Jazzy Danziger’s debut collection, Darkroom, is the winner of the 2012 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Danziger studied at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns/Poe-Faulkner Fellow in poetry. She currently serves as editor for the Best New Poets anthology.
Interviewed by Christopher Linforth
How did you come to poetry?
I always wrote, though the early writing was modeled after ghostwritten teen chapter books like Sweet Valley High. I wasn’t allowed to check them out of the school library, so I’d hide behind a bookshelf for the free reading hour with a decoy nearby in case the librarian walked over. I wrote a lot of high school dramas, and a few stories about a high-powered “lady banker.” I didn’t even know what bankers did, but I was eight and the lobby at the Sun Bank building in downtown Orlando left an impression on me.
There was some external recognition that I had drive, if not range. I wrote a 10-page biography of my basset hound in first grade, and my teacher let me read it to the class. That was my first reading and my worst audience.
The writing became poetry when I started to want more music and more control over the rhythm. That led to very early experimentation with line breaks, stanzas, rhyme, some forms. I imitated the limited range of contemporary poetry available to me, which was almost entirely children’s poetry.
When I was 11 I had a poem called “Night” published in an anthology called Of Sunshine and Daydreams, which was put out by vanity press Poetry.com—though this was back in the pre-internet days, when it was the National Library of Poetry. The anthology was a massive hardback made of tissue-thin paper, and they shoved in six or seven poems per page. When you Google the name of the collection, you get a lot of obituaries. People are proud to have been published in those kinds of collections, and I get it. I was proud. I know how those vanity presses work now, but that doesn’t sully that early sense of pride.
Much of my early inspiration came from song lyrics. That permission to be weird, to be “off” with language, was granted by albums like Radiohead’s OK Computer and (though it’s become cliché for young woman to name it as an inspiration, it’s still brilliant) Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes. In high school I’d write strange poems that thrilled and scared me, and I’d hide them in my closet. I didn’t want to destroy them, but didn’t want anyone to find them either. I was always confessing, but I wasn’t ready to do it out loud.
I didn’t realize poetry could be more than a hobby until much later. I went to college to be a graphic designer, but disagreed fundamentally with the way the art school’s core classes were taught—I grasped the concepts, like positive and negative space, and line (elements that exist in poetry, too, of course), but I didn’t have a drawing, or sculpture, or crafting background. Just photography and digital graphic design. I wanted to complete the exercises with Adobe Illustrator, not construction paper. And I’m receiving C minuses in 2-D Design because there’s a sliver of glue sticking out from under a construction paper circle, and my mat board—the board that just frames the actual work—isn’t cut at a precise 90-degree angle. We’re doing an exercise on repetition, and the goal is to explore various ways to achieve unity, but I’m spending days re-drawing the same icon a thousand times across a poster-sized piece of paper, until the work is all tedium and no theory, no thought.
My argument that those core classes should be about the concepts themselves, expressed through whatever medium—and not how skilled you are with rubber cement—fell on deaf ears. I did not belong there. Meanwhile, in freshman composition, we’re having a poetry week, and I am writing poems for that class to procrastinate—writing poems to avoid having to do my art school homework. And it is challenging, very challenging, but it’s the only thing I want to do. So that was my light bulb moment. I switched majors and took every writing class the English department offered.
Who are some of your influences?
I like a broad range of poetry, but when I’m reading for inspiration, I have to read poets working on very high emotion. The work needs to be both visceral and smart, both strange but accessible—on a bodily level, at least. I need that extreme just to hit my midpoint.
Frank Bidart was one of the first poets to truly engage me on an emotional level, to make me want to understand poetry. I didn’t know what was happening to me when I read Desire for the first time, but I wanted to re-read until I could unlock that feeling. That book gave me an awareness of my limitations that was both scary and motivating. Poetry was a secret, something that I could feel but couldn’t yet crack open.
How does your creative process work?
I am a polite, neurotic person hiding a selfish, hotheaded, strong-willed person underneath. The selfish one is the better writer. Much of my writing time is spent getting to that second self. What helps: a glass of wine, good music, looking at photojournalism blogs, browsing Wikipedia for peculiar articles. Sometimes I stack six or seven books of poetry up and just forage, picking up words and thoughts. I feel guilty about that, but there’s no room for guilt. I often have to play word games with myself to get the music going in my head. And then I’m ready to write a very messy first draft, free to confess without fear of offending. If I’m typing three words, deleting them, typing three more words, deleting those, I know I’m not open yet.
