Gash Atlas by Jessica Lawson was selected by Erica Hunt for first place in Kore Press Institute’s Poetry Prize and was released on September 15, 2022 (order your copy here). The interview with the poet was conducted by Ari Schill on May 3, 2022.
“…there’s no way to make an uncomplicated step in a conversation with white supremacy, colonialism and the histories that they invoke.”
1. What inspired you to use maps as a backdrop to discuss various types of oppression?
Maps were actually the seed of this project before I even realized what I was going to be using them for. I began writing this project that turned into my MFA thesis around 2016 through 2018. It was after the 2016 election that I realized where my interest in maps was going to go, because I obviously couldn’t talk about them without also talking about colonization. Even more broadly, the idea of a map as something that names and delimits a territory, making it visible but also exercising power over it.
Maps became an engine for a lot of the other pieces in this book that similarly think about the way that visibility to the state is both something that can be potentially empowering, but can also immediately create vulnerabilities for territories and people.
2. Many of the poems in Gash Atlas highlight the various ways some suffer while others reap the benefits, often at another person’s expense and autonomy. In ‘Corpus’ you have the concise yet powerful lines which read, “A series of maps may cover them in warming garments. A series of maps may choke them in their sleep.” How did using maps aid in your ability to touch on a wide range of oppression and injustices that are woven into our history?
I wanted to position my speaker so that there was no way for her to exercise an uncomplicated agency over the topics of what it was that she was speaking about. Within this particular poem, I was interested in the way that by naming a problem, she’s placing herself in a power relationship to it. Looking at what kinds of immediate accountability enter into the conversation when, even out of a desire to name so that she can do good, there is still an immediate human loss for which she has culpability.
Within that particular piece, I didn’t want to come across as damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But to say that there’s no way to make an uncomplicated step in a conversation with white supremacy, colonialism and the histories that they invoke.
I was writing this in the midst of my MFA program and was at the point in my studies where all of my classes and books I was reading were talking to each other. There are definitely works that more directly inspired specific sections. An example of that would be Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker, which very directly inspired the “Map Nightmare” section. There are ways in which what I’ve written there is in direct conversation with some of the pieces that she included in that novel. There are also ways people inspired me & continued to push me through, but whose influence isn’t as directly felt in the work. Like Carmen Giménez Smith, Ronaldo Wilson, Eve L Ewing and Douglas Kearney. I was also looking at work that exists outside of poetry like the play script sections. I was interested in bending the genre of the play script in those moments when it does appear in Gash Atlas and couldn’t help to draw inspiration from people like Suzan-Lori Parks.
4. What about these particular pieces inspired you or kept you feeling creatively afloat?
The one that comes most immediately to mind is Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal. Both because she and I knew one another through our mutual connection to the same MFA program, but also because of the choices she was structurally making in her work—in particular, the long fable that ends her book. It was not something that I was directly riffing off of in the final section of my piece. But I began thinking about the moves that she was making there, which brought her book to a satisfying close without putting a bow on top of all the horrors that she’d been describing. That task was something that I began to consider more and more urgently as I was finishing my own book. I looked at what she was doing to figure out how I could answer a similar problem in a different setting.
5. Why did you decide to create a reader’s guide with study questions and writing prompts to accompany Gash Atlas?
When I signed on with Kore Press Institute, the writing prompts were something that they asked that I include as part of my package when submitting my final materials. But as someone who teaches, it was also a really wonderful way to reverse engineer my relationship to how this might appear in a classroom. It was fascinating to imagine myself on the other side of that conversation. It was helpful for me to create questions that ask things from my book. I wanted to have faith that those questions would arise naturally from the reading process, but to be able to name them specifically was really helpful for me.
6. Do you have a favorite piece(s) in Gash Atlas?
There’s favorites and then there’s ones that I think of as being particularly important to what the book is doing. Enjoy is the wrong word, but the ones I most enjoyed writing, or the ones whose writing process was the most surprising and enlivening for me, were the play script pieces. I found that when I began including those, it kind of unlocked the book for me. Those were some of my favorites compositionally.
That said, I think that the pieces in this book that are the most important to me and whose inclusion I care about the most would include the very final section itself, which is sort of a long poem that goes over multiple pages. I did not initially intend to include the poem ‘concession’ into the book. I had written it and I performed it frequently, but I wasn’t including it in any of my early drafts of this book. It wasn’t until my friend and former colleague, Rushi Vyas, pointed out to me that its absence was conspicuous. I realized he was absolutely right, this piece was the book. The last one, which I don’t think I can say favorite about, but it was the most important to me to write was ‘The Murderers’. I knew it needed to be in the book in some way, but I was also terrified to write it. I continue to have a lot of fear around the work that I want that poem to be doing. It’s also a piece that I’ve never tried to publish individually, nor do I bring it to readings. But it was important for me to have it there and for it to at least try to do the work that I wanted it to do.
