Spotlight: Jenny Boully
Interview by Erin Lyndal Martin
“If she lays out two spoons (two real spoons) and two forks (two real forks), will he come then to take part in a meal that is wholly imaginary? And so begins Jenny Boully’s not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them (Tarpaulin Sky Press). In this volume, Boully blends the real and the imaginary to create her take on the Peter Pan story. The book is an explosion of formal experiments akin to Boully’s other works, including The Book of Beginnings and Endings (Sarabande), [one love affair*] (Tarpaulin Sky) and The Body: An Essay (Essay Press). Boully has a book, of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon forthcoming from Coconut Books. She has also recently written an essay collection on ghosts, longing, love, and the afterlife entitled If you point to heaven, it begins. So too is not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them full of loss and ghosts—a loss of innocence, one J. M. Barrie would never have conceived of, permeates in a book of dizzying syntax and alternating minimalist and ornate language.
ELM: I want to ask you first about form since you’re someone who embraces so many varieties of representation. At what point does form enter your compositional process?
JB: I feel that form is somewhat of an afterthought. For me, the content is always in the foreground–it’s language, the glimmer of a scene, a suggestion of a sentence that comes first, but form does not linger too far behind. I was only twenty footnotes in before I dreamt up the form of the blank pages in The Body. Form and composition seem inseparable to me. Form, although an afterthought that lingers closely behind content, begins, once established, to propel the content. The form then becomes metaphorical, a trope that can be examined within and alongside the content. The implications begin to resound, and I find myself writing towards form.
ELM: On the subject of form, I have to ask about “The Home Under Ground.”
Did you write this along with the rest of the text, or did it come in at a different time. Also, how do you see the two as functioning (or dysfunctioning) together?
JB: For not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, I think I was only about five or so pages in before I began to envision the Home Under Ground as a textual place and not merely a place in J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy where the Lost Boys congregated. In my textual place, it became a place to meditate on Wendy’s impending adulthood and death. I like thinking about the main text and the Home Under Ground having a, as you suggest, “dysfunctional” relationship. The children want make-believe to last forever, but the bisected page creates a tension there. Make-believe does not last forever, the page says. There is something waiting to replace, to consume, to lay a cloak over the days of play and make-believe. The dreaming life will be eradicated. Wendy grows up and dies. A love story does not develop. Death and decay await. The playroom is revealed as a crypt, the love bed a coffin.
ELM: Do you feel like your text is an alternate telling of Barrie’s original or simply an alternate reading?
JB: I love to read too closely, to misread, to read between the lines, to leave myself open to generous interpretations of a text, to allow daydreaming and memory and thoughts to invade the text. My book [one love affair]* was an attempt to capture this type of “reading” that I do. I like to think of my book as this type of reading; so, yes, you could say that it is in some way the original reading of Barrie with the darker underside undone and revealed. But, as my own tidbits of memory and longing and digression do invade the text, it’s my own daydream more than anything.
ELM: To follow up on that question, did you write Wendy and Peter the way you see them when you think of the original text, or did you ask yourself to consider an alternate perception? How would you characterize your Wendy and your Peter?
JB: My writing process felt very incantatory, as if I were channeling. I know that sounds a little hocus-pocus-y, but, at the time, I felt as if I was doing very little of the work, as if the writing was streaming effortlessly out of me. So I didn’t really spend a lot of time trying to create characters or trying to mold Peter and Wendy into some idea I had of them. I did, however, spend a lot of time researching prior to writing the book. I read much criticism on Barrie’s works, several of Barrie’s earlier writings, and biographies. I think I internalized Barrie’s struggles with love and the dreaming life alongside my own struggles with love and the dreaming life. In the text, it is my story, more than Peter and Wendy’s that I wrote. Wendy wants to love, to be loved, to mother, to have children, to have the dream of domesticity–a baby, a good husband, knitting, a lit fireplace. For Wendy, love, in it’s uncomplicated and pure sense, that is, love that lasts a lifetime, is an adventure. For Peter, love is something that you can cast on and off, pick up and discard; Peter wants a domestic sphere, but he wants to leave it, too. He enjoys Wendy’s dreams only in so far as he can leave it when he sees fit.
