I first met Jennica Harper in the early 1990s, when I was about the same age as her protagonist in What It Feels Like for a Girl. Back then, she was my older cousin's girlfriend who wrote(!), and though I could never think of anything clever enough to say to her, I admired her from across the room. When a couple of years ago, however, I read her book The Octopus and Other Poems, I was so taken with it that I had to convey my admiration directly. I sent an email and Jennica responded with what I've come to understand is characteristic graciousness and generosity, and since then we've bonded over Crowded House (as you do).
Jennica will be featured in two readings next week in Toronto for the International Festival of Authors. Her newest book is What It Feels Like For a Girl: "a series of poems following the intense friendship between two teenagers as they explore pop icons, pornography, and the big, strange world of sex." She was kind enough to answer my questions from her home in Vancover.
I: What It Feels Like For a Girl is not your average book of poetry. A book-length ode to Madonna, friendship, dancing and music, it explores adolescent obsession with pornography, images of female sexuality, of desire, of betrayal. Where did this work begin? How did it evolve into its finished product?
JH: The genesis for this story was a complicated, all-consuming friendship I had when I was 13 – my first love, in a way. I’d been haunted by this friendship, this girl, this time in my life for quite a while, but never thought I’d write about it. It wasn’t until I got older and realized how ubiquitous this kind of friendship is for teenage girls that I felt like I wanted to unpack mine a bit more.
Then what I needed was some courage. I wasn’t afraid of the book being too racy – I was afraid of the earnestness I knew would be necessary to tell the story. Somehow earnestness makes me feel more vulnerable than talking frankly about sex! I convinced myself the first pages I wrote were just play; that I could throw it all out without ever showing it to anyone. That gave me the freedom I needed to explore the story however I wanted, and I found that the looseness of my drafting (jumping from tangent to tangent, allowing word play to have its way with me) helped me discover some of the motifs that became central to the story. This idea of the dancer being the truth-teller to an audience who might not want to see the truth… I didn’t plan for that thread, but it became crucial to the telling of the tale.
Is this a good place to mention the story’s heavily fictionalized? It is? Oh good.
I: Until reading What It Feels Like For a Girl, I’d never considered how much early adolescent sexuality (or at least the fixation with it) is a bookish pursuit-- you mention “the real English class” with Lolita, The Happy Hooker, and even “a few pages from Danielle Steele,/ copied, folded and ready”; the girls pore over magazines (though I note, not for the articles); Madonna’s lyrics from the Bible; you reference poetry and “dead poet fantasies”; even labia are “open books”. What connections do you draw between books and sex?
JH: Books are super sexy. It’s not just me, right?
I was definitely a young reader who sought out sexy scenes in books. It was a way to learn, while anticipating what I’d one day get to do for real. I wanted to be part of it, think about it, imagine it, but didn’t really want the scary part: the bodies, the sweat, the awful sounds. I think reading about sex allowed for the perfect balance between fantasizing and maintaining some sense of mystery about the whole shebang.
I: There is much talk these days about overt sexuality in popular culture and the effect of this on young people. And yet, your book (and my own memory) makes clear that young people have always been obsessed with sex. Do you think things are different today than they were twenty years ago? Is your book relevant to modern teenage experience?
JH: I do think young people have always been obsessed with sex. I know there’s a lot of talk about how teenagers are going further faster these days. I’m sure that’s true, to a degree. But I was a 13 year old who just assumed I was the only one who didn’t really even want it yet; I thought everybody was way ahead of me, in action if not in thought. Apparently it’s still true that teenagers talk a big game and aren’t necessarily fucking willy-nilly.
What I really wanted to explore in the book is that mad desire – the desperately wanting, but also the relishing of the not-getting. Wallowing in that. It’s its own kind of satisfaction. I was reading Anne Carson when I was writing the first draft, and was affected by her thoughts about desire. Desire dies the minute you get what you want. You’ve got to enjoy the wanting. (Sincere apologies to Ms. Carson for my oversimplification…)
I do hope that delicious, painful, amazing feeling hasn’t been lost. I don’t think it has. Isn’t that largely what the Twilight madness is about? The sweet can’t-haveness?
I: “But what makes girls and boys/ see sex and want to beat it down?/ Standing in the gym you realize/ poetry has taught you nothing.” Was the medium the problem, or the poems themselves? Or the reader? Is this poetry than can teach something new?
JH: Should I ever have a book marketed to book clubs, may I hire you to write the suggested discussion questions? (I: Thank you.)
I think the problem was a little about the poems, a little about the reader. Poetry had not prepared the speaker for the particular complex problem she was facing. But maybe she just hadn’t read the right poems yet.
I: Why is/was Madonna important?
JH: I think I partly wrote the book as a means of trying to get at that very question. What interests me most about Madonna is that I’m still not sure how I feel about her. But she has certainly made me consider my own feelings about sex in the public sphere.
I: “When you are thirteen/ the world is a small room/…But it’s also a complicated room/…It’s a strange time to be a girl…”. What was your writing like when you were thirteen? What were you reading then?
JH: My poetry was terrible, but I wrote really kick-ass book reports. (I’ve actually read some recently – they hold up!) With poetry, I was trying to put on a poet’s voice (and choose poem-appropriate topics) because I thought that’s what you were supposed to do. But when I read a book I liked (an example would be And I Don’t Want To Live This Life, by Nancy Spungen’s mother) and had to write critically about it, I was honestly and passionately engaged. It took years for me to discover how to take that engagement with someone else’s work and apply it to my own subject.
I: You are a writer of great versatility-- you’re a poet, a screenwriter, and you’ve also written a comic book. (Have I missed anything?) Is there anything in particular that links these things that you do? What about these modes of writing appeals to your sensibility?
JH: That covers it pretty well!
I do think there are some major links between these forms. First – they’re image-based. (Not all poetry, of course, but mine, to a large degree.) I think these forms all choose images, or scenes, to represent something much bigger than just that one moment. Images as tips-of-the-iceberg. Moments that allow the reader or viewer to fill in all sorts of gaps. Hopefully what the reader/viewer brings to those gaps is a mix of what you were thinking and what they’re bringing to the work.
They also all rely, to a degree, on economy. In screenwriting, you don’t get away with much chaff. Every moment must be part of the telling of the story, or it’ll get cut from the script before its shot – or it’ll get shot and then cut, and you’ve just wasted thirty thousand dollars. Or it doesn’t get cut even then, and audiences wonder what the hell the point of THAT scene was.
In poetry, I do find there is a revision stage in which you look at every word and wonder if it’s necessary. And if it’s necessary, is the word doing double or triple duty, really earning its place?
I: Your first and second books are very different. What is their relationship? What do they have in common?
JH: I find it difficult to make a connection too. As you have pointed out before, I think the key motif in The Octopus and Other Poems is wonder. That does apply here, too: looking at the things we as human beings explore, and why, and what that exploration costs us.
I: What do you require in your life in order to write well?
JH: I have very different needs on different days – sometimes it’s a full stomach, a clean house, and quiet. Other days the mess can pile up around me, there’s construction outside, and I’ll work hungry for six hours straight and it’s perfect. But I know I’m lucky to have enough control of my life (a husband I love, a home we love, enough money for all the essentials) to have the luxury of different needs on different days.
I: What was it like having your poem on a bus?
JH: It was very cool in theory, and very uncool in the sense that I never once saw it! In a year of my poem decorating Vancouver buses and SkyTrains while I took transit every day, I didn’t cross paths with it – though friends took photos when they saw it and sent them to me. That was nice. I also have one of the placards here in my office. That’s also nice.
I’ve just learned an excerpt from What It Feels Like for a Girl will be part of Poetry in Transit in early 2010, after the Olympics have come and gone. Wish me luck hunting it down!
I: What five poems do you think everybody should read?
JH: I never know how to do stuff like this. So without thinking about it overmuch: 1. “Supernatural Love” by Gjertrud Schnackenberg 2. “All the Desanctified Places” by Robert Bringhurst 3. “For Peter, My Cousin” by Barbara Nickel 4. “Sudden” by Michael Redhill 5. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Michael Ondaatje (I’m calling it one long poem, just because I can.)
I: Who are your favourite writers?
JH: My favourite writers are the ones I get to have nachos or burgers with. Or who come over to play Rock Band.
I: What are you reading right now?
JH: I’m reading Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean. It’s phenomenal – very accessible and yet poetic. Funnily enough, there’s a connection between that book and our conversation here. One of the main threads for Aristotle and young Alexander is the idea of balance; the “truth” that lies between two extremes, or caricatures. One of the sparks for me in writing What It Feels Like for a Girl came years ago in a lecture about pornography. There were students enraged at the medium’s exploitation of women, and there were students who felt people (including women) should do whatever they wanted with their bodies. I found myself asking the question: Is it possible – even advisable – to feel both ways about the subject? About any subject? I’m really taken with this emotional duality. Though it can be a pain when having a spirited debate… it must be very frustrating for my friends to watch me passionately not take a side!
(Author Photo by Jeff Morris)