Jericho Parms’s debut essay collection Lost Wax is part meditation, part lyric, part inquiry on topics such as art, love, loss, identity, memory, and coming of age. A loosely chronological personal narrative that begins with Parms’s childhood and moves on into her adulthood, Lost Wax exposes a fascinating mind that draws interesting connections between disparate objects and experiences. The book was published by University of Georgia Press as part of their Crux Series in literary nonfiction.
Jericho and I were MFA students together at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where we studied creative nonfiction and worked to hone our understanding, appreciation, and craft of the essay. I’ve had the good fortune to read many of the exquisite essays that comprise Lost Wax as they incubated their way into the final forms they now inhabit. While it was a pleasure to witness firsthand Jericho’s creative process, it is nothing compared with holding the finished, bound product in my hands and lingering over the beauty of her words. Essays from the collection have previously appeared in Fourth Genre, The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, American Literary Review and elsewhere. They have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, noted in Best American Essays, and anthologized in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction and the forthcoming Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women. This interview was conducted via email.
The Rumpus: The title of your collection Lost Wax comes from one of the essays within the collection as well as a fairly elaborate casting method used to produce metal sculptures. In this method, an original model is made (from wax or clay or another material), a mold is then made of that original model (which is an exact negative of the model), and then molten wax is poured into or brushed onto the mold until it reaches the desired thickness for the final bronze product. Eventually (after several more steps), molten metal is poured into the mold, melting the wax away (hence the term “lost”) and filling the space left by the wax to create an exact replica. For you, how is this sculptural process (or the actual lost wax) metaphorically representative of your essay collection?
Jericho Parms: When I first heard the term “lost wax” I was initially drawn to the sound—two words that I recognized individually, yet, together they took on a new mystery and allure. As I began to understand the term “lost wax”, the potential for meaning only further intrigued me. I’m most drawn to the idea that something is lost in order for something else to emerge. Similarly, there is often an element of beauty that must be spent in order for a new beauty to be revealed. And in the giving way, what is lost still has substance, is malleable, can take on new impressions, and be molded again to our experience, often resulting in the most lasting force that determines how we see the world.
I also think the process serves as a metaphor for the overall experiences in these essays—the hardening effect of “coming of age” so to speak. Although there are several references to sculpture early on, the title essay doesn’t appear until later in the book. It was important to me to allude to, though not completely reveal the meaning of the title too early, but rather offer a slow revelation of the term, in the off chance that a reader might have a similar experience of its meaning—moving from mystery, to curiosity, to understanding.
Rumpus: Art, specifically paintings and sculpture, are woven throughout the essays in Lost Wax. It is evident your love of art and its impact upon you developed at an early age due to the influence of your bohemian, artist parents. It seems to me, from reading your work, that it was a natural inevitability for art to inhabit your writing as though it is not only a separate character in your book, but an alter ego of the narrator. When you began writing these essays, was it a conscious choice to weave meditations on art into your personal story, or was it more of a realization after the themes of art began to present themselves repeatedly that the collection started to take form? Can you speak to this process?
Parms: The thing about growing up in an artistic environment is that at some point you have to cut through the inevitability and find ownership of your own practice. By that, I mean that while, yes, I grew up surrounded by and encouraged to explore art, I also grew up in some ways taking that for granted. It took time for me to understand the role that art and writing would play in my life individually. In college I studied journalism, political science, and history. I wanted to travel the world and report on injustice—who wouldn’t, right? But I quickly realized that I didn’t have the fortitude to fight for social justice while also battling a certain turmoil that was unraveling in my own world at that time. Several events in my early twenties led me to turn the lens on myself. As soon as I allowed myself to write without concern for word count or sources or headlines, when I began to let that self wonder and imagine, mix a little lyricism and craft into my written observations—without the weight of the world on my back—everything started to change.
Many of the essays in Lost Wax were first conceived a few years later when I was working in an art museum. My daily immersion within the museum’s collection revealed to me the unassailable intimacy of the visual arts. And while I was convinced my proximity to artistic greatness would heighten my interest in painting, it was under the influence of art that I grew to more clearly understand the craft and importance of writing. The tonal qualities, substantive textures, colors and compositions that I found in art offered endless material. And I was such an open wound at the time that I was naturally primed to soak everything in and pour it back out through writing.
