While familiar with Stacy Szymaszek’s name due to her tireless role as a poetry advocate and arts administrator, I did not yet know her creative work when the poet Brian Foley recommended her Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals as a book to consider when examining “the notebook” as its own literary genre. In a conversation via email during May and June 2016, Szymaszek and I spoke about the Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals (consisting of five poems: “austerity measures,” “late spring journal ,” “summer journal ,” “5 days 4 nights,” and “journal of ugly sites”), using the journal/notebook form as a jumping-off point and focus for our discussion.
Stacy Szymaszek is the author of Emptied of All Ships (2005), Hyperglossia (2009), hart island (2015), Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals (2016), and A Year From Today, forthcoming from Nightboat in 2017. She is also executive director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church.
The Rumpus: In the “publication credits & thanks” for Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals (JOUS), you mention Gail Scott’s “brilliant and influential” My Paris, which, from my understanding, is a novel told in numbered journal entries. Did Scott’s book serve as an impetus of sorts for your journal projects (hart island, Journal of Ugly Sites, and A Year From Today)? How has Scott’s work influenced yours?
Stacy Szymaszek: I first read My Paris over ten years ago when I exclusively read poetry and was focused on how I could use as few words as possible with the greatest (and most unusual) impact possible. That’s one way I see Gail’s work in prose and why I was drawn to it and enrapt by it at that point in my life. Not long after I moved to NYC, I was introduced to Gail, who was on an extended visit from Montreal, and we became fast friends. When I started writing what I like to call “poetic journalism,” I wasn’t consciously thinking of Gail’s work—though I was thinking of Gail, as she makes appearances throughout—so I wouldn’t call her work an impetus, but very “there” in my multiverse of influence.
Near the end of the year I was keeping “Journal of Ugly Sites” I had my My Paris eureka moment and went back to it in a fervor. It had coffee stains on it and was in overall rough condition—evidence of past pleasure! I wasn’t sure what I was after, but it turned out to be her grammar. It’s written in present participles so the language often turns away from usual speech patterns/sentence structure, such as “more and more I loving it” and “the last time I in Rome.” She said in an interview, “[F]or me that was an exercise in breaking down the writing subject to its smallest components, so that a person could be a traveller and yet be in pieces herself.” I wanted to represent myself in pieces. At that same time, I had also read something by Bernadette Mayer about the gerund opening up more space for living. I basically went back into the whole poem [“Journal of Ugly Sites”] and torqued it with gerunds and participles.
Rumpus: You mention in another interview that you kept journals even as a kid. Can you talk about that process? That is, do you remember when you started? What types of entries did you make? How often did you write? Do you still have these journals? And so on.
Szymaszek: I started keeping a journal in seventh grade. I went to Catholic school and my religion teacher assigned us to keep a notebook filled with letters to God. My notebook was a green spiral and given that I was an apostate already, or at least a skeptic, I didn’t write to God. This is how I learned that I loved to express myself in writing—so I filled up some more green notebooks. I honestly haven’t been able to read them as an adult. It’s an aversion. All of those teen feelings, plus the sadness of having a strong sense of my sexuality and gender with worse than zero support. Worse than, because the message was “this is so unacceptable you cannot say it,” and in fact, I could not say it, even in the journals. My code phrase was “I’m not like other girls.” Well, everyone who looked my way could discern that. Strangely, a week before you asked this question I had the thought, On my next trip to Milwaukee, I’m going to retrieve those journals from my parents’ basement. It’s kind of perverse that I’ve kept them there because a lot of anger was directed at them. There was a lot to be angry about. It’s a real privilege to get to be yourself in the world, and I’ve tried to build an adult life where I get to do that pretty unabashedly.
Rumpus: I think it’s so telling that you speak about a girl’s inability to voice her own truth even to herself under the weight of the messages to which we’ve been culturally subjected. In my journals as a girl, although I didn’t have a code phrase, I also wasn’t able to speak my own truth about sex to myself because it wasn’t how I felt like I was supposed to feel.
I guess that’s part of what I like about JOUS (the book as a whole, not only the poem)—its seeming disregard for what you’re “supposed” to do in a lot of poetry circles (e.g., You can’t write about your dog! About your weight! About illness! About being a writer! About jobs! And all in one place, even! It seems strange that I feel these sort of pressures/restrictions exist—again, in certain circles. I don’t feel like I’m naïve about what work has been done, even today. But I have heard these comments.). JOUS depicts a full and fully flawed—mundane, petty, vain, funny, absurd, ridiculously observant (and despite these descriptors, or maybe because of, I’d also add beautiful and extra/ordinary)—human life. I don’t know if I have a question here. Just thought you should know that.
Szymaszek: I appreciate it, thank you. I was pretty consciously responding to a general sense that it’s not “in style” to write poetry about oneself with that level of candor. I write about all the topics you list, and would add becoming middle-aged and dealing with mortality. I had a fantasy that this book would be immensely popular, which immediately fizzled! Who wants to think about this shit with me? Well, I’m grateful you do, and others. Now I have the fantasy that it’s just not the ideal moment for it, but that its moment is coming. I think it will age well, it will serve as a time capsule. And when the next book comes out it will offer a more complete picture of the project, which is how I see these three books (hart island, Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals, and A Year From Today).
Rumpus: I’m also interested in your choice of the phrase “poetic journalism” here. How would you define that?