“I can’t teach without writing. I couldn’t have written without parenting.”
7. How do you juggle writing, teaching, activism and parenthood?
I don’t, haha. I’m so bad at it. I had a former mentor of mine explain it in a way that really made it sound like you have to choose who to neglect on a particular day. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they’re a former mentor. But I think at the end of the day, I have to accept that I’m never going to be able to do any one part of my life to my full satisfaction on any given day. But, making forward motions in any way that I can on all of them and recognizing how they are all part of the same life, is important to me. I can’t teach without writing. I couldn’t have written without parenting. There’s no way that any one of these pieces can exist in isolation. I think trying to compartmentalize them may help with mental health in the short term, but ultimately does a disservice to the way that these pieces of work in my life are always informing each other.
8. What are your go-to ways to spark inspiration and combat writer’s block?
I think that having very little available time means that I don’t have the luxury of writer’s block. I don’t have time to second guess myself when the minutes during which I can write are so precious and so few. That said, I can’t generally write when my children are in the house, or at least when they’re awake. Most of my work happens either when they’re sleeping or when they’re at school. If I have a spare minute to focus on a piece, I am generally writing in the same physical place in my home, which is usually in my bed. Also, the urgency of having to finish a poem before the baby wakes up from a nap completely changed my work life. Before the pandemic, I was often writing in coffee shops, but that is no longer what’s happening. Music helps a lot and not necessarily as something that is directly inspiring the piece, but as something that helps me dislodge from my own uptightness long enough to be able to access the parts of me that need to make a poem.
9. What are you currently working on?
I have a few pieces that I’ve been writing that I don’t think have a specific project to home them. I’ve been trying to be kind to myself about that. Among those actually are pieces that don’t necessarily exist as poems, but are either hybrid pieces or exist in other genres entirely. The next book project I’m working on brings together a continued interest in the human body as well as the experiences of living at the poverty line and living as a survivor of sexual violence. I have been putting those three pieces in conversation as my speaker navigates overlapping traumas in the act of feeding and protecting her own body while trying to continue living in the world. I am very early in the writing process for this one and I’m beginning to bring in some historical research that is a little surprising and unusual for this specific piece. I’m still waiting to see how that’s all going to click into place, but I am at the stage where I’m beginning to make sections and find the structure of it. That’s the funnest part for me, when I can begin to scaffold, see which pieces are missing and still need to be written.
10. What are you currently reading?
I’m in that terrifying stage of early summer where I have to pick the first thing that I’m going to read. I’ve been holding off on reading things for pleasure for so long, focusing on reading works that I love and enjoy teaching. This semester I got to teach everything from Potted Meat by Steven Dunn to Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen, which I love getting to re-read for class. But now I get to choose on my own. I think the first thing that I’m going to be grabbing is Christopher Soto’s book, Diaries of A Terrorist, which just came out today. Additionally, I imagine I’ll be working back through poetry collections that I have picked up over the last year, but had to set aside because I had other work obligations that got in the way of me reading them.
Gash Atlas is available, and was released in September 2022.
Jessica Lawson (she/her/hers) is Pushcart-nominated writer, teacher, and activist. Raised in the Midwest and now based in Denver, she holds a B.A. from Smith College, a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, and an M.F.A. from the University of Colorado-Boulder, where she served as an editor for Timber Journal. Her chapbook Rot Contracts (Trouble Department 2020) examines the heated aftermath of family rupture through the cold lens of the law, and her other writings have appeared in The Rumpus, Dreginald, Entropy, The Wanderer, and elsewhere. She is a queer single parent of three children. See more www.lawsonlit.com.
Ari Schill (they/them) Newsletter Editor & Interviewer, is a Black, queer & gender expansive, multi-genre writer & facilitator who lives in Brooklyn. They use poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction to highlight themes including race, family and adoption, drawing on the intersectionality of gender and Blackness because they are inextricably connected. Ari believes in the importance of advocacy, education and community support; strives to amplify the voices and stories of Black queer and transgender people; and are committed to cultivating meaningful connections with like-minded creatives. Inspired by writers and activists like Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, Barbara & Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, they value bringing a Black queer feminist lens to their writing and daily life. Ari has a degree in Psychology and Human Sexuality Studies from San Francisco State University.