Interview: Jaimie Gusman

Jaimie Gusman is a freelance writer in Kaaawa, Hawaii, and founder of Mixing Innovative Arts, Honolulu’s longest running reading series. Jaimie has three chapbooks: Gertrude’s Attic (Vagabond Press, 2014), The Anyjar (Highway 101 Press, 2011), and One Petal Row (Tinfish Press, 2011). Her work can also be found in the journals Moss Trill, The Feminist Wire, Sonora Review, BODY Magazine, Trout, Mascara Review, Unshod Quills, LOCUSPOINT, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Hearing Voices, Hawaii Women’s Journal, Spork Press, Shampoo, Barnwood, DIAGRAM, 2 River Review, and others. She is on the web at Jaimie Gusman’s first book, Anyjar, is forthcoming Fall 2017 from Black Radish Books.


Timothy Dyke: Congratulations on your publication with Black Radish. It’s great to be able to talk to you about your new collection, Anyjar. I love your work. To say anything about your book is to say something about the Anyjar, right? I would call the Anyjar — the jar itself — a focus, but it’s a slippery and elliptical focus. What does it stand for? What does it do? What does it look like? What part does it play in unifying the book? What is the role of the Anyjar in providing narrative?


Jaimie Gusman: I love how you are experiencing the work like I do, with more questions than answers. Anyjar has really been a manuscript about inquiry. I’m not really sure that Anyjar stands for any one thing. Like you say, Anyjar is a “slippery and elliptical focus” making it, as a character or a symbol, very malleable. Unreliable, even. The poems struggle to define the Anyjar, yet the poems are bound by its presence. For me, the Anyjar is a way for the speaker to measure her mourning against her existence. It is a container for the uncontainable.


Timothy Dyke: Now that I’m thinking about unreliable containers, I’m thinking about memory. And poems. And bodies. Those three things seem like unreliable containers that humans rely on to make sense of experience.


Jaimie Gusman: Aren’t all vessels unreliable? Aren’t all memories unreliable? Aren’t all experiences seen through the lens of an unreliable narrator? When I started writing the poems for Anyjar, I was concerned with space — with gaining it, losing it, giving it up without care or effort. I had just moved to Hawaii and I was trying to figure out the space around me, how to view it and how to view myself in it. How to navigate the space of a long distance relationship that became no longer long distance (which meant I was losing my own space/self). The space between life and death–the lives and deaths I was missing by being so far away from my family. But I also have been creating space between myself and my family for survival. I am still unsure about what the Anyjar is because I’ve been so wrapped up in what it isn’t. Negative space is so much like the cloth the artist removes from the painting. In poetry, would that negative space be the white space on the page or the words? I’ve always thought of the jar as this thing that hangs around. A nagging invisibility. A visible third to my relationship. This judgmental jar. This captor of language. This container of memory. This urn. This ghost. This critic. This symbol of possibility. An emblem of impossibility. This reminder that what you are writing and who you are writing for is real and imagined and most likely making you insane. The cocksling!


Timothy Dyke: Yes! I wrote down the lines about coffins and cockslings. I was laughing when I read that. I also wrote down this line: “Sometimes I think all this is a magic trick that I must expose in order to understand art.”


Jaimie Gusman: Maybe it’s that “magic trick” that makes art so attractive. The trick of one letter, one space. And we can get political here, I think. I’ve thought so much about public space and private space in relation to the Anyjar: whom art and artists belong to.


Timothy Dyke: When you talk about getting political, what do you mean? I have been comforted lately by the poetry I have seen emerging since the election of Donald Trump. Are you seeing these poems in Anyjar as fitting into that tradition of political protest?


Jaimie Gusman: I started and finished Anyjar at a time when national politics wasn’t as concerning to me as the local political landscape I was learning (and am still learning) about in Hawaii. And for the most part, I don’t see the poems in Anyjar as overtly political like the poems you’re describing as responses to Trump. Those poems comfort me, too, but I get the same kind of comfort when I read books like Martha Collins’ White Papers, Ann Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, or Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette which seem more “radical” rather than “revolutionary.” I think of Adrienne Rich’s poem, “What Kind of Times Are These”, which explains poetry’s role in politics quite beautifully in the lines, “Because you listen, because in times like these / to have you listen at all, it’s necessary / to talk about trees.” Rich is asking her reader, “Why do I tell you anything?” As long as there is a reader, and as long as there are “times like these” (which is always) there is something to give. How can that exchange, from private to public, be anything but political?


