In the following Q&A, Jackie Anne Morrill—writer, performer, and teacher—discusses poetry readings in the Worcester area, performance poetry, and publishing, as well as her own works. You can read Jackie Anne Morrill’s two poems, “Cantaloupe as a cure-all, or how I know my mother” and “Letter from a Barn Burner,” in The Worcester Review Volume XXXV.
Can you discuss The Round Room Women’s Writing Series and what makes it unique? What advice do you have for students and faculty wanting to follow in your footsteps on their own campuses?
The Round Room Women’s Writing Series was an idea that my wife had actually come up with. It was, I think, fifty percent an excuse to have people over for food and drink and poetry, and the other half was to create a space inspired by, hosted by, created by, and performed in by women. There are so many incredible women writers in the Worcester area and, yet, it is most definitely a male-dominated scene. This was a chance for all of us girls to come together. The requirements for a reader started out very simple: you must be a woman or identify as a woman somehow. This requirement quickly changed after there was quite a bit of interest from men to read at the open mike. So, we tweaked the reading just a little and, as long as the male reader first read a piece by a woman, he could perform whatever else after that. The first year was a blast. My wife is a fantastic organizer and host—she has a lot of spunk, a ton of personality, and I think that is what kept it going even in the very slow winter months. This year has been tough. We’ve had a few really great performers, two of whom were musicians, but it has been so busy, and it is tricky trying to keep an audience going if you’re not one hundred percent in it from the beginning. As the host and booker this year, I’ve put the reading on hiatus for the rest of the summer just to try and catch up on other things.
My best advice for those students and faculty wanting to put something like this together in their own homes would be to just have fun with it. When it becomes too serious, when you reach a point at which you don’t want to hold the reading anymore, take a break. Having a reading in your home is different from holding it at a bar or coffee shop in that you have so much more to prepare for: cleaning the whole space, chair set-up, food, drink, trying to scrounge up enough cash to please the feature, booking the feature. The list goes on. Be prepared to work for it.
Can you discuss the relationship between sound and sense as it pertains to & “Cantaloupe as a cure-all, or how I know my mother?”
I am so bad at analyzing my own poems. I wrote this poem as one of the last in my grad school thesis. My mother had asked me, as a birthday present, to write her a nice poem, something she could understand. So it’s only natural that I wrote it about her and, in thinking about my relationship with her, there was the one pivotal memory of my first period and the soft sounds and images that come to mind when I think of her. She is always physically cold, and I imagine that this cold is somewhat heavy like stones in the small of her back. Looking at it now, the poem has quite a few hard “c” sounds (the “cotton” and “crusted” and “ache”) around the stanza about the period. It is such a weird thing to write about the person who brought me into the world because I know my mother so well and, yet, I sometimes don’t know her at all and never will know every part of her. The melon, “sherbet colored,” was a real suggestion by my mother and, come to find out years later, is actually proven to ease menstrual cramps. Who knew? There is soft and hard in this poem both in sense and sound, and that is exactly how I feel about my mother. She is a soft stone.
What I love about “Letter from a Barn Burner” is its riddle-like qualities and the imagery. Could you discuss how you develop tone and the role of imagery in poetry?
I have a fascination with birds in general but, at the time this was written, it was owls. Always owls. It was hunting season when I wrote this poem, and I guess I wondered what it might feel like to be the hunter and hunted. What if I just showed up on your front door or at your windowsill and told you my fears and then let you take me? & What does the hunter think about before he swoops down from a twenty-foot tree and snatches a small, silent creature from the ground? I’m not sure if this was meant to be or have a riddle-like quality, or rather, if it was just a curiosity.
In your opinion, what are the top three places in Worcester County for poetry readings? Why?
Well, I think my opinion has changed over the years. I started out reading at the Poet’s Asylum when it was being held at what is now Nu Cafe over on Chandler Street and, at the time, it was all I knew. It was fantastic and was in a great space with hosts who really had a passion for poetry. Unfortunately it has been temporarily dismantled until someone else takes over. (I know there are a few great Worcesterites trying to put together another reading or slam space in its place.) The Dirty Gerund at Ralph’s Diner on Grove Street is packed with energy and is so much more than a poetry show, music and art included, and it’s the first place I ever participated in a slam. The hosts are incredibly supportive of newcomers, and the bar has an amazing atmosphere. I also know that Gary Hoare hosts a salon reading called Top Floor. He has had a few really good musical guests and always has an exciting open mike, usually limited to a few he has personally chosen to read that night.
