What if someone offered you hard-earned wisdom about life? Would you listen? Jesse Lee Kercheval’s latest collection of poetry, I Want to Tell You: Poems (Pitt Poetry Series) is a gorgeous examination of grief, death, God, silence, place, and dogs. Kercheval’s “voicey voice” (her words) presses us to learn from her mistakes so we can be spared from repeating them in our own lives. The collection begins with an urgent tone, as Kercheval’s poems ask critical, high-stakes questions. The reader is then eased into an engaging, moving, and often humorous, emotional arc. As Kercheval gains greater understanding through the poem’s explorations, her voice softens. “I know / I know / what I am asking is impossible,” she writes. She knows we must, and will, learn the hard way, even as she wishes it could be otherwise.
A long-time fan of Kercheval’s essays, fiction, and, most recently, her visual art, I loved I Want to Tell You. My first exposure to her poetry is this, her sixth collection. Among the others are America that island off the coast of France (Tupelo Press, 2019), winner of the Dorset Prize; the Spanish language collection Extranjera/Stranger (Editorial Yaugarú, 2015); Cinema Muto (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), winner of the Crab Orchard Poetry Award; Dog Angel (Pitt Poetry Series, 2004); and World as Dictionary (Carnegie Mellon Poetry Series, 1999). Kercheval has also authored several chapbooks, including Film History as Train Wreck, winner of the 2006 Poetry Chapbook Competition (designed, printed and bound by Barbara Henry). She is the author of three prize-winning collections of short fiction, several translations (she specializes in Uruguayan poetry), and the Alex Award–winning memoir Space: A Memoir (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014). Her essays and illustrated essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Guernica, the Sewanee Review, New Letters, the New Ohio Review, On the Sea Wall, Blackbird, and the Los Angeles Review.
It was my great pleasure to speak with Jesse Lee Kercheval on Zoom about her humor, her “voicey-voice,” the urgency and arcs in her work, and having the courage to step into places that scare her.
The Rumpus: “I Want to Tell You,” the titular poem, starts us off with a voice that’s quite direct and a no-nonsense attitude: “I am talking about poetry / I am talking about breaking out of the neat little box of humorous lines / rising to a zing of cosmic meaning at the end.” Is poetry that for you? Breaking out of a neat little box
Jesse Lee Kercheval: I think so. I started as a prose writer. Poetry was a place where you could do things you don’t exactly do in prose. I wanted really direct voicey poems. This is not a COVID-19 collection by any means, but I was putting it together during the height of COVID-19, when it felt like it wasn’t a time to whisper: it was a time to speak directly. The voice is like a performance. I hear the voice and I just let the voice speak in these poems. I think that’s true of my writing, in general, but this book in particular.
Rumpus: Whose voice is it?
Kercheval: I think it’s some distilled version of me talking, probably a less polite version. It’s sort of that voice where you’re saying in your head what you’re not saying out loud. That unfiltered voice.
Rumpus: In this book, that voice is often funny. Do you use humor to make difficult topics more bearable?
Kercheval: I use humor as a way of tolerating the world, of cutting the sorrow. I think that’s pretty consistent through all of my writing. People either like it or they don’t. If someone criticizes my writing, they sometimes say, “I don’t see that humor is appropriate in this situation.” I think “Well, sorry.” To me, tragedy and comedy go together, or at least ironic humor or observation.
Rumpus:: Are you funny in real life?
Kercheval: I think I’m very funny in real life. Although my husband, when we were first dating, read something I wrote and said, “You’re funnier in your writing than you are in life.” I said, “Well, I get to revise my writing.”
Rumpus: I’m fascinated by the sandwiching of this collection between the two poems “I Want to Tell You” and “I Am Telling You.” How do they work together?