Timothy Dyke: This does go back to the subject of memory for me. There are political considerations connected to how we remember events. There are political considerations connected to whose memories we allow to become accepted as part of the historical record.


Jaimie Gusman: So, let’s talk about memory. Memory is contained by the Anyjar as well as free from it. I remember this: the very first poem I wrote in this manuscript was “And like MAGIC Anyjar is Gone” and it came from a writing prompt. I was at the annual Pacific Writers Connection writing retreat in Hanalei, Kauai. The retreat was only a few months after I had moved to Oahu where I met Takiora Ingram, who was in charge of PWC, through Frank Stewart who runs the MANOA Journal. Takiora and I hit it off since we were both interested in community building through writing, and she generously sent me to Kauai to meet Kim Stafford who was the guest writer at this retreat. I remember feeling so free and so lonely in Hanalei. I was in this amazing house on the shore, among all these amazing women who had stories. These were not like the stories I was used to hearing during my MFA, but honest stories–about genealogy, land and kuleana (the Hawaiian word for responsibility). These were stories with cultural consequences, yes, and they were also stories with personal and political consequences. And this scared the crap out of me. But, I continued to listen to other attendees talk about their backgrounds and their families. For a while I felt less lonely. Their ability to be so vulnerable in this strange space (where I felt especially closed off) made me think about my own lack of vulnerability in my writing and in my life. Why was it so difficult–painful, even–to let out an I? To let the narrative seep through the language? I go back to this question in Anyjar: is the painting a cage or is the cage a painting? Because VULNERABILITY. If the cage is a painting, “I” is safe. This is art existing in a private space. Because once “I” paints the cage and unveils it, everyone can see it, digest it, critique it. Having your work enter a public space is an act of resistance and disobedience because it compromises the individual/private space by engaging with communities. And this is difficult and important work.


Timothy Dyke: Your poems transform vulnerability into a kind of strength.


Jaimie Gusman: These questions of vulnerability stayed with me during my time in Hanalei. And those questions are still with me. But back to the writing prompt. Stafford suggested that everyone sit and write one long sentence without stopping. We had a time limit–I think it was 5 minutes, which is an eternity, really, to write alongside strangers. So I found a quiet-ish corner overlooking the Pacific, and I just thought Forgive me, which is strange, honestly, because looking at that poem now I’m thinking about how loaded that is, spiritually and religiously, but also how intimate forgiveness is. And the idea for an apology all began as a way out. I started thinking about an Anyjar–an invisible and visible thing that contained the things I could not say, could not write–as an extension of myself. I could see these things so clearly, yet I couldn’t access them. Transparency is such a burden! That first poem remains largely unchanged. The continuous sentence is a thought/story/memory uninterrupted (but not un-interpreted). It is also an attempt to do what Gertrude Stein called “naming without naming.” This is the way of looking at something until the name of that something is replaced by what is written, which is the actual thing, not the name of that thing. Maybe this is where Anyjar begins–in the space of between-ness, which is the act of writing, which is also the act of remembering. Anyjar cannot be reduced to any singular thing, but the desire to do that is strong. To say you remember an experience is to name it, to define it in order to understand that experience. So if the Anyjar is this illusion of containable space, then anything–a memory, the body, a vocabulary–becomes an illusion as well.


Timothy Dyke: As you wrote about space, did you also find yourself writing about time? Am I reading correctly when I perceive your poems as what is left after time moves through a space?


Jaimie Gusman: Yes, I was writing about space and time, first by writing the poems in a string, only interrupted by white space, where time moved forward as I lost both literal and figurative space on the page and in my life, and second, because the narrative is strung together by memory, which is not bound by traditional notions of time. The poems, initially, came about as one long poem before I started thinking about practicality (how do I submit this to a journal? what are the threads?). I think it’s interesting that you perceive the poems as “what is left after time moves through a space.” I understand that as it’s the visual representation of the poem that lingers after the audience gets a hold of the meaning. Can poems become artifacts and no longer art after they are read?


Timothy Dyke: Don’t all meditations on space become meditations on time? God, the Anyjar is becoming kind of a quantum element now.


