Before I met Jessica Piazza, I didn’t know the term “crown of sonnets.” When she began reading one of hers aloud to the assembled crowd at the Annenberg Community Beach House, I immediately understood. The term haunts me, astonishes me, and so does Piazza’s poetry. Sonnets conjure Shakespeare, Keats, technically masterful poets whose precision allows them to make art out of the exacting demands of the form. Piazza is that, but she is also a teacher, a community-builder, and a totally delightful human being.
Tell me about your hatred of books.
I am a terrible person, because I hate SO MUCH poetry. (Okay, maybe not hate…dislike is probably more accurate.) But seriously, my secret shame is that if faced with the choice of having to read a random book of poetry or one of fiction, I’d choose fiction every time, as I find bad or mediocre fiction far more readable than bad or mediocre poetry.
HOWEVER (and this is a huge however), the best literature I’ve read in my life has been poetry. The literature that has most moved me, changed me, inspired me and motivated me has been poetry. Although I find bad or mediocre poetry close to intolerable at times, the best poetry has blown every novel and story I’ve ever read out of the water, particularly in terms of its impact on my mind and my life. So I keep searching for that poetry, and the examples of it that I do find make it all worthwhile. But it feels like a slog sometimes, which is kind of embarrassing.
So, yeah, that’s my confession. I feel so much lighter now!
I’m glad to hear it! But that would’ve been a really short interview. Can you give me any examples of books you hate?
I’m not in the business of publicly discussing poetry I think is bad or mediocre, partially because we poets have it hard enough out here, and partially because I think that designation is intensely personal and subjective. So, instead, I’ll just list books I hate for different, specific reasons; ones that are, of course, still subjective, but also entertainingly controversial! Yay!
Madame Bovary. I know, I know: I’m a heathen. But it’s so repetitive, so florid, so aggravating. I do appreciate the novelty of a female character being unlikable on her own terms, the literary work it took to allow readers inside her very human and very vulnerable mind, and the rebellion (at that time) of writing about a woman’s life not solely for the audience of women readers. That said, the book is too long for its story. It’s long and it’s boring and I find it insufferable. I find Emma insufferable too, but I’d be okay with that if I didn’t feel dragged along the same monotonous, not-very-tall rollercoaster of her emotions the entire, endless time. Sigh.
For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’d like to give a huge, resounding, hearty NOPE to Hemingway in general. Nope to lauding Hemingway while pretending he wasn’t a monster. Nope to ignoring the bullshit of the misogynistic, entitled protagonists of his books and stories. Nope to stock female-in-distress characters like Maria. Nope to acting like writing fewer words is some revolutionary, masculine act (try reading Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! which dropped well over a decade before The Sun Also Rises). Just a hot, hot #NOPE to Papa Hemingway, his patriarchy on steroids, and the lingering cult worship of the “strong, silent male” variety of literary icon.
American Pastoral. To like Philip Roth you have to like hearing Philip Roth’s voice, booming ceaselessly and loudly in a literary echo chamber of solipsism. I don’t.
Okay, I officially love you. What do you think these books have in common in terms of how you received them?
I don’t like to be bored, I don’t like to be condescended to, and I don’t like to be talked at. That pretty much sums it up for those three novels. In general, though—and I’ve said this elsewhere—I think boredom is the hardest for me. In fiction I tend to get bored by dragged-out plotting (like most people) and too much scenery (a personal taste thing). In poetry I’m bored when it doesn’t feel like the poet experienced any delight writing the poems. And I don’t mean that the poems themselves need to be fun or funny or light at all. Some of my favorite work is exactly the opposite: intense and emotionally difficult. But for me there needs to be a sense of joy in the form and shape and voice of the expression, even if that joy takes the form of release of demons or rage against power.
Do you think this hatred has altered your reading of other works?
I think so. I’m far more sensitive to misogyny and racism now than I ever have been, which I attribute to the education that’s come with some much-needed cultural shifts. But even on top of that, as a reader or judge for contests, for example, I find myself reading a ton of very competent, incredibly well-written work that simply doesn’t feel exciting enough for me. There’s too much good work out there to choose something solely because it’s pretty or because the subject is interesting. Most readers are looking for something that sets certain work apart from the rest of the well-wrought crowd. For me, an intensity of form and/or voice is that thing.
As an aside, it’s probably important here to mention that when I say intensity or excitement, I don’t necessarily mean work that’s super loud or experimental or anything like that. Kay Ryan is one of my favorite poets, and her work is so quiet, so seemingly simple – but there’s a smirking, unshakable joy in the simplicity and sparseness of her poems. I get a huge kick out of reading them, and you can tell she got a huge kick out of writing them, too. On the other end, we have Richard Siken and Hailey Leithauser and Bettina Judd, each bringing a noisy intensity of one kind or another into their work that makes me want to jump up and applaud when I read them.
Do you think your reactions to books you dislike have influenced how you write?
I hope so! I mean, I’d rather a reader hate my work than be bored by it. And I’m constantly asking myself whether I’m pushing enough in both form and content, so certainly there’s an anxiety about relying too much on either at the expense of the other.
Mostly, though, I try to listen to myself about what excites me. I don’t want to be a writer who keeps doing the same thing even after it bores me because it’s been well-received. If I’m obsessed with something—invigorated by it and compelled to consider and reconsider it—that’s going to be a springboard toward my best work. I don’t want to spend time sticking with something I’m not that into. Or, even worse, I don’t want to convince myself that generating new content is more important than creating work that excites me and others. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of needing to constantly publish so as not to feel irrelevant. And I do feel that fear, but not enough that I’m going to put some boring work out into the world with my name on it!
Now’s when we switch over to the “also some I like” part. What books have you read recently that you liked?
In Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi gives us some insight into atrocities we already thought we knew about, and does it in a surprising and fascinating form. T’ai Freedom Ford’s book is the realness; it’s a true, pure voice. (And she’s a Brooklyn homegirl, like me, so: props.) Double Jinx is virtuosic, in my opinion, and Nancy Reddy has a genius for marrying structure and content. Plus, it’s crazy fun.
Do you keep books or give them away?
Both. Some I keep, and will never, ever give up. Some I give away to people who I know will love them. Some I sell. Poetry is the hardest to give up, but I do a purge every now and again. For fiction, I mostly read on Kindle these days, so none of the above really applies.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room? Which one, and why?
No. I do not prefer physical acts of anger unless they’re absolutely necessary. (However, my God, I came close while writing my dissertation. Exhaustion of the body and brain = no joke.)
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I’m reading The Leavers by Lisa Ko, which I’m really enjoying. The prose is great, but—as importantly—the story of an undocumented mother who is forced to leave the country is incredibly timely. It’s a good book, but a scary one.
Poetry-wise, I just picked up Diane Gilliam’s Dreadful Wind and Rain at a Red Hen Press reading we did together, and it’s really an amazing collection – somehow creepy and redemptive all at once. I’m also partway into There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker, and it’s straight-up fire.