Jeni De La O is 1/4th of the remarkable poetry collective, the Estuary Collective, and is about to run her own column of poetry analysis here at the Poetry Question. We sat down and talked mushrooms, art galleries and criticism.
MM: So this interview is gonna work a little different than my normal ones, since we’re going to be talking about a project in the works more than stuff already published, which is exciting! Let’s start with what you’re hoping to achieve with BROWN STUDY?
JDLO: My goal is to make BROWN STUDY the little mushroom patch of our literary ecosystem.
I love mushrooms. Mushrooms process nutrients, break them down and redistribute them along with water and carbon and nitrogen to surrounding plant life. They form a network of mycelium that spans the area, it’s right under our feet the whole time. That network, the mycorrhizal network, is how plants share. In this column I want to share something I found nourishing and I want to do so with the kind of care and attention modern life deems indulgent.
That’s actually what inspired the name BROWN STUDY
MM: Wow I’m really loving this image of mycological digestion and indulgence. That breaking down a poem is to share it and enjoy it all at the same time.
JDLO: I’m glad to hear that!
MM: I love this idea of intensive focus as something that helps to diffuse and spread the meaning of the poem. What are you hoping to find in the depths of these poems?
JDLO: Deep meditation on a poem tends to reveal more about the reader than the poem. Too often I see discussions of what is “good” poetry and what is “bad” poetry and it’s disheartening. Who determines what is good and what is bad? I find it much more interesting to feel a poem out: what elements are at play here? What techniques are being used? What are the themes and how does the author weave them together? This kind of exploration teaches you a lot about poetry and mechanics but it also teaches you what your own innate preferences are, where your boundaries are placed, and how elastic those boundaries might be—it also forces you to acknowledge blind spots.
Understanding those things makes you a more objective reader, writer, and editor. It also broadens the palate, so to speak. We are in a landscape where decision makers are overwhelmingly affluent, white, male, and heavily invested in hierarchy, yet the most fire poets putting out work right now don’t fit into that mold. So we have a goal of editorial boards and staff and creative writing faculty that reflect diverse communities but we aren’t going to get there overnight. There’s work to be done, and part of that work is expanding the palate. It’s helping the community understand that there are thousands of Amanda Gormans submitting poems right now, being read and rejected right now, by readers and editors who simply haven’t the refined palate to discern a truffle from button mushroom.
MM: That’s so interesting, when I think “objectivity” and “an expanded palate” I think less sensitivity, less sharp senses. But you think it will lead to much more discernment. I guess my question then is how do you feel about arguments that criticism or analysis of poetry (of anything) requires taking a sort of stand? That you have to know what you’re working towards? Or is there someway to take that stand that’s compatible with this objectivity and sensitive but broad palate you’re talking about??
JDLO: Perhaps expanded palate is a poor choice of metaphor. I don’t believe expansion means lowering standards; on the contrary expanding the palate means recognizing we lacked the ability to properly form the standard in the first place. Think about wine. At first most people don’t like wine. The more you sample different varietals and vintages, the more you develop your palate and your taste begins to change. The same is true of poetry. One might look at something unfamiliar and intuitively feel “that’s not poetry” or “they’ll call anything poetry nowadays!” I used to say something along those lines every time I walked through the modern art wing of the Detroit Institute of Arts. But one day I went with someone who loves modern art, and he shared how he saw it, and my understanding grew. I did a little more learning and the appreciation followed. And now I look back and think, how ignorant of me to imagine I could discount an entire genre based on my personal preferences. My hope is to translate that process—understanding (annotated version of the poem), learning (the column and Q&A ) and the appreciation will hopefully follow.
The only poetry stand BROWN STUDY takes is that we should spend more time in reflection and less time on hot takes. Though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy all the discourse. *laughs*
MM: I think what we’re talking about here is almost a teacher like approach to poetry. It sounds like you want us to treat each poem like . . . not an assignment, that sounds too joyless, but with that scholarly level of attention that we were encouraged to approach poems with in school. And the world unfolds through the poem.
JDLO: I guess that’s true in a way. It’s through the curation, which poems are studied, that I hope to challenge readers. I think our brains are wired to expect amazing poetry from the greats, so we automatically approach with a certain conviction that if we don’t see the greatness there must be something we are missing. BROWN STUDY (through the curation of which poems are being analyzed) aims to take that same approach and apply it to lesser known, traditionally marginalized voices.
MM: Going back to the title of the column, a Brown Study has a connotation of melancholy. Is there an aspect of sadness in taking in a poem slowly, in reflecting on it?
JDLO: It is true that Brown Study came to have a melancholy connotation but I’m hoping to reclaim the joy. The aspect of sadness at play here is that we live in an era where taking an hour to really think about something—just for the sake of thinking about it—is indulgent. The modern addiction to quantifiable productivity strips us of the pleasure of stillness and reflection, and as a result we miss out on so much!
MM: That’s true. Back to the mushroom patch, what do you find nourishing in poetry? What are you hoping to spread around?
JDLO: Adrienne Maree Brown has this amazing book called PLEASURE ACTIVISM. In that book the question is raised: how can we learn to feel as though we deserve nothing less than a fulfilling life? How can we find pleasure in the face of monstrosity? For me one way to push back against the harshness of this world is with poetry. Even when the poems themselves are harsh, the very act of them being poems, not essays or tirades or novels but poems—lets me know someone sat down and wrestled with the harshness, someone crafted a poem to share with me, with all of us. They took the time to prepare a dish, I enjoy taking the time to savor it.
MM: That level of care. That’s crucial to so much of what poetry is. To combine that commitment to challenging readers to learn from poems that they might have otherwise have ignored or marginalized, and that love of care, it almost sounds like the goal is to teach care through poetry, to reach out and wake up empathy, through the process of poetic analysis.
MM: Do you feel that level of compassion and care is compatible with a critical vision at all? In other words, once we approach poetry with this openness, can we ever find our way back to a part of ourselves that takes that stand I mentioned above, that says “Here is good poetry” and “Here is work that needs something, that lacks something.”?
JDLO: I think you and I are describing the same process except with one minor difference: the judgement. Will you like every poem? No, everything is not for everyone. But what I hope people gain from BROWN STUDY is the ability to distinguish between personal taste and critique. One could say: this sonnet isn’t a sonnet (that’s a popular argument by purists) or one could say this sonnet doesn’t follow traditional form, but I appreciate how it achieves x, y, and z. Is that critical? I think so, but it steers clear of the “bad poem” judgement which—if I’m honest—serves who?
MM: I think you’re right, I’m not sure that sort of judgement serves anyone per se. I’ll be thinking about that.
Can we wrap up by hearing your thoughts on annotating as an act of care? What tenderness is afforded to you as someone noting details?
JDLO: For me annotating texts has been a lifelong practice. It’s time I set aside to completely focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. It’s space for the mind to roam and make connections that might otherwise escape me. Forty hours a week I’m a data analyst, the little bit of time I can buy out for deep study refreshes my spirit and fills my cup.
It’s obviously a great passion and skill of yours. Looking forward to reading BROWN STUDY
Things I wish I’d asked her: What other lifeforms inspire you? What about writers’ goals in writing a poem, and how does that goal change the poem? Is the author Dead or Alive?
Jeni De La O is an AfroCuban poet and storyteller out of Detroit. She is a co-founder of The Estuary Collective, and Managing Editor of Kissing Dynamite Poetry. Find her at: http://www.croquetalessinthecity.com
Mordecai Martin has lived in New York, Philadelphia, Mexico City and Jerusalem. Maybe he’ll live near you next, who knows. His writing appears in Funicular, X-Ray, Sortes, Gone Lawn, and Anti-Heroin Chic. He blogs at http://www.mordecaimartin.net