Jaimie Gusman: My parents never “allowed” me to take physics in high school (a story for another day?) so I’m not sure if the Anyjar is capable of becoming a quantum element, but I do think all meditations on space become meditations on time. It’s hard not to think of Frank O’Hara’s beautiful poem “Music.” He is writing about a “moment to rest” alongside all these other moments of so much going on. The way he describes everything that’s happening around him is meditative in the sense that the “I” disappears with the overwhelming sense of the present. He is describing these beautiful spaces, the “gusts of water spray over the basins of leaves like the hammers of a glass pianoforte” and the “lightly falling snow over the newspapers”, that cannot be separated from time.


Timothy Dyke: Now you have me thinking about the use of “I” in poetry. I remember a few years back I met a famous poet at a summer writing conference. We were just conversing at lunch about various things when I told her I was nervous that I used the “I” pronoun too much. I worry about being narcissistic. This poet heard what I was saying, but she said that as a woman there had been so many times when people told her she had no right to speak. If I understood her correctly, she was saying the use of “I” was an assertion of her own value.


Jaimie Gusman: I get that. I get that, especially as we enter the Trump era where so much is at stake with the relationship between power and the use of “I.” As a teacher, you know that Donald Trump’s “I” can’t be compared to a 15-year old kid’s “I” so it becomes important to teach the student the importance of their “I.”  Trump’s “I” also can’t be compared to Obama’s “I” or to the “I’s” of those who voted for him. Trump’s “I” is valuable because he believes it, and why shouldn’t he? There is a history of racism and privilege attached to Trump that is so obvious that it makes me physically tense up when I listen to him speak. As a woman of my generation who feels like Trump and the far right wing of the GOP are constantly undermining women’s rights, it’s hard not to feel like an assertive “I” has never been more critical. And this goes beyond women’s rights. Everyday our religion, ethnicity, race, gender and sexual orientation are being undermined by an executive order. This is where I say, fuck vulnerability, right? Bring on the overt, the accessible, the unapologetic “I.” This is not where the poems in Anyjar exist though.


Timothy Dyke: How do the poems exist or not exist in gendered space? If you were conversing with a woman or with a non-gender-conforming person, would you be talking about gender more than you and I are in this dialogue?


Jaimie Gusman: This is a great question. I don’t have a specific answer in mind. Some people have asked me about the pronouns in this book. When I was writing poems about how to explain the Anyjar, I thought of it as a genderless object. But now I’m not sure. I’ve been thinking of and reflecting back on this one line, “The Anyjar breast-fed the hell out of me.” This is totally bizarre because 1) when I wrote this, breastfeeding was the furthest thing from my mind, and 2) this gives the Anyjar an obvious role as a mother who has birthed an “I” and continues to feed and nurture that “I.” It’s not that “I breast-fed the hell out of the Anyjar,” which would seem to make more sense if the Anyjar is a symbol for art/writing. But the Anyjar breast-fed me! Now that I’m a mother who is still nursing her 13-month old daughter, I know that labor is hard and giving birth is harder, but breastfeeding is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The entire act is tiring and selfless and requires your entire body. It tests you physically and emotionally, demanding endless patience that strips you bare. When mother and baby finally teach each other how to feed and be fed, the reward is indescribable. If the Anyjar contains the vocabulary of fear and vulnerability, then right on: as I was writing, the Anyjar breast-fed the hell out of me.


Timothy Dyke: These poems have traveled with you as you have gone from single woman to married partner to mother.


Jaimie Gusman: I couldn’t have moved through these spaces without these poems. Sometimes I read these and think, who is this person? and I feel OK with that. I’ve always struggled with the idea of a fixed self. This is probably what defines me most as atheist Jew and less as a single, married or parenting person. I would like to think that one day my daughter will read these poems and think about all the women from her family whose lives and deaths are written in the pages of this book and how they gave me a vocabulary to wonder and resist, wander and repeat.


Timothy Dyke: Your book provides its readers with a vocabulary to wonder and resist, to wander and repeat. Thank you for talking with me, and thank you for writing Anyjar.




Timothy Dyke is a teacher and writer living in Honolulu, Hawaii. His first book, Atoms of Muses, is forthcoming from Tinfish Press. His chapbook, Awkward Hugger, also from Tinfish Press, was published in 2015.


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