INTERVIEW WITH ABRIANA JETTÉ
Rappahannock Review Prose Editors: In “Mountain Lake Estates,” you create a quick snapshot of Sean’s personality, writing him in a way that makes the reader feel as if they knew him personally. How did you decide to take this approach of intense familiarity with Sean?
Abriana Jetté: I’m so happy to hear that Sean’s spirit resonated with you. I wonder if part of this connection derives not just from Sean’s presence on the page but in the truth that each of us may have had our own Sean—a riveting, charismatic, gorgeous person who we’ve lost. It’s been well over a decade since Sean died, so my memories of him are just as you describe: “snapshots”—the things about him I swore I’d never forget now dimmed.
To be honest, the essay was originally a poem, and I kept working on the poem and working on the poem, sacrificing parts of the narrative for form, sacrificing form for narrative, and none of these sacrifices were paying off. I’d add a little here, take away a little there, and I kept thinking: If I write any more of what I don’t remember, this is going to be fiction, not a poem. So I abandoned the piece. Years later I reread it, and I don’t know why or how it came to me, but I just started playing with the line breaks and realized this was not a poem at all but something quicker. The length of the poem was holding it back. As an essay, though, it, well, flashed.
Anyway, I think both of these ideas have a lot to do with the intimacy you’re speaking of. There’s something about Sean’s life cut short and the pace of the flash form that speak to each other. We understand neither is long lasting, as much as we’d wish otherwise.
RR: You repeat the words “absolute heaven” in the piece. Was this a phrase that came naturally during the experience, or did it come to you later as you were writing?
AJ: Even (especially?) when he was alive, Sean was absolute heaven. I breathe out his name (Sean Woods), and the phrase, the idea, the notion of heaven just floats out. My teenage dream-boy, summer after summer I pined over him. All fourteen-year-old me wanted was to stare at his eighteen-year-old abs glistening in the lifeguard chair. Oh man, was he heavenly! So, yes, the association came naturally. Knowing him was knowing a little bit of heaven.
RR: What is your healing process after writing such an emotionally heavy piece?
AJ: Most writing serves some type of catharsis for me. I tend to get pretty raptured in my work, so once I know I’m finished with any piece—be it personal, lyrical or academic—it’s almost like the day after a migraine when the fog disappears and that quick convalescence takes over. That recognition of “oh, I’m alive again. I’m here, back in the real world.” To put it simply: it feels good! I step away from the computer. Walk a lot.
(Also, I think I may have bowed my head and thanked Sean once I knew I was ready to send the piece out.)
RR: How does your experience as a professor influence your writing?
AJ: My students are amazing—they create such unique narratives, telling their stories through Bitmjois, Tweets, creating titles and litanies of hashtags… I could go on and on. So, spending my days talking to them and guiding them really does push me to create and bring in work I think they’d find interesting. My personal pedagogy is also (what I call) anti-workshop, so we do a lot of different activities each class to generate writing.
Sometimes that means critical thinking, other times that means making playlists and Pinterest boards. I’m really lucky to have a group of scholars (and a department!) who are so open and receptive to alternative ways of learning and making and writing. I teach some pretty interesting classes (if I may say so!) – Creative Writing Theory, Writing for Digital Spaces, and your typical Poetry or Creative Writing here and there, so the content of my courses also pushes me to find the most recent research and to build on interdisciplinary connections that will draw students from across the university.
RR: Do you have any future plans or projects regarding your nonfiction work?
AJ: I’ve been working on a collection of personal essays for the past few years which is now taking its final shape. Because it is about me, it is about grief and joy and New York—but like any good New York story, of course there’s more. The goal is to tidy it up during the summer and send it out to various places soon after. (Fingers crossed!)
Abriana Jetté’s work in Issue 8.2: