JD Scott is the author of the story collection Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day (&NOW Books, 2020) and the poetry collection Mask for Mask (New Rivers Press, 2021). Scott’s writing has appeared in Best Experimental Writing, Best New Poets, Denver Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere.
Jon Riccio: I’m ecstatic we’re discussing Mask for Mask, having admired your work for a number of years. Your editorial stewardship of Emerge, the 2018 Lambda Literary Fellows Anthology augured “writing on the vanguard,” just as Mask for Mask promises “Everyone gets a sweater rhinestoned in their zodiac sign” (“S★T★R★”). With allusions to hexes, deities, and tarot, the collection’s arcana, mixed with popular culture, beckons cosmographic rewards. From the prefatory prose poem “Youngblood” (“First it was me and St-Germain > Liver canonized to sweetness > The lesser miracle of not feeling my face”) to the section-length “Headtrip” (“This is not to say that I am now unbodied as no one can be unbodied / but perhaps just transforming into that bathroom stall graffiti of being”), the tonalites in Mask for Mask are as palpable as the shower steam required after “voguing / on StairMasters” (“Equinox”). Their voltage could power an electroplated atheneum. What forces set Mask for Mask in motion?
JD Scott: Thank you so much for your time, Jon, and for the close readings you’ve scried out of these poems. It’s a divine gift to have my words read with such an attention to detail.
Part of the genesis of this book comes from considering queer communications (and miscommunications) in their myriad incarnations. This includes the clandestine ways gay men have conveyed desire, whether through bathhouse cruising or flirting via 21st century apps. There are shibboleths that signal outsider vs. insider, desirer vs. desiree. The title of the book does the work of introducing this shibboleth: your proximity to or distance away from certain aspects of gay culture will impact your understanding of what Mask for Mask could mean.
Some of the language-making in this book feels like a resistance to (or, at the very least, a conversation with) assimilation—that desexualized, polished rewriting of gay history and thus gay desire. In some ways, secret slangs of the past (such as Polari) have declined with decriminalization of homosexuality (and the “we’re just like you” rebranding efforts that have coincided with that). That virtuous condemning of gay desire continues to exist, even if the state no longer sanctions that chastisement. Every homosexual knows what it means to navigate public and private spaces in coded ways. That idea of what gay parlance is and what types of communication it serves (some of which includes survival) presented one opening into some of these poems.
Another opening was the use of persona to playact certain aspects of queerness, and in some ways this act was in defiance of “one of the good ones” assimilation. Nefariousness, wickedness, monstrousness: it’s approached as panopticon. There’s a consideration of compulsory heterosexuality alongside the politics of homonormativity (which often comes in the form of the middle class cis male white non-disabled man). The ugliness of desire is a burlesque, an external-internal tug-of-war. There are plenty of volatile moments within the restraints of the book, but the purpose was not to moralize or offer commentary beside performance or image. Legibility sells books, but it also introduces a type of consumption of the book and the author. I’d like to think of Mask for Mask as a poesy porcupine that resists a quick, easy devouring.
The declaration that these are persona poems (the titular masks) is also a resistance: one that pushes back against the idea of the lyric “I” as a confession of selfhood. When I say persona though, I don’t mean to say something such as here is the poet trying on the voice of a leather daddy. The polyphonous narrative is less concrete. The voices move between qualities of being young, bratty, femme. They are my shapeshifters. Queer people have multiple adolescences, and a youth-voice creates a type of anachronism: a simultaneous knowing and unknowing of pasts and presents. The enfant terrible persona becomes a means of liberation inside camp, theatricality, costuming. The monstrous femme becomes a way to undermine and thwart the masculine villains who haunt the edges of these poems. The personae share tonality, but they also shift and transform in these indefinite ways. They are not just one voice or one character, but a multitude of underbellies and underworlds.
The world part of underworld is an important driving force too: what it means to build a pocket universe inside a manuscript: to make the familiar unfamiliar, to complicate reality, to obfuscate it. To queer in every sense of the word.
