Messes & Ambiguities: A Conversation with Deb Jannerson
The poet and novelist talks about vulnerability, her new book, the importance of poetry, Bildungsroman lit, and her process.
Surmayi Khatana: I’m speaking today with Deb Jannerson, author of the newly released poetry book, Thanks for Nothing. Ms. Jannerson, let’s start with my asking about your poetry structure. The poems in Thanks For Nothing are written in lowercase. Can you tell us the significance of this?
Deb Jannerson: Lowercase is my way of conveying vulnerability. In my prose, I’m fairly meticulous about punctuation, and there’s a sense of formality, even when hammering out multifaceted issues. In poems, I like to embrace messes and ambiguities. I recently told The Flexible Persona that “Poetry is, by nature, imperfect.” That’s my philosophy in a nutshell.
How and in what ways has poetry been important for you in your personal life?
The poetic part of my brain is barely removed from my id; some part of me is constantly drawing analogies and free-associating. Composing poems helps me process the world around me. When I haven’t unpacked my feelings about something — be it current events or a fraught friendship or unease about natural disasters — poetry helps me pick apart the knots in my brain, lay them out to dry, and think more clearly about what to do next.
“[T]hanks for nothing” is the title of the penultimate poem in your book. Why did you pick this particular title as the name of your collection? Does the position of the poem in the last few pages have a certain meaning attached to it?
I like the connotations of the phrase “thanks for nothing” — unsentimental and unflinching, but also cheerfully irreverent. In some ways, it’s an ironic title because I have a lot to be thankful for in my present life. I’m overtly grateful, in some pieces, for the scenes that give me sustenance — queer culture, 1990s nostalgia, literary gatherings — even while refusing to overlook what’s still wrong with them. In others ways, the title is completely apt, because I spend a lot of this book denouncing the more fucked-up forces at play in our daily lives: the current United States administration, the stigmas attached to chronic illness, white male entitlement, bigoted news coverage. I also considered “dear mr.” as a title, after a furious poem about rape culture in general and Donald Trump in particular. But while the POTUS casts a shadow over the headspaces explored in this book, I didn’t want to address it to him. It’s not for him; it’s for us.
I like the title poem’s position near the end of the book, as well. When a book or album begins with its title piece, I go in assuming that piece is the most important one, that it sets the stage for the rest of the project. Sometimes, this is totally appropriate. My first collection, Rabbit Rabbit (Finishing Line Press, 2016), began with its title poem, in which the speaker ponders her childhood superstitions and how they helped her through a difficult youth, and the whole book is about the ways in which our pasts haunt us. With Thanks for Nothing, though, the title piece is less important than the ways in which all of the poems interact mosaically.
On a personal note, “Thanks for Nothing” is also the name of an excellent song by pop artist Fefe Dobson that has served as an unofficial anthem for this book. The song itself is about breaking free from a troubled relationship, but tone-wise, it’s both cynical and exuberant. This connects with my collection’s message, which is roughly The world is burning in a more obvious way than it ever has before. Pay attention to that and be part of the solution, but also, squeeze every bit of enjoyment out of your life. Shrewdness is essential, and so is joy.
Was there a poem (or poems ) that you wanted to include in the collection but didn’t? What was the poem about, and why didn’t it make the cut? Will we be reading it / them any time soon?
Originally, there were three different versions of the Thanks for Nothing manuscript: one chapbook-length, this one (which clocks in at 50-odd pages), and an extra-long collection. I soon knew that this version was the most balanced and thematically on-point. The longest manuscript included more of my older poems, largely about depression and fraught relationships, which no longer seemed urgent or of a piece with the very modern body of TfN. And there were a few outliers that were just too irrelevant, like a shaped poem about the mating habits of slugs, inspired by my wife’s love for David Attenborough. The book still has one piece about the therapeutic powers of animal-watching (“zoo”). Will the poems I left out appear anywhere else? Not soon, but never say never.
You write prose and poetry in several eclectic styles. What is your favorite genre to write?
Bildungsroman lit — either speculative fiction for Middle Graders or realistic fiction for Young Adults. It’s funny, given my first two book deals were in poetry, but I’ve always been a novelist first. Kidlit has a unique vitality. Sometimes, I can’t help feeling like we’re all children who were handed car keys one day and told we were no longer allowed to admit how clueless we all are. I talk about this some in Thanks for Nothing, notably in the closing poem, “to the two twelve-year-old girls chuckling in the back of our honda.”
While I love poetry, I plan to get deeper into the kidlit world in the near future. I’m thrilled to announce that my debut YA novel is forthcoming from NineStar Press. I’m also looking for a home for an MG novel about preteen superhero girls.
What is your writing routine, and what does your desk look like?
It’s hardly a surprise coming from an artistic type, but my desk is a mess. <laughs> Papers, lit mags, art supplies everywhere. Still, I do my best writing there, on my laptop, alone. I write myself notes throughout the day but almost never get into the zone until I’m in my corner. This is partly brain conditioning, I’m sure, but I’d also give credit to the decorations on the walls of my nook, all curated to make me feel inspired and secure: the self-esteem shark, a collage made of old POGs, prints of surreal art. Directly to my right, there’s my favorite piece: an old sheet of Lisa Frank stationery, on which I’ve written in big letters Everything’s okay now. It’s a calming reminder that, as many problems as the world is facing, I am happier, healthier, and safer than I’ve ever been.
What is your favorite poetic device, and why?
There’s a world of possibility here, but I’m going to have to go with metaphor. To say I love metaphor wouldn’t cover it; I draw constant parallels in my dogged attempts to understand life. In poems, this perspective is useful, because a metaphor can enrich my message while simultaneously acting as a powerful image in its own right. Thanks for Nothing makes heavy use of this technique, from “the / glass-bottomed bubble of your / seasoned nuance” to “the misshapen sweater of / responsible authority.”
If you were to pick one favorite poem from your collection, which one would it be? Guide us through the writing process of this poem specifically and the story behind it.
My favorite is probably “sweeps.” It’s a prose poem about 1980s / ’90s Very Special Episodes and the misconceptions they promoted for Generation Y, especially about child abuse. This is something I’ve rarely heard discussed, and I had to channel both my preteen feelings and adult logic to unravel why it bothers me. “[T]he child whose parents hurt her / appeared in only one episode per show,” and she was always a sniveling damsel with a raging drunk dad. Surely some screenwriters thought they were helping, but I saw this flavor of media discourage abused kids from recognizing their own situations. Who would identify with a blank slate who only exists to teach a valuable lesson? And that lesson, by the way, was usually that any real protagonist’s parents would save the day.
What is the catalyst for your writing?
At the kernel of everything I write, there’s a fixation. What do I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about, and why? Sometimes, it’s a niche pop culture topic, like in “sweeps” or “dolores,” my piece from the perspective of the child in Lolita. I used to write for Bitch magazine, so I’m inclined to think about media tropes at length. But with poems, my core fixation is most often a moment. Something will intrude on my expected emotional landscape, be it an inflammatory headline, a doctor’s question, or a stranger’s “Happy Easter,” and I’ll think, Why does this hit a nerve? What unique connotations does it trigger for me? Which memories feed that reaction? (Examples refer to “isolated incident,” “how long have you been suffering from agoraphobia?” and “holiday,” respectively.) Since Thanks for Nothing is heavily influenced by slam and prose poetry, I let myself get especially wordy while digging for the intellectual truths in my gut reactions.