Behind the Words: Jenn Storey

Posted by on Apr 3, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Jenn Storey

Villanelle,” the personal essay by Jenn Storey (née Treado), appeared in the fifth issue of Spry. This gripping piece reveals a narrator who is stuck in self-destructive patterns, interspersed with the poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath. Jenn updates us on her writing and her life here:

Laura Eppinger: First of all, I love that your piece runs parallel to the poem “Villanelle” by Sylvia Plath. What does Plath’s work mean to you? Have you studied her work and/or biography in depth?

Jenn Storey: I’d like to preface this interview with: Since I wrote and published “Villanelle,” my life and my writing life have morphed in ways that may or may not be relevant. Regardless, I hope my answers inspire something in someone somewhere.

To the question: I wish my answer was more tangible and succinct! But the truth is: I’m not the type of writer who’s been writing all my life. I barely knew I had any talent in literary whatever in 11th grade, which I promptly ignored. I went on to complete a bachelor’s in Information Technology. I have always been a reader. Though mainly in sci-fi/fantasy.

At the time I wrote the “Villanelle” essay, I was just starting to scrape the surface of constrained writing. I was in Chicago, taking a series of creative writing courses through my employer, Northwestern University. I certainly had very little background in poetry and the art of writing

I was playing with haiku and memoir and became interested in mixing forms, tweaking them, layering them, combining them. I knew I wanted to write a little of my personal story, but I needed it to have a constraint. Just calling it “personal essay” wasn’t enough – that was too large. It needed boundaries. It needed to be in a box to be outside of one at the same time (this is how most of my writing goes).

I researched poetry forms, having very little knowledge at all, and came across villanelle. Then, I came across Plath’s poem and I knew the technique of the form and the symbolism and themes of “Mad Girl’s Love Song” were an instant match to my lived experiences and the form they would take on the page. So, I wrote the essay using villanelle constraints and borrowing symbols from Plath’s poems that aligned with the truth of my experiences.

No, I haven’t studied Plath in any depth. I feel guilty admitting it because Plath is, to me, one of many beautiful mythical creatures in our literary landscape. She is/was someone who serves as a beacon, a guiding light, and is worthy of our attention, especially as womxn. Part of me loves this idea and worries the spell will break if I do dive in and absorb everything about her and the life she lived. Idols are fragile things.

Something I struggle with in my own writing is the distinction between Creative Nonfiction (CNF) and personal essay. Does this difference cross your mind as you write or edit? Or, do the guidelines for these genres feel more apparent to you?

My relationship with genre is tremulous at best and a heated, ignorant argument at worst. I’ll try to be kind and thoughtful.

I started my writing life shunning genre entirely, which still shines through in my manipulation of words and transference of forms.

I believe my answer lies somewhere in the content and style. In my mind, personal essay is a sub-section of CNF. CNF, and therefore also personal or lyric essay, is purposely decorated with all the tools and devices writers have at their infinite disposal, sometimes borrowing from other forms of writing. There’s also an element or boundary line of truth that I’m nowhere near qualified to talk about. But if the facts of my story are true, I’m confident in calling it CNF/personal essay, regardless of writing form.

I think they are one in the same, the difference doesn’t even come up when I write in the essay form. These days, I’m a (confessional) poet at heart, so I know that, no matter the form, there will always be cadence and lyricism and words not said and haunting white space through strategic line breaks. I think it’s because I know how I write that the boundaries of genre don’t, truly, influence me (until I go to publish and struggle to find the words to describe what my beautiful baby beast of a writing thing is, of course).

First, I know what I want to say, then I figure out how I want it to look (form) on the page/screen. If that falls within neatly defined genre lines, cool. If it doesn’t, also cool.

Form is on my mind a lot — a villanelle is a strictly rule-bound form of poetry, which could be seen as restrictive to a poet attempting one. To be paired with your personal experiences, in such lush and potent language, seems like a juxtaposition of opposites. Or, like a look behind the scenes of a well-ordered poem, to a more free-flowing use of words to tell a story. Am I reading this right?

I’m blushing at the knowledge someone is looking at my work and formulating meaning! The artist in me wants to say “yes” because I believe art is for the viewer, not the artist, and what the viewer makes of it once it’s released to the world.

Intent is just as important as response even though I’m still going to ultimately say “yes”, and add your interpretation to my list of things this piece is.

Since those days in 2012 and 2013, I’ve gone even further into constrained writing, word/form manipulation, and pushing boundaries to see how far I can push prose before it becomes poetry or how far I can push poetry before it becomes prose.

I’m exploring if a story or narrative or moment will still make any sense by the time I’m done. This talks to your comment about juxtaposition – I’m always putting unlike things together to see if they can create meaning. I think the general literary community calls this “experimental writing” or “the expanded field.” Whatever it is, it’s fun and it feels like home, so I keep doing it and sometimes it falls under the CNF umbrella too!

Constrained/rule-bound writing is restrictive, yes, but it’s also a tool that can unleash the floodgate. It can pin-point the heart of what you’re trying to share and say, to get at the thing directly, and can give quite a powerful sucker punch if that’s your style. It can also help identify the meaning if you’re stuck writing around something, but can’t quite reach it, and then expand again.

