Body Thesaurus: Jennifer Militello Interview

Martha Silano
Jennifer Militello

Jennifer Militello is the author of three collections of poetry: Body Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013), Flinch of Song (Tupelo Press, 2009), winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award, and the chapbook Anchor Chain, Open Sail. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The North American Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Best New Poets 2008. I recently interviewed this outstanding writer for KGB and its readers.

Q: Your brain seems completely wired for spontaneous metaphor making. At what age did you start to notice striking similarities between unlikely things? Was there a teacher or teachers that helped you hone your flare for making unlikely metaphorical connections? What's your process for coming up with striking metaphors? Is there an intersection between sound and sense that yields those surprising/mind-crackling comparisons?

My brain is, yes, for better or worse, a metaphor-making machine. It's maybe the only thing I feel like I know how to do. I've been reading and writing poetry since I was ten years old, and have always been an avid reader, so I think I've been wiring my brain this way since I was a child. It's the only thing I've been interested in doing. It's the way I make order from chaos. Metaphor is my mathematics. I now see things and they ring with all their possibilities, with all of their significance, and I write down the words with which I will represent these connections to others—recognizing that Magritte-like fate of the letters making small musics on the tongue of the mind—and, yes, as you suggest, allow the intellectual reality of the words to resonate with a deeper beat-of-the-heart instinctive sense that gives an immediate meaning, like paintings do, and music, to ease the translation through language and shoot the arrow of what is being said more directly to the heart.

A thing needs to be opened up, gutted, uncased, rosined like a bow or string-tuned like a violin—so that it can be seen for its facets instead of for the one blank face it normally shows the world.And teachers: when I read Lorca in graduate school, I was already someone who admired leaps in metaphor, so I began to work to imitate the leaps he accomplished. I had studied with Charles Simic as an undergraduate, and a workshop with Lucie Brock-Broido taught me to push the connections between things. But I maybe like the sound and sense aspect to this question best. I think a good comparison does appeal to both the instinct and intellect. The meaning and the music have to come together. And make each other. So I look to create both, and don't think the one can happen well without the other. The language and it's more literal translation makes the intellectual “sense”—but the sound appeals to the instinct, and allows the emotional sense to come through and underlie the other. Both are meaning—they are just different limbs to the same torso. But the meaning should be allowed to open up under one like a crevasse, encompass, swallow, show, air out, facet, teach, and scare.

Q: You also have an amazing ear, especially for internal rhyme and assonance/consonance. In “The Botany of Man-Made Things,” for example, “Most unnatural was the applause of leaves: / it lacked the crackle of an umber wing,” and “The garden was corrupted by pumpkins,” and in the poem “Memory,” “long in my veins like a country / of water, long like whispers darker / than the bronze of plums ...”. Can you share a bit about your writing process? For instance, do you work from drafts to refine your word choices, or do you compose mostly in your head?

I work so diligently to have my poems achieve that music because I do want the instinct of the reader affected as much as the intellect. I am very much an on-paper poet. Things happen for me on the page; I need the visual aspect of the words in print. I need that concrete aspect. I start just by jotting down lines that come to me, images, words, and then seek to knit connections from those initial musings. I believe in following the poem where it wants to go rather than leading it to what I'd have it be. But the ear—that comes from reading a lot. When I was very young, maybe eleven or so, I wrote an entire series of poems in rhyming iambic pentameter. I'd been reading, and absorbing, internalizing, the ways that language could move. Of course an increase in vocabulary and grammatical structure comes naturally with avid reading; expertise in the sounds of language is acquired this way as well.

Q: You state in a recent conversation at KR Online that you expect your reader to do quite a bit of work while reading your poems. Not the “what does this mean?” kind of work, but “leap[ing] with me when I place two less congruous things side by side.” You refer to this process as a “workout for the imagination,” warning us that we should be ready to sweat. Your poems certainly do require close reading, several close readings, but are definitely worth the struggle. Does non-linear thinking/writing come naturally to you, or do you find yourself having to cut out connectors, exposition, explanations, etc.?

I am a non-linear person in many ways. But I also believe I have fed my brain interesting and non-traditional connections for several decades, and have understood that this has warmed my brain's ability to create them. It is very much an engine, the brain. Feed in the right gasoline and it will spit or strain the power out. It will go places, and take you along. Pushing language will lead to the pushing of an idea, and to a bloom of resonance. The more space one can open up between concepts as one maps words, the more shimmering the object created. By shimmering I mean the kind of movement that can make it an ocean, that can make it many things at once and allow it to contain wilds of creatures below the surface that can only be seen when one dives down. We live looking at the surface of our lives. If we want to live the richness, the fullness, the many potentials of experience, or realize them, or try to say them, we need to go to a place that can be created by the facets of artistic reality, the image or the leaping of language or the swell and deflation of a musical scale. Maybe my love of poetry has shaped this in me, and maybe it's just the way I think. Maybe it's a bit of both. If anything, I sometimes have to work to clarify a situation. I sometimes have to add the stakes I know are needed to scale the rock. But I've always understood the value of suggestion in a poem, and still think it is a poem's most powerful force.

