Interview with Jessica Laser

Peter Myers

Jessica Laser was raised in Chicago. She is the author of Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides (Letter Machine Editions, 2019) and the chapbooks Assumed Knowledge and the Knowledge Assumed from Experience (Catenary Press, 2015), and He That Feareth Every Grass Must Not Piss in a Meadow (paradigm press, 2016). A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has taught writing at Brown University, the University of Iowa, Parsons School of Design, and elsewhere. She is currently a PhD student in English at UC Berkeley. 

Peter Myers: I wanted to start with the title. How did you arrive at Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides? Or, more specifically, how did Sergei Kuzmich who, in our eyes, is an insignificant historical figure who’s only mentioned once in Tolstoy's War and Peace, come to occupy the significant place that he does?

Jessica Laser: I was thinking a lot about the act of figuration as an entry point to how something like narrative could come into poems, without poems either becoming fiction or needing to borrow something from fiction to be more interesting. How could a poem employ character or people and relationship in a way that doesn’t compromise poetry’s poeticness? I feel like I’m always trying to protect poetry in the face of it so easily being misemployed in other media, or tipping over into essay or something like that. There are concerns that are purely poetic, and there’s the question of how to protect those.

I was thinking about figuration as a painterly term that you could bring in to make a poem that deals with people and have those people not be characters, but be gestures toward the act of figuration, and thinking about what figuration is. What if all pronouns in a poem are gestures toward personhood before they’re anything else? I was thinking about that, then I needed a name. I was also reading War and Peace at the same time, and, in the scene where Sergei Kuzmich is mentioned, the phrase “Sergei Kuzmich, from all sides” is repeated over and over because it’s the phrase that Sergei Kuzmich is able to say before he breaks down in tears. He keeps trying to start the letter “‘Sergei Kuzmich . . . From all sides.’ ‘From all sides . . . Sergei Kuzmich . . . ’” and it makes him cry. I loved that as a stopping point.

Also, my friend Chelsea’s a painter, and she had tipped me off to those great David Sylvester interviews with American artists. He interviews Barnett Newman, Francis Bacon, de Kooning. There’s this question about how you get at an object, paint an object, and de Kooning says—this is in the epigraph to the book—that’s how he portrays Cubism. It’s looking at something from all sides. He says it’s a silly thing to try to do, but his attitude toward this kind of silly thing is that once you become aware of how silly it is, it’s just as silly not to do it.

Those are some of the impulses. I just needed a name, but that phrase bore weight for me.

PM: So beyond War and Peace, were there other texts or works that helped shape this book? Going off of that, how does reading, or watching movies, or looking at works of visual art, inform or influence your writing practice?

JL: Um, yeah . . . everything I’ve ever read! [laughs] And all the stuff that’s footnoted in “Losss” is stuff I was reading when I was writing the book.

I think it’s so helpful to look at other art forms to try to be a better poet. I have a couple very close friends who are painters, and conversations with them have really informed my work in the sense that I think about gesture and the layers on a canvas, because they can’t delete in the same way. I mean, you can paint over something, you can scrape it off, but the predominant method would be to paint over it if you didn’t like it.

There was this time when my friend Chelsea painted me lying on my stomach. There was this amazing quality to my back, the way she painted this navy blue shirt I had on. It was just a perfectly done swath of T-shirt. When we talked about it, she was like “No, that’s just the base color that’s coming through—I didn’t paint over it there.” It was so amazing to me to think about revision as that—it’s painterly insofar as you can leave an initial stroke and not paint over it, and other places you can. So a poem in a way has that. As the poet, you have that private relationship to it where you know the secret layering that went into it, you know where you left the base coat showing. And I think a lot of the poems in the book are living in that kind of thinking, not wanting to be in that Jack Kerouac masculine notion of accuracy where the first draft is the truest because you just did it, you know? But I definitely believe that language is smarter than we are, so there’s always something to listen to in that initial material. I think painting has just helped me think about how to listen to it and keep it there without being precious about it being first.

PM: Do you think the process of revision can get you closer to that? How would it get you closer to that thing that you’re listening for?

JL: It’s really a listening process. You’re working with your human mechanism, which is your ear. And your ear is human, versus the other material, language, which is something else. And so there’s this imperfect relationship between the two things. You have to listen to what you hear initially a lot of times to get it right. For me, making a poem has a lot to do with that kind of honing. Not to try to say something perfectly, or correctly, but . . . to say it as it sounds! You know what I mean?

PM: That leads me into another question. Just thinking about honing and precision, one of my favorite things about the book was how at moments it feels like the syntax is reaching toward this extreme precision, but also resists totally unambiguous parsing. The syntax becomes irresolvable in terms of which of the possible readings seems the intended or correct one. Does this sense of honing have to do with syntax for you?

JL: Yeah! Syntax is a tool that you can employ to get better accuracy in your hearing. If you didn’t know about syntax, you’d be like “damn, I have to get from point A to point B, and I have no way of getting there,” and syntax is the vehicle. This is why I think it’s so important to read as far back into English poetry as you possibly can go. You want to know what syntax is available to you so that you have the tool to document the phrase.

