Thursday, September 15, 2022

Q&A with Jessica Lawson




Jessica Lawson is the author of the new poetry collection Gash Atlas. She also has written the chapbook Rot Contracts, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Rumpus and Entropy. Also an educator, she lives in Colorado.


Q: What inspired you to write your new collection?


A: I was initially playing around with the idea of maps and mapping, and started writing poems that were “maps” of non-geographical spaces (including maps of emotions, bodies, and more). One of the poems from that short period did end up in the book, but for the most part I was still waiting for something to push the book into shape.


Then the 2016 election happened. I was understandably terrified, both for my immediate family and for so many others in and beyond my community. I wanted to respond both to the immediate nightmare scenario embodied in the Trump presidency, and to reckon with the unsettling continuity it had with so many other cultural moments before it.


As the political circumstances of the moment began to shape my writing, maps suddenly took on a whole new meaning. Maps brought with them the history of settler colonialism, as a tool that reflected the violent placement and movement of borders. Maps also implied a kind of selective hypervisibility that both makes a geographical space culturally legible and renders it subject to external control.


All of these things felt especially unsettling in 2016. I thought a lot about how people who had accrued new political rights during the previous administration, and who had made themselves visible to the state in doing so, were now vulnerable to this new administration precisely because of that visibility. To be mapped was to be made a target. 


Q: What do you see as the role of “Christopher Columbus” in the book?


A: The most important thing to me is the repetition of Columbus throughout the book in different guises and locations, from law enforcement to the university to the White House to the speaker’s own family. He is both omnipresent as well as particularized to every instance in which he appears.


So, sometimes he is the actual historical Columbus, but he is also an overarching figure for all white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, and the fact that he shows up everywhere is an indictment of the many institutions and cultural forces that have those values at the wheel.


And finally, his relationship with my speaker gave me a way to think through her own complicity in his violence. The book’s interrogation starts to slowly shift from the Trump administration to white womanhood itself.


Q: How was the collection's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The poems in the beginning of the book are all labeled as “maps,” so the word Atlas was a way of extending that idea, to say that the book itself is a map collection. Gash refers most immediately to the idea of a wound, suggesting that the book maps different sites of violence. It also, for me, carries the dark possibility that the Atlas is itself performing that violence.


The word Gash was also important in one other way, because of its disturbing use as an innuendo for labia, which connected it to the way the book reflects on the topic of sexual violence in particular (especially in the first section).


Q: The writer Joyelle McSweeney said of the book, “Gash Atlas turns the log-book of patriarchy inside out.” What do you think of that description?


A: I was beside myself when I read that, and am incredibly thankful for those words. It felt as if she was describing the dream version of what I would have wanted this book to do. Whether in its exploration of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, or other forms of oppression, the act of writing the book felt like a constant turning inside out, particularly as the poems began to interrogate the book’s own speaker.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve been working on some stand-alone essay hybrid pieces based on the recent birth of my third child (one of these pieces is forthcoming in October). Beyond that, I’ve been slowly hammering out the structure for my second book project, which explores the impact of trauma on a person’s relationship with their own body, and especially that body’s relationship with money.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: A lot of what is happening in Gash Atlas, on a formal level, falls into the category of experimental poetry and hybrid poetry.


This is a big part of my writing in general, but I care about the work it’s doing in this collection, because there is sometimes the false assumption that experimental writing is apolitical. Most of my favorite experimental writing was produced by radical writers who were engaged in activism both on and off the page, and that’s a history that is worth knowing and reclaiming. 


Also, the book is funnier than I generally make it sound, though a lot of the humor is more “funny uh-oh” than “funny ha-ha.” When doing live readings I take care to pace my audience by alternating the poems they can laugh at with the heavier, more difficult ones. Humor doesn’t let us off the hook, but it offers, I hope, relief in the process of going deeper.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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