John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, writes about the ways in which paintings were once compared with mirrors in that they have the power to reflect our true nature and speak to humanity. I’ve come to understand and exercise the process of looking into things and allowing those observations to guide my associations. In this way, yes, the decision to weave art into these essays was a conscious one. At the time (and often, still) by giving my attention to something tangible before me—attempting to describe a single color or texture and see where that leads—provided a compelling and often surprising way into much of the material of these essays.
Rumpus: Your book is divided into four sections: Girl Looking at the Sole of Her Foot; Daphne, Running; L’Éternelle Idole (The Eternal Idol); and Caryatid Carrying Her Stone. Each of these titles is taken from sculptures of either the same or similar names by Degas, Bernini, and Rodin. How did you choose these four specific sculptures to represent the structure of the book? Have you sat with each one in person and therefore been influenced by it, or was the process of choosing more of a writer’s search for the accurate metaphorical representation that would organize the thoughts, meditations, and experiences within the essays?
Parms: Although the collection is loosely chronological there are several leaps between the pieces, so that there is no clear narrative (or rather, the underlying narrative is largely fractured). The essays are grouped roughly in terms of years and/or states of being. The four sculptures that serve as section names are referenced in at least one essay. I like to think of the series of images as one following the journey of a woman from childhood to adult experience. Girl Looking at the Sole of her Foot connotes an attentiveness that I think we have when we are young and begin fully stepping into our skin. There is something beautifully simple yet introspective about the piece.
During the process of completing these essays, I spent hours viewing the work of Bernini first in books, and then when I traveled to Rome—as much to visit a close friend as to visit Bernini’s work in person. It was at the Galleria Borghese, in front of Bernini’s statues, that I fell rapt by his use of material, his ability to capture human expression. It’s interesting that you used the term “alter ego” earlier, because I think viewing Bernini’s Daphne and Apollo was one of the first times I began to sense a direct parallel between the works of art I was viewing and the themes emerging in my writing, though not always in a direct way. In Greek mythology, for example, Daphne is somewhat of a doomed character, with her sworn virginity and unwanted advances that led to her fate as a laurel tree, but depictions of Daphne almost always capture both her movement and her stillness, the very moment of her transformation—her existence “in between.”
Both L’Éternelle Idole and Caryatid Carrying Her Stone are by Rodin. Rilke, one of his greatest admirers, once described L’Éternelle Idole as having a “mysterious greatness” writing, “A heaven is near, but is not yet attained; a hell is near, and not yet forgotten.” That sentiment felt fitting of the essays in the corresponding section, many of which relate to the experience of a first love, and the idealism of youth.
There are many interpretations of the Caryatid, which can be found in ancient Greek and Roman architecture and later in other depictions of female forms carrying baskets or stones. To me, the image conveys endurance. The essays in the final section of the book assume the perspective of having gone through a handful of experiences and in many ways come out on the other side, albeit still carrying the “weight” of those experiences. I guess, to circle back to your first question, the piece speaks to the hardening effect that experience can have, but also to the sense of responsibility and strength that can result.
Rumpus: In addition to the writing, you are responsible for the art on the cover and at the beginning of each section. The inclusion of your drawings feels like a perfect blending of mediums given the nature of your relationship with art. How did this inclusion manifest? Had you already drawn these before submitting the book for publication, or did this come to you during the process of the book’s design?
Parms: The sketches developed out of a bout of restlessness during a weeklong residency in the dead of a Northeast winter. While working on a final revision of the manuscript my patience had hit a wall, and I started daydreaming around the prominent pieces of art and imagery in the book. I had a hunch that a few key sculptures might serve as a good organizing principle, but it wasn’t until I started revisiting the images and sketching them that the idea really took shape. It didn’t feel sufficient to name or allude to sculptures without some visual representation, and yet incorporating photographs felt too direct. I am not by any means an artist, but I’ve always loved the carefree nature of blind contour drawings. They also reinforced the concept of impression—rather than a straightforward representation of the artwork, the contour drawing is merely an interpretation, once removed from the form itself. So, yes, I completed the drawings as I was completing the manuscript. And I included them when I sent the manuscript out, sort of on a whim, thinking they might reinforce the overall structure of the book. At each step of the editorial process part of me kept waiting for them to be cut, but once I saw the cover image was designed (beautifully, I might add, by Erin Kirk New) around one of the drawings, it reinforced for me that they did, in fact, belong as part of the book.