ELM: The title comes from the original text, and it’s intriguing, but it was obviously a risky choice for a title. What other titles did you consider, and what ultimately led you to choose this one?
JB: I actually didn’t have any other ideas for a title: this was the one phrase in Barrie’s work that has always thrilled me and haunted me to no end. An unknown stalking toward children as the dark approaches–it’s sinister and rings true to me. Like Barrie, I mourn childhood and its magic and its endless days and dreaming and feel quite out of sorts in my adult life. So I knew this was the title, absolutely and completely.
ELM: Were there other myths or fairy tales that influenced your research?
JB: When I was writing the book, I was actually in the midst of doing research for and writing my Ph.D. dissertation, a dissertation that was ultimately titled “Enchantment and Entrapment: Nympholepsy and the Cult of the Girl Child.” Direct or no, my research at the time most likely found some entry into the book. In addition to Barrie’s Wendy Darling, I also wrote on Lewis Carroll’s Alice Liddell, Henry Darger’s Girls, and Nabokov’s Lolita. Ancient Greek nymph narratives were a factor that drove my research–trying to see the correlations between ancient Greek nymphs and nympholepsy as I saw it played out in more recent literatures. I wanted to draw a distinction, however controversial, between pedophilia and nympholepsy.
ELM: I want to talk about the voice and the language that you use. There are moments when the syntax seems intentionally awkward, and the language is more ornamented than sparse. To what end to these qualities work?
JB: I love disrupted or unexpected syntax. I love how a sentence delivers something expected as a result of this disruption or simply doesn’t deliver at all. Some early readers of my book suggested that I play down the repetitions, which infuse the text, but I decided not to, although I could see why such repetitions could become tiresome after a while. I love writing that is ornate, full of artifice, full of the unnecessary, existing solely because of its own joy. Because I was writing this type of book, that is, a book in which most of the writing is spoken through the thoughts of characters, this was my opportunity to thoroughly decorate and disrupt my prose.
ELM: There is a definite tension between the so-called make-believe and the so-called real throughout this book, one which naturally calls Marianne Moore’s real toads to mind. How much did you keep your finger on the pulse of that tension as you were writing?
JB: Everything in the book, for me, relates to something, however veiled, in my life. So, yes, that tension could be said to be the heartbeat of the book, the very reason for my bringing the book into existence. It would have been boring, I feel, to have written a book about my wanting to be married, to have a child, to pursue a life of domestic treasures, about my fear of death, of growing old, of wanting to maintain some childhood dream and bliss and promise. Writing these things as Wendy, however, was a delight and one that felt natural to me. In a way, I was a nympholept struck by my nymph Wendy. She was my muse who moved me to creative impulses. I think the reason why there is so much bawdiness in my work–pubic hair, sexual transgressions, transgressions of the girl child, exploration of the body, frankness of the body–is precisely because I was writing the real.
ELM: Were there story arcs that you considered and discarded?
JB: In writing, I discard very little. In that sense, I’m a hoarder; it’s difficult for me to let go. I mostly keep everything. It’s how I write and how I love, and I write how I love, especially when writing about love. Everything is witness, testimony, memorabilia, souvenir-worthy, a keepsake. Somehow, I feel that even a mistake was meant to be. I might have left out a block paragraph or two, but I honestly can’t remember doing so. I think I used everything. But that’s about writing that’s already been materialized. Were there ideas, imaginings that I dreamt of and then decided against? I can’t say for sure, but I want to say that again, I didn’t discard anything. The writing process for this book would have made it difficult to even discard these imaginings. I wrote only the in morning, first thing out of bed, and wrote until the dream cloud left me. This dispelling of the what I call the “dream cloud” often happened one page into the work. Then I would stop and not think about the book again until the next morning. I did this every morning until the book was done. Every intrusion, every thought seemed to make it into the text–even the incessant barking of a dog is found there. I think that sometimes, when I am very frank, I am embarrassed about what I have written, but I don’t delete, I don’t discard. I find a way to love what I have written. I find a way to see its use-value within the larger work.