The Rumpus Interview with Jennifer Martelli

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Jennifer Martelli’s bold, subversive poems are driven by a fierce agency of desire and exploration. Her work meditates on one’s sense of power in the world, engaging readers specifically with raw, haunting images of women who inhabit a larger complexity. Rendered with sensual lyricism, her poetry grapples with themes of violence, family, motherhood, tradition, and sexuality, as memory intersects with contemporary myths and tragic histories. The poet January Gill O’Neil describes Martelli’s work as “powerful as a thunderclap, these poems have grit… are unflinching in their exploration of boundaries… we must listen to this brave, new voice.”

Martelli’s debut collection The Uncanny Valley was recently released from Big Table Publishing Company. She is the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Awards. A finalist for the Sue Elkind Poetry Prize, Martelli’s poems have appeared in a wide range of literary journals, including The Mississippi Review, The Bellingham Review, The Denver Quarterly, Gargoyle, Kalliope, and Folio, among many others. Her chapbook, Apostrophe, was published in 2011. She graduated from Boston University and The Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Jennifer Martelli about The Uncanny Valley.

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The Rumpus: I found it very fitting that The Uncanny Valley is prefaced by an Anne Sexton quote, “Oh mother-eye, oh mother-eye, crush me in.” The presence of the mother figure is a powerful reoccurrence in many of the poems throughout this collection. In “Colostrum,” for instance, the speaker, sitting beside her husband, describes how “the drop of clear pre-milk / satisfies no one’s ache. It is / tasteless. He licks the tip of my finger, / You’re a mammal, he says, / and almost looks relieved.” Likewise, in several of the poems featured in the section, “She and I,” the speaker explores her mother’s Alzheimer’s and gradual estrangement from reality. The disease steals the woman’s ability to recognize one of her daughters, as depicted in “No Face.” In a more traditional sense, the Madonna figure also becomes a reoccurring image, as conveyed in “Wives,” where a lawn statue is at first revered for its miracle-bringing qualities, until terrifying realities emerge. This leads to public fear and vandalism when “[s]omeone goug[es] the Madonna’s face with a hammer’s claw.” Such images suggest a breakdown in traditional roles or influence. What drew you to these reoccurring images of the mother figure?

Jennifer Martelli: For me, motherhood is the most terrifying thing in the world. The Sexton quote feels biographical in that sense. There’s a quote by Emerson, “the mother is the first circle.”

And, Revere, Massachusetts, where I grew up, was saturated with images of the holy mother. I’m still writing about this phenomenon of this talking Madonna from my youth because it was so horrifying. Violence was implicit. You used to get these little prayer cards, these little mini portraits of saints that were done in these beautiful jewel-toned colors. I remember one of St. Maria Goretti, who, instead of being raped, chose to be stabbed to death. This was perceived as a good thing, especially when she forgave her attacker as she lay dying.

I grew up in a family of all girls, including my first generation of cousins, and we were with our mothers all of the time. My sisters and I are still sifting through the experience of our mother’s Alzheimer’s. Symptomatically, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia can be very similar, sharing features such as hallucinations and hearing voices. They are even treated with some of the same medications. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding this. With Alzheimer’s, it never gets better, it only goes in one direction for the afflicted. But what happens with this disease, especially when it affects a parent is that there is this total reversal of roles for the adult children involved. Some people say it’s a corrective experience, but I can’t say that for sure. I’ve read essays by caregivers, many of whom say that it’s a privilege to take care of their loved ones who suffer. I wasn’t raised to be physically or emotionally intimate in that capacity. To suddenly have to care for a parent in that way is very difficult. In my poem “Mother of Dolls,” for instance, there’s that image of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s sitting together, holding their baby dolls. There’s that sort of breakdown of relationships, along with having to live in someone else’s reality. It feels unnatural compared to the alternative: someone getting older and drifting off into death. There’s a death before the death that happens.

And then there’s my own experience of being a mother and having a daughter of my own. It’s a weird thing, a struggle I explore in some of my poems such as “Orlando.” How is a woman looked at sexually? It’s a strange thing. On the one hand, I want my daughter to be considered pretty, and yet that in itself feels so wrong, like I’m selling her at the market or something.

In general, I’m fascinated by the mother image, and also by the presence of the veil in other cultures. In Revere, which has always been a city of immigrants, the newest wave of families is predominantly Muslim. You see a lot of veiled women walking through the streets and in the shops. They remind me a bit of the Yūrei ghost women (often portrayed with long, black hair and a white dress) in Japanese horror films. What are the stories of the Yūrei really about? Jilted lovers, women who were treated badly. What is very frightening about these movies is their very genesis, which is a breakdown of order. These thoughts and ideas played a part in some of my poems such as “No Face.” These images resurface there, this image of having no face in the mirror, of the face being veiled or obscured in some way.

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The Rumpus: Such evocative images of women also depict those who wrestle with their own agency, be it through interactions with men and family members, or their response to difficult and often tragic circumstances. At certain points, women appear obscured, while in other instances, images are at once striking and sensual, some charged with desire, as in the poem “Austerlitz,” which opens with a man haunted by “the slim-ankled love, / the copper snake— / haired ghost, who’s gone for good to the steeplebush. She put a drop / of honey on her tongue then took him in her mouth. How can he / look at anything else?”