Rumpus: Your essays are not only influenced by visual art, but they are also heavily influenced by literary works. Throughout your book, you quote writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, Pablo Neruda, Frank O’Hara, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few. Most of the writers you draw from are more classic and canonical as opposed to contemporary. What contemporary essayists interest you? Which contemporary works do you recommend?
Parms: Oh, there are so many! I first fell in love with the essay and the unending possibility of the form from reading the works of Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, James Baldwin, and Virginia Woolf. I continue to learn from the work of contemporary essayists like Jerald Walker, Lia Purpura, Rebecca Solnit… I think this is an exciting time for the essay as a genre that embraces hybridity and the in between spaces of our identity and ideas. To that end, I think T. Clutch Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty is a work of art. Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land, a near perfect book. Maggie Nelson’s work continues to challenge my notions of genre and the potential for the essay to embody intellect and criticism, while upholding lyricism and humanity. I just finished The Miles Between Me, a debut essay collection from Toni Nealie that explores her life between her native New Zealand and Chicago and examines the nature of journeying and homeland and motherhood with a poetic intimacy that I admire. Anyone interested in the range and reach of contemporary female essayists, should look for Marcia Aldrich’s Waveform: Twenty-First Century Essays by Women—a thoughtfully composed anthology of some remarkable writers working with a range of form and content and representing a diverse set of voices as well.
Rumpus: Your essays incorporate a multitude of forms—numbered sections, titled sections, braiding, fragmented, non-linear. I’ve heard people advocate for both approaches: 1. Letting the subject matter of an essay determine the form and 2. Choosing a form and then crafting the work to fit. Do you subscribe to either camp? If so, why? And if not, how do you find your form when you are crafting an essay?
Parms: I think there is value in both approaches. The latter definitely calls to mind the French Oulipo and other movements that believe that writing is inevitably constrained by something, be it time or the limitations of language itself, and that instead of attempting to eliminate those constraints we can embrace them. And we have our own contemporary iterations in the so-called “hermit crab essay” or other borrowed forms. Tightening the rules and imposing restrictions can certainly free up expression sometimes. I’m on board with that. My process tends to be a bit more open ended, with form generally guided by content for any given piece. But, if and when that process doesn’t easily marry content to form, adding organizational restraints can definitely lead to rewarding discovery. In the process of writing the piece “Origins” for example—one of the more language-indulging pieces in the book—I let myself fall deeply into the sensory experience of writing. For a long time, the piece was an absolute mess, until I allowed myself to view it as homage to (or inventory of) the senses. I could then separate out what I was trying to say into five sections each of which related, through language, to one of the senses. Within those sections, though the memories and certain images overlap, the central inquiry remains an exploration of the physical phenomenon of memory as much as an emotional and psychological one.
Rumpus: Your essays are so well-rounded in the sense that they include a lot of research, yet they aren’t technical even though at times they instruct. They draw interesting connections between objects or topics that could be considered diametrically opposed, and you do so in a way that feels seamless and without effort. Your prose is lyrical and inviting. As Rigoberto González says, “The essays … read exquisitely as poems, each piece a lyrical moment resplendent with imagery.” An example of this is a passage from the essay “Still Life with Chair”:
Each year the tree’s leaves change from pale to deep green to yellow and gold, and when the light shifts, as it shifts now, the saw-toothed leaves shimmy on their branches like gilded chandeliers, before dropping to the ground to spin beneath the feet of lovers and dreamers and freshmen and seniors, just trying to learn something, to outlive the years we all deserve.
Just lovely, like poetry. You dedicate Lost Wax “For my mother—and for poetry.” What role does poetry have in your life? Who are your favorite poets?
