Allowing for Breathing Room: A Conversation with Jessica Lind Peterson


Jessica Lind Peterson’s debut essay collection, Sound Like Trapped Thunder, opens in a treehouse. This treehouse is a frame without walls. Cold air and creatures come in. It evokes a lofty structure, while nevertheless being a decidedly grounded construction. It is, in a certain light, a kind of harbinger for the book itself.

In seven lyric essays, Lind Peterson’s book takes us through woods and oceans, through memory and dream, through collage and epistle, to explore what is and what can be. All the while it wilds the domestic, grappling with the mysteries of family and human connection via a bestiary of animals occupying our space and our imagination.

Sound Like Trapped Thunder is the winner of the 2020 Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize, selected by Jenny Boully, and was published by Seneca Review Books earlier this month—on March 15, exactly six weeks after this year’s groundhog saw its shadow.

Lind Peterson grew up in northern Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior. She is drawn to big and unexplainable things—weather and oceans and megafauna—and measures her own smallness against them. Her storytelling has also led to substantial work in singing and playwriting, both of which reverberate in her essaying. She is co-founder of Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, and once again living out in the woods.

I was delighted to talk to Lind Peterson over Zoom about her debut collection, wretchedness, favorite grandmas, and the thrill of places we do not belong.


The Rumpus: One of the things I love about how you write about animals and the natural world is that we are just as likely to understand said phenomena through very recent, specific pop culture. In the book, we spend time with seahorses and grizzly bears and hummingbirds and whales, but we’re also hanging out with jelly shoes and Moon Boots and Aerosmith and Sting.

Jessica Lind Peterson: Can you tell that I was an ’80s baby? One of the essays was in a magazine, and the editor wanted me to take out the Moon Boots. She just wanted me to say “boots.” Moon Boots are, like, an iconic representation of the early 1980s. And, I do think there’s something very delicious about nodding to your specific era. I get that a lot in my playwriting, too. For example, my last play was an adaptation of a novel. And for some reason, I had just watched Over the Top with Sylvester Stallone, and I just decided that there needed to be a reference to this movie in the script. The poor novelist was like, “I’ve never seen this movie. I don’t know what this means.” But I dug in my heels and made it a thing.

Rumpus: The speaker of one essay contemplates writing about a whale, but is concerned about already having a whale essay (which the reader also encounters in this book). How do you discover what needs spotlight isolation and what works as echo or motif or counterpoint or coincidence?

Lind Peterson: Well, the moment in that essay was really me being self-conscious and judging myself. I never intended for whales to become an obsession. I am a Midwesterner from Minnesota, I grew up around freshwater, and actually, I am a little bit scared of swimming in the ocean. But for some reason I keep finding myself writing about whales and other oceanic creatures. I must be fascinated by things that are otherworldly and foreign to me. As a writer, I become quite obsessive about the subjects I write about, and those subjects are usually animals. I will read an article or see something in the woods and it will latch on to me like a tick. The only way to pull it off is to write about it, and so, I do.

While writing “Dear G. B.,” for example, which is a letter to a grizzly bear, I became completely obsessed with grizzly bears for a whole year. It was all grizzly bears, all the time. I found myself talking to this grizzly bear character constantly in my mind. He became a sort of companion. When I felt rage, I would go there, talk to the grizzly bear about it. The essay grew out of that. It was like a secret compartment to store my rage, my jealousy, my pain. As a reader, I am always drawn to authors who are okay with seeming just a little bit wretched. Not gratuitous wretchedness, but enough to indicate humanness. I don’t like reading things that are too neat and tidy on the page. I want to be drawn into a writer’s messy world, to be allowed in. And I delight in surprises. When a writer turns on a dime and makes an admission or shares a secret out of nowhere. Angela Pelster is really good at that.

Rumpus: In the early discussion I’ve seen about the book, its theme of animals frequently gets attention, but its humanity, specifically its thread of women, does not. This despite the fact there are little girls and favorite grandmas and pregnant bodies and beautiful, sharp-angled friends and deceased homecoming queens and a stranger who keeps calling and leaving her name on the voicemail. It strikes me how animals and women share certain historical associations in literature with the mysterious, the lesser, or the other. But wildness is also a kind of power, sometimes a kind of rage.

Lind Peterson: While I wanted this book to be largely about our human connection to the natural world, as it unfolded, it became clear that the book was very woman-centered. Certainly there is generational trauma in these pages that the women in my family have had to move through. I began to see convergences in all of the women characters, especially within the institution of marriage. My grandma in particular, emerged as a sort of hero, which delighted me.

I don’t think women talk about their trauma, their pain, enough. In my family we certainly don’t. I also don’t think it’s written about enough. Women are conditioned to forge ahead, to get on with it, and hiding their pain becomes a badge of strength. Sweeping things under a rug has never worked very well for me, but I also didn’t feel ready to charge into this territory full on, which is where the lyric essay really came to my rescue. In different essays I used the second person, I used the characters of the Little Girl and the Grizzly Bear and Doris Ronn, I used form, I used space, I used dreams and memory and imagination, to help shape and process some of these experiences. I wanted to make these experiences more universalized, and less me-specific. I wanted the reader to come alongside me, to have the book be more of a collective experience. And mostly, I wanted to shape these stories in a way that offered hope and delight and beauty alongside the pain and sorrow.

Rumpus: The little bit ruined thing is a kind of relief, a kind of comfort. And, it’s probably related to another thing I really resonate with in this book: the rightness of being where you were not designed to be. I associate this especially with travel but it happens more than that, the way one is obviously out of place and it’s a relief that everything doesn’t have to fit or make sense or be easy or even be knowable. There’s sort of a delight in it, in this perfection of being in a novel context and it being right, even if, especially if, it shouldn’t be.

Lind Peterson: That’s definitely a theme I think, unintentional but one of those magical things that happened when this collection came together. Take the two different whale stories: a whale in a rainforest and the loneliest whale on the planet—which, by the way, I didn’t know was a huge thing. Anyway, I wanted to buy into the story of this lonely whale, but maybe it’s just how it should be? Maybe it’s happy where it is. Maybe it likes its voice. Maybe other whales can hear it. I read this one article that went, “Who are we to say that other whales can’t hear it?” That was the catalyst for exploring this idea that this old woman could hear the whale, this sense of I can feel okay—I can be okay—being somewhere where I don’t belong. Sometimes animals end up where they’re not supposed to be simply because they’re curious.

Rumpus: I love that the ornithology term for this is “vagrants.”

Lind Peterson: Some snowy owls just fly to California. Some seals swim up a channel that they shouldn’t be in just because they want to check it out. Animals can have curiosity. That’s how they evolved, just like humans. For us to not think of them in that way, I think does the natural world a disservice. And yet, you know, you explore too far off your migratory pattern and you end up in the forest, and you’re screwed, and you die.

Rumpus: Or, maybe you find a niche you can thrive in. Maybe you have a zillion offspring, and the species adapts and evolves and everything’s gangbusters for thousands of years.

Lind Peterson: I find that fascinating. People and animals being where they’re not supposed to be definitely became an unintentional thread in this collection, but I think it’s something that we all share.

Rumpus: Part of what’s so beautiful about the way you’re writing about vagrants in the book is that they don’t need to succeed for us to honor that instinct to seek or stray. That impulse itself is worth acknowledging and recognizing. I love the word “eccentric” for its sense of the thing being in a farther orbit, out from the center, maybe pulling away.

Lind Peterson: I love the word “kinship.” And I think that that was when I started this collection, when I started writing in earnest. I think my objective was to explore the sense of kinship that we have as humans with the natural world and to do that in a real way, in a nuanced way. When I write, I don’t have a theme in mind; I always have to reflect back on it later. Why did you write it the way you did? Why did you write about this? Why did you structure it like this? And oftentimes I don’t have an answer. It’s frustrating to me, because I’m definitely one of those artists that once I start to dissect something, it becomes less interesting to me. I start to label things and deconstruct things and categorize things, and I start to lose interest. I used to do the high jump in in middle school, and I was really good at it. Then, all of a sudden, my coach was like, “Oh, you’re doing it wrong. You need to rework your form. You’re gonna hurt yourself.” I started to be aware of myself while I was high jumping, and I couldn’t even make a starting height anymore, because it became this mental thing. I think that it’s the same thing with writing for me.

Rumpus: The thing about a book of ninety pages is that it suggests two very different possibilities. It might enjoy that rare integrity of being consumed whole in one sitting. But it is just as possible that its brevity belies its depth, that its density requires the reader supply it with more room—to unpack, to absorb, to savor. Fear Icons by Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel is one of these books for me, a book that feels almost like a devotional, too rich to binge, a book best met in its intensity and then allowed to radiate and resonate and work on the mind for a day or two between encounters.

