“I Can’t Pretend to Have No Response”- Interview with Feminist Poet Jillian Weise

by Amy Carlberg

Moments after Jillian Weise left the stage of a poetry festival for which I volunteered, she pressed a copy of her recent poetry collection, The Book of Goodbyes, into my hands without payment. It’s inscribed with one simple instruction: “Set the world on fire.” It’s a brilliant manifesto for a young woman of any discipline, and one that punches through every line of Weise’s poetry. I asked her a few questions about new words, cyborgs, and burning the patriarchy to the ground.

Your poem, “Café Loop,” reads like a conversation about yourself that you happen to overhear, and not a particularly nice one. I’m sure a lot of young women can identify with that feeling. Women and writers are supposed to be inherently gossipy groups. Can you speak to that stereotype, and why you chose to tackle the poem that way?

I want poems that break script. One of the scripts is something like, “You will not respond to critiques of your work.” One side effect is that we are expected to feign ignorance of critiques. I can take the critiques. They are standard barbs levelled against minority writers to silence us and dismiss our work. But I can’t pretend to have no response. That’s asking too much of me, and not enough of poetry.

In that poem, “Café Loop,” there are the lines: “My friend says she actually believes/her poems have speakers. Oh that’s rich./I’m sorry but if the book is called amputee and you’re an amputee/then you are the speaker.” In The Book of Goodbyes you play with multiple speakers. Do you feel that abled white male writers are able to decide whether they will write poetry as “themselves” or using multiple speakers without being questioned?

I don’t know what kinds of questions majority writers face. It was a big surprise to have my life questioned right after publishing The Amputee’s Guide to Sex. I was doing an interview for the radio and the questions were focused on my surgeries. So I pushed back. After the interview, the producer said, “One day I hope you come out of the closet.” I think her point was something like, “We brought you here to be disabled. Now be disabled. Otherwise, get off my radio show.” 

This relates to what Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah brilliantly defines as “the curated experience.”  Most portrayals of women with disabilities are curated experiences. 

The terrifying poem “Once I Thought I Was Going to Die in the Desert Without Knowing Who I Was” describes a uniquely feminine situation: the speaker has gone to meet an illicit lover at a motel in the desert, but when she hears an intruder trying to enter her room, she is afraid to call anyone and tell them where she is. The operator she calls asks, “Miss/what are you doing staying out there alone?” and as for the intruder, she “thought/of how before, when he was not/a threat, she was going to say to his hands/how dirty.” Can you speak to the ironies of this female experience and the balanced way you present it? Your personal connection to these kinds of experiences?

The operator puts it in perspective: If you’re a woman, you should not stay alone in a motel. Freedom in America does not extend to women in motel rooms. I had a similar experience in a motel and it was the first time that I thought, “Oh, maybe I really can’t do this. Maybe I can’t travel alone anymore.” Then I bought a gun. We don’t hear enough stories from women buying guns. If I am to believe that some men are just rapists, and that’s just life in America, then you can find me at the shooting range, practicing my shot.

In your poem, “Elegy for Zahra Baker,” “On the cover of the book Josh is reading: BEST BLACK WRITER. Josh says, ‘Bet that pisses him off.'” Later the speaker is “writing my acceptance speech for the Best Disabled Writer Award. The speech begins: I need some new words.” These kinds of frustrations are obstacles to more people becoming feminists: they don’t want, to use the term they often do, “a leg up.” What do you think of categorical awards and other recognitions reserved for specific groups?

We have categorical awards for white writers. Instead of “Best White Writer,” we use the words “Great American Novelist” and include a photo so you know we are talking about white men. Again: curated experiences. I have less trouble with the word “feminist” than the word “disabled.” I don’t like the word “disabled” for its etymology and connotations. At the same time, props to Justin Dart and everyone associated with civil rights for us. But I can’t just wholeheartedly embrace the word “disabled” and, as a poet, question words. I prefer cyborg.

As you may have noticed in my last question, idioms about legs are everywhere. In The Book of Goodbyes you reference the phrase “stand on your own two feet” and the adjective “lame.” Such terms are thrown around in a way that has become outdated when it comes to other types of slurs. Why do think that is? What might some of the “new words” you speak of in “Elegy for Zahra Baker” be?

We should be off “lame” by now. The term could work if persons with disabilities reclaimed it. I don’t know anybody who is using “lame” as analogue to “queer.” Instead, “lame” keeps being a pervasive and debasing word. As for new words? I came up with “tryborg” to describe people who think of themselves as “cyborgs” because they wear Google Glass or adopt some techno-glitz or theorize biopolitics. 

In that same poem you say “I started calling myself a cyborg.” Any relation to cyborg feminism, pioneered by Donna Haraway?

Yes: Donna Haraway is the first tryborg. 

Watch a video below of Jillian wearing a giant fur coat and describing how she might afford you the pleasure of sitting on your face.


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