Editorial Interviews

Interview: Deb Jannerson, author of THANKS FOR NOTHING

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Deb Jannerson‘s Thanks for Nothing is a jewel-toned, kaleidoscopic rendering of living among contemporary America’s unkindnesses. Out of pain, Jannerson creates a strange and elemental tableau. Structural inequities, phony concern, and the speaker herself morph into sinister dioramas pasted together from tainted childhood memories and the always-distressing news. The collection’s images traverse seamlessly among nature, pop-culture, mythos, and political critique. Jannerson’s alliterative and idiosyncratic rendering of firsts—persons, touches, tries—fun-houses the collection’s physics, welcoming readers in the experience of emerging, dizzy but comfortable, from a legacy of hurt.”

–Jessica Morey-Collins, poet and Pushcart nominee

TFP spoke with Deb Jannerson, recent Editors’ Prize winner for “Cut”, about crafting her collection, THANKS FOR NOTHING (published August 3, 2018, by Finishing Line Press).

TFP: Your work spans quite a few genres—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—and even within those genres you tend to move between various sub-genres, such as your fiction working in both realist and SciFi realms. Can you speak to how you decide which genre to target for a project?

DJ: The pithy answer is that I don’t choose the genre; the story does. Each new project begins with a category-friendly fixation—ghosts, dystopia, crime—but when I delve in, the story consistently pushes at the limits of my planned genre. Then the challenge is finding an apt way to describe the finished product. The children’s manuscript for which I’m seeking an agent, for example, is a darkly comedic magical realism superhero origin story for Middle Graders. (I usually just say “MG magical realism.”) If there’s a constant across my work in different genres, it’s a strong human interest element. During a keynote speech, I once heard Jacqueline Woodson say “Everything I write is emotionally autobiographical.” Words to live by.

TFP: Of late many authors, such as Maggie Nelson, Nick Flynn, and beyond, have experimented in the merging of prose and poetry. Since reading Thanks for Nothing I’m curious if you’d define any of your particular poems as being hybrid?

DJ: When I began Thanks for Nothing, I planned to write a collection of prose poems. Slam poetry was a big influence. Most of the book’s text is, in fact, in sentences, but the line breaks often deemphasize that. The most breathless, essay-like pieces are stream-of-consciousness descriptions of a singular encounter with another person, like the street harasser in “the first” or the stranger who observes a disturbing family scene in “witness.” The most hybrid poem of all has to be “dear mr.,” which is an open letter formatted in paragraphs.

TFP: Throughout the work you employ lowercase and fragment syntactical structures. Can you tell us a little bit about the process and meaning of those choices for you? 

DJ: I use all-lowercase in poems unless I have a reason not to—for instance, if the piece references forensic examination, as in Rabbit Rabbit‘s “fingerprint,” or if the narrator is imagining a vocal proclamation, like in Thanks for Nothing‘s title work. To me, lowercase is a way to signify vulnerability. While all art is personal, my favorite poets have a raw, rough intimacy to their work, as if they’re inviting you into their brains. Lowercase makes those thoughts feel more immediate, even if the author has painstakingly chosen each word. Thoughts are messy and shocking and unfinished, and that’s okay. Poetry is, by nature, imperfect.

As for fragments, I like to use line breaks to divide a stanza’s “whole” into single coherent images. I also like to end lines with filler words like “the” and “and,” so that the following lines/images can begin with words that deserve more weight. You can see both of these preferences in poems like “the crash: a ptsd story”: “in the flashes i miss / buttons sew themselves into my sleeves. i may / detonate at the secret word, the / cafe’s closed corner kitchen, the / shine of a spectator’s lenses, the / smell of bawdy grease.”

TFP: Can you speak to the way body functions in your poetry? In what ways might you be writing into the body, and in what ways might you be writing to challenge it?

DJ: The physical body poses a lot of struggles for me. I’ve joked that if I could be a sentient bubble, I would. Isn’t it strange that our brains are tied to machines over which we have limited control? So on the one hand, I have an instinct to write against the body, as in the ironically named “reclaiming,” when I imagine stepping out of my skin to escape the trauma it has borne.

Then again, where do these feelings of bodily alienation come from? The roots are occasionally in chronic health problems, some of which I discuss in this collection, but more often they’re in the toxic ways society reacts to othered bodies. Lately, I’ve had a lot to say about the baggage able-bodied people project onto supposedly non-normative figures. As a person whose disabilities are not immediately obvious, I sometimes witness the moment when people realize I belong to a group about which they have sweeping, patronizing assumptions. It’s revealing and worthy of discussion.

When you’ve historically been silenced, words help take power back. Some poems “write into” the body by describing physical and mental states in a lyrical yet neutral way, whether they’re perceived shortcomings (as in “panic haiku” and “chronic fatigue”) or universal sensations (“hunger”). And of course, the body can also be a site of autonomy and pleasure, which I celebrate as much as I can in euphoric pieces like “green love letter” and “space between.” When the world is depressing, daily pleasures are especially vital.

TFP: As writers often struggle with allocating time to write, what motivates you, enrages you, or sets off that spark that forces you to put the pen to paper?

DJ: What motivates me? Deadlines! Okay, that’s boring, but I am a big believer in setting weekly writing and submitting goals, even when no one else is keeping tabs.

As for enraging content, I rarely need to look for it these days. When I began this collection, I knew I would have to unpack my feelings about the POTUS and his administration, but I felt so angry and lost that I resisted. As a result, Thanks for Nothing is largely a book about that tension: trying to confront atrocity, help fight it, and be happy and healthy anyway. (Of course, the juggernaut makes an overt appearance as the subject of “dear mr.” I woke up to a headline about him naming April the month of Sexual Assault Awareness. How could I let that go without comment?)

Rage aside, kids are my top source of inspiration. This could mean youth I see in passing, young relatives, or memories from my own childhood. My Middle Grade book is inspired by stories I wrote for my friends at age ten. And be it superhero stories or protest poetry, one of my ultimate goals is to contribute to a culture that’s better for kids. I’d like to think that’s true for all artists.

Thanks For Nothing is available for pre-order and out August 3, 2018.


Deb Jannerson
Deb Jannerson Photo: Steve Hammond

Deb Jannerson is the author of the acclaimed poetry collection, Rabbit Rabbit (Finishing Line Press, 2016), available wherever books are sold. Her second book of poetry, Thanks for Nothing, is forthcoming from Finishing Line in 2018. Jannerson won the 2017 So to Speak Nonfiction Award for “Scarring,” a short memoir about queer intimacy and PTSD. She has also been awarded Honorable Mention for the Gival Press Oscar Wilde Award, received second place in the Pen2Paper Writing Competition, and been shortlisted for the William Faulkner – Wisdom. More than one hundred of her stories and articles have been featured in anthologies and magazines. Deb is currently searching for a home for her middle grade fantasy novel. She lives in New Orleans with her wife and pets. Learn more at debjannerson.com.

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