Q&A with Jacqui Germain, author of Bittering the Wound

Jacqui Germain is the author of Bittering the Wound (Autumn House Press, 2022), selected by Douglas Kearney for the 2021 CAAPP Book Prize. Her poems “Blood” and “American Fear: Director’s Cut” were previously published in The Offing. Q&A conducted by Gauri Awasthi, Associate Editor.

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Gauri Awasthi: The title of the opening poem of your manuscript, “On This Day,” is not only specific in locating the reader in St. Louis and a protest but also universal and pervasive to the grief felt across state lines as Black people continue to be murdered (This seems true for your collection as a whole). The place in this particular poem where the text flips horizontally and the speaker takes the reader to witness this friend crying, where they say, “the kind of cry so fresh & foreign / it comes out of a man confused & sputtering & so I hid him” was moving. How did you make those decisions in terms of form? What made you rotate that portion? And how did you pick this poem to be first?

Jacqui Germain: I’ll answer the last question first. I originally had “Thine Eyes, Thine Eyes” as the book’s opening poem, but a friend who was kind enough to read an early version of the manuscript recommended I consider “On This Day” instead. I decided to go ahead and swap them because it actually made sense, in terms of what I hoped the book would do, to make the reader’s entry point after what most people might consider the climax of the uprising. I hope it feels unexpected to start there, at a moment after most of the country had stopped watching. To this day, I still find it really jarring to realize that the timeline of experience for those of us who lived it is very different from the timeline of memory for those who witnessed it. I wanted to start with a poem that dislodged the chronology a bit, to maybe reflect how disjointedly and non-linearly we remember things anyway. Similarly, the rotated portion is meant to disorient. It reads like an addendum — something slightly intrusive and inconvenient. But that’s how memory works. There are always addendums, always missing details, always mess and emotion and things you can’t recall until much later.

GA: A deep thread runs through these poems, speaking to the gaze, especially of video recordings and media coverage of black bodies. Could you speak to the documentary poetics part of this book?

JG: It’s funny — when working on these poems, I did think of the writing process as me “documenting” my own memories and experiences, but for some reason, the word “documentary” here feels like it’s implying a more observational lens, and I can feel myself immediately balk at that. Before even really starting Bittering, I knew I wanted to write something that challenged the assumed primacy or authority of that observational gaze. There’s this presumption that people engaged in these local contexts should obviously want to prioritize making themselves legible to or rendered legitimate by national audiences, and I wanted to push back against that. I wanted to write poems in which St. Louis took St. Louis back for itself and wrote to itself, about itself. Poems that not only looked directly back at the camera but maybe had the audacity to block the lens itself with a mirror in a kind of self-referential defiance. Because in reality there was an interiority to the protests that was entirely imperceivable to the outside gaze. I wanted to privilege that interiority over any other vantage point. Because, I’ll be honest, I had somewhere between a little bit and a lot of beef with that outside gaze. A lot of us in St. Louis did back then. Reporters kept getting things wrong about the city. People were projecting things onto us. There were some nights we were mid-sprint, tripping over wires and dodging cameramen preoccupied with getting some specific shot. It was irritating. At times, it felt parasitic, like the spectacle and imagery of Ferguson was more valuable than its reality. And I know you’re just using the common parlance here, but even the use of black bodies instead of black people. What does the gaze cost us, our communities, our movement potential? What does the gaze, which exists under and is informed by an imperialist, capitalist, exploitative system, cost us? And yet still, the gaze — from live streamers and the people who stayed up late to watch them, from people who traveled to the city because they were desperate to support, and from reporters and photographers too — was essential. But I’d say this collection is less about interrogating or examining the gaze as it is reminding the gaze of its own non-neutral presence.

GA: Your book stretches the understood definition of “poetry as protest.” Most poems under this umbrella grapple with equality, justice, and human rights. While your collection does that, it also focuses on the Ferguson protests and times where the speaker locates us in the ongoing-ness of the protest itself. This is so powerful. How concurrent was the writing with the reality of the situation? What was your process?

JG: Oh, I didn’t write any of the book during the uprising itself. I actually really struggled to write poems during the protests and in the months and years following, partially because I had a lot emotionally and psychologically to process, and partially because I was really struggling to square the reality of poetry’s suddenly apparent political insufficiencies with all the idealistic things I wanted so desperately to believe about poetry, and about poets. I went from writing poems every few days or multiple times a day before the uprising to writing a poem every few weeks or a few every few months. I had a bit of an existential crisis, and it freaked me out for a while. I’d say I didn’t really start making steps towards a cohesive manuscript until 2016 and didn’t dedicate serious, concerted effort towards it until 2018. Back in 2016, I remember thinking to myself, I’m not willing to risk my sanity to force these poems out. I’d rather take my time moving through those memories and moving through that trauma to make sure I’m good and whole on the other end of it. Because one of the first things I knew for sure about this book was that I wanted the poems to be located directly within scenes and memories of protest, to be in and of the day-to-day and protest-to-protest chaos rather than poems written from a distance or poems about the larger issue at the root of the protest. And to write those poems, without being too dramatic, I needed to know I’d survive the journey there and back. So my writing process was one that put my own personal well-being first.

