Monday, January 23, 2023

TBR: I Want To Tell You by Jesse Lee Kercheval

 TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.


We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?


I write poems that grab you in that elevator and urgently tell you about love, death, and the illusive, ever-shifting meaning of life—while also making you laugh. At least once in a while.


2 sentences—though I admit that first one is long. I notice my publisher’s website chose the more economical “Poems That Urgently Remind Us Love Keeps Us Alive.”


What boundaries did you break in the writing of this book? Where does that sort of courage come from?


Though most of the poems in I Want To Tell You were written before the pandemic, I started putting the book together when I was in lockdown in Montevideo, Uruguay. That made me want a book with an urgent, direct, at times even manic, voice. One that speaks directly to the reader. There are no poems about Covid—but there is an “end times” intensity, I think, I hope, about the book. That decision not to hold back, not to “play nice” was the breakthrough for me. I got that courage, if that’s the right word, from my sense in that any moment that I might die, that my reader might die, and there was no time to lose. And though we all feel less panicked now that is the universal human situation in this world.



Which poem did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which poem gave you the most trouble, and why?


The poem I most enjoyed writing was the title poem, “I Want To Tell You.” It’s the one where I found the direct voice I was looking for:

“I am talking about poetry. / I am talking about breaking out of the neat little box of humorous lines / rising to a     zing / of cosmic meaning at the end.”


I felt it put the reader on notice about what kind of book they were about to read.


The poem that was the hardest was “Ill Call This Death Chartreuse, Her Favorite Color” which is about my sister-in-law who I loved fiercely dying of lung cancer.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


Every book I’ve published has had its own windy path to publication. This one was less complicated than many. I sent the manuscript to Ed Ochester, the long-time editor of the Pitt Poetry Series at the University of Pittsburgh Press. Ed had accepted three previous books from me: my poetry collection Dog Angel and two of my translations of Uruguayan poets, The Invisible Bridge by Circe Maia and Love Poems by Idea VilariƱo. And I love being published by Pitt.


Then I heard he was retiring and the press was searching for a new series editor. I assumed the press would not be accepting new books during the transition and so put all thought of my manuscript out of my mind.  I was completely surprised when I got an email saying that I Want To Tell You had been accepted by the new interim editor, Terrance Hayes, and editorial team, Nancy Krygowski and Jeffrey McDaniel. I was in a big Zoom meeting when email arrived and everyone got to see me jumping around and waving my hands like a crazy person (luckily my mic was muted).


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


My former students are always quoting back to me things I told them, advice I often do not remember giving. The advice I give myself most often is as much life advice as writing advice: The work is the reward. It’s to remind myself that the writing is what gives me pleasure. Not publication. To be honest, publication, especially of a book, is a bit stressful or, to be even more honest, painful. I always try to be writing away, doing new work when a book comes out.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


The surprise was how the book came together. I pulled together older poems I loved that had not been in a book, then wrote new work that addressed the same central issues and it just clicked. That had never happened before. My books are either poetic snapshots in time, like my first book, World as Dictionary, which I wrote right after my daughter was born and while a dear friend was dying of a brain tumor. Or are “project” books like Cinema Muto, which is poems about silent film and the silent film conference I go to every year in Italy,  I Want To Tell You was built around voice, around the person(a) in the poems speaking to the reader and I was genuinely surprised how well that worked as the spine of a book.


What was your experience ordering these poems?


I always struggle with that. Often there is a narrative arc in my poetry books that probably has its roots in my other life as a fiction writer. I have a friend, the poet (Amy) Quan Barry who tells her MFA students to just put their poems in book in alphabetical order by title. So I took that advice—but just as a clean start. Then I starting moving poems, thinking, Oh this one has to come after that one. As I did, I realized the structure was more like a personal essay. I was making an emotional and philosophical argument. I think one of the last things I decided to do was put the title poem, “I Want To Tell You” first, rather than last where I would usually place a title poem. The last poem now, “I am telling you” is more consoling. It ends, “Be the tree./ Be the book./ Be the one who loves & is forgiven. / Be.”


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


There are avocados in “I’ll Call This Death Chartreuse, Your Favorite Color” falling from the tree in my sister-in-law’s yard in Miami. These are the big Florida avocados, not the smaller Haas ones. They have a brighter, greener taste. I grew up on them and prefer their taste which is a bit lighter, less oily. And—plus—they are so big a single avocado makes a big bowl of guacamole.


My sister-in-law always used this classic Southern guac recipe which, honestly, is delicious:










You can order the book directly from the University of Pittsburgh Press through the link below but if you click on BUY on their site, it also gives you the option of ordering it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, Powells, etc.






DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.