As a younger poet, I was so interested in the way that I didn’t have to write with a predetermined meaning in mind. I could look into the language and the syntax and the music, and I could let it say what it needed to say. But then, as I’ve worked more in poetry, I’ve come away from thinking that—that it’s just about either language saying something or you saying something that you impose on language. I used to really believe that if you follow the music, you’ll get to the meaning—not the other way around. I still think that’s true, but that you can also guide the music to the meaning you want. 

PM: Do you think that your thinking about how or the extent to which language works at conveying meaning changed while you were writing the book? Do you think that changed the poems you were writing?

JL: Yeah. It really changed them.

PM: Are there some in the book you can point to and be like “this is a moment where I didn’t feel as confident about language’s ability to express meaning?”

JL: Well let me put it this way: it’s not that I wasn’t feeling confident about language’s ability to express meaning, it’s that I was more in the mode where I was allowing the music to dictate the meaning than when, moving on, I was more interested in the way music and I could collaborate to produce meanings that I would have a little more authorial sense of. I mean, it’s not like I wasn’t the author—I know I’m always the author. But I think when I was in college, something that excited me so much about poetry was this possibility of feeling like you weren’t the author, like it was language doing it. And then, you know, you have to get over that, because it’s you. 

I think another way you could put what changed for me would be that I despised the notion of aboutness. If someone said “What’s your poem about?” I’d be like “How could you ask me that question?” And then as I lived in the world a little longer as a poet, and felt the kind of isolation you can feel sometimes where you’re like “I’m a poet” and someone’s like “I have nothing more to say to you,” it was a little too strong for me to resist aboutness in that way. So maybe you could say the change was I came to believe that you could reject aboutness and still have your poems be about something. It would be hard to describe what a poem like “Sensual Delight in Virtue” is about in the way you could describe what “The Wave” is about: it’s about somebody trying to dispose of a painting and going for a drive to do that. Allowing myself “scene” in that way, as opposed to the poem being the only scene—I think that if you really believe the poem is the scene, you’re allowed to have another scene too.

PM: That’s a great way to put it. In your PoetryNow interview, you mentioned this idea of language as this thing that carries wisdom, and poetry being about letting that wisdom speak for itself, through the music. Could you talk a little bit more about how poems let this wisdom speak? Does this wisdom exist before the poem is written? Does it remain after the poem is finished—after it’s been written, or read? Where or when does it exist?

JL: Very good question. We need the scientists! 

Everyone has their theory about why language exists. It’s not just for communication, it’s for something else—it’s for song, it’s for praise, it’s for prayer. But whatever it is, it comes down bearing the desire to communicate, the desire to pray, the desire to praise, the need to be heard, the need to express joy, whatever it is. And we have it, and we get to use it and contribute to it. It’s not that there’s some implicit wisdom in language that preexists a poem. It’s not like the message of a poem exists before the poem says it. If there’s preexisting wisdom, it isn’t something language says or will say, it’s the fact of language itself. An actor works with a very amazing medium, which is his or her own body; we’re working with this intangible, historical medium—you can’t paint with it, you can’t touch it, it’s just there. I don’t think it makes writing a poem impossible, I don’t think it makes poetry extra important or extra scary. I just think that that’s a truth of the medium you’re working with if you’re going to be a poet. I find it fun to put the trust a little bit outside myself.

PM: When you read, you recite your poems from memory. I was just curious about how and why you started doing that.

JL: It started because I had my poems memorized because of the way I work, which at the time was so musically driven. There was so much reading aloud and reading it over and over to try to make sure it was completely aligned with the ear of the poem. In some way, I was trying to create a strain that could get stuck in your head, or just something that was really musically perfect.

So actually, the time that that started was at my Talk Art! At my Talk Art, the intro had made fun of a particular poem of mine I hadn’t intended to read that night. I got up and was like “Thanks for the introduction, I’m going to start with this poem because you guys just talked about it.” And I didn’t have it so I just recited it. I had left my stack of paper on the table behind me, and then I turned to get it, and I was like “I don’t need this.” And I just turned back, and I recited the reading. I had practiced it, and I was excited, and I had prepared a lot. But also I had written the poem, and it’s my very judgmental belief that if you’re a poet writing your own poems, then of course you know them!

I think it’s gotten a little bit harder for me. Also the poems I’m writing are more—

PM: —yeah, I imagine “Paradise Lost” would be harder—

JL: —I recite that one a lot! But it’s hard. It used to be that any reading I went to I could just pull out whatever poem I wanted, and now I’m a little bit like, “That’s too risky. I have to make sure that I know it.” I shouldn’t admit that. I should just be like, yeah, I know all poems of all time. 

The one other thing was, I once saw the poet Tongo Eisen-Martin give a reading at BAMPFA here in Berkeley, and he recites his poems also. Anyway, someone asked him afterward the memorization question that I often get after I give a reading, which is like, wow, you memorize your poems, how do you do that or why do you do that or whatever. And his answer was, “The thing about memorization is that it looks good, but it feels great.” And I was like, that’s going to be my answer now! Anytime anyone asks me about memorization: it looks good, but it feels great.


Peter Myers is a poet and writer based in New York. His poems have appeared in Conjunctions, Vestiges, DATABLEED, Boston Review, and elsewhere.