Szymaszek: I like to think of my practice, for my last three books (one is still forthcoming), as poetic journalism versus poetic journals because I think the -ism emphasizes that it is meant for publication. I wasn’t keeping a blog where I could publish the writing daily (though that would have been interesting in retrospect). But when I was invited to read during those years [writing these books,] I would always read the thing I wrote that day or the day before. It’s my beat reporting on the topic of my existence as a queer poet in NYC in the 21st century, most broadly.
There was a moment when I started writing hart island where I had to make the decision to approach it as a research project or something else. I had to do some reading about the place Hart Island, which is a potter’s field in Long Island Sound, to actually learn about its past and present. Then, the more compelling thing to me was using my experience at The Poetry Project as a counterpoint—so it became a kind of “work book” or day book. What I did end up using as source material were words that I had transcribed in my notebook from the mouths of poets, quotes from the readings I hosted at The Poetry Project, which I identify at the end of the book. I also honestly felt like I couldn’t do Hart Island justice in terms of representing the amount of grief and injustice, so it felt most responsible to rely on my own subjectivity.
Rumpus: The more I read the poem “Journal of Ugly Sites,” based on [Bernadette] Mayer’s writing prompt for a “journal of ugly sights,” the more I love it. Can you speak more to the writing process for this poem—specifically, what constituted “ugly”? How did you decide what to include, what to leave out? Where did you draw the line between personal versus public?
Szymaszek: I kept that journal for a year, as you know. Within that time I did take notes nearly daily. I would amass notes and then sit down with the notes, quite frequently but not daily, and work them up into the poem. Not everything made it of course, and that poem is the most edited poem I’ve ever written. I cut out about ten pages as I prepared it for publication. Ugly is a state of mind. Ugly is also that which is not beautiful, so, also, what constitutes beauty? When I tried to keep a journal of beautiful sites I got nowhere so this poem is my engagement with that “opposition.” My ethic for the poem was, I think, just the way I try to conduct myself as a person. I didn’t want to be mean-spirited or violate anyone’s trust. My partner only vetoed two lines. I sent the manuscript to friends who are in it often just to get “clearance.” I had never dropped names in poems before, or written so intimately, so I was nervous, especially about my family’s response to “5 days 4 nights,” but they’ve been great. My people have been very generous.
Rumpus: I’m so glad your people have been generous! “Ugly is a state of mind” feels so true.
You mention “5 days 4 nights,” a poem that follows one trip to Wisconsin to visit family during the year you were keeping the “ugly sites” journal, and I’m wondering whether it was that state of mind (or here, lack of that state of mind?) about family that made you feel like these days deserved a place separate from the “ugly sites” poem? Or was it more a matter of simply location, because the places in “5 days 4 nights” are not the Carroll Gardens / East Village / Soho / etc. of the rest of “ugly sites”? Or was it the desire for a different poetic structure that separated these poems?
Szymaszek: This is such an interesting question. My first response was, no, no, that poem was written before JOUS. But then I wasn’t sure, so I checked the notebook that I knew I was writing in at that time and, sure enough, I started JOUS on July 6, 2013 and the summer trip to Wisconsin shortly followed. My memory made something chronological that was simultaneous, but JOUS was very new. I remember wanting to undertake a poem for the trip to keep me writing. I had always wanted to keep writing “when I go home” but I never could manage it. I associate why with a slippage of self, a bit of regression. I wanted to be there as Poet. And I do think that JOUS is a poem of NYC so I didn’t include any trips I took. My parents also visited me during time I was keeping JOUS and that visit is alluded to but not included. I felt that their presence in the book was strong enough.
Rumpus: I find it very brave / think it was a big risk to begin not only the poem “austerity measures” but the book as well by listing the results of weighing one’s self at a particular moment in time: “scale says 182.” In fact, as I was just writing that line I mistyped it first as “scare says.” Can you speak to why you chose to start the poem and/or book here?
Szymaszek: Well, it’s luck of chronology. I suppose if I had second thoughts about it I could have chosen a different order. On one hand, it’s just documentation, a number, a gesture of bodily inventory—which is reminding me of a poem I did long ago which repeated my measurements in different sequences—on the other hand, fat is such a source of shame. I know this and am impacted by it, of course, but in a lot of significant ways I am able operate outside of shame. People often remark that I am “grounded” and “confident.” To be frank, that’s the gift that sexual relationships with women have given me. All that said, one thread of the book is the journey toward knowing what greater health and fitness meant for me, and an effort to better deal with this condition I have (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disease). I ended up weighing about twenty pounds less when the book was finished.
Rumpus: I read somewhere that once you start using notebooks for particular purposes, it becomes difficult to stop (which seems, like any other habit, kind of obvious). But I’m wondering—did writing JOUS alter your notebook-keeping process/es after you completed the yearlong work? (Assuming you’re still keeping journals as part of said process/es.) Or maybe more accurately, what was the process like for you to stop keeping JOUS?
Szymaszek: The notebooks I kept while writing hart island, Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals, and A Year From Today were all really an aid to memory, a place to record observations, a thought, an association. I haven’t used a notebook like that since I finished the last manuscript, A Year From Today. I started another journal poem because I missed it, but after about twenty pages in I realized it was fine, but not going anywhere new. If that’s not happening I see no reason to put more work into the world. I did miss keeping the journal of ugly sites. The phantom poem went on in my head for a while. I started A Year From Today, which is kind of a sequel with a wider lens. JOUS was like hammering a coconut and this book is the coconut shattering. My notebook use these days is books to read, books I’ve read, little notes like that. The piece I’m working on now is a prose poem, maybe a bit of a manifesto, and partial memoir, about a “they” who works as a nonprofit arts administrator. I also want to write a nonfiction book but am still searching for a topic that’s a magical fit.