The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: “Meanwhile” works really well as a title to this poem. As you wrote it, was the title immediately clear, or did you decide on it after composing the body of the poem?
Jessica Goodfellow: I came up with this title after I had finished the poem, and was thinking about its emotional pivot. Concurrently, I wanted to emphasize the ongoingness of our loss, even in generations that did not yet know of it, and also the ongoingness of our lives with the loss as a constant backdrop—these two realms running parallel. The word meanwhile captured those concerns while being a perfectly ordinary, even counter-sentimental, word.
RR: The choice to separate each stanza into couplets feels very intentional. Could you give some insight into why you chose that structure?
JG: I wanted this poem to stutter a bit, to not flow quite smoothly. The family history in this poem is not spoken of, or hardly spoken of, and I wanted the hesitancy of even thinking about it (the taboo around discussing it being that strong) to be present in the form. The breaks between stanzas I hope heighten that reluctant compulsion and discomfort.
RR: In a review of your most recent book Mendeleev’s Mandala, the author refers to “a running theme of displacement” that can be found as a common thread through your writing. “Meanwhile” certainly embodies this theme. What draws you to this theme in your writing?
JG: I once read that over half of all Americans currently live in the state in which they were born, and I was astonished. But I look at my high school friends on Facebook, and they certainly bear out that statistic. I have kept moving simply because I don’t have that sense of being at peace where I am right now, although as I age and more importantly now that I am a parent and my children are taking cues from my attitude toward life, I am working toward it.
In the meantime, I continue writing for people who also choose displacement, or have it thrust upon them, either because previously made decisions take them places they never meant to go, or circumstances beyond their control (including the passage of time, which is a universal displacement) remove them from where/when they were happy, or at least comfortable. But I don’t want to conflate these situations; in my case displacement has been a luxury, however impulsively conceived. In the way that the body does not always recognize the difference between distress and eustress (for example, starting a new job), feelings of displacement also can resonate similarly while being qualitatively and devastatingly different, and I don’t want to minimize those huge differences.
RR: The ties of family, and particularly the unspoken realities and difficult bonds that family creates, are other significant themes explored in “Meanwhile”. Could you elaborate on this concept, and what pushes you to write about it?
JG: This poem is from a manuscript I’m currently working on about the death of my uncle in a mountain-climbing tragedy on Mt. McKinley, when he was twenty-two years old, and I was two. In particular, I want to write about how this accident, and the silence surrounding it in our home, affects all the members of our family. In more general terms, I wanted to write about how secrets and taboos in families, anything consciously unspoken of, are as palpable as or perhaps more palpable that what is spoken of. The more family members complicit in the silence, the more complicated it becomes. I have a relationship with someone else’s silence about an event or circumstance, as well as a relationship with the circumstance itself, and a relationship with that person otherwise. Then other people have relationships with my relationship with the silence about an event, and so on. If you try to diagram it, it gets incredibly tangled. In this way, we are bound to one another by our silences.
RR: According to your biography, you have studied a huge variety of subjects and have lived in a multitude of different places. Through all these changes, what has kept you writing, and have these changes spurred your writing in any way?
JG: I have always claimed to hate change, but yes, look at my life decisions and see how ironic that is. However I haven’t made changes in the hope of finding where I fit in, either geographically or intellectually or emotionally, but rather to escape from where I know I do not belong. That is, I’ve always been moving away from, not toward, a kind of trial-and-error, which is not a terrific instinct for living a life. On the other hand, I’ve always written, from a very young age, and that has been one thread of consistency in my life. An excellent side effect of compulsively changing fields and locations is new vocabulary and imagery with which to understand and describe the world. It has kept me interested in life when my own inclination has been to be discouraged by it.
Jessica Goodfellow’s work in Issue 2.2: