Fundamentally, Necessarily Vulnerable: A Conversation with jamie hood

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Out last December from Grieveland is how to be a good girl, the debut book by jamie hood that was named a “Best Book of 2020“ by Vogue. This 170-page hybrid collection of poetry, diary entries, and literary criticism reimagines the “how to” tell-all as an ever-expanding site of multivocal inquiry—into art-making, commodification, confession, trauma, desire, and so much more. Though the title implies the impersonal authority of a manual, it is the bold vulnerability of hood’s good girl that clears the air and makes room. In this space we look at the title’s unresolvable question, tapping luminaries like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Susan Sontag, and Virginia Woolf to guide us in our search for a self that can become a lovable and unfixed thing.

jamie hood is a Brooklyn-based poet, essayist, memoirist, and bartender. Her poems and essays have appeared in Burning House Press, Bomb Cyclone, The New Inquiry, The Rumpus, Peach Mag, and elsewhere. Prior to how to be a good girl, she focused her doctoral work on women’s confessionalism and the poetics of trauma and art.

I interviewed hood over email to learn more about how to be a good girl, her experience of constructing a self through art, and the power of persona and multivocality in writing around and through trauma.

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The Rumpus: Let’s start at the beginning. Why the title, how to be a good girl?

jamie hood: how to be a good girl has a complicated origin story, and the short of it is that I spent the better part of two years meditating on a massive project concerning self-worth and ongoingness in the wake of trauma, as well as navigating more useful and less reductive definitions of my own womanhood after having decided that—whatever it was I had survived—my life might continue to have value even after the integrity of my body and of my very personhood had been violently seized from me. That nebulous megazord project expanded and split into three: an essay on Betty Draper of Mad Men and on housewifery for The New Inquiry, and then the manuscript that became how to be a good girl, as well a side-project (initially a fourth section of the manuscript) of short erotic poems and photography that will hopefully come out later this year or in early 2022.

The title itself is a kind of joke; that is, I like this feeling of staging the book in its very premise as an instruction manual—the joke being that I have no answer, and the project is in part about the aimlessness and indeterminacy of woman-ness, especially in relation to the spectacularity of femininity, its function as a category often conceptualized through a being-for-others. In other words, if “the” good girl is a formulation without ontological certainty—if the cultural imagining of the good girl is one who is comprised of (male) fantasy and a coalescence of subordinations under misogynistic systems of power and thought—there is no such thing as a good girl, for the “girl” in question is a phantom from the jump.

That said, I also hope the book investigates the phantasmatic quality of all subjectivity—to say that “good” heterosexual femininity is a discursive category whose definitions largely exceed the actual woman inhabiting it—and that this imperative toward incompleteness, or towards woman as a role indebted to its use-value for shoring up men—husbands, partners, etceteras—and children (future subjects), that it also demonstrates the fundamental vulnerability of us all to discursive categories which overdetermine us. I think all personhood—subjectivity, the self, however you phrase it—is inescapably indebted to interrelationality, that we all are fundamentally vulnerable to the other, to the social, and that as such the “self” is a necessarily unfixed thing.

Part of what this book also does is attempt to write about rape trauma without writing about rape trauma, and a consequence of that trauma that I’ve wrestled with for years is how not to surrender to the notion that to have been violated is to have been made bad, worthless, to have my possible goodness soiled indefinitely by rape—to insist that male violence neither produced my womanhood nor tainted it in perpetuity. Women are trained to believe our participation in consensual sex is itself a concession to moral slippage—consider the notion of fallen women, or virginity as the thing which may define a girl’s sociocultural and economic value in a marriage market. To have been subjected to sexual violence traffics in these same qualms around a woman’s goodness—what was she wearing, how many drinks did she have, did she simply regret a bad hookup, so on and so forth—that is, is the experience of being raped itself positioned by patriarchal discourses as reflective of the moral quality of the woman who survives it, and how does that story congeal in a social and narrative context.

Rumpus: I’m interested in how you bring that investigation of interrelationality to the book’s genre, which is a hybrid of poetry, diary entries, and literary criticism. Throughout the book, you explicitly cite the work of other artists and scholars—Sontag, Plath, and Woolf, to name a few. I notice that in moments of pain or hesitation, the speaker turns to their words for instruction or clarity. The effect is celebratory; I read your bibliography with a sense of gratitude for women writers.

hood: I like that you attend to the multivocality of the book. I’m a writer who likes to show her work, and who likes to talk with others about the work by others that I love. I have no interest in presenting myself as a kind of insulated genius, or someone who is simply taken up by a muse. Writing is hard work, and—I know it is by this point a cliché—no writer is a good writer without being first an expansive and voracious reader. I read everything, and as much of everything as I am able. I say in the book that the only reason I would wish to live forever is to be able to read every book ever written and it’s a true confession. I think a great deal about what sort of a tradition I’d like to descend from, and also what sort of a conversation I am able to participate in contemporarily.

Plath and Sexton are my literary godmothers, which is an unpopular divulgence. As women writers we are I think faced with an implicit demand to disavow the confessionalists—especially those two, who both ended their own lives. They are thought to be soiled in some way, not especially respectable, also titillating, and unserious. But suicide does not an entire life make—I wouldn’t be a poet without their poems, which were the first to transmogrify me, to displace me from my sense of what a poem does and can be. And, too, I wouldn’t write prose in the way that I do if it weren’t for the endless days and nights I’ve spent reading Woolf’s novels and journals and letters. Although of course Woolf doesn’t face that same condescension that Plath or Sexton do. I have been interested in Plath’s disruption of the metaphysical subject in moments of affective and world historical crisis, Sexton’s plainspoken appraisal and enjoyment of the body—which is also the pleasure in physicality that Sharon Olds has inherited. Or Woolf’s consideration of the solubility of the “I” in the strangenesses of the world, and its beauties—how we are souls made in and by a wide world but are ultimately finite and phantasmatic (I think especially of To the Lighthouse and The Waves as examples of this feeling). Sontag is a vast mind, and I find the chasm between the Sontag of the journals and the Sontag of the essays to be incredibly fascinating—I am curious about what it means to have a publicity of one’s personhood while preserving a kind of privacy elsewhere, something I mostly fail to do.

I suppose what I’m saying is that I don’t imagine myself as operating in a vacuum and I like the feeling of exposure—of one’s emotionality, one’s intellectual cache, one’s sense of the dialogue one is engaging with. I’ve said this before but someone who I think currently does this with incredible facility is Kate Zambreno, another great mind—her work turns me on to endless texts, which is the best thing in the world—the sense that you’re being let in on a secret, and the secret is someone’s idea of their library, their sense of a conversation. This sort of writing refuses objectivity, which is always a fiction, and presents all writing for what it is—the product of a singular intellect, which brushes up against endless other minds. I find Dodie Bellamy’s recent essays or the work of C. D. Wright provocative on this level as well. I find most writers don’t like to show their cards. It’s a point of pride I suppose, but pride isn’t something I find especially useful for my own work. My investments are in vulnerability, humility, and openness.

Rumpus: What is your relationship to the “I” of this book? You draw much from the confessional poets, but the multivocality of these poems complicates my reading of the “I” as strictly personal. Even the diary challenges its status as a site for mere confession. When you reconstruct the order of the entries and name it “an achronology,” you seem to be furthering what you touch on early in the book, which is that women’s art—including that feminized art object, the diary—is too often reduced to “inadvertent.”

hood: The book dances between multiple speaker-subjects, loosely organizable across the three sections: the visceral intimacy and unedited imperfection of the self-speaking-to-the-self in the diaries; the sly, slippery speaker of the long poem, worldly and comic; and the speaker of the final section, addressing one unified Other—the lover. Lyric poetry lends itself well to the formulation of poetic personae, and while my energies as a poet are certainly invested in vulnerability and the “personal,” I am still generating an art-object. These are three costumes I/the author sheathe my self in to reckon with the grief, desire, and trauma of the book’s content. Each of them resembles what I imagine to be my biographical self, but can only ever be proximate, as the production of even confessional work requires, yes, work—labor. The thing about confessional art that people like to forget is that it is yet art—that is, a subjective formulation, an aesthetic product. No confession exists in a vacuum—the confession, more than most forms, is quite literally premised on an intersubjective encounter—between the confessor and the penitent, therein marking confessionalism as fundamentally indebted to its audience, its poetic addressees.

