This interview is a conversation between Jacq Greyja and Operating System founder / managing editor, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson — it appears in the archival backmatter of their forthcoming 2018 book with The OS, Greater Grave.
Thank you for talking to us about your process today!
Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?
Hello. My name is Jacq. I’m a queer jewish//latinx writer/poet from California.
Why are you a poet/writer/artist?
I’ve been wrestling with this question for the last few weeks, trying to really slam an answer out of myself. The process felt masochistic in the sense that I kept returning to the question and attempting an answer, despite this growing feeling of futility — a feeling of getting further and further away from both the question and whatever self could be made to answer. A miserable transcendence.
I recently found my first journal, pulled from a formerly inaccessible storage unit that had been filled with family documents. I started writing in the journal in 1997, shortly after turning six years old. The scan below is from my first entry and is, I’m assuming, the first time I wrote to and for myself.
In a way, it almost feels antithetical to summarize why I write, in part because the process of writing is always moving, always in flux, always responding to so much stimuli that it is hard to narrow in on a singular motivation. But if thinking about why as a point of origin (although even that might be too reductive), I imagine that the reasons I write today are probably not too different from whatever reasons I had for writing that first entry — driven by the urgent need to uncover that which is sensed but not seen. To document the witnessing of feeling. To grasp at that which is gone. To confess. To confess without the safety of response or validation. To cultivate a vulnerability with myself that might be either overwhelming or nonexistent in my relationships with others.
When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I’ve never felt completely comfortable calling myself a poet or writer. I’m drawn towards the term “artist,” even if I am unsure about adopting it as a title for myself. There is a (perhaps romanticized) sense of openness in “artist” that connects to my creative process in a way that “poet” has not always captured. In part because of my (strange and uncomfortable) background in English, I at times felt a glaring distinction between my identity and the title of “poet/writer” — not necessarily from a sense of intimidation, but more from a heavy discomfort with the way that academia can use these terms to create standards for what constitutes creative value. The sense of not-belonging was so integral to my experiences in school — dealing with years of undiagnosed and unsupported mental health issues, dropping out of high school, returning to college as a first-generation transfer student — that I felt a tension in aligning myself with terms that were so consistently weaponized in academia. Within institutionalized spaces, these terms can contribute to a culture of gatekeeping, further contributing (intentionally or unintentionally) to the silencing, discouraging, and ostracizing of marginalized and underrepresented writers. This is especially discouraging for writers whose work not only diverges from the style and content circulated within those spaces, but also directly confronts the systemic problems that their academic institution benefits from.
In recent years, I’ve grown comfortable calling myself a poet. I think part of that comes from developing a kind of kinship with other poets. It might also come from a kind of exhaustion.
What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway?
What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?
I’m not sure. I’m not sure that is for me to decide. I know that it is going to keep changing, and I know it is on me to continually read and listen to the work being done around and far beyond me.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
I’ve started to notice that poems I eventually see as working together in a collection were usually not written with that intention in mind. They are usually written all together with a sense of urgency: as accumulations of long and manic bursts. During those periods of constant writing, I’ve really benefited from participating in writing groups (though not all writing groups). It’s important for me to feel that I can venture into parts of myself that are messy, uncertain, and almost always coated in trauma. I’m okay with realizing that sometimes I am unable to do this in complete isolation.
There’s a lot of uncertainty in this chapbook. It has revealed itself to be filled with the circuitous problems that I had been avoiding — problems that I am sure I am continuing to avoid and would like very much to ignore. The poems in this project signal a series of vulnerabilities that I was largely only willing to examine and re-imagine because of a community of writers that made up a summer poetry workshop a few years ago. I wasn’t really close friends with anyone; with the exception of a few poets, I did not stay in contact with anyone after the semester ended. But the atmosphere of being around people who were kind and honest and knee-deep in their own work — of having to revisit and revisit the itch that became a wound that became this chapbook — was integral to the process as a whole.
I returned to the very raw and messy first drafts of these poems after a few months of spending time away. I needed to recover from writing just as much as I needed to write. And that makes a huge difference with editing, too. It’s a different kind of re-imagining.
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?
The shared themes across these poems became clear to me only after I had taken that time to move on and away from them. It’s a short collection written under intense circumstances, so I don’t think I will be “done” with the questions this collection raises for quite a while. If anything, it has initiated a descent into which I am still lowering myself.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?