However, I’d have to say my number one is the Hangover Hour at Nick’s. Dave Macpherson is hysterical and clever as a host, and the show is based on a genius idea: reciting works from those authors whose times and lives have passed. Before the open mike and feature, he performs with other writers the advertisements of Narragansett beer, radio ads and, most recently, recordings from old superheroes. Past features have performed work from T.S. Eliot, Beatrix Potter, and Abbie Hoffman, just to name a few.
As a performer yourself, how do you think performance poetry differs from poetry as a whole?
In my opinion, what makes performance poetry different from poetry on the page is simple: it is performed. Writing on the page can most definitely be just as musical; carry a unique rhythm; and make you, the reader, feel and imagine what is going on but, for me, performing poetry or any kind of writing, is about becoming that person. Whether it is an alter ego or a completely different character altogether, the performance requires an outward physical persona. Some people may disagree; others may argue that there is no difference at all.
A past professor and friend of mine told me that the key between translating page to stage or vice versa is the musicality, the rhythm with which the poem is read. Some poems are dead birds on the page but, when they are performed at the right venue by the right person, they immediately come to life and on the opposite spectrum. Other poems read silently in a book or on the computer screen can hold so much weight and yet, when performed, they are dull and meaningless. It’s all about translation.
I know quite a few people who don’t even write their poems down but keep them memorized in their minds, always tweaking and changing and yet never making it to the paper. Poetry is so changeable: it’s a feat to smoothly jump from one medium to the other. And it’s a scary experience at first. Being up on a stage or even just at a microphone in the center or at the front of a room is terrifying. But once you try it, the fear sort of drives you. On the day I realize that I am no longer nervous, that that fear has gone, I’ll know it’s time to try something else.
Among other publications, you have published two chapbooks and an anthology. What tips do you have for writers wanting to get published? How did you go about it?
The best thing to do in terms of publishing is just to submit. Submit as much as possible to as many places as you can. Chapbooks are somewhat easy to compile on your own. Actual publication is something entirely different. And there are always rejections, tons of rejections, and I’ve only been writing for about five years. There are writers in the Worcester community who have been at it for twenty, thirty, even forty, years with enough rejection letters to wallpaper an entire house. What you have to accept is that most places will not want your pieces: they don’t capture the right tone, or they don’t mesh with the current theme, or they’re too dark or too happy. My favorite rejection was from an online magazine. They asked me what could have possibly made me write such an awful, sickening poem (“Family Values about Andrea Yates”), and no, they would most definitely not be accepting it for publication in their next issue. And that’s great: sometimes it’s about the reaction not the publication.
Newpages.com is awesome, they update fairly regularly with calls for submission not only for poetry but other forms of writing and art as well. Luckily, I had a lot of friends to help me out with advice, support, and formatting my second chapbook. But there is a huge wealth of knowledge out there on where to publish and who to contact, online and in the Worcester community.
On a list of best-kept secrets, which websites/books/movies/seminars/etc. would you include for writers?
That’s a tough question. I’m not sure if I’d consider it a secret, but I mentioned Newpages.com before as a great submission tracker. I find movies, particularly anything by Catherine Breillat, to be of inspiration. Movies about writers like “Howl” with Allen Ginsberg and “Steal This Movie” about Abbie Hoffman inspire me to write. I consider myself to be an obsessive Googler. I just google words, people, images, animals that I see or think of during the day, maybe that I dream of the night before, and do as much research as possible to get my brain churning.
I don’t think there is a best kept secret in terms of manuals or books to teach you how to be a poet or a writer. I mean, there are books on that subject, but I don’t believe they can transform. They merely suggest and prompt. The best-kept secret, and most obvious secret, is experience. Just being in the community, just living, watching what is going on around you. I try to pay attention to as much as possible. Sometimes the smallest thing can turn into the biggest poem.
The Worcester Review would like to thank Jackie Anne Morrill for contributing to volume XXXV and for participating in the online blog series.