JR: Early poems in Mask for Mask have a nocturnal sparkle to which my writing aspires. “Eros ⟷ Thanatos” asks “Is this what desire means? / Hanging around in well- // lit parking lots at dark?” Requests are made of the “empty // asphalt lot,” hustlers configured “into a house I haunt.” The next poem, “Equinox,” occurs at the nightgym—
Rowing deep in that cardio Here
is where I think of an X-ACTO blade
scraping amber-sealed scorpions
from my heart.
Your post-dusk atmospheres balance interiority and queerness. Do the same craft decisions factor into poems you set in daytime locales?
JDS: Back in 2016 I made a post on social media about my experiences and observations of nightlife (and nightlife as a portal to queer spaces and communities) in a moment when I was missing its offerings quite a bit. I’ll share a fragment of that here since it’s germane:
“For those of us who have made the night our homes during various points of our lives—the glitter and the shadows have offered us a place of removal from the disquiet and maltreatment the day has served up. Our service jobs, our classrooms, perfunctory uniforms, outdoor exercise, corporate lunches—these are all de rigueur. While night affords a banquet to the outcast, a space away from the dominant gaze that others based on gender, sexuality, race, etc., or judges one’s fetishes, subcultural affiliations, and kinks. Often those who have pushed back against essentializing constructs of gender in their appearance or costume or otherwise put on liberating displays of sexuality are punished for breaking this understood code during the day. Away from the solar gaze, nightlife has offered us a compassionate space to carry on and gossip and dance with our friends and drink too much and be who we want to be—be who we are—without feeling judged or subject to diurnal violences or transgressions.”
Maybe my vision of nightlife was too utopian back then (laughs), but the truth is that space after dusk has become an elixir during various moments of my life, whether that means goth nightclubs in Florida or illegal pop-up raves in Brooklyn or midnight drag shows at a gay bar in the heart of Alabama. Nightlife and poetry feel like the closest to magic-making that we can access in this world. Glamour not just as fashion, style, and glitz, but as a type of shapeshifting (the illusions of ‘realness’) that can be accessed in the embodied realm. How could this personal mythology not inform the mythologies I create inside my poems? It certainly connects to the types of shibboleths and queer jargon I mentioned earlier.
There are many dyads in this book, and the day often represents that which is regulating and oppressive. The night offers an alternative for queers, a different way of being and existing. It is the time when our desires can be fulfilled—as well as the time our desires can push us toward the type of excess that destroys us.
JR: The luxury of “Meditations from the Public Bathhouse & All Its Many Themed Rooms” (“In the amethyst sauna I wait / for crystals to purr”) gives way to
It’s like that movie where teenagers
went to binary camp had to confess
Origin stories are easy
because you can keep
changing the origin
Mine starts today
Then there are the “perimeter boys” in “Edenic” who gay bash the narrator “with leafy bats / dragging the wooden end against the concrete.” These bats are limbs “ripped from the Tree of Life,” compounding the assault. In this Eden, “[looking] like a faggot” is “the one prerequisite” for admission. Do you consider Mask for Mask an activist text? Which writers would you recommend to younger readers whose origin stories are born out of an LGBTQ+ identity?
JDS: I do not consider myself an activist, nor would I say Mask for Mask is inherently an activist text, but I would say the language of activism and social justice informs my work as a writer. I would also say the ways I am privileged or oppressed as a real human being (and the ways I acknowledge these intersections) do not exist in a 1:1 ratio with the work I do as an artist or the worlds I construct. I seldom think of the poems in Mask for Mask as a forthright mouthpiece for JD’s politics—either as author or human.
There are many lexicons woven into this text, and justice-minded strategizing is one layer that informs this art-making. The difference for me is that these poems aren’t necessarily rising to create a call-to-action (nor would I want them to be without some external collaboration). They don’t always make their positionality clear. I know some critics find ambiguity inherently to be an aesthetic of privilege, but there are occasions where I disagree (this being one of them). If you ask all art to express the same values on clarity or explicitness, you are advocating for a uniformity that in some circumstances would impede art-making itself. The voices or personae that haunt the pages are not the same, so I would not ask them to echolocate or elocute the same way.
The perimeter boys haunt a few of the poems in the book, yet there is no in-text solution for what to be done with them. Who even are these perimeter boys? Are they a metonym for some oppressive force from the real world, or do they exist in a type of low fantasy as something more abstract? I’m not—nor would I want to be—the deciding voice in that textual analysis.