It’s strange to me how deeply unrigorous readings of, say, Plath’s poems often are, because Ariel in particular is a book of such flagrantly theatrical personae. The book eschews the body, severs itself from coherent identity—see, for example, “Fever 103”: “(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)— / to Paradise”) in order to investigate what sort of a female self is possible following the annihilation of a certain sort of hyperfeminine “destiny.” There is nothing indeliberate about Plath’s raging speakers; nothing inartful about the precision of her style, the devastating quietude of her (often very politically and culturally critical) metaphoric scaffolds.

This tendency to reduce women’s art to the inadvertent has a long history, easily traceable back through reasonably contemporary female muse-figures, but also back to the oracles and high priestesses operating as conduits for the gods, and so forth. There is a strategic function to feigning happenstance in our art: It marks our power (especially when that power imagines sex or violence) as harmless, that is, as coming from elsewhere, giving us more license. But ultimately it is a quite simple equation: Woman is spectacle, not producer, or even spectator. To mark the “I” of women’s confessional work as beyond our facilities defangs it, relegates us to the role of mere hysterics, subject to uncontrollable emotionality—so extreme it may lead to death.

There has been an exhaustive discussion of autofiction in recent years—a sense of the novel as expansive enough to incorporate fictionalized narratives in which the author is a persistent and semi-autobiographical presence. I fancy the idea of a theory of autopoetry, where the “I” of the poem can be imagined more explicitly as an author-function, a possible intervention in the lyric that invokes—indeed, perhaps, produces!—the author.

Rumpus: The publisher of how to be a good girl is Grieveland, a small press founded in the early months of the pandemic by two newly unemployed writers looking to bring the mutual aid model to the author-publisher relationship. What has it been like to work with them?

hood: I don’t know where I’d be without the opportunity afforded to me by publishing with Grieveland. I’m a trans woman and a bartender with no family money or economic safety net, and I’ve been unemployed eleven months now. Unemployment insurance—especially in its expanded iteration for the first four months of the pandemic—was invaluable to ensuring I didn’t end up houseless or hungry, as I had the last time I experienced a long bout of unemployment, but once that ran out end of July and I had to move apartments in August, I needed to conjure some miracle of income to keep myself afloat, and fast. I had already signed with Grieveland over the summer, and the manuscript was nearing completion about the time of my move.

Grieveland’s model is unheard of in terms of the profits afforded to the author. Not only did I have the likewise unusual chance to produce and publish a book of poetry and miscellany in the span of six months, but I actually managed to make enough money to temporarily subsist on with that book. Kevin and Brendan are a joy to work with, incomparably even-handed and they both ensured my work was safely kept. More, working with fellow poets meant I knew they valued my vision for the book, and had a sense of what it was I was doing. Not to say that I don’t often work with editors (you among them!) and publishers who are also making beautiful work, but that in a publishing context, I didn’t feel like a cog in an apparatus, I felt like the star of the show, and that feeling I think gave me the sort of confidence I needed to take chances on the book I actually wanted to make and, to be frank, to do so reasonably quickly.

I’m proud of what we did. without an entire operational promotion structure behind us, a brand-new press and a broke trans poet with her first book managed to end up in Vogue (twice!), on an NPR subsidiary, in VICE, and now in a feature interview for The Rumpus. We sold a fuckton of books, too! It feels like an astonishing achievement because it is one.

I tend not to like talking about this aspect of the process because, while I am aware of and transparent about the interferences of capitalism in contemporary art production, I remain unsettled by the monetization of my art. I write in the book that I wish I could produce art outside of the constraints of payment, but that isn’t my lot in life and perhaps never will be, and I’ve had to make peace with that. There are adjacencies to capitalism in our corner of the world but there is no absolute outside. This book was in several ways about survivability—in the Didion turn of phrase I write or I tell stories in order to live, but, as well, in this unfathomable moment, I wrote a book in order to go on being alive, with a roof over my head, and me and my dog both reasonably fed. Poetry, as it always has, saves us—and in more ways than just the affective.

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Photograph of jamie hood courtesy of jamie hood.


Rachelle Toarmino is the author of the poetry collection That Ex (Big Lucks Books, 2020), the founding editor-in-chief of Peach Mag, and the assistant managing editor of jubilat. She lives between Buffalo and Western Massachusetts, where she is an MFA candidate in poetry at UMass Amherst. More from this author →