impressions and teaches us more mysteriously and deeply until we learn in our nerve endings and our hippocampus and in our blood.

There’s a line that my mind has stuck on as I read and reread this piece: “Still, the history of an old house comes back.” How does the history of an old house come back? To whom, or to what, does it return? And why, do you think?

Old houses hold the hallways of smells and recollections and feelings that we constantly walk down. They are the ghosts that live inside us and puppet what we are.

We can leave these houses, but they never leave us. And they surface into the present at unexpected and often inconvenient times. Trauma echoes trauma. Pain raises pain. So that you are sitting in the wake of a death or divorce and the old rooms materialize and you are again sitting alone against the closed door of your childhood bedroom after being told you have misbehaved.

In my experience, a house is a sponge and not a sounding board. Incidents and encounters become part of its landscape, and can continue to be felt by others who move through it later and have no knowledge of past events. In addition, a house one has lived in becomes part of one’s emotional landscape, and the layout of that house becomes a map for parts of the brain and the blueprint for memories related to that period of time.

I see from your website that you primarily write and publish poems, but we have been discussing an example of your prose. What lessons have you learned from one genre that you have applied to how you write in the other?

The lyric essay is similar to poetry in many ways, so I have carried over my sense of the resonant image, metaphor and surprise, movement and suggestion, and, as you’ve pointed out, my love of the associative leap.

I’ve had to school myself all over again in how to cut, what to cut, when to cut, to hone an expectation, a narrative edge. I think prose often creates different edges than poetry, and edges are writing’s propulsion systems, so I had to relearn the creation of the edge.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I’ve recently completed Knock Wood, the nonfiction book from which this essay comes, as well as a manuscript of poems titled The Pact, so I’m working on some new poems about the dangers of technology and the world of the machine.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

So much! Fen by Daisy Johnson, Personal Science by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, The True Book of Animal Homes by Allison Titus, Fairyland by Alysia Abbott, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the stories chosen as finalists for the Indiana Review fiction prize, in the winter issue: “House of Locks and Doors” by Micah Dean Hicks and “Liam and the Head” by Courtney Bird.

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