My girlfriend and I are both poets. As a result, we share our writing with each other, as well as the writing of other poets we admire or discover. Recently, my girlfriend happened upon The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, by Jillian Weise from Soft Skull Press, and she’s read me about every single poem out of that collection and with good reason: It rocks!
At 26, Weise has been shooting through the academic and poetic stratosphere. After graduating from Florida State and getting her MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Weise is currently finishing up her PhD at the University of Cincinnati and plans on teaching at Clemson in the fall. She’s also managed to find the time to work as an editorial assistant at The Paris Review and has had two collections of poems published, as well as four one-act plays produced. I’m not even going to get into her fellowships & awards–it’s too exhausting. And did I mention that Weise is an amputee herself (an above-the-knee amputation as the result of a birth defect)?
It’s easy to get distracted by all the success surrounding Weise and forget about her actual writing, but that would be a mistake. In The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, Weise mixes sadness with black humor and writes candidly about the confines of the human body–something everyone can relate to, whether an amputee or not.
One passage, in particular, which I love is from “I Want You to Know This.”
He’s afraid to hold my hand because he thinks
it might throw me off balance. Hand-holding
doesn’t throw me off balance.
I wanted you to know this, because maybe you
wondered about people with fake legs; maybe
you wanted to hold their hand but you didn’t
because you thought you might trip.
And with that, let’s take a trip with Weise through one of the more energetic interviews I’ve had in a while.
When and why did you start writing poetry?
I started writing on a dare from this guy who goes by Slick Daniels. We were taking a survey course at FSU when we ran into the Modernists. Slick said he was taking Poetry Workshop and dared me. The class was taught by Cynie Cory, who has the same enthusiasm for poems as Noah did for animals. We read lots of alive writers, which was more exciting than ever–that these guys were alive, and you could e-mail them.
We ended up under a tin roof, blazing through stacks of journals, heard the hoot of the Sirens, drove out to St. George’s Island, the whole time asking: How did you do that in the poem? And how does Tate do what he does in poems? And isn’t it effing cool? But what does it mean? And are you going to kiss me or something?
You mentioned that your first poem accepted for publication was to The Atlantic. Could you explain your submission process at that time? How long did you submit poems before that first acceptance? Has your
submission process changed any since then?
Slick Daniels sent his poems to one journal at a time while I was shadier about it. I had poems out–who knows which ones and who knows where.
When the rejections came, we shellacked them to stools & sat on them. This plan did work. I sent the same batch of poems to ten journals a month, for about six months, before The Atlantic acceptance. I didn’t know The
Creative writing teachers often chant, “Write what you know,” to their creative writing students, especially at the beginning levels. With two published collections dealing with the body, do you agree with
Maybe what teachers mean when they say that is don’t write about the fields of sea lilies stretching for hundreds of yards across the ocean floor if you are not an oceanographer. I say go ahead & write your sea lily poem. The worst thing that can happen is it’s a bad poem. The best thing that can happen is you are the next Hilda Doolittle.
I was told to write poems that cost me something to write them. They cost me a lot. Too much? I’m still carrying ones and zeros on the budget. I go to poems looking for heart. You can tell when a poet has put a lot of heart into the poem and you can tell when they left it out. Some of them favor brain. But for me, all brain is no ache but headache.
In The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, you deal with the body from a perspective most readers have never experienced. Yet, the collection is surprisingly accessible, perhaps because of the very direct and honest way you treat your subject. Do you feel writing honestly, even if the reader has never experienced it, helps make subject accessible for everyone?
Have you heard Maurice Manning read “Three Truths, One Story”?
I’m happy the poetry comes off honest, but it also makes me nervous since many of the facts of the poems are not true. I am faithful only to feeling. I like Emerson’s alter idem, second self, and I like to think the speakers of the poems are second selves. Poems of mine that fail fail because they are too much second and not enough self.
As for the perspective, the disabled body has been off-limits in poetry (and culture). I felt compelled to write about it, it being a part of myself. On those rare occasions when disability happens in poems it is typically bromidic. Usually it is just some poet who has run out of ideas, and thinks suddenly, “A-ha, black face!” and then thinks, “No, no, Berryman did it, and it’s offensive,” then thinks: “A-ha, the disabled! Yes, that’s it, that’s it.” This results in phantom pain mock-ups, dismemberment metaphors, and perhaps a “cripple” who enters the poem for comment.
You’ve quickly shot through the graduate program and plan on teaching at Clemson in the fall. What do you feel are the benefits of graduate study? Also, do you feel there are any possible drawbacks?
I’m thrilled to be joining Clemson. There is nothing else I can imagine doing for a living than teaching poetry. It’s a blast.
Prior to a teaching gig, the situation is this: You want to write but who will pay you to do it? And what else might they make you do in return for the money? The point is to become a better writer and meet others with the same task. The possible drawback is that some people, not at my universities of course, aren’t really interested in writing. They’re more interested in crack cocaine.
With four one-act plays produced, do you consider yourself more of a playwright or a poet? Also, do you feel that one style comes easier than the other?
Yes. Both require listening to people, not just what they are saying, but where they are putting their commas in the air. The last poem I wrote came out of overhearing this guy say, “I just broke up with
started with hearing someone say, “He’s wearing his belt of fuckdom again.” I look for these definitely said things, as they are translated, like this from Toomer’s Cane: “You are the sleepiest man I ever seed.” I love that. It sounds like someone said that to Toomer or he overheard it somewhere. I know it’s a play when there’s too much talking in the poem.
As a former editorial assistant for The Paris Review, did you learn anything about the submission, writing and/or editorial process that’s helped you as a writer? If so, what?
I learned so much from Brigid Hughes, then editor, who now edits A Public Space (http://www.apublicspace.org/) and who is invested in each piece of mail that passes her desk. I said, “Brigid, how do we know when something is good enough?” And she said, without hesitating, “It is simply undeniable.”
If you could pass on one piece of advice to other poets, what would it be?
There is no such thing as writer’s block.
Here are some Jillian Weise links:
* Soft Skull Press page for The Amputee’s Guide to Sex (includes poems from the book)
* “Letter From Buenos Aires” on A Public Space
* “After Stein If She Were Heterosexually Inclined (With a Nod to Hugh Prather)” on Apocryphal Text
* “Dating, Like Surgery” first place from New Millenium Writings
* “Us, Like a Bad Mix Tape” on Verse Daily
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