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An Interview with Maura Pellettieri

Updated: Dec 9, 2018


JUKE JOINT: Things are finally starting to cool down here in the Deep South. We finally got some of that autumnal weather, and folks are rolling out the pumpkin spice. Even still, it’s hard not to see these times as dark, maybe even nightmarish, under the shadow of President* Trump. But we’re trying to stay optimistic close to the midterms, and we’re grateful as hell to interview you, and super stoked about having your poems in our third issue! We know you’re busy with new projects and planning a move to the West Coast, so thank you for giving us some time to chat amid all of that!


MAURA: Thank you! I’m grateful to have my work so well-held by Juke Joint. The issue is beautiful, and it’s an honor to be in it. We’re in the shadow of the nightmare indeed. I like to think that since we’re all dreaming the dream together, we can band together to get lucid. I’m tuning in to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dream.


JUKE JOINT: Well, what are you up to these days? Certainly tell us about your current writing endeavors and literary projects, but we’re also interested in what you’re doing beyond that. Have you developed a penchant for some strange subculture you think we should be aware of but aren’t? It’s not all about poetry and art over here.


MAURA: I probably do have a penchant for strange subcultures. I’ve joined a school that I can best characterize as Hogwarts for Jewish witches. We’re working on course-correcting the nightmare you mentioned, among other things. In case your readers are wondering, I’m a Ravenclaw and my Patronus game is strong.


JUKE JOINT: I’ve been told I’m also a Ravenclaw, and my patronus is a vulture, so read whatever subtext you will into that one. . .


MAURA: Yes, I think I’ve seen you in the Ravenclaw common room. A vulture Patronus--that’s wonderful. I feel like a bird Patronus is rare. Is that true? (My Patronus is an Ibizan Hound.)


I’m also working on a hybrid manuscript that feels like a strange subculture within my writing practice. I’m stealing from Dante a little. I’ve been talking to him in my head since 2004, when I first read the Divine Comedy—so this is sort of an overdue love letter. It’s also a gentle fight. I have some minor beef with Paradiso, and it’s been generative. But I’m just using his territory and characters as a trailhead—from which I go into my own landscapes. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything. There are a lot of animals in it. An excerpt will be out in Tupelo Quarterly next month.


JUKE JOINT: You’ve told us yourself that the poems you’ve submitted for Issue 3 are, “out-there” and “simultaneously a kind of speculative lit/sci-fi poetry and also ancestor poems.” So this talk of magic and spirits is apt. Could you define for our readers these terms a bit more, and talk more deeply about your vision and intent?


MAURA: Since I said that, I’ve started calling it ancestor sci-fi. I’m referencing an experience I have where I’m going forward and backward simultaneously, without leaving the present. I don’t know how universal it is, but it’s an experience I have of time. These poems are from a project called The Body Palmistry, and they began with this—my relationship to the shape of time, which I experience as overlapping spheres.


The spheres partly have to do with ghosts. In Jewish mythology, not all hauntings are adverse. The dybbuk—featured in Michal Waszynski’s 1937 film, Dybbuk—falls in line with your standard American notion of a ghost as a malevolent figure. In my tradition, we also have ibburs. Ibburs don’t haunt—they impregnate. There’s a possession, a presence in you, but it’s benevolent. An ibbur might stay a short time to help you with something specific, or stay longer because they want to have a conversation that requires duration.


When these poems started coming in, I was in residency at Edward Albee’s barn, in Montauk, on Montaukett land. I had just had a powerful blow in the form of a heartbreak, and it heightened my awareness to other grieving happening on that land. Edward Albee had just died, and a dear friend of mine had lost his mother. Then there was another layer that was so pervasive that I almost couldn’t distinguish it from the other pieces. That layer was of the land. And it's bones.


I witnessed the water interacting with the land—the ocean, but also the rain. I would sit or walk in the rain until I was soaked—until I was in an altered state. I was learning about the watershed by listening to it. I learned that nothing is voiceless. It’s a matter of training. We’re conditioned to attune only to human voices, but but that’s a limited way to hear. The whole body can function as an ear, and that’s functional reading.


I was listening differently, so I started writing differently. There’s a line in one of the poems about an attempt to perfect the act of murder. My human experience is often to rail against violence. It’s been an experience of softening for me to go deeper into the terms of the natural world. To love endings, and accept that as a species, we have called the planet’s violence on ourselves. That's perfect murder. It’s uncynical. It’s also devastating and unjust that many of the people suffering the most from the effects of climate change are not the ones who have most contributed to it. That part is cynical. We're taking some beautiful species down with us. That is cynical, too, and it makes me emotional. But the earth, as a voice, lives outside that kind of discrimination. That's part of what I’m channeling through these speakers.


