Apples, Sonnet Crowns, and Other Containers of Trauma: Talking with Jeri Frederickson
By day, the poet Jeri Frederickson is the creative director of Awakenings, a Chicago arts organization specifically created for survivors of sexual violence. “It’s incredibly healing and challenging, in equal measure,” Frederickson said. “Witnessing creative explorations of survival and resistance has helped me unpack some of my own experiences.” Frederickson’s new book, You Are Not Lost (Finishing Line Press, 2021), is a collection of autobiographical poems and music set to (often traumatic) childhood and young-adult memories. Frederickson was inspired by other artists who found a safe place to unpack and share their stories at her gallery and literary journal. She began her own journey of gathering a poetry collection, which proved to be harder than she imagined. “I wasn’t hearing my own creative voice, and a couple voices were nudging me to sideline my own survivorship in my writing,” she said. “Even though I am so honored to work where I do, I had to start by separating the two—writing and work.”
One way Frederickson accomplished this separation was to focus on childhood objects that reappeared throughout her young life, including the apple. She also used the sonnet form, specifically, the crown of sonnets to showcase the ongoing, ever-changing landscape of surviving trauma. The result is an organic jewel, a brave collection of beautiful poems that bring nourishment after pain.
Frederickson’s poetry has appeared in Thimble Literary Magazine, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Thank You for Swallowing, Awakened Voices, The Purposeful Mayonnaise, Last Leaves, and Variant Lit. She has also published reviews and interviews on The Poetry Café. A lifelong theater enthusiast, she has been an ensemble member and artistic associate for theater companies, and is a member of Actors’ Equity Union. She holds an MFA from Antioch University in poetry.
I recently spoke to Frederickson via Zoom, where we talked about her literary influences, the musicality of the sonnet form, the joy of the sonnet crown, and why self-care is doubly important when writing about trauma.
The Rumpus: When people ask you about You Are Not Lost, do you say it’s a lyrical memoir? A collection of poetry?
Jeri Frederickson: I’ve been calling this a collection of poetry, but I like lyrical memoir more. This is my first chapbook or book and having a cohesive group of poems finally published together feels significant.
Rumpus: You use the sonnet as form and apples, in several states of their life cycle, as the cohesive center of this book. The sonnets contain wounds from your life, reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop and the villanelle “One Art.” How did you do this?
Frederickson: I’m flattered to hear my work compared with that poem in particular of Elizabeth Bishop’s. I enjoy reading Mary Oliver, Marilyn Nelson, and Marie Howe, and all of them write about painful subjects—whether from their own lives or their inherited history—and they’re able to talk about pain in palatable ways. Their meaning-making and exploration of joy resonated with me. Since I knew I needed to write about painful things, I went back to their work specifically looking at how they drew me into these topics. I realized that their work around structure was the key for me to unlock my own understanding. Then the sonnet, a form I resented up through college, really brought everything together.
It’s interesting that you noticed the life cycle of apples, because for a while the title of this book was going to be The Life Cycle of Apples. Most of this book was going to be contained to childhood and early adulthood, so I wanted to use a tangible object that I was very familiar with, the apple, as a grounding point. Much like the life cycle of memory I was exploring, apples have a life cycle connected with their trees. My family’s part in this life cycle of apples grounds my memories. My family would go apple picking every year, and we’d gather so many apples—the bulk of which made applesauce, a physical, hot process—and then, we’d can them.
Rumpus: One of the sonnets refers to the task of taking these fallen apples and making applesauce with them: “…Sugar, heat and sweat / turn the orchard’s fallen rejects into / canned goods plopped into their baptismal bath.” Is there something here alluding to raw emotion being transformed into something else?
Frederickson: We would take something pure from nature, put it under pressure with heat and sugar, and can it to make the raw fruit sweeter and more palatable. I needed a poetic mason jar to put pressure on me, to contain what I was asking myself to do, and to give the reader a transformed creation that is still recognizable from its initial substance.
Rumpus: Why use the sonnet as form? Why does it make a good container for pain?
Frederickson: I can’t remember where I first learned what a crown of sonnets is, but I consider Mary Wroth my sonnet crown ancestor. She wrote A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Love, where she used the last line of one sonnet for the first line of the next sonnet. By repeating a whole line, she actually had the flexibility to make rapid turns in the rest of the poem. Some of the sonnets in her To Love series are so painful, and yet I go back to them, wanting to read about this woman’s love, a love unrequited and unfulfilling. There’s a playfulness in her sonnets, in her quick word-by-word turns. I’ve tried to use the same opportunity presented when the last line of one sonnet becomes the first of the next, and then the final poem in the whole series having all the first lines in the order they appeared. The crown is a space for deep examination and playfulness.
