A friend invited me this spring to a poetry reading by Marlin M. Jenkins with this pitch: “It’s poetry about Pokémon,” he urged, “it sounds weird. And cool. We should check it out.” I was skeptical, having never had an affinity for Pokémon specifically or video games in general, but once Jenkins began to read, any ounce of skepticism evaporated. It didn’t matter that I didn’t love Pokémon—the poems were breathtaking with or without the knowledge of the Pokémon universe.
Jenkins’s poems in his debut chapbook, Capable Monsters, carry titles of a particular kind of Pokémon (fan favorites like Bulbasaur are featured, but rarer Pokémon like Umbreon get their time to shine as well), and the epigraphs of these poems are that creature’s description in the Pokédex, the Pokémon world’s taxonomy of creatures; the poems, often times, are jumping off from where the Pokédex leaves off, sometimes using the fictional world’s logic to examine the real, or carrying on in the persona of the Pokémon. The collection reminded me of Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris; just as Glück uses the language of the garden to understand the world, Jenkins uses the universe of Pokémon to explore questions around identity, racism, mental health, trauma, and the creation of knowledge itself.
Jenkins is a Minneapolis-based writer whose work has appeared here at The Rumpus, as well as in TriQuarterly, Waxwing, Iowa Review, and Indiana Review. I spoke with Jenkins over Zoom in May, in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown. In our conversation, Jenkins spoke about Capable Monsters, answering questions about how video games can inform poetry, popular culture as an entry point to writing, escapism, and myth-making.
The Rumpus: What led you both to poetry and to Pokémon?
Marlin M. Jenkins: I like to tell people that I became a poet because I was an awful rapper. I mean, I’ve liked writing for a long time. I started writing because I really struggled with loving reading; I liked reading a lot as a kid, but then by around sixth grade or so, I just had such a hard time being engaged with so much of the stuff that I was assigned. I figured if I wrote my own work, about things that I cared about and was invested in, then those would be things I would want to read. So I wrote a lot of really bad fan fiction, but not really much poetry until high school.
In high school a friend and I decided we were going to try to freestyle one day, and we were awful at it. We decided to try to write and record a song, which was also awful, but I had a lot of fun with it and I realized how much I enjoyed the writing aspect of writing lyrics. From there, I became much more invested in poetry. I fell in love with it and decided I wanted to do it much more seriously moving forward.
Pokémon is a really interesting thing for me in terms of when and how I’ve been involved with it. I played a lot for maybe about a year when I was a kid in the late ’90s and loved it. Maybe a little bit too much. Then for a variety of reasons, my mom decided Pokémon was banned from our house. We weren’t able to play the games, watch the television show or the movies, or anything, so I didn’t play Pokémon for a span of maybe ten years, at all. But then I got really into it again as an adult and was just really drawn to the vastness of the world and how much there was to explore and collect and discover.
Rumpus: Early on, were you writing poems about Pokémon and video games or was that something that came in later in your work?
Jenkins: When I started writing poetry, I don’t think I was as drawn to pop culture as a primary subject. References would pop in when I was writing lyrics poorly, but when I was writing poems, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about being inspired by video games or TV shows or movies or things like that. That started to change a little bit through college… I think the first piece that I remember writing that was very much inspired by a video game was a short story that had an epigraph from Kingdom Hearts. It was bad—but I liked the idea of, you know, why can’t I be inspired by and draw inspiration from the things that I love? I had to kind of wrestle and contend with the idea that to many people, that wasn’t considered literary, wasn’t considered serious enough; I had to figure out what that meant for me and for potential readers.
Rumpus: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is this distinction that gets drawn between so-called “high” and “low” art. I felt like your choice of using Pokémon as one of the main focal points for this collection subverts or blurs that boundary insofar as they exist. I was wondering if you could speak to that a little bit. Was that your intention with the work?
Jenkins: I really believe that if it matters to the writer, it can find space in the poem. That’s something I try to teach my students and it’s something I try to live by in my work. If it matters to me, there’s a way in which it can matter in the work. I really want to push back against the idea of what makes art highbrow, what makes something worthwhile to people who take the work “seriously,” which is a word I use myself but also kind of want to expand and push back on: what does it mean to be a “serious” writer? How do play and enjoyment and joy and those things fit into writing in ways that we sometimes forget about? I really wanted to delve into something that is associated with childhood and is associated with fun and play, but at the same time has depth for readers to engage with.
Rumpus: How did using Pokémon as an entry point help you access the themes of the chapbook—identity, trauma, mental health—in a different way?
Jenkins: What we find in the world of Pokémon with cataloging, with description, with figuring out how to talk about what we discover, was really important to me. Something I write about in the chapbook and something that’s fascinating to me is that in the Pokédex, this encyclopedia of Pokémon, there are all these written descriptions, but as far as I know it’s never really clarified in the video games who writes them. A lot of the entries, they feel like urban legends or like things that would be spread by word of mouth but aren’t necessarily scientific. Can a Tyranitaur really knock down a mountain? Or, can Garchomp actually travel as fast as a fighter jet? Or, like one of the Pokédex entries says something like “it happened one day, a young boy woke up as a Kadabra”—so kind of just like Kafka-esque legend. A lot of these things, you don’t know if it’s fact within this fictional world or if even within this fictional world, these things are fictional. I wanted to really think about these types of things as well, as far as worldbuilding and myth-making, as it then can relate back to our world.
