Lovely to Have Your Dead (But Not Only): Jessica Lanay Interviewed by Chiwan Choi

The poet on her new book, maps as bodily marks, falling apart, and putting the pieces back together.

Jessica Lanay Cover

Sometimes, where it eventually goes seems inevitable. What began as something unexpected, as part of your work, becomes a part of you that you can’t imagine wasn’t there before.

I first met Jessica Lanay, author of the stunning debut poetry collection, am•phib•ian, when I visited a class being taught by the award-winning poet Jenny Johnson at the University of Pittsburgh. Jessica was a student in that class, and I was the visiting artist. 

But reading her book, it feels like we’ve flipped seats, that I am the student and she is the artist visiting, and I am awestruck by what she has created. It feels completely natural and right, like this was how it was always supposed to be.

Lucky for me, we became friends and see each other around Pittsburgh, meeting at bars for drinks or running into each other at Target, all pre-COVID of course. 

I had a chance to interview her over Zoom.

—Chiwan Choi

Chiwan Choi Hold on. Let me get a drink. (Chi chugs from a mezcal bottle; Jessica sips from a bottle of Hennessy.) How’s things? Work? Packing? (As we spoke, Jessica was in the middle of getting ready to move to Indiana.)

Jessica Lanay There’s so much trauma on the job. It’s like third-party trauma. So you might be the lawyer or the investigator, but then you have this client that has all this trauma that you have to process if you’re gonna help the person. And then you’ll do anything to eject yourself from it. (Chi nods and drinks; Jessica nods and sips.) This is as partying as I get. I’m thirty-three. I reached my Jesus year.

CC Do you think that as much as you were building a book you were also tearing something down?

JL Are you familiar with the Winchester Mansion? We talked about the movie; if you like horror movies with a moral and pandering, it’s your type of movie. But I was interested in the Winchester Mansion since I was like eleven. Weird spaces that are illogical and don’t make sense have always attracted me, but they seemed logical to me! No, this is how things are! Sometimes you go up seventeen stairwells, and you’re out of breath, and there’s nothing there. It’s always fascinated me, like this is how some things are built. 

This book is my Winchester. I just needed it to be accurate. I needed it to be a clockwork that failed. I needed it to be the Antikythera mechanism, the thing that the Greeks used to use to mark planetary time. I needed it to be that for me, to point different ways to eat itself, to destroy itself, because there was something about that speaker and me that needed to be destroyed. I’m always trying to figure out how to take things apart.

CC What does mapping mean to you in this book—whether it’s speaking of the body or of things we carry, legacy and grief?

JL There’s an artist named Lisa C. Soto who’s amazing, and I met her when she was doing these kinds of in situ maps, but maps from other parts of the world. One of the maps she made involved tides and that area of the world where Polynesia begins and southeastern Asian islands start. The people there figure out their way based on the pull of the tides at multiple levels of the ocean. And that’s their map. When I met Soto, I was young and curating an exhibition in New York; but learning about that is like the first time I actually thought about how we probably have as many maps in our bodies as we do systems. And I asked myself, How many maps are on me? There’s a map of marks in which people have physically hurt me. There’s a map of marks in which people have forgotten me and not seen me. There’s a map in my mind about the cruelty that I expect from the world because I grew up in an environment of emotional extremists, and nothing got the response it deserved.

CC Thinking about the beginning of each section in the book, the poem “Lilliput” repeats, opening each section, but is visually different. Can you talk about this idea of drawing and redrawing?

JL I love Jonathan Swift, and I love Gulliver’s Travels. To me, the absurdity matches what grief is like—a noisy ghost or poltergeist that keeps repeating the same thing, but time changes its shape and taste. And then I kept thinking about disconnection and loss. You become human in the way you continuously need to refill yourself when someone who is intimately close to you leaves an absence, no matter who it is. So “Lilliput” is very much about me directly confronting that foundational aspect of loss. My earliest memory is losing someone, the fear of losing someone to violence, the fear of losing someone to themselves and knowing I was losing them. And it is something about being a woman, of being Black, of the American and global South, where we have it built into our existence to constantly acknowledge loss. 

CC Can you talk about the “Fall” series of six poems that surprisingly appears early in the book?

JL The “Fall” poems are the thin plastic film between violence and intimacy and how sometimes that veil lifts and the intimacy is feeling like you want somebody to be violent with you, to break you. You want somebody to violate you while at the same time feeling like I’m gonna die if I keep doing this. I don’t know what I’m punishing myself for. When did all of my pleasure become punishment? And I just wanted to be as frank as possible up front cuz the book is also about healing, and any healing journey starts when you put the heavy shit up front. These are the losses. This is the actuary. These are the things that will never be accounted for. These are the things I can only explain to you in this moment.

I’m not gonna put a blindfold on you before I push you off the mountain, Chiwanillo.

CC Talk to me about the concrete poems. You use them as endpoints of each section, until section three, when it becomes the entire section, only to return back to a mix.

JL Each of the end poems that snakes is just one poem split up. I split it up like that because I wanted the book to have an artery. And the third section is literally about annihilation. I kept playing with form, and I just wanted the thing to unravel at the top. I think so many people want the middle, the top, the peak to be a consolidation of events that reveal, and that speaker and me as the writer needed to fall the fuck apart. Shake off the first two sections and say, “Okay, the speaker and me as the writer are different creatures now. We’ve survived the first two sections, and we’re different now.” 

The question I had in that section too is: “What do I make out of nothing?” Everything has been lost. The father’s been lost. The mother’s been lost. The ancestors are appearing in dreams. What do you do when all you have is the dead? It can be a lovely thing to have your dead. I just don’t know about them being the only.

Man, the only thing that makes life worth it is like finding who and what you love. It’s corny as shit, and it fucking sucks, but it’s true.

CC What do you love?

JL I love plainness, I love straightforwardness, I love a clear line of sight even if it leads to desolation. I love the idea of living my life as if I’m sailing a ship. I love my mother. A lot of things she did right made me, and a lot of things she did wrong made me. And I have to be grateful for that.

am•phib•ian is available for purchase here.

Chiwan Choi is the author of three collections of poetry, The Flood (Tía Chucha Press, 2010), Abductions (Writ Large Press, 2012), and The Yellow House (CCM, 2017). He wrote, presented, and destroyed the novel Ghostmaker throughout the course of 2015. Chiwan is a partner at Writ Large Press and a member of The Accomplices.

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