Marilyn Nelson, in her book, A Wreath for Emmett Till, also does this. She also brings in a lot of nature imagery, which aligned with my intentions for my own work. Both Wroth and Nelson are the sonneteers I want to keep learning from.
Rumpus: Did the sonnet crown help you write about your own childhood trauma? Is this what you were hoping to fit inside of each sonnet?
Frederickson: When I finally let go of trying to segment and contain this part of myself, as though it could exist in one poem, but not in another, I felt more confident in my writing. The sonnet crown gave me the opportunity to refine my own voice after listening to other voices for so long. I wasn’t comfortable with boxing my trauma into a specific kind of truth or judgment. I write about childhood objects that encase things we pretend children don’t have to deal with. So, the poems are about hard experiences in childhood, often caused by people who love you, or people you love. I needed the sonnet crown as scaffolding to find the space I needed to say, “Someone I love hurt me very deeply, and sometimes I didn’t understand what was going on until much later.” It gave me room and space to say, “Sometimes things are messier than fourteen lines, and I’m glad I have more than fourteen lines!” I can be true to the present sonnet, and then the next sonnet can feel very different. To me, that actually feels more in line with a trauma experience, where all these memories and truths are branching off even while growing from the same tree. Sometimes it’s hard to contain all that in one sonnet.
Rumpus: I could feel the pain of a wound, one that could never be contained inside a form, but somehow is: “…How many / seeds is my life worth, and will I plant them / in time to grow? The ripped peel of my heart / curls into the ground as she presses me— / What can I do with you, my applesauce?” How does the question help the reader see beyond what’s happening on the surface?
Frederickson: The more that I read poetry, the more I am okay leaving the reader with a question, and to never find the answer to that question myself. I may have as many questions in this series as I do answers. That was a surprise for me, as I finished this book. I was also surprised that sometimes the questions were as surprising and healing as they were painful, because that line, “What can I do with you, my applesauce?” can be said a thousand ways. I hope everything that tumbles before it will guide the reader to hear it, perhaps in the voice of their own former caregiver. I hope they hear both the exhaustion and the love, which still felt very piercing when it was said.
Rumpus: I loved how the last line begins the next sonnet: “What can I do with you? My applesauce / crank answers with a jolt, trying to hop / the counter’s vice…” This enjambment is both mysterious and rewarding. Did you want to talk about your process for doing this?
Frederickson: Enjambment is the closest way to articulate what happens inside my brain. Music has always been really important to me. I’m really particular about the music I listen to when I write because it can get in the way of hearing the rhythm in the line. When I wrote these sonnets, I scored them, in the same way you would score an iambic pentameter sonnet, so when a word would change, I’d listen to the line’s rhythm again.
I love the repeated line because an ending doesn’t have to be the final word in regard to my experience. At the beginning of the new sonnet, I specifically push myself into a different lens, focused in a different way. One sonnet might end in my mother’s painful comment to me, but her words start the next line in a different way, suddenly coming out of my mouth. I don’t get to stand as an innocent person in my own work. The enjambment helps me play in a greyscale rather than the black and white upbringing I had. If I’m constantly enjambing lines, and not landing until the very end, it feels like I’m not placing blame for these heavy experiences.
The lines that are end-stopped serve as an extra pause, like “It is a hundred-and-eight-quart season.” That’s just a fact! But it was important for me to be straightforward and pause once in a while and say, “Are you with me?” Sometimes, the words that I enjamb on are the places I am asking the reader, “Can you guess what I’m going to say next?” or, “Where’s your brain going?” because part of me wishes a reader would finish the line. What comes after applesauce for someone else?
Rumpus: There are parts where the language made sudden changes, in sound and movement.
Frederickson: Like the juxtaposition of words like applesauce and crank. There’s something really beautiful about the word applesauce, and crank is so short and harsh! That sonnet begins legato and then over the first enjambment becomes staccato. It’s interesting to play with words, especially over the line change.
I’ve tried to hold on to what Maggie Smith said in a seminar: “Think of each line as a unit.” I ask myself if I can pull out my units one by one? Even if they don’t make sense, are they interesting? That’s been really helpful for me, especially when I’m going back through editing.
Rumpus: There were lines where I felt the speaker proclaiming her own power: “A single seed is worthless, unless that one uproots the whole damn tree.” I loved that!
Frederickson: Thank you.
Rumpus: In the “Peel” section, you give us a long poem called “Turning my Childhood Kaleidoscope” about the changing landscape of childhood. At one point, you write, “In the mirrored end / I have set my childhood nightmares / a place to rest their leather heads. / Turn and I am the snake. Turn and I am / the frog. I will stick out my bright tongue / to the snake. I will taste what I turn.” This is powerful, and this is power.