GA: So many poems in your work personify St. Louis. How intentional was this decision?

JG: I actually really didn’t mean to do that so often. It feels so natural and maybe too easy for me to write about a city by anthropomorphizing it. I could say something about how tactile and physical the act of protesting is and how that translated into a kind of tactile, physical rendering of the city — but it was actually really pretty unintentional. It’s definitely a thing I can make sincere sense of after the fact, but it was kind of a discovery to me too.

GA: “Dripping Villanelle For The Burned Walgreens, QuikTrip, Prime Beauty, Et. Al” speaks powerfully to the focus shifting in protests where the media uses language such as “so reckless, the wild rioters!” What encouraged the form of the falling “& stealing & stealing & stealing that stings”?

JG: On the surface, I’m emphasizing it to trouble the idea of stealing (and looting and property damage) during protests and also, in my mind, to nod towards larger political questions. But the specific choice to arrange the series as though it was spilling — I wanted it to feel like an excess, an overflow, a repetition that encourages the reader to consider new meanings. This country, in its short life, has stolen so much in excess and has stolen so much more than it could ever replace, repair, or resurrect. For me, the spilling asks what are we to do with a country that has stolen more than it could ever give back? What are we to do with a state that steals things it has neither the intention nor the ability to return? In a moment where the national public worried so desperately about lost merchandise, about the loss of entirely replaceable things — and more importantly, was calling on the state and the national guard to criminalize and violently suppress as a reasonable response — if that’s supposedly the logical response to replaceable things being stolen, then what’s the logical response when the things that are stolen are irreplicable?

GA: The visual schema of these poems is so rich, whether in terms of playing on the page in “Obscenities, But as A Prayer” or in creating a moment so memorable as in “Kindling” where the speaker says, “burn for me like a lost boy / searching for the sunrise by burning down the sky.” Are you thinking of the reader in stitching these visual pieces? Are they different from the more narrative poems?

JG: I suppose I am? I think I’ve always been a pretty imagery-heavy writer, whether that’s in my poetry or journalism or essay writing. And I do personally find poems with imagery a bit easier to follow. I’m sure it’s also informed by the years I spent competing in slam poetry. Slam and performance poetry are mediums that really value accessible communication and building a rapport with the audience, and including imagery that your audience can follow is an effective way to do that. I think it’s probably just sort of built into my writing style and preference at this point. I’m also a really visual person, just in general. It’s what I love most about reading fiction — being able to visualize the entirety of an adventure in a really fantastic book. So, I imagine, as a writer, I probably do tend to write things I’d like to read; so I end up with poems that do often have some kind of visual element, either in the poem itself or playfully on the page. I don’t really think of them as being different from my more narrative poems.

GA: How much does your work as a journalist affect your writing process?

JG: In actual process and practice, the two remain pretty separate. The poems I write in Bittering come directly out of my experience and are about events and stories and a political effort I was deeply involved in. But as a journalist, I don’t and can’t report on specific events or stories or political efforts that I’m deeply involved in. So, I couldn’t and wouldn’t have reported on the uprising as it was happening, for example. But in a more literal way, in terms of supporting my writing process specifically, journalism is the thing that allows me to pay my rent. I’m not the kind of person who can produce very well creatively if I’m also worried about covering groceries and keeping the lights on. So, journalism is the thing that provides me with the economic stability–and subsequently the mental capacity–to sustain a writing practice at all. At the same time, it’s also the thing, as is the way with capitalism, that monopolizes most of my time. I’m constantly learning and renegotiating how to best balance and manage my time better between journalism and poetry, and that obviously impacts my writing process plenty. In a less literal way, the thing that connects both mediums for me are my politics, and what I believe about power, and our relationship to institutions, to the state, and to capitalist exploitation. That’s not something that impacts my process, per se, but it’s certainly something that informs what I believe about poetry and how it functions.

GA: What are you currently working on? What’s next?

JG: With poetry, I’m currently working on a series of workshops and lectures to complement the book, discussing things like the generative power of political rupture, the clarifying value of political rage, and working towards destabilizing our understandings of criminality and innocence in the context of rebellion. You know, light and fluffy things.

GA: Your book won the 2021 CAAPP Book Prize. Any advice for writers submitting to contests or for young writers in general?

JG: First, keep track of the submission costs for contests and for general submissions too, because you can write those off on your taxes. Second, don’t be too hard on yourself. The publishing world, like all industries under capitalism, is designed to feel isolating, alienating, and inaccessible, no matter how benevolent it seems. If you feel lost or discouraged, that’s not a reflection of the value of your poetry. Third, there are all kinds of ways to value your work, some of which might intersect with market trends or the ways we’re taught to measure literary value in the academy. But it’s really important to find people who can help you nurture a sense of your own intrinsic value that blossoms independently of those more formal, professional poetry contexts. What do you love and value about your own work? What do you treasure in your own writing? What kind of poet do you want to be? What makes your poem yours and not someone else’s? And maybe a fourth and last thing: It’s okay to take your time. It’s okay if you don’t have a first book yet and also don’t have one next year or the year after. You’re not running out of time. The norms and expectations making you feel like you are, are all man-made. But human value doesn’t have a half-life, and neither do the precious things you create.

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