It’s usually a couple of hours of this mental stretching, and then 45 minutes of writing quickly and furiously, and I’ve got a first draft. It would be nice if the warm-up was shorter, but it is what it is.
Revision is something I can do in either state.
You recently won the Brittingham Prize. Can you tell us about the process of creating a manuscript and its final route to publication?
A poet I admire promised me early in the process that the manuscript would find its own shape without much intentional influence on my part. She said I didn’t need to know what the book was “about” yet. I knew that my obsessions were infused into each poem, and that no matter how disparate the subject matter or speaker from poem to poem—whether it’s a bride in Khartoum, an ‘80s teen mourning Samantha Smith, and the wife of a firefighter recovering from a decade-long coma—that idea of manipulation and deception in mourning, memory, art, and motherhood would be the cable through which all of the poems would speak to each other. So then it just became a question of order.
When it was time to build the book, my friends Carolyn Creedon, Christa Romanosky, Yasmine Dalena and I spread the poems out on the floor of Carolyn’s apartment, and I said, all I know is there are three sections. Florida, Fever Dreams, and Natural Disasters. And one will contain many of the narrative poems about my childhood, and will provide the context in which the other sections should be read. And the next is a series of wild dreams, dreamt during the illness of adolescence—that crazed phase when reality and the dream state are indistinguishable. And the last section is adulthood, and the inevitability of things, of maybe becoming the mother you lost, but a warped, manipulated version of that mother and that memory. And these three brilliant writers indulged me and refereed me as I moved the puzzle pieces around. Things were ready to snap into place within that very strange structure. Once I’d created the structure of the sections, the poems knew where they needed to go.
I love that the order that revealed itself wasn’t completely chronological. I know that my time travel obsession is present in Darkroom. There’s a poem in the book about the moment when I learn that my mother has died. And the next poem jumps back seven years, and I’ve been dropped off (by my mother) at elementary school, but school is closed that day. I’m stranded. I end up in a donut shop down the street, and the owner helps me call home, but no one answers. The phone just rings, and rings, and rings.
When I wrote the second poem, that ringing phone was an unimportant detail. It was just atmosphere, just a connecting piece in the narrative. But when I tried placing the poem out of chronological order, right after the poem where I learn she’s died, the moment changes. It’s not that she isn’t home. It’s that she’s already gone. Now, when I read the words “no one answers,” I feel that her death was always there, built into the beginning.
After I had the order down, I printed out the book and—honestly—kissed the manila envelope before I shoved it into the mailbox to send it off to the University of Wisconsin Press. There’s very little I can offer about book prize contests beyond that little bit of superstition about the kiss. There isn’t a special secret or tip that I can provide, except that my name may have stood out in the pile. So: have a memorable name.
Hit us with one your poems:
From Darkroom, originally published in Bellingham Review:
The body erased. Light birthing the image.
The hand’s obstruction removes an eye, a rib.
It happened this way:
the soft infrareds not red
but black, engraved in the colloid. The choked look
of the projector, the jam-capped reds of filters
and their choice of contrast intensity—darker
and darker, the sooted blood. Color deciding
how white is your white on gloss or matte.
This power trip and scare. We were looking
inside the grain, wrenching the focus knob,
the negative sharpened
but observed through mirrors.
This could have been creation:
the tendon and mouth, blank
of the background bound in the space, were seen;
halide silver and dirt clinging,
separating, finding the natural shape.
Then, we had our desires. And tricks
of the hand and light. We made our demands.
So the salts formed the backs of spoons
or fish scales,
or human smoke. And images in silver
that were not silver: a few teeth flashing
in the soil.
We mangled our subjects after the shot—
technique hushing the grain. The body had its hunger
and its words, the agitations and stop baths, the vinegar and burn
and fingernails blacked. Our brutal selves reeling
the strips onto spools. The world made new,
and blooming, and dumb.
What are you working on at the moment?
A second manuscript—a pile of poems that will reflect a new obsession. I don’t plan to write another book about my mother, though I’m sure she will find her way in.
Where can we find more of your poetry?
I have two new poems—not from Darkroom—in Copper Nickel’s issue 17, which was just released.