“I’ve always loved speaking into the void, or more precisely, speaking to the void.”
Ask (Slope Editions, 2016)
Could you share with us a poem from the chapbook?
Heat Death of the Universe
_______________Torus Poem for Anonymous
I was in love with the world
but the world was far away;
the world said, “meet me halfway”;
so I did; I stayed awake; I typed:
“I was in love with the world…”
What’s your chapbook about?
In the winter of 2013, I chinchilla-sat for my friends Hannah and Alexis while Hannah was working in San Francisco and Alexis was traveling Europe, running stadium sound for a rock band. After feeding Trillian golden raisins or watching her clean herself in magic chinchilla-cleaning dust, I’d sit at the dining room table and post on Twitter. Outside the wide-panel glass windows, snow accumulated on the Bed-Stuy rooftops, time passing slowly in the lull between the close of the fall semester and the beginning of the end-of-year holidays, a time when weather moves in and college kids and people with families in other places catch flights and buses out. The coffee shop around the corner had a table waiting and a draft that leaked through the storm doors into an overgrown backyard that hadn’t hosted a smoker since the leaves came down. Banks and Moonface and Drake crooned on the stereo speakers that hung over the wooden tables. I trekked my laptop between the chinchilla and the coffee shop at least four times a day, tweeting.
Actually, the chapbook began earlier than this. I can trace early lines to idling in traffic during my backward commute from Brooklyn to Connecticut, where I taught creative writing at the state university. A drive that felt longer each time I completed the loop, making me think (and tweet) that what I was truly experiencing wasn’t traffic but the heat death of the universe. Points of matter, from my bed to the lectern in my icy, basement classroom, were in fact, moving farther and farther apart, so slowly and coldly that only poets with incredibly sensitive calipers could measure the spread. I did in fact, as I state in the chapbook, lose a lot of followers tweeting about the heat death of the universe.
I tweeted the whole winter. Snapshot of books, one-liners, thoughts, selfies, and links to songs. I’ve always loved speaking into the void, or more precisely, speaking to the void. From AOL chatrooms to Livejournal posts, speaking to the void has been one of the most rewarding and consistent activities I’ve undertaken in my life. Describing myself to the void has blessed me with so many things: friends, readings, publications, youth.
Hannah and Alexis broke up. The next time I chinchilla-sat for Hannah, who maintained primary chinchilla custody, she had moved to Sunset Park. After feeding Trillian raisins, I’d walk the park, watching seniors do tai-chi in the meadow, flute music on a boombox powered by batteries that were losing their juice. I tweeted the persistent humidity in the cool-ish autumn evening, the globes of light surrounding the streetlamps like halos of insects. Sometimes the halos were actual halos of insects. What I love about poetry is that the actual and what the actual is like aren’t very different at all. I suppose this is also a rough description of the way we create ourselves on social media.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook?
One of my favorite places in Brooklyn is the Transmitter Park pier in Greenpoint. Where the East River Ferry docks, there’s a row of lights that glimmer on the water as the sun goes down. At night, the row of lights reminds me of a bead necklace, not strung on an elegant neck, but laid flat on a dark blue table. The metaphor springs from the dream I have in the chapbook, the dream of a broken necklace. Many of the poems in Ask are tweets strung together in stanzas, like a necklace. Flat on a table, flat on the page. The tweets about walking in the Transmitter Park are the oldest tweets in Ask.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design?
The editors at Slope Editions are brilliant book artists who designed and produced the physical form of the finished chapbook. The long poem, entitled “Ask,” is bound in a booklet, but the other poems are formatted in a way that the shape of the paper that the poems are printed on references the online platform that the poem itself is referencing. This sounds complicated. Let me explain.
For example, “Love Poem (15 Tweets)” is printed petite and tucked into an envelope that resembles the envelope icon you click on to access your Direct Messages on Twitter. “My OkCupid Profile (Vol. 1-3)” is printed on tall, thick paper like a fine dining menu. The folded verses of “Military Spring (5 Tumblr Posts)” accordion downward, the way that comments on reblogged Tumblr posts visually form “stairs” as they scroll down the newsfeed. When reading Ask, the reader doesn’t approach the poems linearly, as one would with a traditionally bound book. Instead, the reader unbinds the chapbook and is free to switch between poems as they would move from one social media platform to the next, switching between tabs or clicking from one website or profile to another.
