The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Iris Jamahl Dunkle about her new collection Interrupted Geographies, writing against the pastoral tradition, the power of persona poems, and the town of Pithole.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: How did you wind up writing about an oil town in Pennsylvania, among other places?
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: I ended up in Pennsylvania when I got an offer to teach at Clarion University in Western PA. Pennsylvania is cold. And as a Californian I’m a baby when it comes to snow, so I spent a lot of time in the special collections at Clarion. It’s there where I stumbled upon a book about the history of Pithole. And who wouldn’t write a book about a place called Pithole, right?
Brian S: No kidding! We don’t see new cities with names like that anymore. They all seem like the names of gated communities, which echo that bullshit pastoral landscape that Marlowe praised.
Did you ever visit the remains of the city?
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Yes. I’ve visited the remains of Pithole several times. It’s just a big field on a hillside. In the spring, they mow the streets so can imagine the layout. It’s haunting to see. The only thing that remains is the basement of the Methodist church.
Brian S: Yeah, that seems eerie. Like you’re begging for ghosts to pop up out of the ground. And I don’t even believe in ghosts!
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Yes, if there is anywhere where ghosts would want to talk, it’s Pithole. As a Westerner, I had no idea about the oil boom that happened in PA. I always thought Gold Rush towns in the Sierra Foothills were tough, but they had nothing on Pithole.
Brian S: In the piece I wrote announcing this selection, I claimed that you fall on William Carlos Williams’s side in the great pastoral debate. I had in mind that line from “Raleigh Was Right”: “We cannot go to the country, for the country will bring us no peace.” Is that a fair characterization of your feelings?
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Yes! We can’t go to the country and expect it to become what we want it to become. We will see in it what we see in ourselves.
Brian S: So how do you approach writing about landscapes or geographies and still resist the lure of the pastoral, of nostalgia?
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: It’s hard. I think our urge as poets is to force meaning on the landscape. A lot of this book is set in a landscape and/or time that was foreign to me or new to me (including the first section on motherhood). I think being in that space—of being an outsider looking in—helped me keep a view freed from nostalgia. I think the only way to write about historical places is without nostalgia because history is just one version of the story that got written down.
Brian S: Is that why you chose to write so much of this in persona poems? That gives you some more license, in a way, to create stories.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Yes. I chose persona poems because I saw that so many of the women of Pithole—the prostitutes, the madams, the washerwomen—had no voice in the recorded histories. I wanted to give them a voice to speak back in.
Brian S: You can do that with almost any time period, right? I’ve been working on a book that takes/creates voices from the Old Testament, and I have to create the women most of the time. Very few have a voice.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Yep. There’s lots of work to be done in that area.
Brian S: You mentioned earlier the landscape of the first section as motherhood. Can you talk a little more about those poems and the way you saw that experience as an interrupted geography?
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Sure! When I had my first son, I was overwhelmed with the shift it made in our life. We had just moved to Cleveland for my husband to attend law school and I was far away from my family and friends. I just remember feeling like the whole map I had made for my life had been completely interrupted and altered. My second son was born with medical issues and we spent the first few years of his life in and out of hospitals. Those early years of their lives are a blur of love and rebirth. It’s like they made me into a new person.
Brian S: Yeah, I can relate. We moved to Iowa and then had the twins and all our family is far away. I don’t know that I’d have compared it to an earthquake without you saying it, but it’s an apt description. The ground wobbles on the regular, still, and they’re three and a half now.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Oh wow! Twins! Yes, I bet it does!
Brian S: The title poem seems to reflect on that idea a little more than I realized when I first read it.
Still, I can’t lose the education of
earthquakes. What’s under me now may (no, will)
rise up, so best get to know it.
When did that poem come into being in relation to the rest of the book?
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Yes, I grew up (literally) on a fault. So, earthquakes are in my blood. I wrote a first draft of that poem and many of the poems in the last section of the book over the course of a poem-a-day project I did in May 2012. The title is a nod to one of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop.
Brian S: I’ve only ever experienced one earthquake where I really knew what it was—in 2003, in Berkeley, before I’d even officially moved to the area—but it’s a memory that’s stayed with me. But I’ve lived most of my life in places where nature seems determined to wipe the city off the map and reclaim it in some way, which may be one of the things that really drew me to your book.
And to go back to where I started, with the notion of the pastoral, maybe that’s why I rebel against that notion so much, because my experience of nature hasn’t been one of harmony or balance, but of potential destruction. Like, the country is where things eat you after you fall down a hillside and break an ankle!
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Right? When I wrote this book, I was really fascinated by Susan Briante‘s collection, Utopia Minus, that came out 2011 from Ahsahta Press. Have you ever read it? It’s a study of something that rises into ruin even before it was built. I loved that premise, because it seemed more real.
Brian S: I haven’t, but I’ll have to check it out.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: The funny thing is, I grew up in the county. I love it. I live on a ten-acre old apple orchard. But, every landscape has its darkness lurking underneath.
Brian S: I’ll say this much—if I had to choose between the country and the suburbs, I’d take the country, because at least there’s personality there. I lived in both as a child.
What’s it been like working with Trio House Press? This is your second book with them, and they have a very interesting model from what I can tell.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: I absolutely love working with the editors at Trio House Press. They put out my first book and it was an amazing experience. First, to have Ross Gay talk to you about your poems (SWOON!) But, even more so to work with editors like Tayve Neese who put her heart and soul into making my poems the best they could be. I really felt like she cared about my work. They are a hands-on press. And every book they produce is finely crafted from cover to font type. Plus, they are a lot of fun to hang out with at AWP.
Brian S: And part of the publication deal is that you have to pitch in with the press in some way for the next couple of years, right? So there’s a cooperative aspect to it?
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Yes, you take on something like sending out review copies, or updating the social media feeds. It’s minimal, but it makes you feel like you are a part of process. Plus, you get to know all of the other authors.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? Any forthcoming books we should know about?
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Well, I’ve been reading a lot of prose. I’ve been knee-deep in Octavia Butler and loving it. I also read Roxane Gay’s Hunger earlier this summer and Thrity Umrigar’s Everybody’s Son. On the poetry side, I’ve been reading Hundred-Year Wave by Rachel Richardson, Romey’s Order by Atsuro Riley, and catching up on Tracy K. Smith’s amazing work.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: I will definitely pick that up that graphic novel! As far as my new work is concerned, I just turned in the biography I wrote about Charmian Kittredge London, Jack London’s wife. While I was writing prose, I had to write poetry in order to make sense of all of the primary documents I was working with, so I have a new manuscript I’m working on about the lives of Jack and Charmian London that’s tentatively called “Human Document.” (I stole the term from Jack London; it was the term he used to describe photographs.)
Brian S: Nice! Can’t wait to see it. Thanks for joining us tonight, and for writing this terrific book.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: Thank you so much for having me! It was great to chat with you!