Kercheval: Those poems are indeed a pair. They’ve always felt like they were going to be an important part of this book, the thing that pulled the book together. At one point, “I Want To Tell You” was the closing poem, a more traditional position for the title poem, but “I Am Telling You” ends on a more reflective, upbeat note: “Be the tree / Be the book / Be the one who loves and is forgiven / Be.” It’s where you want to leave the book as opposed to where you want to enter. Maybe it’s me as a prose writer, but when I’m putting together a collection of poems, I want an emotional arc.
Rumpus: This collection feels like a journey. Did you intend the reader to travel with you as you ask questions of life, and attempt to discover the answers?
Kercheval: It’s very much an exploration of the meaning of life. How do we face grief? In the last few poems, we reach a quiet place, a place that comes to terms with everything that’s happened, comes to terms with what we have in the world. It’s an emotional, even a philosophical journey, and to some extent a journey of grief.
Rumpus: You write a lot about death.
Kercheval: Putting these poems together, part of me thought: I can’t have so many people dying in a book. In this one, it’s my sister-in-law, my mother, and my father. Then I thought, “Well, that’s what happens. The longer you live, the more people you knew are dead.” As I was putting the book together during the pandemic, people were dying all around. It seemed like a time in which we could address things with high emotional stakes.
Rumpus: There’s also a lot about God. Your mother seems to have had a strong relationship with God. In “Forgive Me,” you write “In the end, my mother slept / for seven months / making up for lost time / getting all her beauty sleep / before she went to meet her God / He is crazy about me, she told me / before she rode off in that ambulance / I love Him too—”
Was your mom a religious person?
Kercheval: My mother was religious in a slightly less direct way, so in that poem my mother turned up too high. In that poem, there’s a little surreal conversation between her and God. It isn’t a scene that I would’ve written in a memoir. She had a sense of the hand of God ruling your life. I wanted to have a more embodied God, a more embodied Jesus and maybe make it a little more humorous in the poem than it was in real life.
Rumpus: You don’t seem to share your mother’s confidence in God.
Kercheval: No. If we were having a conversation outside of poetry, I probably would tell you I’m agnostic, bordering on atheistic, but I have this long-running conversation about whether God does exist, and what God is. I am not someone who had much religious training in spite of my mother. I have many friends who have some sort of very specific, sometimes friendly or angry, relationship with their God. Mine is much more speculative.
Rumpus: You also write a lot of dogs. Do you have dogs?
Kercheval: I had a rat rerrier for sixteen and a half years until she left us. I do love dogs. I also love cats, but I don’t think there are any cats in my poems.
Rumpus: In “Blessing” a dog and a cat introduce the idea of what we say and what may not be spoken aloud: “My mother going thru a litany / of dead pets—the 13-year-old cat / whose kidneys failed, the dachshund / we put to sleep. It was a blessing / she says / Me not asking—/ Is that what you want? / Her not saying—/ Please, God, let me die”
Kercheval: I think a lot about that. The things you don’t say in families, the things you don’t ask, or why you don’t. It’s different from family to family. Someone else will tell me what the no-go’s in their family are and it’ll seem very strange to me. In this book, I wanted to explore what’s unsaid. Poetry is someplace you can do that because generally speaking, even if your parents are alive or the aunt who comes to Christmas, they’re not going to read it if it’s in a poem.
Rumpus: In “A Dream Set in Wheat” you ask the dog “What do dogs think—is there a God?”
Kercheval: Well, it’s a good question.
Rumpus: It is a great question. In your poems, dogs often lead us into wonderings about God and death. A dog would know as much as we do, right?
Kercheval: I think more, honestly.
Rumpus: Your work has an urgency of wanting to not only figure things out, but to share your discoveries with your reader.
Kercheval: I think it’s a very urgent voice, that voicey-ness, like you just have to talk to someone. Maybe I am talking to the reader because these are things I can’t talk about to anyone else. I would say it has a dear diary feel, although actually I am one of the few writers who does not keep a journal. The poems are both private and confessional at the same time. This part of it is almost manic to me, the poems build an intensity.