Parms: Poetry has been a constant grounding presence in my life, and my mother has a lot to do with that. Emily Dickinson was huge in our house. My mother often quoted her—noting “a certain slant of light,” observing the “simple news that Nature told”—in a way that came to feel like poetry was embedded in the language we shared. My first literary crush in high school was probably Gwendolyn Brooks, followed closely by Lucille Clifton, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Lorine Niedecker… And there are so many contemporary poets that inspire. I think Mary Ruefle (both as a poet and an essayist) is one of the most extraordinary minds writing today. I am constantly learning from her work. The epigraph that opens Lost Wax is from a poem by Matthew Zapruder whose work—both as a poet and as an editor at Wave Books (a Seattle-based press publishing some amazing poetry)—has also meant a lot to me. I could rattle on… but to circle back to your question about the role of poetry, I would say it is a guiding force both in my reading life and in my overall appreciation for language. While I don’t often write poetry myself, I would not be a writer without it.
Rumpus: There is a lot of strife going on in this country regarding race. Amidst this, some highly regarded literary works like that of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me have emerged. You address the topic of race in your collection but not so much from a political standpoint as from the perspective of a woman “Born of a black father and white mother whose marriage in 1976 (nearly a decade after Loving v. Virginia struck down laws opposing interracial marriage) never really garnered approval from the families, each camp fearing how hard it might be for the children.” Of course, the very nature of such an experience is political, but your writing does not politicize your perspective; it remains personal, and when you broach the subject of race, it is subtle and restrained. Can you talk about this narrative choice?
Parms: There’s an image I’ve always kept with me of my father during the unrest in the 1960s, where he is sitting on a hillside at a college campus watching a protest rally as US involvement in Vietnam was unfolding against the domestic backdrop of the civil rights movement. My father has always described the moment as a turning point for him as he watched a young activist climb a telephone pole and, while hanging over a crowd, shouted about fallen soldiers at home and abroad, quoting Martin Luther King into his bullhorn. It was then that my father realized he would never yell louder than anyone else was already yelling, so he began talking to the people around him on the hillside, asking them how they felt about the world, about the “issues.” For my father, his activism, the fight, became more about one-on-one discourse. Since then he has devoted much of his intellectual life to changing the narrative around him. In that way, while he is often stubbornly quiet, he is one of the most political people I know. I’ve learned a lot from that story over the years. Sometimes I like to think of the process of essaying as sitting on a hillside with a handful of strangers. Maybe we think the same way and maybe we don’t, maybe we’ve had similar experiences or maybe we have nothing in common, but the act of sharing thoughts embodies the same goal of trying to learn something, to see something differently, to understand in a new way.
There is an epidemic of violence in this country and, of course, that affects me—as it should all of us—deeply. In America perhaps the most dangerous place to be right now (and for far too long) is in a body of color. But I also believe that one of the most potentially powerful forces in America right now is the insight revealed by voices of color. I am acutely aware that being biracial affords me a distinct set of privileges, insights. There is an invisibility in some situations that allows me to hear and observe the things people say and do, how white people talk about black people, and vice versa—and I have written, increasingly so, about some of that perspective. But for this specific project, the most prominent sense of violence and unrest was internal. For these essays I relied on certain literary devices to explore those sentiments in, as you say, more subtle ways: placing common images or references in a context of color—describing the snow as “a whiteness that blankets everything it knows”; struggling with the narrative of art history appearing largely colorless with the black of bronze and white of marble statues leading me to imagine “Persephone as a black girl” or Athena as Dominican.
Above all it was important to me to allow these essays to fulfill the original inquiries they set out to explore, which was the nature of memory and loss, how we come to understand the extremes of the self and the world around us. My identity is not just as a woman, a child of biracial parents, a person who has experienced loss, who has experienced the depths of depression, mania, and self-harm, but it is as one who has also explored the boundaries of joy and euphoric love, who has been to the precipice of both extremes and fought her way back. Lost Wax is very much an exploration and expression of a life in the in-betweens. Race is inherent to that identity, but perhaps not central to the overall experience of this particular book. So, for the sake of the material I chose to keep the perspective personal, and yet as a voice outside of the dominant narrative, I do believe we have a chance—even a responsibility—to contribute to shifting that narrative which, as you suggest, can be an inherently political process.
Rumpus: In his blurb of Lost Wax, Steven Church describes the book “As much a travel memoir as a collection of essays.” Travel, like art, is woven throughout, with many essays incorporating your experiences in locations such as Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. In the essay “To Capture the Castle,” you write:
I can understand pilgrimage as an act that asks the body to journey for the soul. To summit a mountain, to complete a trail, to reach an ancient monument offers a tangible sense of arrival. The worn and weary legs of a pilgrim are but a physical expression.
