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A Personal Hauntology: An Interview with Jessica Q. Stark

Jessica Q. Stark is the author of Buffalo Girl, as well as Savage Pageant (Birds LLC)In these hybrid poems, Stark explores her mother’s fraught immigration to the United States from Vietnam at the end of war through the lens of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. Interspersed throughout are a series of collaged photographs, featuring Stark’s mother’s black-and-white photography from Vietnam beautifully and hauntingly layered over various natural landscapes. In the following interview with Jessica Q. Stark and BOA's new Director of Development & Publicity Kathryn Bratt-Pfotenhauer, learn more about the author's thoughts around working with archival materials, writing hybrid texts, and retelling personal histories through poetry!

Kathryn Bratt-Pfotenhauer: I’ve noticed an ongoing fascination with fairytale in your work—first with your mini-book with Ethel Zine & Micro Press “Vasilisa the Wise,” and now in Buffalo Girl. When did you first realize this connection between the fairytale, the mythical, and your work?

Jessica Q. Stark: I’ve been interested in historical archives for a long time. In addition to doing a lot of scholarly research that took me down a lot of unexpected archival vacuums, I worked at a rare collections archive at Duke University during the final stretch of my graduate studies. I think my fascination with fairytales is tethered my interest in cultural storytelling and looking at different kinds of archives (both official, unofficial or personal) and how they can sometimes influence how we perceive ourselves, other people, space, time. I like to think about how gossip bleeds into “official” archives and how “official” history reframes how we know our personal histories. I like thinking about how to dismantle the power dynamics in that blood. I also enjoy thinking about human impulses towards embellishment, towards storytelling as one of our most human attributes—even when are intentions are to be “accurate.” In that way, I often seek out the mythical in the historical and vice versa.

KB-P: In interviews for your first book, Savage Pageant, you described the work as a “haunted text.” Would you consider Buffalo Girl a haunted text, and if so, how does the haunting differ from your other work? Is it a different type of hauntology?

JS: I think if a book calls forth histories of those no longer living or of places that no longer exist, it indeed conjures a type of hauntology. Buffalo Girl attends to my ancestors, as well as Vietnamese women across history. In comparing it to Savage Pageant, Buffalo Girl feels a little more personal in its haunting—people and places that have haunted me because I can barely access their memory, their realities even when they were living. Savage Pageant thought more deeply about the specificity of a place that is haunted by barely perceptible physical traces—of a zoo in California and in the soil and blood of our nation. Buffalo Girl is more attentive to a more nebulous kind of place—one tethered equally to national blood, but specifically invested in the mobility of diasporic rage and rupture (in other words, the woods).

KB-P: This isn’t your first sojourn into the world of documentary poetics or generally hybrid work. How do you find yourself in relation to hybridity, and why do you think you return to it in your work?

JS: I grappled with this question a lot for this book, specifically. As I mentioned previously, I think my draw to hybridity, marginalia, and liminality connects to my experience working in scholarly research for a decade. The stuff of real research is not glamorous. You’re working with piecemeal, incomplete histories, imperfect cataloguing, missing parts. You can make a thing with pieces that perhaps at first feel mismatched or unrelated. Additionally, I think as a mixed-race person, I’m interested in thinking about “impurities:” mixtures that challenge the notion of fixed and fully knowable images, identities, histories, places.

KB-P: This collection is very centered on place, on landscape. What do you consider to be the landscape of your poems writ large, and how has that shifted overtime with each manuscript project?

JS: Buffalo Girl is very invested in dense foliage, and in different kinds of woods. I live in the subtropical city of Jacksonville in Florida and this type of foliage appears throughout many of the collages from my own photography. Like the plant life in Vietnam, the flora here is almost violently productive—it’s everywhere, it’s all-encompassing. Plants are large and ostentatious and most of the time, somewhat overwhelming. The vines here sound like they’re breathing, like they’re patiently poised to reclaim the land from human beings. As you could imagine, I was very interested in this relationship of plants and “the woods” to humans in writing this book. The woods in Little Red Riding Hood exists as a place of danger, but also of liberation and curiosity for a wandering girl. Savage Pageant also had an intense meditation on place—but that place was very different (California), though in this earlier book I was equally invested in mincing “true” histories with folkloric vibrations.

KB-P: The juxtaposition of your mother’s photography and the poetry in Buffalo Girl is quite (forgive the pun,) stark, and really frames the narrative arc of the book. When conceptualizing this collection, what role did the photographs originally have, and did that role shift overtime?

JS: I knew that I wanted to physically involve my mother’s photography in the collection. Finding this small collection of photographs when I was a young girl was the catalyst for thinking about my mother in a different, obscuring light—an unnerving feeling that’s never left me. I had also just moved to Florida while I was finishing this manuscript and I was taking a lot of boring landscape photos that one does in that romantic period when you just arrive at a new home and everything looks shocking and different, even the plants. Collage felt natural to the impulse of this book that is curious about anachronisms and melding my perspective with my mother’s histories and different kinds of legends across time. Making physical manifestations of this mixing felt like the only way through.

KB-P: Throughout Buffalo Girl, the human and the animal fuse—man becomes wolf, wolf is girl, girl becomes wolf. The image of the buffalo, too, hangs over the manuscript. How has your fascination with the animal and the human body changed as a result of this work?

JS: My first book was also preoccupied with animals. In that book, I was fascinated by the ways that zoos operate and how humans try to contain wildness as constantly separate from what it means to be “civilized” and human. I was also interested in how we tell stories through animals (another means of control, taming), which relates to the Little Red Riding Hood stories that factor heavily in Buffalo Girl. In Buffalo Girl, like in Savage Pageant, I’m interested in opening these tidy cages. To ask: what makes a monster, a human, a villain, an animal, a hero? And to trouble boundaries that restrict their definitions.

However, I’ve always been interested in animals—even as a young girl. I tweeted once that my poet slash villain origin story happened in third grade when a very unpopular elementary school teacher encouraged me strongly to submit a short story to a creative writing contest. I was admittedly odd and quiet as a young girl, but he said he saw something in my writing. I turned in an awful, horrific story about a whole family getting ripped apart by wolves in the woods and I gave him a copy of it to read. It didn’t win the contest and he never mentioned the story or my writing again. I think that’s all you need to know about me. 

KP-F: How have your experiences as a literary editor informed your practice as a writer?

JS: It’s a privilege to get first dibs on reading what people are writing all around you. It keeps me on my toes. And it also keeps me abreast of what isn’t being done yet, which I’m always trying to grasp in my writing and in my reading of other poets to publish.

KB-P: What did you learn about yourself in the undertaking of this collection?

JQS: I must have been a carnivorous animal in a past life. Likely nocturnal.

KB-P: Are you currently working on anything now? Are there any new projects in your future that you’re particularly excited about?

I’m currently writing into a book project that deeply considers the Internet, Marie Antoinette, and forms of messy female embodiment, self-destruction, immortality, and death. It might take me a lifetime to complete. And I have a long-standing project thinking about US American forms of sports and spectacle, particularly in connection to my own relationship to long-distance running that was so important to a much younger iteration of myself.

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