The second half of your question is an excellent one—yet one that is tricky to answer. There are many queer writers who are beloved, but don’t square up with my personal tastes, but I know their work has provided comfort, salvation, and transformation for others. Inversely, there are many writers who have moved me, and I know they would not move others. I’m hesitant to make any recommendations that would flatten all LGBTQ+ peoples together or presume our individual tastes and needs are the same. I could not claim to know the needs of young readers, since I imagine many of them are so different from each other (especially considering how queerness intersects with many other embodied identities).
In many ways, it feels like publishing is only beginning to acknowledge and understand that queer stories are infinite and inhabit every genre and subgenre. There are queer cyber-noir cooking shows and queer splatterpunk mock-epics still waiting to be written into this world. If anything, I would encourage young, queer readers to do their research and forage inside their favorite genres for the book that they need—and if they find their dream book does not yet exist—then to be bold enough to write it. Make that space in the publishing world so you can liberate others like yourself who need the book that you needed.
JR: There’s a compelling poetry Möbius in “Illusionary Silver Crystal,” pharmacopeia and media imbuing the strip—
in the backseat riding stag heading off to nightlife
popping a Klonopin
kat’s eye kubic zirkonia karat the bitter weight
of gold beneath my tongue
this calm like a weatherless green screen
on the raptured nightly news
“Goth Jams” taps into celebrity media, its “Personal planet of ratty / brat pack” bridging the Sinatras and Ringwalds of our lives. A meta-media moment in “Gomorrah, or, a Recursion” tells us “The television / is learning me.” Are these medias masking or unveiling?
JDS: I’m not sure the presence of media is doing either. Or maybe it is doing both? From my vantage point, many of these poems exist in a liminal setting: an almost magicked image-world. References to Andrew Christian underwear or Spirit Halloween stores or Louboutin shoes or Burger King Croissan'wiches trouble that mythopoetic setting—inserting a volt of the known. The references are relatable because familiar commodities or retail spaces communicate something about our real world: celebrity, luxury, poverty, class. The reader is comforted and grounded by the detritus of capital. These places and objects present a type of shibboleth too.
I once read an article that likened camp aesthetics to being in a funhouse with all the distorted mirrors: the implication was that whether you appear as eight feet all or ten feet wide depends on where you’re standing in the room. Camp is like that: your own self-aware associations of bad taste, the unfashionable, the bizarre, etc., depend entirely on where you’re standing in the room.
“Illusionary Silver Crystal” is a reference to Sailor Moon. The titular crystal is arguably the most powerful object in Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon. Readers don’t need to know that though. It might change the reading, slightly, to offer up deeper readings about transformation and reincarnation, but the poem is still about a queer person going out to nightlife alone after working their 9-to-5 job. For me, that’s also about where you’re standing in the room of the poem.
Media for me is all those funhouse mirrors: they’re charged in different ways depending on your vantage point, how close or far away you exist in proximity to these communications.
JR: I’m impressed by writing that pulsates at the letter-level. “Gany (Mead)” is a jackpot in this area. Goblets become gimlets, cairn elongates to carnations. Amid these flourishes, we encounter an earthly Zeus “in his ′92 Eagle Premier w/ a dent in the left side.” The poem sweetens as it progresses. “Honey, pumpkins, clementines in syrup” are prelude to “candied ginger, marmalade,” the speaker “floating like” Candyland’s “Queen Frostine / on the Ice Cream Sea.” Nostalgia has froth by the hand until we remember the predatory implications of youth-Ganymede as “wine-pourer, / for the sake of his beauty.”[i] “Gany (Mead)’s” sugary endangerment strikes a chord similar to Hansel and Gretel, your amalgam of glove compartments and Olympus on par with stories from the Brothers Grimm. What’s your advice to poets writing updated fairy tales and myths?