Perhaps that leads me to the idea of breathing room more generally, of punctuation and indent and return and how we use the page to create all those kinds of pause and beat and dissolve. Would you speak to the ways you shape the page to enforce breath or division or pause or reset? Especially in a text that is so aware in its discourse of what it means to be trapped or defined?

Lind Peterson: I am always very aware of breathing room on the page. Perhaps this stems from my work as a theater artist and playwright. Sensing when the audience needs a break from intensity, or from laughter, or from action. Both as a playwright and essayist, I am very aware of rhythm and movement between scenes, between chapters, and even on a micro level, between sentences and lines of dialogue. We talk so much about rhythm and space in poetry, but I wish we would talk about it more in prose. When we consume any literature, we process it in our bodies as well as our minds. What we read and what we see bounces off our own memories and experiences, and it needs some room to settle before moving on. I think allowing space for readers is vital to their experience. Overwhelm them and they will shut down. Bore them and they will get frustrated.

Many of my essays have tight paragraphs of tense action. For example, in “Beat a Dead” there are scenes when I am riding a horse, very active scenes with a lot of tension built up, and I felt that the reader needed time to recover from them. During the editing process, I was very specific about spacing in my book. Sometimes I had a difficult time articulating why I needed space where I needed it. “It just feels right,” was often my answer.

But I am also a bit indulgent, I suppose. I just love what the experience of actual blank space on a page does in my mind when I’m reading. Maybe that’s why I am so drawn to poets who write prose. Kazim Ali uses space so beautifully in Bright Felon, for example, which stemmed from little pieces of paper he kept in his pocket while walking around New York City. Or When Death Takes Something from You Give it Back by Naja Marie Aidt: what she does with space is extraordinary. There is so much grief on the page, so much intensity, but the physical space allows for breathing room. It’s so very vital. Space feels like a character for me, like something I need to honor.

Rumpus: Speaking of characters, can we talk about you? As in, the second person? It’s such an elastic form of address and persona. Your book makes use of it to invoke the self, the other, the specific correspondent, and the general reader by turns. Moments like:

“When you get to this phase in your crying there’s no untangling anything.”

“I dream about you, and you probably dream about licking ants.”

“I’m only trying to save you from despair”

I’ve had so many students arrive in my classroom ready to declare the second person hateful or out of bounds, and it strikes me as such a deprivation. I love the fundamental inclusiveness you is capable of. I love how deftly I can give you a sister or drop you in a skiff or assume our shared knowledge of arcane facts and just generally pull a stranger along in the sweeping embrace of you.

Lind Peterson: I think it’s very theatrical. I can’t strip from myself the need to connect with my audience. I will always have that. I didn’t realize how much I was using it, actually, but it’s obviously something natural. It’s sort of like checking in with my reader, like, are you still with me?

Obviously, I agree with your students on some level like; I don’t like being bossed around. But I do sometimes, right? I don’t want someone to tell me how I’m feeling, but sometimes isn’t it nice to know what to do. Okay, I’m in this weird essay, there’s a woman who’s swimming with the whale, and she’s wearing Crocs, whatever. I’m already in this. As my dad would say, the fuck’s been made, you know, like, you might as well boss me around.

The essay is a very personal thing, and it’s a very vulnerable thing. I think that you make a contract with your reader when you write the essay, Look, we’re going to go on this journey together, I’m going to share some really, some really personal things with you. And the you is a way to connect.

Again, I never plan out like, I’m going to use the you here. It was definitely just a feeling that I had while writing: It’s time to touch. It’s like breaking the fourth wall in the theater world. I love breaking the fourth wall, as a playwright. I do it all the time. You’re taught in drama school, “don’t break the fourth wall,” but I say screw that. People want to feel like they’re important. They want to feel like you are thinking about them. And I am thinking about them.

I love the sense of intimacy, and togetherness and friendship, that you can give, and if people feel bossed around I’m sorry. But sorry, not sorry.


Photograph of Jessica Lind Peterson by Amy Woodford.

A. Kendra Greene is the author and illustrator of The Museum of Whales You Will Never See. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @akendragreene. More from this author →