The Tower Journal

   Dream and Art as Poetic Entry Points:
   An interview with Jessica Purdy

  by S. Stephanie

Jessica Purdy
Jessica Purdy is a NH poet I have been watching for several years.  Her latest book, Starland from Nixes Mate Press (2017) did not disappoint.  It is an interesting book that flows with dream, ekphrastics, and poems dealing with motherhood and parenting.  I recently interviewed her via email around this intriguing collection.

You have a deep interest in Irish Poets.  In 2015 you were invited to Ireland as a feature reader for the Abroad Writers Conference.  How did that come about and what did you take away from that experience?

JP:  Finishing Line Press had just published my first chapbook, Learning the Names, and they asked if I would want to go to the conference in Dublin as a featured reader. I am so lucky to have been able to attend. The biggest driving force that made me want to attend was that a poet named Medbh McGuckian was to be a workshop leader. In 1990, for my junior year abroad, I lived in London and found one of her poetry books in a little bookshop off Trafalgar Square. Called On Ballycastle Beach, it was one of the only contemporary poetry books I found while I was there that truly jumped off the page and spoke to me. The poems were such a mix of image and the internal, that I saw the surreal possibilities of poetry in an attainable way. When I saw that I would have the chance to meet her, I took it. Sadly, she cancelled at the last minute and I never did meet her, but I hold out hope she heard the story of what her work meant to me.

At the conference, we had some truly incredible poets lead us in workshops: Sinead Morrissey, Noel Duffy, and Ruth Padel.

I’ll never forget the close readings we did with Sinead Morrissey of poems she had chosen for us to discuss. Poems like “Bodkin” by Vona Groarke which begins: “a word from a dream, or several, spiked on it / like old receipts” and continues to describe the word with such fastidious attention that the poem becomes a sort of semantic play of imaginative meaning that balloons out from just the one word.

Morrissey’s own poems were also an inspiration. Her book Parallax had come out in 2013 and she read from it. Just hearing her read her poems in her Belfast accent was a transformative experience. Her poem “The Hanging Hare” is one to seek out and marvel at its close attention to death and childhood memory as subject matter.

Noel Duffy was a generous educator who paid close attention to line breaks, rhythm, and how form supports content. His poems have a quiet, luminous quality and come from his very scientific background in Physics.

My poem “Journey to the Underworld” which appears in my book STARLAND, comes from an exercise Ruth Padel gave us. Certain criteria had to appear in the poem. Padel is a British poet and the great great granddaughter of Charles Darwin. I feel very lucky to have met her and learned a great deal from her.

Perusing bookstores was so fun in Ireland. Books Upstairs is an incredible bookstore where I took home Paula Meehan’s book Painting Rain whose title spoke to my artistic side. Perhaps someday I’ll have the chance to meet her!

SS: Starland  is such a mix of dream and reality the reader is surprised and delighted to find themselves in.  Tell us a little about your use of dreams as poetic subject matter.  How did you begin using them in your poems and what do you feel they allow you to “do” or “get at” in a poem?

JP: I recently wrote about this in a column for The Wild Word’s current “Dream a Little Dream” issue. In it I describe the way I view dreams almost as if they are artwork and my poems about them are really more ekphrastic. When I have a dream worthy of a poem I consider it a gift. Though I know it comes from within my own internal landscape, it feels like someone else must have created it. In my dreams I often look for the thing that tethers it to something going on in the real world. This can be a great way to begin a poem if I am open to discovery. While writing the poem, I often find the connecting threads that can inform my real life. Or, conversely, the dream is so surreal and far removed from my reality, that I can use it for its own sake. As if the dream itself is the art.

SS:  When working with dream, what are the challenges you have come up against?  Are there any “pitfalls” that can make a dream poem go “wrong” for example?

JP:  Yes, of course! Pitfalls can definitely occur. When using a dream, I don’t want to bore the reader or seem too self-absorbed. Many dreams can seem exciting or rich when you’re having them, but upon waking, seem ridiculous or overly fragmented. Not that I think poems should have to be linear to be effective, but if the images don’t connect with humanity on some level, then they’re not likely to work well.

SS: You have also been involved in some exciting ekphrastic projects over the last few years (The Wickford Art Association in RI., Artsream in NH, Telephone Game, The Light Ekphrastic, and The Ekphrastic Review  to name a few) What draws you to ekphrastic writing and what place does artistic collaboration have in the local and wider community do you think?

JP: Yes! This question is in line with what I answered earlier when I talk about my dream poems. I have an art background and having been a painter myself affords me some perspective on observing others’ artwork. Just as the eye moves over the composition of a painting, so can the observer’s thought process travel. There is always an entry point in a piece of art that can be used to begin a poem. Like dreams, I consider art a gift I’ve been given. A poem will come out that wouldn’t have been written otherwise. I don’t ever want to underestimate the power of art to provide that kind of collective or universal thematic opportunity. Often, writing ekphrastic poems will lead to research about the imagery depicted. So, for example, in my poem entitled “Proof”, which is a combination ekphrastic/ dream poem, I was able to juxtapose my personal life as a mother and the story of Juno and Hercules by researching Tintoretto’s painting, Origin of the Milky Way.  Poetry and art have similar functions in the community, so to feed off one another and open up conversation with one another is an excellent way to illustrate those universal connections that make us human.

SS:  Starland is a deeply personal book. not only because it uses dream which is highly personal, but because it also contains bursts of sharp everyday reality.  In these poems, and I am thinking of poems such as “Cape Cod, Massachusetts,”  “Accident,” and “Midsummer Murder Suicide”, the starkness of everyday events shock the reader with the deep feelings they bring us to.  The poems pay great attention to your surroundings, whether you are simply walking a beach or find yourself at the scene of an accident.  Could you talk a little about attention and using everyday events as subject matter for poems.

JP:  In the same way as I use art as an entry point for poems, so too can everyday events be used and mined for poems. Some events can be so horrific that they defy explanation. That is the case with “Midsummer Murder Suicide”. When there is something that emotionally exhausting, sometimes the only way for me to process it is with observation of the natural world with the tint of the event as overlay. The natural world can seem wonderful and welcoming when seen in a calm or open state of mind, or it can seem menacing and vicious (and all emotions in between). That poem attempts to take on a tough topic using imagination, which I believe could be the most powerful tool humans possess.

SS:  Rumor has it you are working on a new manuscript?  Tell us a little about that.

JP:  Yes! It’s called Sleep in a Strange House. Nixes Mate Books (who also published STARLAND) will publish it in the next couple of months. It’s a collection comprised mostly of dream poems. Sleep and night are big themes for the book. My perspective as a woman and mother remains one of the linchpins of the book as well. I am excited to see it come out!

The Tower Journal
Summer 2018