Rumpus: That’s all there, and the voice also sounds instructional, as if you’re asking readers to please listen because the poems might save them some grief.
Kercheval: I think professors lecture. My husband is a retired professor, too, and there can be this cross-lecturing at each other that’s unbelievable. I do love an odd fact. It’s also, I think, a mother thing, at least for me. There’s a responsibility for knowledge and passing on knowledge. Emotionally, it comes more from the mother’s side.
I taught for thirty-five years at the University of Wisconsin. I had undergraduate students, graduate students, postgraduate fellows. I think of them all as my children. My joke was always to say to my colleagues, “The children, the children are doing so well.” In that sense, my poetry is sort of mothering writ large.
Rumpus: The voice is very loving and nurturing, also direct. The last poem is full of generous advice that comes from someone with experience, authority, and deep empathy: “I know / what I am asking is impossible / But—as your mother, financial advisor, lover too old for you to ever want or / have, your / librarian, your local forest manager—I ask you: / at least be still”
You do have experience and authority. This is your sixth collection of poems. How does this journey compare to the others?
Kercheval: Each one is different. The books walk through my life, and they point to where I am at any given time. I wrote another book in Spanish, and I translate Spanish poetry.
Rumpus:: How did you become interested in translating?
Kercheval: As a family, we went to a language school in Mexico. I was in the beginner class, learning my colors and numbers. It was so much fun being a student after being a teacher. I had a sabbatical and ended up going down to Uruguay to learn Spanish. I really had no intention of translating. I just wanted to have conversations about tomatoes, but I fell in love with Uruguay and with Uruguayan poetry. It’s a tiny country, 3.5 million people, but it’s packed with poets. I wanted to share the amazing work they do with friends, other poets, and people who could not read Spanish so I started translating it.
I have a couple of wonderful books by Uruguayan women poets coming out in translation soon. Uruguay has this unbroken tradition of women poets that I just don’t know exists anywhere else in the world. The latest is Memory Rewritten by Mariella Nigro. That book is co-translated with Jeannine Pitas. Another, A Sea at Dawn by Silvia Guerra, also co-translated with Jeannine, will be out soon from Eulalia Books.
Rumpus:: Now that you are retired, are you spending more time writing?
Kercheval: Yes. I am so busy because now I have translation, I have poetry, and I’ve been writing a lot of essays. My big pandemic addiction was drawing, which I had never done before.
I was in Uruguay when they shut the country down, and I was locked in a rental apartment with my husband. Everything was closed, but you could go to the grocery store. They had colored pencils for kids, so I got that, and a pad of paper. I wanted to do something that wasn’t just sitting on the computer reading bad news all day, and so I started drawing. I really had never drawn, not even as a kid.
I started taking some online classes, and finally got to take this amazing face-to-face class last spring with my colleague at the University of Wisconsin, Lynda Barry, the queen of comics and this sort of creative drawing.
I started doing illustrated essays, where I would use my drawings. I’m really, really interested in that. Two of those, “The Fox Sister” and “Speak Up” won essay prizes New Letters and the New Ohio Review. I have this grander ambition for 2023. It may be too big, so be careful what you wish for. I would like to do my published, all word memoir, Space, as a graphic memoir.
It was my New Year’s resolution to draw it, and try to find a publisher for it. I’m not usually the person who writes little notes to myself and puts them up, but I have a note card that says, “One page at a time.” Otherwise, I will panic. One thing I’ve learned about drawing is that it is time-consuming. The idea that I’m going to draw a book-length graphic narrative causes me to hyperventilate. I tend to, for whatever crazy reason, like to be doing something that I have no reason to be doing. So, the idea of doing an entire book-length graphic narrative really interests me even if it really scares me. That’s my project. You certainly can come back in a year and see how far I’ve gotten, one page at a time. One page at a time.
Author photo courtesy of Magda Fuller