Continuing Norte Maar invested interest in promoting collaborations between poets and artists, this Spring Norte Maar published jack. the first book of poetry by Bushwick based writer Mika Gellman with art by Steve Harding. Sara Christoph caught up with Mika Gellman for a conversation about her work, her influences and her first published work.
Sara Christoph (NM): I’m assuming you have been working on Jack for awhile now, how did it feel to finalize its completion into a book? And this as your first publication, no?
Mika Gellman: Yes, jack. is my first book. I started writing it in 2010 and worked on the series for about two years. When I finished the writing process it felt very anticlimactic. jack. didn’t feel “done” as a pdf on my computer. It wasn’t until I saw jack. in book form that it hit me. The first test press run really knocked me off my feet.
NM: Could you talk a bit about how this project fits into your larger body of work?
Gellman: I spend a lot of time thinking about representation, specifically the representation of women. There is a line in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing that states, “men act and women appear” and it has really stuck with me. In direct response, I see my poetic practice as action, and subsequently a subversive act. I find this particularly relevant in a moment when “feminist” has become a dirty word. jack. became a culmination, or perhaps more accurately an accumulation of different versions of the same thing; an acute awareness of my experience of woman-ness.
NM: Speaking of woman-ness, I was struck by how often references to the body come up in the work. And even further, how often these references are tied to anxieties around fertility: you mention tampons, breasts, thighs, baby strollers, etc. I’m wondering how much you were thinking about the body, specifically the female body, when writing?
Gellman: A lot. I am very preoccupied with my own body and my ability to create both literally and figuratively in this case. The motif of “tampons” signaled (to me anyway) a recurring sense of creative failure. The representation of the female body in art and literature is so weighted and rife with connotations that references to it provided really rich allusions to the text. It seemed impossible to avoid the physical aspects of womanhood while trying to investigate my awareness of woman-ness.
NM: The passage of time (or lack thereof) seemed to be an important theme. With the perennial “it’s 5:15 pm,” it feels as if the narrator is frozen, as if she can only watch the world hurtle forward all around. I began to think of each poem as a twitch—a rapid assertion that left a mark but somehow failed to bring any tangible progress.
Gellman: Time and progress were critical to me while writing jack. I wanted to create a series that existed as a sort of chronological narrative while maintaining a sense of stasis. The “(it’s 5:15 pm)” marker was a way for me to locate my voice. Therefore, each sonnet became a version of itself because it was located at the same time as all the other sonnets. It was an experiment in a vertical exploration of time.
NM: Why the choice to follow a traditional sonnet form throughout?
Gellman: Initially, I started writing jack. because I wanted to create a sonnet sequence like Ted Berrigan’s. I read somewhere that when asked a similar question, Berrigan responded, “What do you do if you’re a poet and you’re just starting out and you want to be big? And I mean, who was bigger than Shakespeare? And I decided you wrote a sonnet sequence.” Aside from the bravado (although, I do hope to be “big”), I was really interested in the sonnet form as a conceptual constraint. I knew from the beginning that jack. was to be an extensive project. I felt that having only fourteen lines to do what I wanted to do helped me to distill my language. It was easier for me to experiment, move things around and play with language within the fourteen lines that the sonnet form allotted.
NM: Can you talk a bit about appropriation, your relationship to the practice and how it plays a role in Jack?
Gellman: jack. is an entirely appropriated text. Since I was using Berrigan’s framework (albeit loosely) I used many of the same processes that he used to create his Sonnets; I only allowed myself to take language from what I was reading at the time I started the project (Pound, Eliot, Creeley, William Carlos Williams, Kim Rosenfield and of course, Berrigan himself), local newspapers (the Post, the Times, the Daily News), and street signage. Then as the sonnet series progressed, I began to appropriate my own language so jack. became first referential and then self-referential. I was trying to organize a poetic history in a context I could understand and manage with fluidity and I felt appropriating other peoples language was the best way to achieve that.
NM: Why the partnership with Steve Harding, the artist who provided the images for the book? Have you two collaborated before? I’m hoping you can expand on why you felt his work would partner well with your prose.
Gellman: When Jason Andrew (of Norte Maar) suggested a collaborative element for the book, Steve was both of our first instincts. Besides being an incredibly amazing human, Steve is a really talented artist. While writing jack. I was reading a lot of Robert Creeley’s work. In Away, his wife Bobbie Creeley had these weird/amazing/terrible photo-collages throughout the text and I thought it was genius. I wanted something like that for jack.—images that are related to, rather than derivative of my work. Collaborating with Steve was very organic—we just discussed a general framework (I need this many, by this date, etc.) and minutes before our press deadline he handed everything over. I didn’t feel the need to give him any real direction. I trusted him to come up with something good. Now, I can’t imagine the text without his work in it.
NM: I debated whether to inquire about jack’s identity. I’m curious because throughout the book, I couldn’t decide whether he was a singular being, or more of a multiplicity, perhaps a collection of various testosterone-driven characters we have all lived with/through. Sometimes a malevolent force, sometimes a harmless storybook character (like Jack and Jill), other times a ghost.
Gellman: I am not sure of the answer to this question myself but listening to Bob Dylan’s Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts might help.
jack. by Mika Gellman with art by Steve Harding was published in signed limited edition of 50, and is available exclusively through Norte Maar. A reading of jack. will be held on Sunday, May 19, 4pm at Norte Maar. To order a copy email us at: nortemaar (at) gmail.com