Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: The language in “Fire Breathing” is ardent and intense, with the contemporary voice intermingling with an almost folkloric tone, and we love the force of the turn in the final resounding demand. How do you approach crafting voice in your work?

Jess Smith: I’m not sure that I set out, when writing a poem, to craft a specific voice. I think we are all consumed by different mindsets at different points, and those mindsets inform the language that enters our ears as we write. My feelings about my estranged father are very intricate and mercurial. Sometimes I have been angry with him, sometimes I have longed deeply for him, most often it is a mix of both. No matter what, I always feel as if his presence in my life has been equal parts dreamlike and threatening. Fire occupies this space in the imagination – it can quickly shift from soothing to menacing, from a source of warmth to a source of destruction. Sarah Ahmed wrote that “A sensation is often understood by what it is not: a sensation is not an organized or intentional response to something.” That uncertain but intense quality is what I hoped to evoke in this piece.

RR: The epigraph from King Lear gives context that the speaker is a daughter addressing her father. Was Lear a source of inspiration for you, or more of a supporting context?

JS: I’ve always found Lear’s devastating ego and subsequent madness familiar, and not just in my father-daughter relationship. Lear was driven to insanity by the force of his desire to be loved, and to be loved in a highly specific and circumspect way. He is both terrifying and sympathetic, which I think is true of many damaged parents, and I wanted this uncanny feeling to be a central context for the poem. I suppose, also, that I have always envied Cordelia’s bravery and honesty. It is almost impossible to speak candidly to a difficult or cruel parent, and because I could not do it in my real life, I have tried to do it in poetry.

RR: The speaker’s emotion and struggle is charged through the poem’s language. Can you talk generally about how you think poetry or other writing can serve as a venue for working through personal experiences and strife?

JS: Like many, I write to try and discern how I feel about something murky and painful in my life. Sometimes I surprise myself by finding more clarity, sometimes not, but I always feel I have exerted some measure of agency over a situation in which I previously felt powerless. 

RR: We understand that you are working toward a PhD in English & Creative Writing. What advice do you have for undergraduate students looking to pursue higher education within this field?

JS: Yes! I’m almost done, which is exciting. I’d say an MFA and a PhD are excellent choices if you know you want to do this work and you need a little more time and development to do it. I’m not a fast writer and it took me a long time to discipline myself enough to really sit down and do the work that came sooner to some of my colleagues. Writing and scholarship are arduous and these degrees afford you a little room in which to find your working pace. That said, it is vital that you speak to the professors and students at the programs you’re considering beforehand. Just because you like someone’s work doesn’t mean you will work well with them, and solid mentorship and a safe community are enormous parts of thriving in a program. You should also love teaching – which I absolutely do – if you intend to pursue higher degrees in English or Creative Writing. And please feel free to reach out to me, truly, if you have more specific questions.

RR: Who would you say are your favorite writers, or poets you turn to again and again?

JS: Oh, you know this is too hard a question! I can share who I’m reading right now and what I have drawn from recently. I’ve long admired Paisley Rekdal, and her newest book Nightingale is a heartbreaker. Ryan Black recently debuted The Tenant of Fire and I’ve learned so much from his meticulous, exacting syntax. Jaquira Diaz visited Lubbock last month to read and her book Ordinary Girls will certainly change the way we look at memoir. Miriam Toew’s Women Talking should be read by everyone, as should The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. Also – Chen Chen, Vievee Francis, Curtis Bauer, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Sarah Viren, Tomás Q. Morín. 

Jess Smith’s work appears in Issue 7.1:

“Fire Breathing”