In this interview, Amy Strauss Friedman shares a fun story about how she met Jessica Walsh and tells us why reading her poetry for the first time gave her goosebumps. We discuss two of Walsh’s poems from her newest book, The List of Last Tries: “Bitter” and “Night Garden.” Below you’ll find Amy’s readings of these poems and her thoughts on their themes of difference, rejection, and the search for connection.
Riley Steiner: What drew you to choosing these poems in particular?
Amy Strauss Friedman: Jessica Walsh highlights the ways in which we all feel we don’t fit in through the narrative she constructs; she fashions a gothic, dark, disconnected character who taps into our own insecurities. Our neighbors don’t like us. Our towns don’t want us. Complex people, those who don’t fit the cookie-cutter “norms,” are outcasts. We immediately relate to the girl-turns-woman narrator in this book, who ends up orphaned and assumes that even her parents couldn’t bear her. We are all aspects of her struggle.
The two poems I chose emphasize the narrator’s perceived differences between her and the world around her, the ways in which she works to scorn others before they scorn her. The first is a relatable summer camp experience, the second is a result of the narrator’s earlier experiences with rejection. Being discarded hounds her; it becomes her identity. There are many references to bugs in these two poems, as well as elsewhere in the book, as the narrator digs into the earth for connection that she doesn’t seem to find above ground.
Amy Strauss Friedman reads “Bitter” by Jessica Walsh:
Amy Strauss Friedman reads “Night Garden” by Jessica Walsh:
RS: What do you admire about Walsh’s work? How did your relationship with her work begin?
ASF: I’ll start with the second question first because the answer is very funny. Jessica and I taught English at the same community college for five years before we knew about each other. One day Facebook suggested I send her a friend request, so I checked out her profile. I found myself saying, “Wait, what? She and I are both poets and both English teachers and both work at the same school and don’t know each other? How is that possible?” So, I sent her a friend request and then asked if she’d like to meet for coffee on campus. We did so, and I loved her immediately. We went to throw away our coffee cups after our conversation, and both of us just stood over the four or so bins, not knowing where to deposit our cups. We burst into laughter. Compost? Recycle? Trash? Paper? Jessica looked at me and asked, “How many advanced degrees does it take to get rid of coffee cups?”
As to her work, I picked up her first full-length collection, How to Break My Neck, not sure what to expect. There are times where I have loved poets but not their work, and vice versa. But Jessica’s work was excellent. Her poems gave me goosebumps. How they jump into an issue without introduction without losing the reader; that’s a terribly difficult feat to accomplish. How she uses alliteration and line breaks to draw a reader into the ethos of her world. I feel scarcity in her work in the best way. No unnecessary words. No fillers needed to bridge stanzas. An immediate curiosity about message that holds our attention.
I decided soon after reading and being wowed by her first book that I wanted to review it, and I began to star my favorite poems. When two-thirds of the book was starred, I knew I needed a new approach to questions about her writing. Jessica never loses sight of her message, and creates characters worthy of lengthy novels while doing them justice in short form.
RS: What was your experience like when you were recording the poems? For instance, did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poems would sound like, or did you try out different intonations? What was your thought process behind the way you read them out loud?
ASF: I’ve been lucky to hear Jessica read poems on several occasions, so I knew I couldn’t mimic her style. She reads directly without airs, lets the poem be the performance, and knows from where all her influences and intentions come. I don’t know all of the backstories that create her style of reading, so I put that out of my mind and read them aloud the way they sounded in my head. They tell stories so forcefully that they need little help from me.
RS: “Bitter,” in particular, is striking to me with its air of defiance. Thinking back on when I was younger, I can identify with both girls: the one who acts “as required by popular girls,” and the speaker, who defies those standards. I definitely remember feeling like there were certain mysterious “requirements” to be popular in those middle-school-age days, and also feeling like I’d never figure out what those were. Do you identify with the speaker of this poem at all? Do you think this defiance manifests itself as we grow older?
ASF: I always consider it a bad sign when people peak in middle school. There are very few people I knew as popular in middle school who have ended up wildly successful as adults. The nerds, the outcasts, the misunderstood; they’re the ones to watch as they grow. And among the requirements for popularity when I was young were generally terribly permissive parents who wanted to be their children’s friends. It was usually a particular form of dysfunction that encouraged kids to grow up too fast. Today that happens more readily due to the Internet. But many parents still work to limit those influences. So, I saw the narrator as a person ripe for success one day, who already understood that fitting in with Stepford children was absolutely the wrong path to take. She taunts them. She goes out of her way to discomfit them. And in making herself repulsive to them, she becomes far more interesting.
Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018) in which she applies a doctrine in tort law as a guide to personal relationships, and the chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016) in which she examines disconnection from each other, and ourselves. Amy’s poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared in Pleiades, Rust + Moth, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her work can be found at amystraussfriedman.com.
Read Amy Strauss Friedman’s “What Happens to a Voice Too Long Unused?” in Rust + Moth
Purchase The Eggshell Skull Rule
Read an interview with Amy about her 2016 chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander
Jessica L. Walsh is a Professor of English at Harper College in Chicago. She is the author of How to Break My Neck and The List of Last Tries (Sable Books, 2019) along with the chapbooks The Division of Standards and Knocked Around. Her poetry has been published in literary magazines such as Tinderbox, Sundog, Stirring, RHINO, and many others.
Riley Steiner is a recent graduate of Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.