JUKE JOINT: Definitely. We felt a sense of urgency in your work, but it’s more apparent now in your response—our planet, as a voice, needs to be heard. We couldn’t agree more. And since you mention hearing, another fascinating element of your work is its sonic quality. There's a deep intentionality to your diction, it’s damn near sensual at times—maybe even down right overt? Tell us about that balance between language based poetics and “legibility” as you call it. How do you find the sweet spot—the level of what sounds sexy and what is palatable?

MAURA: Thanks. I love that you’re reading it that way. I like to think what sounds sexy is palatable, but I take your meaning. I take a lot of pleasure in sound. Sound is often misunderstood as etheric, but it’s physical. In language, sound is as much a part of structure as beams are to a building. Grammar is structure; grammar largely dictates sound—you can’t unweave that. The poem is its sound.


Nothing is voiceless. It’s a matter of training. We’re conditioned to attune only to human voices, but that’s limited hearing. The whole body can function as an ear, and that’s functional reading.

I always seek balance—I want to prioritize both sound and meaning, but I often end up compromising sound because I have something specific to say. I don’t want to go into total abstraction—though I love abstraction. With this work, I let myself push closer to the edge. These poems represent a tussle and conversation—between human and non-human entities. So communication becomes about other things besides language. Not everything that needs to be said can be said in English, or in spoken language at all. What happens when the sound of the voice is all, and the wordlessness holds the meaning, the entire content? I think that’s the same as asking what is said if the ecosystem and geology of the earth en toto becomes the speaker. The Body Palmistry is a poetic inquiry into that curiosity. I had to use words, but wanted to turn them down, and turn up somatic experience. I want to ask: How do the words touch you? Can language itself be the subject and the reader the object? Or can text and reader be lovers?


Something that happens when sound is prioritized is that denotation becomes abstracted. The reader is forced to find more meaning in sound and less in the diversion of defining a specificity of terms. In other words, the container of the poem is created in a way that deters you from pinning a single narrative too closely. The abstraction caused by my choice to prioritize sound over content mirrors the concept of my inquiry. I intend the reader to question their relationship to meaning. It’s not a loss of legibility, it’s just a different kind of legibility. Like letting your eyes get loose when you look out at a green landscape. Or when you look out at the blue. Or you could think of it as a vision of time outside linearity. The human terms are wiped. You’re in the frame of someone else’s terms. Here, the someone else is the larger intelligence of the earth’s systems, which we live within. I think our ancestors lived closer to that frame. I think that if we save ourselves, as a species, it will be because we can find a way to exist within that frame again.


I’m also curious about what it means to make sound-based decisions as a diasporic poet. I think it’s common for diasporic writers to feel out of sorts with English—even if they grew up, as I did, in a household where English was the first language and the origin languages weren’t handed down. I’m always trying to get back to the physical experience of intimacy with a language I can feel in my body but can’t command. So prioritizing sound over literality is again about pleasure—about how each wor(l)d feels in my body, more so than where the content lands me, or the reader, within the limitations of signs and signifiers. You could say that when I write I’m going home.


JUKE JOINT: Well we couldn’t ask for a better transition than that one. Juke Joint is intrinsically interested in place, origin, identity, otherness, and how these things shape the artist’s work, so it’s only natural that we ask about your engagement with these concerns. Can you talk at all about your sense of place as well as your queer identity and how these facets of your self play out in your poetry?

MAURA: Well, for me it’s myself. I don’t have a sense of myself as other. I understand that to some people I am, but that’s someone else’s paradigm. I don’t engage it. Occasionally, I’m put in a position where I have to refute it, but I’m living my life in a way where I’m the subject of most of the sentences I’m in—that’s visible even to many who would attempt to other me. Being object and other can be lovely, but only selectively.

The beauty of the diaspora is that I find my people everywhere I go. My home is Body, and my home is Earth.

Why is otherness interesting? It exists largely because colonialism created false normals. Wouldn’t it be more dangerous if we started asking how privilege shapes work? I’m asking this of myself, too. Privilege shapes work at all levels of systemic oppression, but it also happens at the level of publishing. Anyone publishing is at risk of the privilege of publishing—the main risk being that you stop taking risks.


