Jenny Boully’s newest work, Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life, melds philosophical theory and personal narrative, poetic language and meditation, to make manifest how “multifarious is a writing life.”
Nearly two decades in the making, Boully’s collection breaks down the boundary between theory and poetry (if a demarcation even exists) in pieces that examine the connections between natural disasters and grammatical tenses; witchcraft and writing pedagogy; daydreaming, lilacs, sincerity and love. To call Boully’s book a collection is a bit imprecise—rather, it is an admixture: Boully brews the varying elements of writing, not-writing, and the equivocal threshold between them with an entrancing alchemy all her own.
In March, I spoke with Boully—whose previous books include The Body and The Book of Beginnings and Endings—at her thirteenth floor office at Columbia College. We discussed the construction of voice, occupying liminal spaces, and editing with sincerity.
The Rumpus: In Betwixt-and-Between, you use the phrase “make manifest” five times. What meaning is embodied in this phrase for you?
Jenny Boully: “Make manifest” was one of those terms I learned taking philosophy courses as an undergraduate, and it perfectly encapsulated the correlation between thought and the physical world. I think being a poet, coming from the tradition where the physical world presents itself as proof of some sort of existential metaphor, has always led me to seek what is vibrant and hidden in the mind as manifestations that present themselves in the physical world. When such a manifestation occurs, I am absolutely giddy because I have a really deep attachment to daydreaming and thought.
Rumpus: The essay “Inner Workings, in Meadows” describes your daydreams as a child; you would put classical music on the radio and imagine you were in a meadow. Do you remember how or why you began to daydream?
Boully: It may have started out as a means of entertainment. I remember as a child going very, very deep in my thoughts as a way to pass long stretches of time where not much was happening. My mother came from Thailand and my father worked all day. We didn’t really have an extended family or a lot of opportunities to socialize, so I had a fairly lonely childhood. But we took long car trips and went fishing. We spent a lot of time working in gardens and I would make up games in my head just to pass the time. I remember pretending to be a peasant child and my life depended on picking peppers and filling up the basket.
Rumpus: Daydreaming is a major focal point of Betwixt-and-Between and so are cycles. We see cycles in terms of weather patterns, changing seasons, and reoccurring dreams that pop up in various essays. Do you see any connections between your writing life and these cycles?
Boully: Well, I will say that I am deeply entranced and enchanted by both dreams and the natural world. I’ve always had a fierce attachment to seasons and nature. I think growing up in San Antonio, Texas, where the landscape isn’t as shifting as other places, where there are a lot of sharp plants, and everything—from the bugs and the plants themselves—tries to eat you really made me crave the storybook versions of childhood: tulips and crocuses in the spring, going to the beach in the summer, leaves falling in autumn, playing in the snow during the winter months.
The first time I really experienced seasons was during my undergraduate years at Hollins University in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It was so amazingly beautiful. It just clutched me and hasn’t let go. I feel that my memories of that place, my associations of that place, are extremely dreamlike—they are like something in a dream and even after it’s gone when you wake up, they may still carry metaphorical significance in your waking life. I associate many symbols from nature, so lilacs to me are always, always more than lilacs when I write.
Dreaming does something creatively, too—when you’re on this hidden trail or glimmer that exists just for you in front of your eyes. It’s like Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. The Steppenwolf is always trying to follow this glimmer, this trail that leads him to the magical theater. My dreams feel like hound dogs on the trail and trying to unlock some of their mysteries, or some of these feelings or confrontations, are some reasons that drive me to write. That’s my magical theater: sitting down and composing. Not everything I write is about the dreams directly, but it is spurred by a need to investigate this other life.
Rumpus: One of your influences is the philosopher Maurice Blanchot, who writes: “Writing changes us. We do not write according to what we are; we are according to what we write.” How has your writing life changed you?
Boully: When I was composing not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, I existed in that underground world. I didn’t build that world from scratch; I had some help from J.M. Barrie, but I found my own subtext—the little stitches in Barrie’s text. I lived in there and built out of it and became that voice I wrote. I will always carry that world with me in the same way you hold a very pleasant dream or sustain a very deep daydream. It’ll always be there as a lived experience.
Rumpus: Why is Barrie such crucial influence on your work?
Boully: I was thinking about the representation of girl children in literature for my dissertation. In Lolita, there were several references to Humbert Humbert in terms of the mythical Pan, so I thought I might also look at Peter Pan. There were several interesting associations that I found quite eerie. To me, Peter Pan is not a little boy who won’t grow up: he’s an old man embodied in a small boy and with that comes forgetfulness and being part-feral, part-vulnerable. I love the fact that he still has all his baby teeth. I’ve always found that eerie and charming at the same time. It’s a creepy book—creepy in a beautiful way, in quite a nice way—so I wanted to capture all of that in not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them.
Rumpus: Do you find that you can still access that world even though you’ve moved on to other writing projects?
Boully: It is absolutely insane that once I embody that rhythm—that tone, that mood, that world—I can easily slip back into it. After I wrote The Body, I had to force myself to stop composing in footnotes because I had been writing in that voice, that guise, for so long. I had to say, “This book is over. It’s done.” I think that is where The Book of Beginnings and Endings came from, because I had to try out different modes, different voices. They do stay with you like little children: you always hear them; they always want you and they tug at you.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that the voice of this particular book first developed in your twenties and then continued to develop over the years. You mention in the Preface that it wasn’t until Betwixt-and-Between that it began “to cohere.” While I was reading, I tried to pinpoint which essays were written in your twenties and which ones were written more recently, and I found it delightful that I couldn’t.