JDS: For me, part of the invocation of Greco-Roman mythology in Mask for Mask was tacitly acknowledging how Eurocentric stories dominate or colonize the imagination of what is capital-C “Classical,” as well as acknowledging how these myths have historically monopolized poetic narratives. This especially feels true for me in the way that homoerotic beauty ideals track with fantasies of antiquity. Leaning into ugliness and mundanity was one method to resist the homobeatific mythopoem.
In the instance you quoted, we have the known myth where this all-powerful, empyrean god transforms into an eagle and snatches up a terrestrial child. In my variation, Zeus takes on the shape of a mortal driving an old beat-up Eagle Premier and cruises Gany, who is walking down the street with his JanSport bookbag. By transposing the myth to a more familiar, contemporary setting, the relationship between Zeus and Ganymede becomes more immediately troubled and troubling.
Is giving the advice to practice self-awareness when tackling ubiquitous myths or fairy tales too obvious? There’s this dichotomy of resisting vs. holistically leaning into the familiarity of folklore—especially where your own identities intersect with the myth. Sometimes you can push as much as you pull.
Maybe it’s not trite. As an artistic practice, engaging in some critical analysis of where these familiar stories come from, why they are so prevalent, why they dominate our imaginations—and what, you, the author, get out of remixing them—that would seem like sound advice to offer up for those doing the work in this moment. We are in an era of meta-commentary, of social engagement, of asking ourselves hard questions (such as “is this my story to tell?”) before we sit down to do the work: so, there must be some thought-out process that goes beyond sheer unexamined pastiche itself.
Looking into the oral history and variations of a myth or fairy tale can be elucidating as well. Before “updating” it can be important to consider why a certain variation of a tale commands our memories. In Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre, he mentions one of the oldest variations of Little Red Riding Hood, in which the girl drinks “wine” and eats “meat” at her grandmother’s house (which in actuality is the grandmother’s body and blood as prepared by the wolf). As the girl unknowingly feasts upon her relative, a random cat in the house shouts, “Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!”
While this serves the purpose to clue Red into the fact that she’s been nomnoming on her deceased nana, a cat shouting, “Slut!” is immediately shocking because it clashes with the version of the fairy tale we were read repeatedly as children. It’s these types of jolts to the Disneyfied imagination that can also help us create a variation and introduce a portal into our own retellings.
JR: Those enamored with off-kilter commerce will relish “Equestria” where a “sickly rider” yearns to don an infantry tunic “&body slam through windows inside a shopping mall.” What better location than the penny fountain to bleed out, the ensuing tableau “like a butter churn full of rubies”? This is the simile 2020’s pandemic-cooped needed! Should we treasure the poem’s mad dash through galleria-ville more, now that Vaccine Era: Return Phase is cusping toward us?
JDS: Wow, that poem does hit different in a pandemic-impacted world, huh? Do you know about the concept of intrusive thoughts, Jon? I wager everyone has had them. When I lived in New York—while I was waiting inside subway stations—I used to constantly think about someone running up and shoving me down onto the tracks right before a train came. Sometimes (usually when I had too much coffee) I’d think about pushing other people in. Even now, I practice standing at a distance until the train has pulled up. The idea is that these thoughts are involuntary and upsetting: we don’t want to consent to them (being harmed), we wouldn’t act on them (harming others), but our brain pushes the image upon us, and often we feel embarrassed or distressed by what our imaginations have conjured.
That was the thesis for “Equestria”: someone receiving this unwelcome thought and welcoming it. The intrusion, like you quoted, was body-slamming through a store-front window inside a shopping mall, getting cut up with glass, and just galloping around the mall like a horse—bleeding everywhere while everyone else around you is in a state of panic.
Like, okay, let’s actually do that! Let’s have this complete breakdown in public for everyone to witness. For me, it’s sinister, but there’s also this element of physical comedy and hilarity. There’s something slapstick to the fantasy of self-violence—some Lars Von Trier meets I Love Lucy mash-up. It’s an inverted ode to those learning to live with trauma, with mental illness, with neurodivergently wired brains.
There might have been some autobiographical agoraphobia that went into the formation of the poem: some anxiety inside crowded spaces of commerce and public transport. Although I imagine many people are craving to be baptized once again in a large assembly of strangers, I also imagine that many people are going to face even greater challenges readjusting to life among the public horde (especially those of us who were never great with social skills and crowds in the first place).