Q: In a recent Ploughshares interview you talk about “living inside and through a physical object,” i.e., your body. You go on to state: “I deceive myself each day with the belief that I am commanding this object, that I am manipulator to its marionette, but in reality I am this object. I am the marionette, I am the puppeteer.” Can you elaborate on this statement? In what way/s are the poems in Body Thesaurus informed by this acute awareness of being both marionette and puppeteer?

I am always wary of the way we use language. When we say my body, when we allow our language to frame an ownership, we are denying a very important aspect of living not in but as a physical object. We don't own our bodies, we are our bodies. Studies of people who have sustained brain damage assure us of this. And yet we work hard to deny it, especially since our Catholic roots would wish us to cast off such a reality in order to accommodate the selling point for daily misery, the afterlife. If the body fails, so do we. So many of us only realize this when we find our health endangered. Our control is a myth. Body Thesaurus is a book entirely about mortality as it is seen through this lens. There are symptoms that have to do with split personalities in conflict with one another and themselves. There are antidotes that aren't antidotes but simply further symptoms. The book remains aware that we are and can only be what the body is. That there is no escape. That there is no cure.

Q: Body Thesaurus is a tour de force of sound/metaphor/surprise, but it is also noteworthy for its thematic focus on the health/illness/medical interventions/identity. How did the making/shaping of Body Thesaurus evolve? Did you intend/set out to write a book focused on a central topic, or did this happen over a series of revisions?

Body Thesaurus started with the “Personality State” poems at the start of the book. In 2005, I started writing this series of persona poems and I didn't know what they wanted to do. I only knew that there were different voices there, but that they were all rooted in the same voice. So when I wrote them, they seemed loosely tied, but I wasn't sure where they fit, if they did, into a larger theme. Then suddenly a few antidote poems came into being, and then poems like “Interview under Hypnosis,” which really brings those two voices into relief, and I began to realize what was happening. The speakers were speaking to their bodies. Against them. Realizing death all over again by examining what the body could do: exist: and couldn't do: survive. So the reality of being snuffed out, and all the psychological implications of that, came into play.

Q: One of my favorite poems in Body Thesaurus is “Antidote with Attempts at Diagnosis,” which I admire for its disparaging look at the medical profession and its myriad testings – its flows, filths, and transfusions. Also, I admire how you use concrete language to explain the unexplainable, as in “They kept evolving unpredictable results, found a vertigo of snakes / and called it the mind, found time and called us its puppets.” By the end of the poem it seems clear to me that Western medicine has failed us. Is this your feeling, too?

I do feel that way. I think the focus is placed on a certain kind of wellness. At the same time, I see the division of specialists who never speak to one another. I actually have a physician who believes the less information the patient has, the better. There's no sense of the whole person, and we are shuffled from doctor to doctor and made to feel like burdens and left standing in too-lit hallways, after whatever news, understanding or not. It's inhumane and it makes no sense and it needs to stop. Doctors don't care about an individual's total wellness as much as they should. The focus on fixing particular things often leaves other parts of the self sacrificed –there is one physical aspect that is examined and prodded at and often one is left to do research about the larger implications and possibilities and how it might relate to overall health or consequence.

Q: Whose work do you feel you've been most influenced by, and in what ways?

Dickinson—for the pure what-it-can-do of poetry and the initial wow. Lorca—for the darkness and the leap. Those are the biggest two. But of course I hope I absorb everything I read and imitate in some way.

Q: Which poets/poems are you reading/most excited about right now?

I've been reading a lot of stellar poems by British poet Tim Liardet these last few months (since I read with him at KGB!), as well as books by Paisley Rekdal and Kiki Petrosino, both of whom gave a truly powerful reading I attended at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. I am also really liking extremist motherhood poems by poets like Danielle Pafunda and Hiromi Ito.

Q: What are you working on these days? I've just finished my third manuscript, tentatively titled A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments, and have started a new group of poems which grapple with the complexities of family and motherhood. I'm labeling them anti-motherhood poems, because I want them to work to undo the myth that all motherhood must be a positive and fulfilling experience. In our culture, women are slave to this sense that saying motherhood is difficult and sometimes miserable tends to be confused with feelings for the actual children themselves. Can one not love her children and yet struggle with the drudgery of motherhood? As a result, women hesitate to express the frustrations of motherhood in a productive and helpful way for fear of being scolded or outcast.


Martha Silano

Martha SilanoMartha Silano is the author of four poetry collections, including The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception and Reckless Lovely, both from Saturnalia Books. Her work has also appeared in Paris Review, North American Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Best American Poetry 2009, and elsewhere. She serves as poetry editor of Crab Creek Review, teaches at Bellevue College, and blogs at

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