I love your idea that expanding traditionally poetic forms into prose is a “behind-the-scenes” look, which is an idea I didn’t know I played with until just now. It’s almost the opposite of what I had done. I wasn’t trying to expand, I was trying to condense. Regardless, thank you for that.

“Villanelle” seems an appropriate title for this piece, as you describe some self-destructive behaviors and unhealthy relationship patterns that seem to keep repeating, even with some variation. Hoping you might elaborate on this theme.

The form was serendipitous to the content/theme, and it was an afterthought honestly! That’s pretty true for most of my writing: I don’t know what I’m actually saying or creating until I’ve finished it and let the muse or Elizabeth Gilbert’s resurfaced version of the genius guide the work.

I don’t have much to elaborate on other than it was a Bob Ross “happy accident” that spoke just as loud, if not louder, than the words themselves and demonstrated the cyclical nature of self-destruction/self-sabotage. I love that it happened, but it certainly wasn’t pre-meditated, and I’d be doing a disservice to my writing process if I took any credit for it.

Your piece left me aching to know: Can we break out of self-destructive patterns? Is there hope for a life that doesn’t keep repeating the same painful cycles? Sadly, we lost Plath to self-destruction (after years of misdiagnosis and misogyny). I want so much better for the speaker in your piece.

Another caveat, and this is important: I received help and guidance from my therapist to put the wheels in motion. I know therapy isn’t an option for many people but disrupting unhealthy patterns can be difficult to do alone. I also did, and still do, use meditation and writing as tools for healing.

Back to the question: This is such a happy plea and reminds me of a fear I had when my self-destruction/self-sabotage finally waned. I moved to Austin, Texas, in 2015 to be with the man I am married to now. I also started my MFA in Creative Writing journey then. He proposed right before I started the MFA program at Texas State University and I joined that program fearful I’d have nothing left to write about because the only thing I knew how to write was pain. I confessed this to a cohort mate who was married, and he gave me some fantastic life-long advice, “Your writing won’t stop, but what you’re writing about will.”

The short answer: Yes. There is hope. The long answer: I didn’t finish my first year in that program because it didn’t suit me. Instead, my partner and I moved to Seattle in 2016 so I could join another program that had accepted me when Texas State had: University of Washington Bothell, MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics program. Over the next two years I continued to play with words and forms and art all under the umbrella of experimental writing and did, indeed, find new and fun things to write about and do. I also got married and moved, yet again, across the country back to our home state of Indiana. I’m currently answering these questions in our cute, historic house in Indianapolis with our three cats, one of which is snoozing on the futon behind me and snoring.

The life of the speaker of “Villanelle” has, indeed, found healthier patterns and, as much as I’d like to give all the credit to my husband, I think womxn need to give themselves credit, too. Sure, I was lucky enough to find, and strong enough to choose, a relationship that didn’t cause both parties to want to destroy each other entirely. I was also strong enough to know what I needed to grow: To be around like-minded creatives, to follow my writing style and voice, to morph and change with it, to find the new and not be afraid of it.

To be sure, this isn’t advice to go get an MFA (Just ask my student loans. I was/am privileged enough to afford those experiences, but they can also be found without the $105,000 in debt).

My life and my writing are two sides of the same coin, and I’m so filled right now with light and love for its ever-changing forms. My husband’s last name is Storey, which is just… Too great not to mention, and nods to the writing name change since “Villanelle”’s publication.

Finally, what are you working on now, and where can we learn more about your work?

Currently, my Instagram (@jenn_storey) bio states: I’m a confessional poet working on a fantasy novel. That’s the truth of it. I’m currently reworking my MFA thesis to be more “publishable” as a hybrid work of micro-poetry, micro-essay, and short story, all of which stemmed from writing constraints. It’s shaping up to be a mosaic of what it feels like to be at home while not feeling at home (or to be a foreigner in a familiar place). I hope to get that settled by the end of the year and begin finding small, indie presses to work with.

I’m writing a fantasy novel (most likely YA). I’m about half-way through the, as Anne Lamott calls it, shitty first draft. I’m enjoying letting my characters lead while I throw stones at them to see what they do. I hope, at the end of the story, the themes that come out center around the ugliness of envy and jealousy and the importance and healing of forgiveness (two things that surface, constantly, in my poetry and nonfiction). I think that’s important to note because one of the fun things about being a writer is to find many ways to express truth.

I have also begun the process of starting a literary press with my writing partner and soul twin, Jacque Babb (who is also fantastically multi-dimensional, playing in the fields of music, visuals, and words). It’s up and coming, but the hub of that work will be here.

And, to top it all off, I’m trying to catalogue a lot of the journey of being a multi-dimensional writer in these ways on my website/blog. Frankly, I’m slacking lately, because I’m working full-time and playing at being an “adult”, but I do hope that whenever someone comes across my blog, it’ll spark the desire to write and create something new.

Laura Eppinger is a Pushcart-nominated writer of fiction, poetry and essay. Her work has appeared at the Rumpus, the Toast, and elsewhere. She’s the blog editor at Newfound Journal. Find her here.