Boully: It is comforting to know you couldn’t pinpoint exactly which person at which age was writing the essays because I look back at some of the very early ones and I’m absolutely horrified by them.
I give a talk every so often on how we need to be true to the person we were when we were composing a piece and that, when we edit a piece, we are essentially editing our lives. And here I was, with this book, trying to edit my life and who I was, but my editor Carla Valadez suggested that I not edit myself so much because some of those embarrassments were what made the piece charming. I trusted her and kept them in.
Rumpus: The concept of liminality—of being in this liminal space betwixt-and-between your dreaming life and your waking life—plays an important thematic role in the book as a whole. Do you view your career as a writing professor as also occupying a liminal zone?
Boully: I don’t think I’ve ever thought of teaching as a liminal space, but you are absolutely right, it is betwixt-and-between. It is a space that I have to occupy that is neither private nor public. It is public, but it is not really my public persona because it has an intimacy. One becomes philosophically intimate with one’s students and that evolves as you find out more about each other’s critical and creative lives.
You have to know what it is you know and you have to actively engage in the theory of figuring things out when you don’t know. You have to show you are doing the necessary theoretical acrobatics to get from point A to point B in the classroom. But when I digress, I am giving my students little bits and pieces of me that are teaching moments in disguise. You take a risk when you do so because you’re opening a little flap; you’re breaking the fourth wall, as it were. So, it is between the work that you do as a professional in your field and also the work you do at home; it is between your social sphere and your private life.
Rumpus: You can’t daydream for a second.
Boully: No, absolutely not. As a student, you can. You can do whatever you want as a student, but a teacher always has to be on.
Rumpus: In “On the EEO Genre Sheet” you write, “One of my goals as a teacher of nonfiction is to totally destroy every held belief a student has about essays and nonfiction.” If you could pick one belief to destroy right now, what would it be?
Boully: There doesn’t have to be a point or an end goal. Sometimes the essay can just be about a thought, a discovery, a process, a moment. It doesn’t have to end anywhere or do anything other than delight in its own syntax, its voice, its ways of grounding itself out and doing the mental work in paragraphs, punctuation and language.
Rumpus: This certainly contrasts with the textbook sellers you write about in “On Writing and Witchcraft,” which examines writing pedagogy in academia intermixed with a personal narrative from when you were thirteen and cast a love spell that backfired horribly. This reminded me of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s essay that discusses how the ideas of craftsmanship and labor undergirding the writing workshop can inadvertently replicate problematic masculinities. Did you juxtapose writing pedagogy with the “feminized” realm of witchcraft as a way to reclaim writing in a gendered way?
Boully: I’m not sure if gender plays a role unless we think about patriarchies and how they can dominate our social and creative spheres. I could argue that the way certain academic writing is taught is very much goal-oriented like capitalism, which is a patriarchal operation.
I feel that the textbook representations on how writing ought to be taught or written are very antithetical to how writing is written. There’s always this notion of audience and a reader, and I think to myself, “Well, what’s the point if you’re going to write for an audience? What’s the point if you’re going to write for a reader?” When you do that, you’re going to edit yourself.
We know that writers want to publish, but at the same time, making that one’s goal can hinder the creative process, so I think we have to realize that what we’re doing is essentially casting a spell on whoever it is we’re trying to capture when we’re writing. We want them to be entranced, bewitched, when they’re reading us. The only way I can think of that truly happening is if the curtain between reader and writer dissipates, so readers can have their own alternate readings and their own takeaway experiences, but I don’t think this type of immersion can happen as long as the reader and writer keep acknowledging each other.
Rumpus: Other than your writing, have you tried casting any other spells since that day you rubbed rose water on a candle and envisioned love?
Boully: Not intentionally. I think I learned my lesson.
Rumpus: In “On the Voyager Golden Records,” you write about how sounds and images from Earth were preserved on golden records and placed inside the Voyager spacecraft. If a far-off civilization played the records, they could hear “ocean waves, thunder, a heartbeat, Glenn Gould playing Bach.” If you could have also included one book of essays, which one would it be?
Boully: I love so many books for different reasons, but I wouldn’t put one in there because it was my favorite. I would choose one that I thought encapsulated human thought, writing, and construction of a piece in order to convey those qualities to a far-off civilization. I don’t know why I keep thinking about Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, but that’s the one that’s tugging at me now.
He gives you the whole world in one or two sentences. The book also engages with human suffering, human history, human fears—what’s senseless, what’s dear—and then it ends with his own personal loss which shows how we’re all fiercely attached to each other and how loss so insurmountable. I think that says a lot about what it means to be human.
Rumpus: I couldn’t read your book in one sitting. I’d read a couple pages and then take a break for daydreaming. Or I’d flip back to a previous essay to see how it might have changed after encountering similar themes in another essay, which would bring on more daydreaming. Do you try to induce daydreaming or how does this rhythm get translated onto the page?
Boully: I have had some readers describe my writing as being a bit trance-inducing or dreamlike. I do my best writing when I’m just waking up, when I’m still in that dream space, and haven’t interacted with the world too much or had much caffeine. It feels as if that clouded, dreamy, being unaware of the world space is where I do my best creative writing, so that might be where it comes from.
Rumpus: On the last page of your book, you write that an ending should “leave you with such a small message, such a small sorrow, such a small sound.” What ending will you leave with us now?
Boully: I will just tell you what popped into my mind because that what’s sincere. “Learn by going where you have to go,” which is from Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking.”
Author photograph © Agnes Donnadieu.