I settled on the title Ask because the verb Ask describes what we do when we go online. We ask Google for answers. We ask others to guess at our motives, match our bids, like our jokes, comment on our salads. We ask others take a chance on loving us. Also, at the time, I was answering questions at an Ask.fm profile and maintaining casual correspondence with friends and strangers in the Ask portal on my Tumblr. Remember Ask Jeeves? It’s now Ask.com. “Ask” was the reoccurring word, so Ask it was and is.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook.
I have a book coming out next year called On a Clear Day. One of my blurb writers wrote that I’d undertaken the project of loneliness. Am I lonely? It’s something I’ve wondered and truthfully, I don’t know if I’m lonely or if my wire is tuned to a solitary channel. I like being alone, taking walks alone, reading Twitter as though it were a divining practice in another century. When I’m with friends or witnessing art, I’m completely present, but I feel absolutely alive when I’m gorging myself on solitude.
While I wouldn’t have described my forthcoming book as a project of loneliness, I might be tempted to use that term to describe Ask. There was a period of time where I was writing, tweeting, where I felt a watery loneliness. Not a lemon loneliness where happy couples in yellow sweaters fall out of bars and stumble into me on a Thursday night in New York City, but a silk loneliness that feels more akin to receptivity. I don’t always need a person to talk to, but I do need to talk… silently. Or quietly. Maybe my blog is my “thou.” Sometimes, when I write online, I feel like I’m talking to someone I love very much who hasn’t yet arrived. Sometimes I feel I’m talking to everyone I’ve ever known.
I suppose I could say that my process for writing is exactly what I’ve described in the chapbook. I walk, I tweet, I sit in the park. I drink a hot coffee. Something speaks to me. I remember it like it’s something I have to tell the most beautiful, wonderful person in the world who also happens to want to listen to me, someone who wants to listen very much. And I don’t know who that person is, so I say it to the internet.
When I was in high school, as soon as I could drive, my other friend and I would drive all day, anywhere, for any reason. One day, we caught a good station somewhere in the hills, but as soon we started to get into the song, the song began to break. So we spun out in a dirt patch to turn around to chase it, but the song broke again. So we took off down an ancillary road, following the signal, and then another road, chasing and catching the song and losing it when it cracked until the song was over and the song cued next was entirely unsatisfactory. Where were we? We were driving.
I follow one hilarious tweet to another hilarious profile. It isn’t a profile for a person. It’s Nihilist Arby’s. This is this process. It’s always been the process. Where to next?
Could you describe each of your chapbooks in chronological order?
I’ll try to describe each of my chapbooks using only five things.
Listening for Earthquakes (Caketrain, 2012)
moonlight, lemon, motorcycle tattoo, ice pick, almond
Rewilding (Ahsahta Press, 2013)
autofocus, black jack, flower, rust, yellow jacket
True Crime (NAP, 2014)
raccoon, dream dictionary, cherry, mirror, snowdrift
Seven Sunsets (The Lettered Streets Press, 2015)
skyscraper, napkin, sine wave, black box, orange soda
Ask (Slope Editions, 2016)
lilacs, screenshot, iPad, hot dog, metal dog dish
The Stag (Dancing Girl Press, forthcoming 2016 or 2017)
coins, stompbox, licorice, felt mallets, bike chain
What are you working on now?
A novel. An album that I’ve been working on forever. A short film. I can’t go into more detail because the more I describe what I work on, the less I work on it. I’m so superstitious! I’m hoarding my energy so that I can funnel it into my work, my day job, my daily practices, and my relationships.
Jasmine Dreame Wagner is the author of Rings (Kelsey Street Press, 2014) and four chapbooks: Ask (Slope Editions, 2016), Seven Sunsets (The Lettered Streets Press, 2015), Rewilding (Ahsahta Press, 2013), and Listening for Earthquakes (Caketrain Journal and Press, 2012.) Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Letters & Commentary, Colorado Review, Fence, Hyperallergic, New American Writing, Seattle Review, Verse, and in two anthologies: The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012) and Lost and Found: Stories from New York (Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood Books, 2009.) A graduate of Columbia University, Wagner has received grants and fellowships from the Connecticut Office of the Arts, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and The Wassaic Project. On a Clear Day, a full-length collection of lyric essays, is forthcoming from Ahsahta Press in 2017.
Ask at Slope Editions