I love this passage. In thinking about pilgrimage, it seems like the writing of a book, especially that of a collection of essays in which inquiry is at the basis of its creation, is a type of pilgrimage of its own, an act that asks the mind and heart to journey for the soul. Having gone through this process, does that seem accurate? Does it feel as though you have a tangible sense of arrival at having completed and published your first book?
Parms: That’s an interesting question. I like how you connect the process of writing to that of pilgrimage in that it’s certainly a journey and one that asks of us (in body and soul) to seek greater perspective. I think my understanding of pilgrimage, which has come largely but not exclusively from travel, is very much an ongoing concept, less dependent on arrival, but on exploration. Completing and publishing a book is certainly something I’m proud of, as a writer, but I would be reluctant to position the completion of the book as a destination, or arrival point on this journey, which I see as a process that is continual, that at its best is driven by momentum and a sense of urgency and curiosity that keeps me moving forward. While I mention that the experience of summiting a mountain can offer a tangible sense of arrival, the true sense of pilgrimage I came away with was the way in which that experience opened new avenues of thought for me. This book has done that as well, and has left me with the sense of momentum, which is both a fulfillment and fuel for future journeys, tangible or otherwise.
Rumpus: You were fortunate to work with and receive feedback on your manuscript from Judith Kitchen—one of creative nonfiction’s most respected and well-loved teachers, editors, and practitioners—before she died in November of 2014. Can you share about this experience? How did your connection come about and what was it like to work with her?
Parms: I’ve been really lucky to have some wonderful mentors and readers over the past couple years, without which these essays would never have made their way into book form. Judith Kitchen was central to that process. As one of the first people who read the manuscript through when it was still a loose grouping of essays, Judith was the first person to say directly, “yes, this is a book,” and she believed (even before I fully did) that it was a book that would be published. It seems so simple, but sometimes hearing those words at the right time can make all the difference. Judith was a remarkable writer and teacher with a generous heart and a rare spirit that has benefitted so many writers over the years. It was a gift to share a correspondence with her shortly before she passed, and to still be able to revisit that exchange continues to be a source of encouragement.
Rumpus: What’s your next project? Are you working on another collection of essays?
Parms: One of the challenges of crafting an essay collection—specifically, I would argue, a first book—is the impulse to include everything. As I mentioned earlier, I was not able to include everything, but what was left on the “cutting room floor” so to speak, has seeded new work, which has been one of the great joys of the process. I’m not always great with transition, I think the process of completing a manuscript and having it go out into the world, carries with it the serious potential to wander around lost for a while, to feel a certain emptiness, but I feel grateful to have wrapped up Lost Wax with a strong momentum to turn to new work that continues to speak to my interest in the ways in which literature and material culture intersect. Right now I’m working on a few essays that look at the nature of inheritance through a series of objects. I’ve also become interested in the art and cultural history of erasure, so… I’m excited to see where that leads.
Rumpus: In the essay “Origins,” there is a repeating phrase throughout: “What I want more than anything is…” In this moment, right now, what do you want more than anything?
Parms: What a question! I feel like I should say something like “world peace” in response to a question like this… If there is one thing that the practice of writing has taught me, and one thing that I tried to embody in that essay in particular, it is the importance and power of paying attention, of listening, of concentrating every once in a while on the smallest notions, details, observation: how things look and feel, taste and sound. I continue to long for this—personally, but also collectively—for all of us to breathe a little deeper before we decide what we believe, to listen a little longer to each other before we speak, to allow ourselves to wonder and imagine. These are the building blocks of the “discourse” that I mentioned earlier. Think of all of the things we could miss: knowing the texture of the ridges on your mother’s fingernails, finding a moth on the ground, taking a moment to step inside the head of a person who could slaughter farm animals in the Bronx or orchestrate the heist of a rare violin, a Spanish police officer tasked with questioning a tourist. I want to understand the ways in which, despite our differences, we all breathe and feel, love and mourn. For me the essay—all forms of writing—is an attempt to understand human experience. So, I guess, what I want more than anything is to recognize and explore the ways in which that human experience is one we all share. And, who knows? Maybe one day that just might bring us a step closer to some form of peace.