Transcribed from audio interview on 10/12/23 by Carley Horton
Luke Rolfes: Alright, I'm here with Jessica Reed. Hi, Jessica! Thanks so much for taking some time with us today to discuss your collection of poems entitled STILL RECOGNIZABLE FORMS, which was the winner of the 2021 Midwest Chapbook Contest. STILL RECOGNIZABLE FORMS is a beautiful, broad-reaching exploration of the scientific, physical, and natural world both close to home and far away. Can you give us, Jessica, a sense of the genesis of this project and how you went about bringing it from idea to completion? 
Jessica Reed: Oh, thanks so much for having me, Luke, and thanks to the press for publishing this chapbook. Well, first of all, there was a huge life change at age 35. I lived in the Southwest in the desert and I ended up moving to a rural farm in Indiana, and I had been tracking climate change, and problems with the planet's health, and I was kind of wondering what it would be like to grow my own food and raise chickens and all of that. Meanwhile my first chapbook was engaged with Lucretius, who wrote the first poem about atoms "De rerum natura," and though I never studied classical literature, I got obsessed with that poem. And then I thought, "Well, Virgil did the Georgics,” which is about how to farm. He was even lamenting then about people moving to the city and losing their touch with their roots. So, that's what I decided to focus on. I was calling it my Georgics project for awhile. 
LR: OK, very cool. So, science, natural world, natural science, natural images pop up a lot. They're the subjects and inspirations of many of these poems. Has that been a long-time interest of yours? If so, can you pinpoint a specific moment when it began to draw your interest? 
JR: Always. I've always been interested in science. I think back to when I had a children's encyclopedia, and I remember my dad talking to me about the concept of atoms, and there were pictures of building blocks. I remember just being sort of stunned at the idea that people were made of some of the same elements that bridges were made of and, you know, birds! So I majored in physics. So yeah, that's just kind of built into my writing life.   
LR:  I was curious about where you write. Is it indoors? Is it outdoors? Do you need a silent venue? Do you need isolation? Some people like a low murmur in the background, the same time and place everyday. Where are you writing? 
JR: I have a beautiful room in my house that opens up---it is just all glass doors and windows that open up into a view of my front field. It's sunny in there. I get to see all the dramas of the natural world,  whatever's going on with the weather. It's kind of breathtaking and not something I had been used to until we moved there. So that's where I write. I always write indoors. My best time is the morning. 
LR: One of the strengths of STILL RECOGNIZABLE FORMS is your ability to list or stack images and ideas in beautifully complex rows---I'm thinking of the poem “I Once Was Dry Light,” for instance. Is this stacking/listing technique something that occurs organically/associatively in your head when you write, or is it something that you purposefully do in your work? 
JR: Thank you for the compliment. That's really nice. So, I have to give Francis Bacon a little bit of credit for this. Bacon had a table of heat. It's actually a table where he just listed---and this is the 1600s---he just listed all these things that caused heat. I was kind of responding to the stacking in the table. I felt that, but I did  rearrange and cut some things. So I edited for pacing and for that kind of piling effect. 
LR: Yeah, I mean I think when I was looking back through your wasn't exactly listing, but it wasn't exactly not listing. I was just picking up on a lot of stacking. 
JR: Yeah, I guess I like cumulative effects. I guess it's fair to call it listing. It's fair to say that a lot of poems try to use lists to affect the pacing. 
LR: So, you bounce back and forth between many ideas and themes in this book. A Midwestern barn all the way to black holes colliding. In turn, your words visually jump across the page. You utilize different structure, line length, and form in these poems, like they're pretty spread out across the page, et cetera. You talked about your usage of space, white space on the page. Is this an example of content dictating form in some way? 
JR: Yeah. So this is a great question. Thank you. I do use white space very conscientiously and I also use grayscale in places. Sometimes I even strike out words, and I consider all of that ways to sort of hesitate or hush the main speaker’s voice in the poem. You know, because I think what I love most about poetry is that you get to argue with yourself, contradict yourself go in all kinds of different directions. And so space is one of the tools that I can use to slow down that controlling speaker voice. I don't want there to always be a controlling speaker. 
LR: So, kind of a follow up to that, I'm curious about how you go about setting these in your initial drafting phase. Do you handwrite so you can kind of manipulate the page as is? I was also curious, is this something that is a gut thing? Like, “I see it and I know it looks good in my gut” or do you see it and you know it looks good “in your brain”?  
JR: It does, yes. I think ultimately the answer is it is in my gut. I do handwrite all my drafts first, but not all the handwritten drafts have all the spacing that ends up being...that’s something that ends up being in the next phase. Once I start typing, I start kind of tabbing things over and playing with line breaks. 
LR: Another part of the collection that I love is that some of the poems are ekphrastic. I like to write ekphrastic things sometimes too. What do you set out to accomplish when writing ekphrastic work? And how do you go about picking subjects for it? 
JR: So great question. That's fun. They picked me. There's a photographer named Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian photographer, and he had this Anthropocene exhibit in Toronto. I was already a fan, but this was my first chance to see an exhibit of his work, and they're like wall-sized photos of all kinds of things that humans have done to the planet. All kinds, from coral reefs to mining. Parts of the Earth that have been gutted by machines and explosives and everything. In fact, there's a landfill photo and that's the one that inspired the title poem for the collection. The “Technofossils” comes from a picture of a landfill taken at an enormous distance, and you can see this kind of color-coded trash. And then you can see these three little people, you know, standing there sorting trash, which is really breathtaking. The photos are deliberately disorienting, I think, and they're dizzying. But when you look at that one in particular, because there are very few actual human beings in these photographs, but that landfill one with these three little humans standing in this enormous mound of trash---it's very poignant. 
LR: Yeah. Absolutely. I'm glad you brought that piece up because I was going to ask specifically about “Technofossils, Still Recognizable Forms,” which might be my favorite poem in the book. So, I just want to read this little ending bit. The poem ends with: “and it overwhelms us/ and we order it/ and we fall to pieces/ and we order it again/ and fall to pieces ourselves.” This poem felt, in some ways, a little bit more “internal” than some of the others. Do you see this one as being different than some of the others in the chapbook? And maybe walk us through this poem a little bit, and what you were setting out to accomplish? 
JR: OK, OK, I'll give it a shot. So the quote, the passage that you quoted there at the end, is a nod to Rilke ... But I was reading some of Rilke's elegies, and I guess it was because I described the people in the landfill photo as poignant. I was thinking in a kind of elegiac way and...humans have caused so much damage, but it's on a scale that no single human can even comprehend, and certainly no single human is responsible for the kind of massive damage that we as a species have caused. And that’s pretty overwhelming to try to think about, and I think in the end I was trying to give humans a little bit of grace, if that makes sense. It's hard. It's very easy to just lapse into a very judgmental mode about what we've done. 
LR: I think that poem uses the “we” too, right? As the address rather than “you” or even “I” if I'm remembering it correctly. 
JR: Right. Yes, it does. And so that's where I’m kind of including all of us as part of this like, “we’re all accomplices, or we're all participants, or we're all beneficiaries,” you know, to some of the things. And so there is a shared responsibility. But again, it's just so massive, and it goes back to those individuals in the photo that are sorting the trash---what can be recycled and color coding it. And there is a concept in there, a physics concept of entropy and disorder. So, the idea, second law of thermodynamics, that things are always tending toward disorder. 
LR: Yeah, that's really interesting... Using “we” is such an interesting way to give grace to something, or it's a very subtle way to give grace because it kind of throws us all in there. I was fascinated by that poem. Another favorite of mine is the last poem in the book. It's called “Inventory of a Midwestern Barn,” and I think you wrote this about your own barn, when I did a little research. In this piece, you contemplate the significance of a decayed barn that the outside world perceives as unsalvageable, and perhaps therefore useless. I'm struck by the closing of this poem (and the closing of the book): “this farm only ever existed mind-deep, / still a zone where every framed / opening seduces as if significance / is stored in its decay.” This poem seems to broaden in scope with the final lines, to my ear, and the barn becomes a placeholder for all sorts of artifacts of the past. What made you want to end your book on this particular moment, and why did you think that was the right note? 
JR: Thank you. So even the first poem in the book tries to address what we were doing on my land with native grasses and wildflowers, but it starts with a New York City landfill. So there are a couple landfills in the book. There's a lot of panning out way outside of my rural Indiana home, and I wanted to close on the barn because it is the most personal approach to this waste question. You know, there's the “we” and then there's the “my barn” and what am I going to do with all this broken stuff that no one wants, and I can’t figure out how to reuse, repurpose, recycle. 
LR: Does it still function as a barn, more or less? Or is it too far gone?  
JR: Except for there is a leak in the roof and a little crack in the concrete, it's basically okay as far as barns go. It's just all the stuff in it that we've had to take out in stages. So the goal was when we first moved there, I just had these lofty intentions that nothing would go to waste, and this poem is just sort of giving in. 
LR: OK, very good. Did one of the pieces in the book or in the chapbook come easier or harder than the others? 
JR: It may be that the barn one was the easiest because I didn’t do any research for that one. It was all completely just a personal take. 
LR: Yeah. Was there one that you wrestled with for many months, or anything like that? 
JR: Some poems definitely take many months, but the one that I'm thinking of that was hard to piece together was “AS THE KNUD RASMUSSEN GLACIER CALVES, A WOMAN TRANSLATES 'GRAVITATIONAL WAVES' INTO BLACKFOOT” That poem, it seemed like two very separate ideas that I could see a connection there, but it felt like work to try to make that connection apparent on the page. 
LR: The other thing I like to ask poets putting together a collection: Were there a bunch of poems, a few poems that didn’t make the cut? Was this like a bigger project you whittled down? 
JR: Yeah. So there are always poems that just never go anywhere, you know, a stack of those, but they weren't necessarily designated for this project. That's just from a regular writing day, something that didn't go anywhere. But this chapbook was originally part of a full-length manuscript. I decided that the manuscript could sort of be divided into these poems that were more like feminist physics and poems that were more, you know, earth conscious or however you want to put it---eco-poetics---and so I split the manuscript into two chapbooks thematically. 
LR: Cool. So what's next? Any new projects in the works? Are you going to maybe take some of these and go with the full-length someday, or what are you thinking? 
JR: Yeah, I took a big turn. I'm working on a prose collection. It's really a challenge for me. I've actually had the idea for this for a while. I'm obsessed with Calvino, absolutely obsessed, and Borges, as well. And they are sort of my models for these like extremely short, almost Twilight Zone-ish vignettes. Like I'm thinking of Calvino’s Cosmicomics or things like that, that are these thought experiment pieces and so I'm actually writing about, in part, thought experiments that humans pose, because I think it's so interesting how rational humans try to make things, but we are animals, you know, and so I'm interested in human consciousness. But then that has spread into non-human animal consciousness. And so I guess it's just about minds, and it's out there in a Calvino and Borge's aspiring way. 
LR: Awesome. Yeah, that sounds great. 
JR: I don't know if that sounds coherent, at all. Still figuring it out. 
LR: Thank you so much for your time, Jessica. STILL RECOGNIZABLE FORMS is a wonderful collection. You can buy it through GreenTower Press on our submittable page or get in touch with us at 

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