Images of violence and disfigurement also serve as a continuous presence. In “Joan Mitchell Mulls a Possible Mandibulectomy,” the famed abstract expressionist painter confronts the devastating treatment options of her cancer. “Picture of a Botched Abortion” meditates on the tragic death of Gerri Santoro as immortalized through a gruesome textbook photo. And a kind of voyeurism is conveyed, as the speaker of “Orlando Poem” observes her poolside teenage daughter, desired by men and envied by other girls. The speaker states “we count up how many men watch our daughters: oh / and the girls / are taught no love for each other.” How does image arise for you in a poem, particularly in contemplating the complexities that arise around the power and agency of women?

Martelli: There is definitely this question of female agency, along with a quarrel with the self that is, for me, constant. How women view one another can also be very disturbing. Whether or not you call that female misogyny troubles me. The poem “Austerlitz” was written after I visited the Millay Colony one summer. Edna St. Vincent Millay was a rockstar in her time, as big as a poet can get, and would fill up concert halls full of people who’d come to listen to her poetry. She was so sexual in her work and in her life. When Modernism came into popularity, she fell out of favor, and her work was largely ignored. In the end, she suffered a heart attack and died alone. There is this terrible sense of invisibility and indifference surrounding her demise. No one cared about her anymore. She wasn’t listened to and then she died. That is so moving to me. That’s the woman I keep writing about—not necessarily Edna St. Vincent Millay—but the unseen, unheard woman. For Millay, even if she was regarded as a genius, there was still this power given by and then taken away by men.

My earliest poetic influences were all women. I always loved Elizabeth Bishop. What I really admired about her besides the fact that she’s this tragic figure, this lonely character, is the engagement her work fosters with the reader. If you look at her poems, you see that she, the speaker, is talking to you. It’s this act of discovery as the poem unfolds. For instance, in Bishop’s “Poem,” when she sees this little drawing of the town she grew up in, she exclaims, “I know it! I know that town.” I love that poem because for me right away she wants to have this relationship with the reader. That was always very moving to me, this sense of I want to tell you this—you, the reader. Not this stranger or some beloved. Marie Howe does this too. When I first began writing, Howe was a huge influence on my work. My first teacher really. We’d have these workshops in her kitchen. There is an immediacy to her style, a desire to communicate and be heard. I will accept a lot of weirdness in poetry too. I admire Lucie Brock-Broido in that sense, and Jean Valentine, too.

Rumpus: In an interview with poet Doug Holder for the series Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer, you say, “An ‘Uncanny Valley’ is a term in aesthetics that describes things that look right but don’t feel right,” and that the book itself “is essentially biographical” as many of the poems explore growing up in the working class Italian-American neighborhood of Revere. I’m fascinated by how you approached this aesthetic theme as a lens for your work, and also in how you structured the collection into these different gendered sections, such as “He and I” or “She.”

Martelli: The original title for this book was “Mal’Occhio,” which is what Southern Italians call the evil eye, but my editor and publisher, Robin Stratton, was concerned that not everyone might know what that means. However, I still wanted to keep this image of the “bad eye,” along with this idea of looking and being perceived, alive throughout the collection. That’s where the uncanny valley came in.

In terms of structure, I think that’s a credit to the poet Jennifer Jean. When I was putting the original manuscript together, it was pretty much chronological. It started with my Revere poems (many of them are in the third section now), but I just wasn’t feeling that order. As a writer, you instinctively know when you’re getting it right and when you’re not. I knew the poems were there, that there was a story arc emerging from them somewhere, but I needed another set of eyes to look at it. Jennifer Jean and I sat together and discussed how the poems fit together both in terms of seeing and images of the eye. For instance, poems in the “He” section responded to the “he” in my life, in terms of marriage and family. “They” focuses on landscape, and one’s relationship to place, so in that section I included my Revere and Marblehead poems. And then a lot of poems about making things appear in “She.” Each section is chronological and also overlapping but circle around the same questions—How am I looking at this? How are others looking at me? How am I envisioning them?

Rumpus: It’s interesting that “Mal’Occhio” was originally going to be the title for the collection, as many of the poems intertwine tradition and folklore, playing on both Catholic and Pagan images, along with old Southern Italian customs that involve women utilizing ancient rituals as a means of empowerment and agency. I think of the poem “Festival of the Eclipse,” in which the speaker sticks pins in what appears to be a kind of voodoo doll.

Martelli: As with most religions, ritual plays such a huge part. There’s something comforting about ritual, the rhythm of a Catholic mass, for instance. These things are encoded in my DNA. I think of those poems from the collection that draw from myth such as “Dog Days” and “Mal’Occhio.” In my experience growing up there was always such a thin veneer between anything you’d call “Christian” over these really Pagan rituals. I loved that. It’s a language I speak and I get it. I think these myths and archetypes are always there. The story may change from place to place but everyone knows loneliness, indifference, lov,e or compulsion. This whole idea of trying to get power while facing these warring feelings is a reoccurring theme. In “Stone Formations in a Marginal Way,” the speaker is building a rock structure in response to the loss of a female friendship. I later came to discover that such formations exist all over Massachusetts, especially in Ogunquit. There’s a sense of magical thinking that comes into play with the speaker, this idea that I’m going to build you into being through stone formation. You’ll be back and we’ll be friends again. The breakdown of female relationships has always been very more painful for me personally, how to grapple with that sense of loss and anger.