Ideally, I like to write as much as possible until I feel like I no longer can. While this “method” has ended up working for me, it really came out of not having any time at all to write. I’m not a daily writer, although I wish that I was one. I don’t always have the time or the mental energy. I try to set aside 1–2 times per week that I can write straight through for hours, not allowing myself to go back and edit or revise anything until much later. I want to leave myself with as much as possible. I think part of the motivation for this outpour-method stems from the fear that I won’t have another chance in the foreseeable future to sit down and write. I try to get as much as I can, whatever it is, onto the page, leaving bread crumbs for myself for when I have time to open it all up again.
I’ve also been getting a lot out of listening to music while writing, which I never used to do. It’s been helping with getting in that unrestrained flow that has become so important to me.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
I’m really awful with titles. I’ve hardly written anything with titles since Greater Grave. I’m happy with how they work here, but lately I have not felt that they are for me. I think removing the idea that poems need titles has stimulated me to write more and stop less.
The title for this chapbook was inspired by the tensions generated between the poems themselves, both in their “finished,” collective state and their creation as individual pieces. I felt like I was writing into (fragmented) existence the testimony of erasure. The process of action (writing) and non-action (the unwritable) spun together a doubled erasure in terms of process/intention and content/structure. Greater Grave is the double negative of speaking that erased and unrecoverable testimony — of something buried, gone and yet growing.
What does this particular work represent to you
…as indicative of your method/creative practice?
…as indicative of your history?
…as indicative of your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?
The work in this book is a part of a historical process of recounting, reseeing, and refeeling. So many authors have discussed how writing is a process of living twice. With trauma and PTSD, it is at first twice, and then it is uncountable. This first book might serve as a kind of anchor or buoy. I might swim out and return again and again, in different directions, all within the same body of water. I might leave and not return for awhile. Either situation has applied to my personal relationship with understanding and reliving trauma: circling one or more epicenters of pain. The writing-through and being-of those circulations is so incredibly interconnected; this book is a part of a living history, of living on and reliving. I don’t know how it will take shape in the future, but right now I know it is echoing movements I have been making for a long time.
I suppose one goal is to allow myself to return to what is in this book if I feel that I must.
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
I’m not sure. I know only fractions of what writing this did to me.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
The best possible outcome would be that it resonates. I always hope that the work I put into the world gives readers encouragement to write the thing they need to write. Write back to the poems in this, if it helps. Forget about it, if it helps. Don’t even finish reading it if you don’t want to or can’t. The best possible outcome is for readers to feel that they can honestly engage with it and, by extension, contribute to an intimate culture of reading, responding to, and living through work.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particular in what I call “Civil Rights 2.0,” which has remained immediately present all around us in the time leading up to this series’ publication. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”
I’ve spent so much time pouring into the questions raised throughout this interview that I am now unexpectedly floored. I might have too much to say on this. At the moment, I am caught up in the phrase “speaking and publishing across lines.” Who sets these lines? The complicated and normalized hierarchies that operate throughout creative spaces makes even the imagining of this binary difficult. I am invested in the need for spaces that offer marginalized writers support networks that would be otherwise out of reach. I am also critical of the ways in which gatekeeping re-emerges even in spaces which seek to offer safety and solidarity. And the image of one “producing” in “silos” is both dystopian and familiar. I spoke earlier about the benefits of having a writing community, however temporary or seemingly artificial, during the process of creating this chapbook. But the process of finding community can be scary and fraught. I think it is important to recognize how writing can be isolating even when we do not want it to be.
Is there anything else we should have asked, or that you want to share?
Not that I can think of. I feel so fortunate to be a part of this cohort and to have worked with The Operating System over the last few months. Thank you for this, and for all of the work that you do.
Jacq Greyja is a queer jewish//latinx poet from California. Their work has been featured or is forthcoming in Bettering American Poetry: Volume 2, Apogee, Hold: A Journal, Peach Mgzn, Yes Poetry, Berkeley Poetry Review, Nottingham Review, Columbia Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Their poetry and collages have been exhibited in “Way Bay: Poetry Assembly” at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, CA (2018) and “Not Even: Poets Make Collage” at Bushel Collective in Delhi, NY (2017). Jacq earned their B.A. in English from the University of California Berkeley. They are currently pursuing their MFA in Poetry at San Francisco State University, where they are a recipient of the William Dickey Fellowship in Poetry (2017).