Behind the Words: Jennifer Martelli

Posted by on Dec 23, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Jennifer Martelli

Jennifer Martelli (she, her, hers) is the author of The Queen of Queens (forthcoming, Bordighera Press) and My Tarantella (Bordighera Press), awarded an Honorable Mention from the Italian-American Studies Association, selected as a 2019 “Must Read” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and named as a finalist for the Housatonic Book Award. She is also the author of the chapbooks In the Year of Ferraro from Nixes Mate Press and After Bird, winner of the Grey Book Press open reading, 2016. Her work has appeared in The Academy of American Poets Poem a Day, The Tahoma Literary Review, Thrush, The Sycamore Review, Cream City Review, Verse Daily, Iron Horse Review (winner of the Photo Finish contest), Poetry, and elsewhere. Jennifer Martelli has twice received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for her poetry. She is co-poetry editor for Mom Egg Review.

In this interview, Jennifer circles from discussing her use of Biblical and religious images, braided and disparate images and how she fits them together, and winds up back at religion, atheism, and acceptance. 

Bess Cooley: Your piece in Spry bridges a party moment with a beautiful woman and a Biblical one: Moses parting the sea. God even appears at the end. Is that type of Biblical or other religious imagery something that finds itself into your poems often?

Jennifer Martelli: I grew up in a pretty religious household: mass, miraculous medals, saints, etc. There were statues of all these martyred figures all around me! So, it’s natural that they would find their way into my work. Both of my books—The Uncanny Valley and My Tarantella—feature the religious “artifacts” that I remember as a child. A lot of my poems concern themselves with devotion—or apathy—to God (or god). How do I navigate a world without a belief, but with strong iconography? When I actually use  “God,” I’m thinking more of a concept. In the Spry poem, the God image represents a perfect love, a perfect adoration—who doesn’t want that?

What about image braiding—those two seemingly disparate images that appear together and inform each other? Is that something you gravitate toward in other poems, as well? This seems to me something poetry is particularly good at taking on: that drive to combine images that might not otherwise be put together. Is that something that draws you to poetry, as well? 

Yes, I love when a poet can work with disparate images and have them illuminate each other. It’s so satisfying when it works, an “aha” moment. I think that it best mirrors how we think, how we interpret the world: not in a linear way. Think about the times that an aroma or a song can trigger a feeling that seems unrelated. It’s the job of the poet to describe that space where the two can shimmer side by side. That being said, I can’t tell you how many piles I have of poems where I don’t make that connection! This is why it’s important—for me—to have smart, honest, brutal readers. I also have poems that I had to set aside—for years—and then return and make the connection work. And some poems never get there; these, I cannibalize.

You have two poetry collections out—how do you decide how to put a book together, in what order to collect your poems? How does a book take shape out of those smaller pieces?

Organizing a manuscript is hard and mystifying. The Uncanny Valley was a manuscript that I had put aside for a very long time when I wasn’t writing at all. It has a much more biographical arc to it, which was the original organization. And, while it might have made sense chronologically, it wasn’t satisfying. So, because I am surrounded by brilliant poets, I asked a friend for advice. She could see a different grouping of poems that followed the speaker’s “vision”—of the father, the husband, the mother, the sisters, the self. It felt right. My Tarantella told a different story (maybe); this manuscript concerned itself with the story of Kitty Genovese, so there was a historical/factual arc. To the previous question, I was braiding three different ideas: the story of Kitty Genovese, my own childhood in an Italian-America community, and the 2016 election. I could feel when the book was done, when I’d said all I needed to say. I also relied on certain images and colors to thread through the whole manuscript. But organization does not come naturally to me; perhaps I’m too close to my own collections!

You also worked at Spry and on a few other journals. What has seeing the editorial side of things taught you about poems, or writing them, or even submitting them? Has that work changed how you view the craft at all?

As an editor and reader, I see how much brilliant work is out there; how much beautiful poetry is being written. In some ways, it’s easier to submit and faster to receive an answer about work. Remember snail mail? SASEs? I think what I see are trends: topics in poetry and styles of craft that seem popular for a time. I think it’s made me more careful when I submit—how do I want my cover letter to sound? have I followed the guidelines?

Who’s on your bedside table—real or virtual—right now? Do you read several books at once or one at a time? 

I’m reading several books right now. Jessica Cuello’s LIAR is a masterpiece! Also, Diane Seuss’s FRANK: SONNETS changed how I look at my own work!

Do you have any new projects you’re working on?

My collection, THE QUEEN OF QUEENS, was published by Bordighera Press this spring. It began as an exploration of my own early adulthood in the ‘80s, which was marked by the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro to the vice presidency, as well as the AIDS pandemic. When I began writing (and when the book was accepted), I had no idea that we would be fortunate enough to have Kamala Harris as our vice president, nor did I know that we would be facing another avoidable pandemic! I’m also working on a book about long-term sobriety. 

How has working on a project about your atheism been different than projects which have contained so many religious images? Or are you approaching all that work similarly?

This is a great question! I think I’m approaching religious imagery the same in this book about my atheism; this imagery was a huge part of my life—I can’t separate from it. In my earlier writing, I think I wanted to sound more “spiritual,” or tortured by a religious upbringing. Now, my poetry—especially my poetry about God, religion, etc.—is less angry, more accepting of my disbelief (unbelief?). So, in this manuscript, I am writing from the place of rejection, meaning, the act has been done! This new book-in-progress also addresses my thirty-year sobriety, which is—in theory, in some “halls”—dependent upon a “high power,” which I approach with the same agnosticism/atheism. That was scarier than rejecting Catholicism. Yet here I am!

Bess Cooley won the 2017 Mississippi Review Poetry Prize, and her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Journal, Columbia Poetry Review, PRISM, Verse Daily, Ruminate, and other journalsHer book reviews can be found online at Sycamore Review, Electric Literature, and Kenyon Review. A graduate of Knox College and the MFA program at Purdue University, she lives in Knoxville and teaches at the University of Tennessee, where she is also managing editor of online content for Grist, an editorial reader at Spry, and co-founding editor of Peatsmoke.