Maybe leaning into these intrusive fantasies can be a momentary panacea. The COVID-19 pandemic will never have a clean-cut ending. Many of us will experience a hesitant slither, a never-ending negotiation as to how we occupy space in public with strange bodies nearby. So, yes, why not hold dear this idea of the fantastic public meltdown? Let’s treasure the mad dash while we can.
JR: A procedural with recitation, “Middle V, or, a Diss-Hex to Ward Evil Ex-Boyfriends Away” incants such consumer institutions as DressBarn and TJ Maxx. It’s as if “Equestria” trotted us to Mage College in time for “church lunch at a picnic table built of children’s spines.” I admit a vicarious foodie spree thanks to inclusions of Applebees, Bob Evans, and Macaroni Grill, the scrumptious trinity preceding “a Gravitron to hell.” The hex’s patchwork consists of wordplay (“emperor’s new lows”), white space, graphics, and emoji. I’ve ventured into graphics territory but once, dropping the biohazard sign into a poem about phobias. It was empowering—behold minus beholden—an FU to the tolls OCD has taken on my life.
The most effective pairing of image and text in Mask for Mask is “Middle V’s . . .”
I am the cytoplasm that keeps this car crash together!
We have the soft alliteration of cytoplasm contrasted with the metal-on-metal alliterative of car crash, confined by what I see as monstrous teeth. (Could these ex-boyfriends be any eviler?) What drew you to merging image and text?
JDS: You know, in a moment of weakness (during the manuscript submission process), I once pulled almost all the graphics from “Middle V” because someone told me my book would never be published with emoji inside. That no one would take the work seriously. I cringe not only because I briefly acquiesced to someone else’s misguided vision of my work, but also because a magazine accepted that poem and I tried to follow-up by asking them to publish a more conservative version of it.
The triumph is not only that the manuscript found a publisher, but also that the original poem was restored for book publication.
The playfulness—the passive-aggressive Wingdings smiley face; the over-the-top six-six-sixes surrounding the word “devil”—it’s all part of the affect, the experience. “Middle V” is an outrageous poem, but it’s one that’s meant to be performed and read aloud. I want readers to indulge in the temper tantrum, to have fun with it. At the most basic, human level, haven’t most of us had a nasty break-up—even in a long ago past? Can’t most of us transpose ourselves into the place of the speaker who is diss-hexing their ex?
For me, if the presence of graphics is a “fuck-you,” it’s a “fuck you” to those in academia or oldhead editors in publishing who have linear ideas about what a poem should or can be. It’s worse when these ideas trickle down to younger or vulnerable poets who are afraid to write poems they are being called to write because they believe they have to accommodate some gatekeeper voice that now occupies real estate in their writer-brains. We all need an editorial voice inside our heads at some point, but it should be one that honors our true selves, our truest intentions. I’m glad I dumped the voices who wanted my poetry to be something it’s not. Those aren’t my readers, so why would I cave for their limited conceptions of what poetry should or can be?
Sometimes in the process of creation, we must be tasked to follow our urges, even if these urges come from nonverbal places that can be difficult to expound upon. Often, in Mask for Mask, these graphics work as a lexical adornment. They aren’t always words themselves, but often they provide a type of technicolor embellishment to the language that inhabits the world of the poem.
JR: My perfect three-day book weekend is Mask for Mask, Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution, and Joyelle McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade. The density and hyperalive-ness (to borrow a word introduced in “Cantica”) of this trio sounds a call to reinvention. Of Dance Dance Revolution, Adrienne Rich writes “The mixture of imagination, language and historical consciousness . . . is marvelous. The Guide speaks as one of those migrant people the world over whose past has been ruptured or erased by political violence, who plays whatever role she must in the world of the global economy, using language as subversion and disguise.” The queer rupturing in Mask for Mask vocalizes all number of “speaks”: Lilith-, Orpheus-, and Laramie- because “Matty S is my donor” when “Locked in palm @ Inferno Ground Zero” (“Cantica”).
As well, I see simpatico nobilities between your Tarot poems “Ten of Swords,” “King of Swords, Reversed,” “King of Cups,” and “Judgment (XX)” and the “King Prion” cycle of Percussion Grenade.