Rumpus: It’s like a myth within the myth, almost.
Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely.
Rumpus: That gets to a question I had about the three epigraphs that you used to frame the book, and in particular the ones from the world of Pokémon. There’s one from MewTwo, who talks about this forced dynamic of capturing and training between the Pokémon and the trainer: “You humans are a dangerous species. You brought me into your world with no purpose but to be your slave. But now I have my own purpose.” Then there’s an epigraph from Professor Oak, who alludes to the taxonomizing power of the Pokédex, the official knowledge of the universe: “I have a request of you… on the desk there is my invention, POKÉDEX! It’s a hi-tech encyclopedia… Take [this] with you!” I’m interested in that tension between what the Pokémon has to say about itself and what the professor or the Pokédex has to say about the Pokémon.
Jenkins: I was thinking a lot about psychic type Pokémon when I was writing this, this idea that psychic type Pokémon are hyper-intelligent. As described in the Pokédex, they’re much smarter than humans. I was thinking about that idea of capability or that idea of ability, what does that mean for agency, wondering about where that power comes from. How do we think about power? How do we think about hierarchy? What does it mean for these creatures to be considered pets? It’s not something I have answers for, but I have a lot of questions, which is I think is what for me makes good poetic subject material—when I can ask and explore those questions. Because I really want to challenge and push back against what we take as true or what we take at face value because it feels like the norm. As much as I love the world of Pokémon and love the games, I also want to acknowledge how fucked up it is, how it’d be totally fair to write off or critique the games or that universe as glorified dog fighting. It’s about themes of teamwork and love and community and care, but at the same time, you’re making these creatures fight each other. So, that is complicated. And I want to acknowledge that it’s complicated.
Rumpus: The world of Pokémon, in some poems, is kind of presented as an escape for the speaker—for instance, in “Tall Grass,” you write, “cyber-world / where you battle until you can’t / but all healing takes is one nurse / and six seconds”—but then in others the Pokémon universe is an entry point for exploring modes of trauma or violence that exists in the real world, like in Squirtle’s or Bulbasaur’s poem, where the poem is dealing with themes of violence, racism, and mental health issues. Then, in other poems, you’re dealing with violence within the world of Pokémon itself. I’m wondering about this dual role of Pokémon as a place to escape from the trauma of the real world, but also a site in which it’s explored.
Jenkins: I think a lot about a conversation I had with one of my mentors in Ann Arbor, Raymond McDaniel, who wrote a book called Special Powers and Abilities, among other books. I think that book in particular was really inspirational for me the way it jumps into this world of superheroes. In particular, we had a conversation in which he was kind of pushing back on the idea of escapism and said something to the effect of, often the things that we are trying to escape to are, in some ways, commentaries on what we are escaping from. That really stuck with me. I thought about that a lot with a lot of video games, with a lot of role-playing games. I think about if I’m, you know, creating this character or playing this role or creating this team within a game, do I want that to be a reflection of who I am in my world and my life in this fictional world, or do I want to be as far from who I am as possible so that I can experience something different through this proxy of an avatar, you know, in this in this creative world? I think I vary in that. It depends how I’m feeling, and the game, and if I want to feel different or feel like me in a new space. And then I also kind of blur and trouble those lines and those distinctions as well.
Rumpus: This is going to be an easy question. What is your favorite Pokémon?
Jenkins: Umbreon for a few reasons. One, I just love that it’s the black version of Eevee, to be honest. But also, I love that it’s a defensive Pokémon and that it can heal itself, like with the power of the night or like, the power of the moon.
Rumpus: Are you working on a collection, or another chapbook?
Jenkins: Yeah, actually, that same month in Vermont when I started writing the series of poems that eventually became my MFA thesis and then got completely reimagined as the chapbook, I also put together a completely separate first draft of a full-length collection, and it’s completely changed. There are only a few poems still in that collection from when I first imagined it and first started to compile it back in 2016. It’s very different, but it’s thinking about some of the same themes: that idea of what do we inherit, whether that be actual DNA lineage, or the cultural and societal things we are educated or socialized into, and then what does that mean for us? It’s thinking a lot about the pain and the trauma that happens to us, but then what do we do with that? Because it’s often internalized, and then that causes damage to ourselves, and it’s very easy to pay that damage forward to others.
So, how do we kind of push back and resist those cycles. Then it’s also thinking a lot about mental health and the ways that that relates to, you know, things like racism, things like trauma, things like self-hatred, and especially this idea of how do we assert our lived realities when we’re told our lived realities aren’t real, when we’re told mental health is all in your head or told that racism doesn’t exist. How do we assert that those things are our actual lives? It’s not as overtly pop-culture focused, though are a lot of references and inspirations within it. There’s a poem inspired by the video game Tekken. In the current version, there’s a poem inspired by Super Mario 64. So there are still some of those video game or pop culture jumping off points or somatic connections, but it’s just a very different type of type of project, I think, than the chapbook.
Photograph of Marlin M. Jenkins by Emma Richter.