The beauty of the diaspora is that I find my people everywhere I go. My home is Body, and my home is Earth. As Virginia Woolf said, “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” And Zora Neale Hurston said, “I do not weep at the world--I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” I would add that my soul is the one who harvests poems from the etheric place, and my soul doesn’t have an identity. Of course, the poems are filtered through my identity, but all of that is so mutable that I’d rather not narrativize it.


JUKE JOINT: Your perspective here is refreshingly optimistic. “My people [are] everywhere” is such an equalizing lens. It’s a good contrast to a moment in American dialogue where wall building and partisanship and transphobia and hate drive so much of what we see an hear on the news.


MAURA: I’m glad you’re experiencing it that way. It feels very true to me.


JUKE JOINT: You’ve also mentioned a connection to the Jewish tradition of mysticism, and it seems impossible not to get a sense that your poems in this packet are like incantations, can you tell us more about your relationship with these traditions, but also how this bleeds into your poetry?


MAURA: Did I say that? I’m grateful for this question, though it stumps me a little. When it comes to what most Jews consider tradition, I know little, at least in the formal sense. But I am fascinated by the experiences I have in my body when I engage in ritual acts, and the change I access through them.

I suppose I access the traditions through irreverence. In “The Book of 11,” I tried to laugh at the mess. The mystical parts of Judaism are beautiful, but they are often woven with parts that are alienating and inhumane. I have to sit with all of it. The Torah is a mythology—it’s the mythology of the Hebrew people. Like all myths, it contains information about a group of people and how they lived. It’s not nonfiction, but there are truths in it. It was also written by some dudes with agendas.


I’m looking for access points to narratives that were not included, or were, but for which we have shoddy vantage points. I’m thinking about the ancestral mamas, and whatever versions of Me Too existed then. I used to get stuck in a defensive rut, where I would just rehash everything that’s happened to me, to women. Often, the way the rut plays out in the collective is that the stories of white, heterosexual women get centered, and the stories of women of color, trans, and queer people are erased.


How do you give airtime to the narratives without reinforcing the status of the victim? When I think about the cleverness of the ancestral matriarchs, as it’s represented in the mythology—all the ways they pushed back against early-onset patriarchy—I imagine that a defensive feminism never would have existed for them. Before Judaism existed, the Hebrew people had altars and goddesses. They worshipped the earth. What does it do to the cultural psyche and social structures when power is shared among goddesses who can be seen in the physical world—rather than being consolidated in one male figure who is distant and unseeable? If the prevailing belief system is that power is shared among many supreme beings, and those many are of the earth, that sets society up to understand how power could be shared among many who are of the earth.


The matriarchs lived closer to that moment. I imagine them being too powerful to slip into defense. They’re unmovable, unless it’s a lover and they want to be soft. This is an aspect of power a lot of femme people are learning about right now: exercising the right to choose vulnerability. The demand that we be vulnerable is a societal default. The demand that male-identifying people be invulnerable is also a societal default, and one that causes great suffering. We’re all in recovery from that.


Our words and beliefs, how we choose to structure our psyches—these are all incantatory. The purpose of poets, on a practical level, is to guide the culture in relief. So yes, by the long way home, these poems are incantations, to disturb the patriarchy with the sound of Myriam’s pleasure. And not just Myriam’s pleasure. But she really deserves it.


JUKE JOINT: Tell us about your most recent venture, Crystal and Fire. Give us the elevator speech and why we should be looking out for what is forthcoming. We want to promote what you’re working on as much as possible!


MAURA: You’re sweet! Crystal and Flame is an art writing journal I’m developing. The name comes from a concept by Italo Calvino, who named crystal and flame as symbols for differing aesthetics in art. Crystal represents the cold phenomenon of crystallization, and flame, the transformative properties of heat. Readers will be able to enter the site at an image of crystal or flame, and each symbol will lead to a corresponding reading experience. The concept is lovely, and its simplicity creates an easy entry for anyone to talk about art.

these poems are incantations, to disturb the patriarchy with the sound of Myriam’s pleasure. And not just Myriam’s pleasure. But she really deserves it.

When I write about art, my desire is to use language to create a transmission or somatic projection of the work, bringing artists and their audiences closer, and expanding the ripple of the art work. Crystal and Flame's core team is calling this transmission art writing. I am hiring art writers who either share this vision, or have alternative notions of how to go past basics in supporting artists and their audiences with words.


The official launch will be announced on my website, on social media, and elsewhere. We’re not accepting general submissions right now, but we welcome notes from any poets or art writers or wannabe art writers who think they’d be a good fit and want to stay in touch. We also welcome notes from potential funders. Anyone who wants to reach me can fill out a contact form on my website—www.maurapellettieri.com.


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