Rumpus: That’s echoed in the poem “Gephyrophobia (Fear of Crossing Bridges),” with how the speaker contemplates not only the loss of friendships but also the danger of bridges and the fragility of life as indicated by the presence of suicide. I found this mirrored in other poems throughout the collection that grapple with a sense of instability that reshapes one’s owncommunities and personal relationships. How do you approach loss in your poems?

Martelli: A bulk of these poems were written when my parents were dying. It was as if an entire generation was dying at the time. For better or worse, that was the generation that raised me, and it was gone. I also went through a period where a lot of old friendships that I’d had for quite a long time were falling away. For me, loss is a much more tangible thing than gratitude. I can get in touch with loss more than joy. Because I’m afraid to feel the latter too much. I was taught that if you have too much or if you brag or even if you say to your own kid, “You’re so pretty,” then this could incur the wrath of the gods, the curse of envy, and then that’s it, that good fortune is taken away. It’s over. So there was always this weird sense of Feel good but don’t feel that good about yourself. Don’t let anyone else know. Don’t be a big shot. This is something I think many women internalize. Being silent, being veiled. I bring it up also in “The Evil Fields” with that image of the Vestal Virgins in Rome, who would be buried alive if they broke their vows of chastity. That was the punishment. These themes of silence, power, and sexuality are so old but appear again and again in contemporary life.

Rumpus: Your poems demonstrate a wide range of style and structure. I think of “Women Making Omens,” a response to Franz Kafka’s “Up the in Gallery,” which taps into the same free-flowing vein of risk and possibility. Other poems like “Gephyrophobia (Fear of Crossing Bridges)” seem to emerge from memory, weaving together past and present conversations and experiences with friends. Where do poems start for you?

Martelli: If I can get the syntactical rhythm going first then I feel much more comfortable in a poem. Obviously image is important too, but I need to discover the rhythm of a poem first. This happens to me when I write prose, too. Often I find that when I also engage in actual physical movement, such as a walk or a bike ride, it helps the poem emerge. I discover how to put the sentences together and go onto the next image. With poetry you have a bit more freedom—you don’t need as many transitions.

I once had Stephen Dobyns as a teacher, and he would say “I can’t trust the speaker. I can’t trust them.” I think about that a lot. I don’t want to be mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. “Gephyrophobia,” for instance, was a response to Marie Howe’s “How Some of It Happened,” especially when the speaker says, “So you can understand.” Again there’s that sense of the poet talking to you the reader and not to a hypothetical you. That’s as much a part of the poem as anything in the poem itself.

Rumpus: Thank you so much for doing this interview. Do you have another collection in the works or any publications forthcoming?

Martelli: Thanks so much. I have new poetry in Alyss, some forthcoming in PANK, and an essay in The Baltimore Review, which speaks to everything we’ve been talking about here, thought with a focus on crossword puzzles and my obsession with them. Many of the new poems in my next collection all deal with the female body. I have a couple of working titles, one of them being Gigantic Female, and the other one is a quote from Ovid’s Metamorphosis that states, “all things are born to change their shape.” I’m fascinated with those myths of gods turning women into trees and flowers. That’s terrifying to me. Were those transformed still thinking? They just couldn’t move. Even those plaster Madonna statues haunt me, along with the story of Immaculate Conception. The way God insinuated himself into Mary is reminiscent of how the Greek Gods would transform women. I’m also working on a poem that responds to the tragic murder of Kitty Genovese. The whole idea of being heard but ignored is horrifying. Her story has always triggered something deep within me. I keep returning to these images. Sometimes when there’s this concentration of intent around a subject, certain images are almost given to you. They sit and they work. It’s the right impulse.

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Author photograph © Stephanie Gladstone.


Olivia Kate Cerrone’s historical novella The Hunger Saint (Bordighera Press 2017) concerns the carusi, the child-aged sulfur miners of rural Sicily. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction won the Crab Orchard Review's 2016 Jack Dyer Fiction Prize, the Mason's Road Literary Award, and first place in Italian Americana's 2012 literary contest. The Hunger Saint won a 2014 “Conference Choice Award” from the SDSU Writers’ Conference. Cerrone's short stories have appeared in various literary journals, including New South, the Berkeley Fiction Review, The MacGuffin, War, Literature and the Arts, JMWW, Word Riot, and Paterson Literary Review. She serves as an associate editor for CONSEQUENCE Magazine, and is a member of PEN American Center. Cerrone earned an MFA in fiction from New York University and a BFA from the Writing, Literature and Publishing program at Emerson College. She is currently at work on a novel set in Boston, MA called DISPLACED. Contact her at [email protected] More from this author →