McSweeney’s first Prion nourishes with
The go-home-and-feed-the-baby-milk of it
That man is a mouth chased by ghosts
Round a rainslicked hairpin off a cliff in
(And now I pause to remember
How Art was a silver paper moulded to the ceiling
Where you cut your hair
For your rebirth as Fata Androgyana
The scissors-sister who slits where she goes-into
Cuts as she cuts—)
Rebirth is another mask, parallel to the Halloween metamorphosis you describe in “Ten of Swords”—
A riding hood, not red.
It’s October 31st and my legs
are varnished in fake blood.
Door-to-door. I march.
Sweet licorice. I am also tied
to a cross made of two axes.
It is a strange costume,
a hybrid fairy tale
in which I rename myself
This rebranding is not unlike Prion Three’s balletically camouflaged legs—
Used to haunt
the lobby While you stood there in your
As anything tied to a spit
Playing the boy Isaac to anybody’s
—while “King of Cups” takes royalty to queer-aquatic heights:
Amazon splurge: when I buy bath salts, I’m the Sea King.
King of Dog Shit, King of Box Springs, Kelp, Bee Stings.
King of Double-Fisting, what’s in your cup? Jungle juice?
Everclear could be an ocean, glass beauty in name alone.
Last year, my mentor Emily Wolahan told me we should find joy, as opposed to anxiety, when examining our influences. What joys have Cathy’s and Joyelle’s poetry brought you?
JDS: I love this question so much! Cathy Park Hong and Joyelle McSweeney’s work brings me joy because I am moved by their courageous imaginations and conscientious executing of ideas. They make the world inside their books their own, each with an incredible attention to language, as well as grounding their linguistic speculation in real-world histories and politics.
Dance Dance Revolution was an urgent book for me because it combined real-world history and political implications inside a dystopian Vegas-cum-Dubai setting. It taught me much about how to weigh your work with both gravity and levity. There is an invented polyglot pidgin that gives the fictional Desert such life, but this setting is one chronologized with real-world social concerns, violences, and migrations. This entanglement of culture, immigration, personal history, and language-making produces something that is simultaneously worldly and otherworldly. It exists both as a self-contained universe and as a speculative poetic document of potential futures for our shared world. Even though I received a type of jouissance just experiencing the imaginative landscape Cathy conjured up, the world exists in the hyperreal because it speaks to actual implications of imperialism.
Percussion Grenade was the first time I’d experienced a play that came into existence via the body and blood of poetry. I wasn’t even aware that one could write a verse play. Joyelle combines anachronistic history with a sort of effortless playfulness, both in “The Contagious Knives” (which is inside Percussion Grenade) and in Dead Youth, or, The Leaks (a separate verse play). Between these two plays there’s a teen-as-holy-terror Louis Braille, a commandeering Julian Assange, an omnipresent Henrietta Lacks, and a gender-swapped Antoine de St-Exupéry. Each of these characters becomes a vessel for a politicized history, much in the way that Percussion Grenade as a whole creates a type of raucous gothic through militarized language. The oral/aural turbulence comes from these poems quite literally asking you to read them aloud. That is where the joy comes too. Joyelle’s work taught me that you can lean into what is transgressive and often dense, but not have to be confined to the internal voice on the page. Whether the Hoooooooo— of King Prion or the utilization of drama itself in a book of poetry, Percussion Grenade serves as a reminder that innovation does not have to sacrifice oral performance. Similarly, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’s TwERK is another book that taught me the joy of sound and experimentation.
JR: How was your experience working with New Rivers Press, now in its fifty-third year?
JDS: Over fifty years! It’s wild, isn’t it? I could not even pretend to know the full lineage or future incarnations of New Rivers Press, but I can say with certainly the last few years have been excellent.
This is my second book published within 12 months. I had a debut story collection out last year and in many ways I became the surrogate who worked to fulfill my publisher’s role. I created my own press kit and my own teaching guide. I was the one who sent my book to review submissions, who went to the post office to take my little parcels out so the book could be considered for post-publication awards. 2020 took a toll on me for many reasons and being thrust into such an intense relationship with my first book during a turbulent year was one of them. I had no energy left in me by the end of 2020 to do it all over again with a different book.
