young woman jessica piazza at wall with smiile spray painted on wall

A section of my mini-program, Where’s the Electricity?, consists of an interview with award-winning poet Jessica Piazza in which we talk about creative obsessions, and how they influenced Piazza’s poems in her collection Interrobang. Here I’m printing a different version of the interview, which covers art and obsession, the politics of poetry contests, and what Piazza calls “bravery in writing.”

Jessica Piazza is the author of three poetry collections: Interrobang (Red Hen Press, 2013), the chapbook This is not a sky (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and Obliterations (with Heather Aimee O’Neill, forthcoming from Red Hen Press). Interrobang won the 2011 To the Lighthouse Prize from A Room of Her Own Foundation and the 2013 Balcones Prize from the Balcones Poetry Center in Austin, TX.

In 2015 she started the “Poetry Has Value” project, hoping to spark the conversation about poetry, money and worth. Learn more at www.jessicapiazza.com or www.poetryhasvalue.com, and follow her on Twitter @JessWins

Q: I saw that you had a quote from John Waters in the epigraph—”Without obsession, life is nothing.” Which was funny to me, because I just did a podcast interview for the Unmistakable Creative, and the quote they chose to make into a graphic was when I said something like, “I think what makes someone unmistakable is obsessiveness.” I’d been talking about, and have been talking about and writing about, artists and writers and that penchant for obsession.

Jessica: I do think that the attraction to (and perhaps, simultaneously, repulsion by) obsession is something most people feel. But artists–I think the difference is that we stop to examine it. As an artist it feels, I guess irresponsible, to me to bury some of the feelings and experiences that are difficult. And obsession can be difficult!

I think by nature we want to downgrade our obsessions to just normal interests, because there’s something about obsession that feels dangerous. So, the human side of me wants to shield my eyes and heart from obsessions, while the artist in me feels obligated to unpack it and expose it and dissect it.

When I go to classrooms to talk about Interrobang, one of the things that always comes up is that fear and lust (or love) are the stuff of life! If one thinks about anything important, anything you care about or are in awe of, those grand, sometimes terrible and sometimes wonderful emotions will usually play some part in one’s relationship to those things.

Q: Is that why you put the John Waters quote in?

Jessica: Yes. Absolutely. This whole book is about obsession, ultimately. What makes something move beyond general attraction or repulsion into obsession. Trying to make distinctions between the acceptable version of those obsessions and the problematic ones. All of that.

Plus, John Waters is freaking awesome. So, you know.

Q: Yes! I did want to talk about the A Room of Her Own Prize, too. So you finished Interrobang, and then…

Jessica: Well, yes. (Although it’s rarely as simple as that. I finished several versions of books, I guess, that eventually became Interrobang!) But yes, I finished it. And I sent it to a few rounds of contests. I was lucky: I was a finalist or semi-finalist in a bunch of contests and got good responses through a few open reading periods, but nothing led to publication for a while.

I was starting to get kind of jaded, really. Concerned that my book fell into this unpublishable space that was too wild and experimental for the formalists and too formal for the experimental poets. This is the problem with writing formal poems, for me, though it was definitely outweighed by the benefits of the form.

joan didion postcard and mug

Q: How much time are you talking about?

Jessica: Interrobang itself? Probably three years of contests. With some tweaks in between. Maybe more… I certainly didn’t send everywhere, though. Just places I really wanted to be published where I admired the work.

Q: I like knowing about that. I mean, waiting is terrible. But it helps with the mythology of having something picked up straightaway.

Jessica: YES! And truly I was thrilled when it happened. A Room of Her Own is an amazing organization. I was so incredibly lucky that Eloise Klein Healy was the judge the year I won. She is amazing. A tough broad, funny, really willing to champoin outside the box work.

Q: How did you find out you’d won?

Jessica: Oh, I got an email. And felt like I’d died with happiness. It felt surreal. Especially after getting a bunch of emails about placing but not being published. We writers–we know those “good rejections” all too well, don’t we. They are terrible and encouraging all at once. But here it was. Finally.

And I was thrilled that it was this organization. When I was younger I used to wonder whether organizations and contests like this one–geared specifically toward women–were fair. But as I got older and really looked at the world I understood the need for these spaces. I was a screener for the National Poetry Series this year, and it really put an interesting perspective on how books are chosen and published.

Q: Oh, I need to hear about this. If you can talk about it.

Jessica: Well, I just mean that we read blind, but poetry reveals itself. It says something–perhaps not everything, but something–about its author. It gives clues. And no matter how objective we might be, we internalize those clues. I certainly tried my best not to judge the work based in any way on those suspicions about the author that arise while reading. But it seems impossible partly because as readers in general–not in book contests, just reading books in life–those cues are part of our reading process.

One thing I realized was how utterly lucky… and I mean luck, just luck… anyone is to win a contest. It’s really about getting in front of the right set of eyes. I sent certain manuscripts through that I was pretty sure wouldn’t get sent through by others because I was aware that what I favor in contemporary poetry isn’t always the status quo.

Of course, that’s when a contest is run purely. There are plenty of people who win contests and awards because they’ve already become popular within the circles of contemporary poetry and are recognizable as thus. That is what it is. Happens in every field, though I’m not a huge fan.

But for me, it was all about bravery in the writing. I’d rather see a book that shows me something, anything new and energetic than another “perfect” lyric art piece.

Q: Last question — what are you really excited about right now, in terms of your own work?

Jessica: I’m excited about finding a new project! Not surprisingly, I feel most comfortable writing in projects or themes these days, and I recently finished a book with Heather Aimee O’Neill–erasure poems from NY Times articles–that will be published probably next year with Red Hen Press. It was fun and I loved working with her (she’s so talented and a great friend), but now I’m projectless and trying to figure out my next move. That’s the hardest part for me. Finding my next obsession.

P.S. Are you an artist, writer, creative, and/or maker? Plunder the wealth of inspiration in your own obsessions and themes with Where’s the Electricity?. Click on the image to learn more.

where's the electricity?