An Interview with Jessy Randall
by Callie Zucker
Issue Two: May 23, 2019
Jessy Randall’s previous books include the poetry collections Suicide Hotline Hold Music, Injecting Dreams into Cows, and A Day in Boyland (a finalist for the Colorado Book Award). Her poems, comics, and other things have appeared in Poetry, McSweeney’s, and Best American Experimental Writing. She is the Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College, where she teaches a class in The History and Future of the Book. She lives in Colorado Springs with her family.
CZ: Is “How to Tell If You Are Human” your first/most in-depth foray into diagram poems?
JR: This is my seventh book and my twelfth if you include chapbooks, but it’s the only one that’s all visual poetry. The collection called Suicide Hotline Hold Music that came out in 2016 had some hand-drawn poetry comics in it, but they were maybe a quarter of the whole book, so this was definitely different from anything I’ve ever done before. It was visual poetry from start to finish — everything had to have some kind of an illustration or diagram.
Suicide Hotline Hold Music has reproductions of poetry comics. I did not invent that term — Kenneth Koch invented poetry comics, although I’m sure people could argue about that if they wished — but the way I think about poetry comics is that they are poorly drawn not particularly funny comics of mostly words. Kenneth Koch’s collection of them, which I totally recommend if you’re into that kind of thing, is called The Art of the Possible, and the subtitle is something like comics mainly without pictures? Something like that.
Poetry comics were when I started trying to do visual things, but as you can see from my ability to make a clear graph, I’m not gonna be able to draw anything like the illustrations in [HTTIYAH], which are all taken from other books.
CZ: So where did the diagram poems start?
JR: Years ago, probably around 2010, there was this amazing book that was being withdrawn from the library — the CC library gets rid of books, or “refreshes its collection”… there are lots of library school words for this that try to get away from the fact that you’re getting rid of books because nobody wants to do that! But sometimes it’s the right thing to do, so we say we say we withdraw or we weed or we refresh the collection. So there was a book sitting on the shelf in the old library building — the old library building, to get in and out, you pretty much always went past this shelf where books that were being given away to other libraries would sit, books that were going to go to the prison library or the rural libraries or duplicates or just things we were getting rid of for one reason or another — and there was a book there called something like the Exploratorium Cookbook, and it was this manual for designing museum exhibition displays, and it was way out of date. It was from the 60’s or 70’s for a museum in San Francisco called the Exploratorium. It was this fantastic book, it did not make sense for it to be in the CC library. Like, no one was going to use it for its original purpose, which was to help you design exhibits, and other libraries in Colorado had it, and it wasn’t a book that needed to stay in the library, but I couldn’t bear the idea of letting it slip out of my clutches because the illustrations in it were so fantastic. So I stuck it in my desk drawer for months, and I couldn’t think of what I was going to do with it. Then, I have this friend Dan, and I told him about this book and I’m like, I want to do something with this but I don’t know what. So I sent him a couple scans of illustrations, and we ended up putting words on these illustrations together back and forth in the most convoluted way possible. We would convert it to a PowerPoint slide, which was like the worst format but it was something we both had access to, so we would mess around in PowerPoint and put words on it. And then I would convert the whole thing into another format and basically ruin it, so we couldn’t even fix mistakes — if you made a typo you had to start over from scratch, it was terrible. We didn’t know what we were doing; we made every possible mistake. We were just trying to make each other laugh, I think, but also to be poets. We were doing this kind of collaborative, weird thing that we didn’t really know how to define. So we finished that, and I did not feel finished with the idea of the original project. Dan had had enough. He actually did these amazing prose poems after, but for me, I have this wide selection of fantastic illustrations and diagrams in the CC library books, and I was kind of addicted to messing with them.
I think one of the first books I used after the Exploratorium book was this playground games book — it was like how to play red rover and all these other games I’d never heard of, including, one of them, called something like “Hole For Pig.” There’s one that has a Hole For Pig in it that did not make it into the original draft. The original version of this book was almost twice as long. I could not stop making these diagram poems. It was the kind of thing like when you’re playing a computer game and it takes over your dreams, and you’re always mentally there. So I always had to have a stack of 10-20 illustrations… Usually what I’d do is just photocopy stuff I found in books and then scribble on them and write on them and then decide if it was worth making the good quality scan and doing the good quality stuff.
The other ones I did very early on were based on museum maps, like when you go into a museum and you take one of those little brochures. I’ve always really liked those, those interior maps of buildings. I don’t know what it is. So I was sending them around to literary magazines and getting rejections, and I’m sure people were just like, “This is not a poem?” But some literary magazines specifically say in their description of themselves that they like hybrid or unclassifiable work, so those were the ones I would lean toward, and I’d already become familiar with some of those magazines and editors from doing poetry comics and being interested in poetry comics — because I’ve always liked that kind of thing, graphic novels that have a distinctive style like Lynda Barry or Marjane Satrapi or John Porcellino.
So at some point when you are a writer, you’ve accumulated enough of a thing that you think ‘this could be a book.’ I started thinking of it that way, and then Pleiades Press, the press that ended up publishing it, had an annual call for collections of visual poetry, which was perfect for me — I knew their books already, we had a copy of their previous book, so I knew they made really nice books. I sent a manuscript assuming nothing would come from it, which is generally my assumption any time I send anything anywhere, and they liked it and wanted to publish it. The draft I sent them was something like 140 pages, and they said we like our series to be about 80 pages year to year, which is not something that I’d realized. They were talking about putting multiple images on one page to squeeze the 140 into 80 by making things smaller, and I worked with the designer and the more I tried to come up with a draft that worked like that, I didn’t like them anymore. I’d rather cut 60 than squeeze them together. That was kind of fun, like ‘do we keep hole for pig?’ Do we have to keep ALL the creep beetles? Like, there are a lot of beetles, but I kind of felt like I needed them all. So that’s fun — someone likes your work, you know you have a contract for a book, and now you’re just fiddling with it, making it just the way you want it.
CZ: How did you decide which ones to cut? Was there any rhyme or reason to that?
JR: There was so much. If you could see how much anguish I have over just moving one word in one of the poems a centimeter to the left and then letting it sit for a day and then moving it back the next day, it’s way too much energy and attention. Way more than it really needs to be, but it’s pleasure to me, it’s fun to me. So I started setting them aside and marking them up, like oh, if this one stays this one also has to stay, but if this one goes this one also has to go or these two are a pair and this group of four has to stay together. Anyway, the point is, it was a painstaking process to decide which ones to cut. You kind of have to figure out how to stop cutting. It was like writing a sonnet: you have some rules, you have to stick to them, and then you can be very creative with it. It’s something Madeleine L’Engle talked about: you can have great freedom within some rules, whereas if you can do whatever you want, it’s too much freedom, so you do nothing.
CZ: How did you decide on the parts? There’s no distinguishable timeline, but it’s all sectioned out.
JR: Oh, man, why did I do that? I think for me, part of the fun is knowing where the images came from. I think I was trying to figure out ‘do I put them in chronological order, is there an order I want them to be in that makes sense,’ and this was a thematic order that made sense to me. Like, here are the things that are wrong with you, and then how to tell if you are human, and then be yourself (but not too much). It’s like a little bit of, life wisdom, maybe…
CZ: I mean, it’s a comforting title… Like, finally someone can tell me! I feel like for all the little wisdoms, the superhuman parts of it are the most comforting parts.
JR: For me, I think that’s what poetry is all about. If you talk to poets, they’ll tell you their reason they like to read poetry and write poetry. For me, I want that connection of ‘you and I are different and the same.’ As a librarian, when I meet students and we’re talking, that moment of connection can be the whole reason you get up in the morning and actually like your job. Also, particularly at the time of making these, there were so many movies and TV shows that seemed to be grappling with this question of ‘what if you’re unsure if you’re human, how do you tell, what’s the test?’ Like, in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, the Cylons who look like humans often did not know they were Cylons, and the doctor in charge of making the test didn’t even know if he himself was a Cylon, so he had no one he could test his machine on that would show him it was working, so he was faking the whole thing.
CZ: Like the first Blade Runner.
JR: Yes, with the replicants thinking ‘are these my real memories, did someone implant them… am I different from these other things around me that think they are humans?’ We all sometimes feel like ‘I think maybe I’m not the same thing as all these other people.’ So that was part of it, the test that’s in there. In that one you look out the window and you see a buck — I was driving in Old Colorado City, and I looked out the window and saw a double rainbow, which I’d never seen before, and my immediate reaction was to find someone to tell, like to honk my horn and make people look so I could tell them not to miss it! Which is a silly thing, as if it wasn’t real or I wasn’t experiencing it unless I told someone. At that time though, there was that meme about the guy who was going crazy about the double rainbow, so I couldn’t use the rainbow and I changed it to the buck. But on the other hand, if you’re asking this question, the answer is yes. At least in our world today as we know it with no Cylons or replicants or robots with self-awareness, if you’re asking the question “Am I human?” the answer is yes. So it’s just that thing of being alone, but together. We’re all in our heads but also together.
CZ: Yeah. I think that’s the best part of poetry for me too, that moment of “I see me in this! But it’s you…” I just love the beetles. Especially as a young girl, I was like… these have all been said to me!
JR: Every single thing that the creep beetles say is something that has been said either to me or a woman I know. I actually crowdsourced, gathered them up. I asked people for creepy things people have said to them, and these were the results.
CZ: Do you have a favorite poem in here?
JR: Yes. I love the make-out museum map one. That’s the one that kind of made me keep going with the project. Your eye immediately recognizes it as a map, but then you look at the text and it’s not so much text that you can’t grasp the idea of it. It’s for people with short attention spans. That might be why I like diagram poems at all; I kind of like poems you can take in in one glance the way you can when you’re walking through a museum and see a painting and think ‘oh, that’s a Picasso,’ immediately upon glancing at it, even though you can then go in and look at it more carefully. With poems, you can’t do that unless it’s quite short, and I always liked to write very short poems. I’m always trying to think of how I can make things even shorter, and the answer was to use images.
CZ: If you were to impart any general wisdom from the book to who you want to read this book, what would it be?
JR: All my favorite poets when I was a teenager, or the kids I knew who were writing these amazing poems when I was in high school, they mostly stopped writing poems. I don’t know why I kept doing it and they stopped. I want more poems that are weird and aren’t like other poems, and I wish people wouldn’t give up on it as they got older or decide poetry was this thing they couldn’t do or didn’t want to do. And for me, that’s actually a really important part of my writing. It’s that I don’t do it for a living. I have a job, I’m a librarian, and when I go home at the end of my job, I can do what I want, and that often means making weird things. I want all those interesting weird things that people think of doing when they’re 17 or so. I want people to feel like they can and should still do those things. It’s the way you keep yourself alive. If you don’t worry about selling it, then you can keep doing it forever. Nothing’s gonna stop you.
Jessy Randall’s How to Tell if You are Human is available from Pleiades Press.