One of the wonderful aspects of NRP that’s worth mentioning is that there’s a pedagogical component, so there were a few undergraduate students who worked on my book as part of a college course. I felt there were people beside me the entire way, and it was nice to share some excitement with the students as we moved through the book’s journey. I’m grateful I could be part of that publishing process—and grateful to have Nayt Rundquist as my editor, as he’s the one who has done most of the heavy lifting for Mask for Mask.
JR: Thank you for your responses, JD. I look forward to your next project in whatever genre it resides. Mask for Mask concludes with the Ginsbergian “Headtrip,” one of its primary queries begging the question
If imagination has a purpose
is that purpose
My imagination’s fueled throughout the collection by your heightened diction, particularly Mediterranean and gemology references. I’m most engaged when I come across unknown words or phrases. Parsing vocabulary before a second readthrough offers two linguistic experiences, equally enriching. Unraveling “S★T★R★’s” simile “like Swarovski” led me to the official Swarovski site, a company known for their “mastery of crystal cutting” since 1895. [ii] Among its wares are the Infinity Y necklace and a Rhodium-plated cocktail ring.
By virtue of your Swarovski-esque craftspersonship, I appreciate the book’s political urgencies all the more, its “glossy conduits” like sapphire turnstiles permitting the oppressed “to become a tourist of survival” (“Headtrip”). What crystalized for you during the writing and revision of Mask for Mask?
JDS: I feel more like I’m a writer who creates individual poems—some of which are from a personal epoch—but I’m not necessarily someone who purposefully sets out to write a book of poems that are designed to be in conversation with each other. I’m not a “project poet,” as some people like to say. However, many of these poems are narrative. Many of them touch upon similar subject matter, share a timbre. To order narrative, voice-driven poems is to risk creating a type of Freytagian structure for the reader. Which is to say that part of the ordering process was considering what the reading experience might be, how one might interpret the arc of the poems.
Is this a craft question? If that’s the case, some advice that stuck with me (thanks to Heidi Lynn Staples) was to order my manuscript in a way that would gradually teach my readers how to experience my poems. This is why some of the more unobtrusive poems front-line the book: poems that are quieter, take fewer formal risks, use language in less cacographic or cacophonic ways, exist in a more pedestrian landscape. The wildness and unruliness is something that creeps its way in. You want the reader to feel comfortable with the odyssey you’re asking them to go on, to not ask too much of them up-front.
There was an ebb and flow with being understood and misunderstood, which was something I was negotiating during revision. Having multiple beta readers was important for this—trying to see the poems from their perspective. There were also themes and concepts in earlier versions of the manuscript (such as addressing gun violence in the US) that felt overly ambitious and had to be put aside, because they weighed down the dreamscape and felt as if they were from another book (they were). I ended up with something that felt more personal. This crystallization, as you put it, never felt inorganic though. In some ways I feel pleased that this book took nearly a decade from start to finish. It allowed me to slow down and revisit the work’s needs every step of the way.
One final revision move (if we’re truly talking shop) was trying to account how each word was being repeated or isolated. There were moments where I wanted callbacks so certain vocabularies would resonate. Other times, I wanted the language to feel as if it was constantly refreshing itself, and certain words or terms I avoided using more than once. I spent a lot of time using Acrobat’s search command to comb through the manuscript.
Ultimately, I wanted (and still want) my joy of language and my care put into these poems to come across for the reader. I want the book to be an experience. I love that you ended up on the official Swarovski website. These are the exact types of openings I hope Mask for Mask acts as a catalyst for. It excites me when someone tells me they read my book with a dictionary close by, felt the beloved body of words. These are the types of adventures I hope my readers find and tell me about, because they boomerang back and lead me on my own new voyages. Like right now, I, too, am on the official Swarovski website for the first time. Apparently, they have Swarovski masks?! What a missed opportunity. Is it too late to do a raffle, Jon?
Jon Riccio’s Prodigal Cocktail Umbrella was recently published by Trainwreck Press. A former Poetry Center intern, he received his PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.