Frederickson: There are so many times I see people I love feel like they’re powerless, and there are times still when I feel like I’m powerless in my own body, and powerless to help those I love. For a poem to hold this I needed to turn an object over and over in my hands: a kaleidoscope. For all of its silliness and low-techness, if you’re turning the kaleidoscope lens just right, the whole framework changes. That experience was important for me to re-envision, not destroy, my childhood nightmares. For a long time I tried to get rid of the nightmares that have been with me since childhood, but they will probably be with me forever. I can give them a place to rest, and then tell them it’s okay to play, and that feels more powerful. It also feels like I’m not trying to cut off a part of myself. I had to remember I’ve lived through each of those nightmares, and they never overtook me. Even when I felt powerless.
This is also why the frog and snake appear in the poem. Two beautiful creatures, and yet they are enemies, and one could end the other. I need to acknowledge the snake and the frog without cowering. I can stand up to a memory and not back down. It’s funny though, I try to watch nature documentaries, but sometimes I have to stop because I don’t want to watch glorified depictions of animals being consumed.
Rumpus: Since you mentioned this, I want to talk about the poem where you watch a nature miniseries: “Episode Two of Our Planet” the ekphrastic of the television show, an artistic science docu-series. This poem is written like a prose poem, but you still chose to mark your lines with line-break-slashes (/). Why did you decide to do this?
Frederickson: The slashes, to me, felt like the toggling back and forth I was doing as I watched this show while making dinner. The show, Our Planet, seems to try to cut into our sleep-walking through life, by showing us what’s going on in our climate. I was trying to cut through the fog of my day in a very different way. With the slashes, I wanted to call attention to the dissonance of what I was trying to put in front of me versus what was being pushed in front of me. David Attenborough is the soothing voice of so many nature documentaries and this series tackles important climate issues. And yet, I just wanted to make dinner and eat. To be left alone in that current exhaustion. To fuel my body. To have a glass of whiskey… but then suddenly my mind was like, “You have ice, and you’re watching this program, where there’s no more ice…” I just kept wondering, could we have a different plan for this planet? There are days when I just feel so overwhelmed and despairing about what’s going on.
Rumpus: I can imagine there were a lot of ups and downs as you wrote this. How did you practice self-care during the time you were putting this book together?
Frederickson: At times, I felt like I could hear my heart beating when I was writing. Sometimes I wondered if my heart was beating really fast because I was anxious about finishing the book. A couple of people who gave me advice on writing were not sure if I would be able to get the final two sonnets written. I wasn’t ever really worried about that—I felt like I could always hear the not-iambic heartbeat, even if I couldn’t hear the words yet. For the final ones I gave them space to come when they were ready, and they didn’t come easy. Sometimes, rather than hearing the rhythm of my heart or hearing the words come out of my brain, I would feel them against water. I was a competitive swimmer and after years away I’ve returned to the pool. My body is very different now, but there’s something about letting my brain relax in the water, allowing the pockets of myself, where I’ve stored scary truths and tender dreams, to work themselves free again.
This is the first time I’m writing about my family, about my own messing up in love, about the tender places in my life. I wanted to make sure to reconnect with my body. For a long time, writing was a convenient escape from my body when things were unbearable. I promised myself, as I was writing this, that I wouldn’t use it as an escape from myself. If that was the case, then this needed to go in a drawer. Sometimes I would get partway through a draft and think, “Oh, I’m losing myself.” So, I would go for a run, or for a swim. But that sense of being lost didn’t last and usually didn’t return when I went back to a piece. I didn’t let go of my own body, and now my body stays with me when I write. Hence, the title: You Are Not Lost.
Just like a lot of the images around the apples, it felt very much like the experience of trying to pick the seeds I tucked away, around my body. In holding them together again, I could make one solid piece that I was willing to share.
Rumpus: Do you think you were successful in preserving yourself, body and soul, during the publishing process?
Frederickson: I really do. I’m glad you asked that. I had submitted different versions of this manuscript to publishers before being offered a contract out of the New Women’s Voices contest from Finishing Line Press, and there were different poems in those versions. Eventually, I had stopped sending the manuscript out, because I was getting really self-conscious.
When I went back through the collection and was really honest with myself about what was causing the tension in my body, I took some poems out. Now if someone asked me, “Would you read this at a reading?” I could say yes about any poem in the collection. For me, that was the bar. Of course, there are some that will be easier than others, and certainly some days when I might say, “I prefer not today,” but there’s no “Absolutely not this one!” in this collection. I’m doing a lot more running, even when I feel like I’m dragging myself out the door to go do it. Every time I reconnect with movement in my own body and, when I think back through the collection, I’m really proud. So, I think I have taken care of myself.
Photograph of Jeri Fredrickson by Jacqueline Jasperson.