This spring, Jackie Craven met with four poetry friends in Johnstown, New York for an informal afternoon of feedback and discussion. The poets, who have been meeting regularly for more than a decade, listened to Jackie read “White Lightning” and asked her about the poem and her writing processes. A short bio of each poet appears at the end of the interview.
Sandra Manchester: Your poem reminds me of “Ego Tripping” by Nikki Giovanni. It’s an oral poem, and has powerful images spilling out, one after another.
Jackie Craven: Welcome to my strange, quirky world! My mother was an artist whose work explodes with surreal images— an old man grows angel wings, an angel sprouts a mermaid’s tail, monkeys wear human faces. Growing up with her paintings, I guess it’s natural for me to dwell in the realm of the fantastic. My fiction chapbook, Our Lives Became Unmanageable (Omnidawn, 2016), follows characters who grapple with otherworldly compulsions and dilemmas. “White Lightning” continues that theme, but the voice is different from anything I’ve attempted before. Writing this poem really was an adventure.
Catherine DeSalle: I can’t imagine what I’d be thinking of to come up with the images you used—lips like an iron gate, a tongue curled like a slug. Did the poem come from a memory? A dream?
JC: It’s hard to know what stew images bubble up from—maybe they’re just a part of me, like the images in my mother’s paintings. However, I do credit fellow writers (you guys!) and my teachers for helping me bring the strangeness to the surface. Several years ago, I took a workshop with Tim Seibles at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Tim encouraged us to experiment with metaphors and to seek unexpected juxtapositions. Whenever I read Tim’s work, I come away with a sense of shock and awe. Check out these lines from his poem “First Kiss”:
…her mouth pulled up
like a baby-blue Cadillac
packed with canaries driven
by a toucan…
The images are insane, but they overflow with emotion. I can hear a young, love-sick narrator grope for words as he struggles to describe sensations he doesn’t fully understand. I wanted to achieve something like this in “White Lightning.” Using Tim’s poem as a model, I filled pages with ideas, rooting around for the kind of outrageous statements that might be spoken by someone who is reeling out of control.
Virginia Bach Folger: As you wrote, did you imagine the words rushing up from the printed page? Or did you see this as a poem that you would recite to an audience?
JC: Both! I’m in awe of poets who have a flare for performance. I could listen all day to Tim Seibles, or the gorgeous, rolling voice of Yusef Komunyakaa. And I love the rhythm and energy of Danez Smith, who has won many poetry slam awards. I wish I could perform like that, and I’ve been participating in a lot of open mics to build confidence. But, I’m truly an introvert. I hope that my printed words will convey sounds and emotions, even when the poem isn’t presented aloud.
Catherine DeSalle: But you read it very well just now!
JC: Thank you. “White Lightning” is a persona poem—to read it aloud, I need to step inside the skin of an entirely different person. The narrator has his own experiences and his own vocabulary for expressing those experiences. He says things that would not occur to me naturally. So to read this poem aloud, I have to summon some acting skills.
Catherine Norr: Your speaker mentions several mythical gods and legends. I love these! Did the mythical references pop naturally into your mind, or did you need to do research?
JC: Some, like Götterdämmerung and Jabberwock came automatically, but I doubt I would have thought of Nithhogr or Smaug without digging. I wanted my speaker to compare his experiences to grandiose events, so I searched for allusions from mythology, sci-fi movies, and Dungeons and Dragons lore. I selected Nithhogr and Smaug because I loved the sound of their names and the associations they stir. If you asked me specific details about the tales, I’m not sure how much I’d remember—I’m just taken with the sounds.
Virginia Bach Folger: That’s fascinating, and opens up permission for the rest of us. Tell us about your writing process. Do you find you’re more productive when you stick to a routine, or when you’re more flexible with time and places?
JC: My life is as chaotic as the situations in my stories and poems. I have no routine. There are periods when I do little writing, and then—without warning—stories and poems come in a gush. The funny thing is, some of my most productive writing times are when I’m also extremely busy with other activities.
Virginia Bach Folger: The title “White Lightning” gave me the impression that this would be a sexual poem. On first reading, I imagined something bright and flashing—like a climax—rather than about drinking.
Catherine DeSalle: I thought so, too!
Catherine Norr: White lightning is a kind of alcohol. I think the double meaning adds to the poem. I love the layers of meaning and the shifting images– “squeezing music / out my pores till my skin stretched to cellophane…”
Catherine DeSalle: I was reminded of a stream-of-consciousness story by George Saunders. As you read, I didn’t think too hard about the literal meaning of the words. I was caught up in the sound of your voice, and the rhythm.
Virginia Bach Folger: How happy are you with the title?
JC: True confession? I’ve changed it. After “White Lightning” appeared in r.kv.r.y., I decided to include the poem in my collection, Secret Formulas & Techniques of the Masters (forthcoming from Brick Road Poetry Press). The collection is about the thirst for magic potions and the desire to alter reality. Many of the poems are based on paintings by my mother, so I gave “White Lightning” a name that corresponds with that theme. The poem is now called “The Absinthe Drinker (Egg Tempera & Oil).” It’s probably a good thing Secret Formulas will be in print soon, or I’d never stop rewriting the poems.
Virginia Bach Folger: How do you know when you’re finished?
JC: You should see my cabinets—overflowing with half-finished manuscripts, work I’ve tinkered with for years and can’t let go of. I just hope that the old poems don’t crowd out the new—there are so many ideas clamoring to get out.
Catherine DeSalle is a visual artist who writes poetry and essays.
Catherine Norr is the author Return to Ground (Finishing Line Press, 2014). Her work has also appeared in Avocet, The Evening Street Review, Oriel, The Sun, and other journals.
Sandra Manchester studied with Robert Pinsky at the New York State Writers Institute. She writes poetry and memoir based on her life growing up with itinerant farmers.
Virginia Bach Folger has recent work published or forthcoming in Constellations: A Journal of Poetry and Fiction, The Fourth River, Lumina, The Bacopa Literary Review, and The Virginia Normal.