According to my family, my toddler self regularly restated the same full sentence from Disney’s Dumbo (1941) when expressing excitement: “You said it, we rolled ‘em in the aisles!” This line is impossibly obscure, and it took my parents weeks to discover the source of my incessant parroting. Oddly enough, this two-year-old in their parents’ student flat in Sheffield predicted a life not unlike the shrouded circus clown stripping away their last performance of the night and reveling in the response of a crowd.
My tendency towards being a little court jester, eager mimic, and linguistic alchemist emerged at quite an early age. I adored reading, especially the part when I slipped into the different word-worlds of poetry. In second grade, I memorized and performed A.A. Milne’s “Market Square” for my class’s Mother’s Day celebration, complete with four stuffed rabbits that smelled of leftover Easter chocolate. When my mother laughed, something clicked. I had chosen that poem because it made me laugh to read, particularly because of its repeated “silly-sounding” words like “Tuppence,” “rabbit,” “mackerel,” and especially the sonically-charged “nuffin’.” Who wouldn’t love rolling all those sounds around in their mouth? When tired of memorization and recitation, I turned to books, any books that I could find, for a glimpse into the way different people and their different worlds played with language. From a very worn anthology of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories and the “Looking Back” sections of every American Girl historical chapter book to the translation of Ancient Egyptian myths my father brought back from his workplace, I devoured worlds and joined them as their excitable spectator. My favourite words, though, remained the silly ones: ones with so many syllables you tripped over them before you reached the last letter, ones that made you think of something completely opposite of its assigned meaning. I adored words, and would copy them down in shaky cursive over and over until even the lines seemed to take on their own sound.
My early love of silly words, especially the way sounds felt in and escaped from the body, became a fascination with gibberish, which morphed with a love of performance—specifically the artistic presentation of my own body—and the creation and implementation of rituals for the purposes of artistic creation. Acting became one of the many outlets of my urgent need to express, as did regular reverent listening sessions of David Bowie, Meat Loaf, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. Ultimately, though, neither theatre nor music satiated my interests in the creative explication of language, and I left for university truly believing I would only ever have the chance to use language as a tool of clear communication and literary analysis. However, what hegemonic economic and educational values attempted to squash, writers and scholars like Joyelle McSweeney, Johannes Göransson, Elise Houcek, Mark Sanders, Roy Scranton, Zoe Darsee, and more than I can ever name, fostered. Through their generous advice, workshopping, research, and insight, I found a platform—namely, poetry—for taking gibberish seriously. As a poet in my MFA cohort, I explored sonic expression in written text, the dissolution and restructuring of words in shape and definition, and the way systems of power privilege certain words and grammatical structures over others, among other fascinating aspects of performativity, identity, and expression. Honestly, Milne’s “Market Square” and those chocolate bunnies feel closer to me now more than ever (and honestly, I might do some erasure-ekphrasis to try and find a similar moment sometime soon!).
Though I’m not exactly a John Lennon fan, I do admit he sang the truth in “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I never imagined I would share CAConrad’s Advanced Elvis Course and Adrian Matejka’s Standing on the Verge & Maggot Brain with the students attending Holy Cross College in Westville Correctional Facility. I still cannot believe that I led discussions on Kim Hyesoon, Eileen Myles, and Akwaeke Emezi in self-designed Intro to Creative Writing and Intro to Poetry classes at the University of Notre Dame, and I certainly never dreamed that I would be taken seriously in my love of the silly, the stupid, the gibberish. Now, I perform the personas found within my poetry manuscripts, including a sentient necktie, a transmasc seahorse collective, and a parody of Platonic dialogue based off the relationality between the friends of the Jackass franchise. There is no masking to be found in my poetic expression regardless of these various beings speaking and moving through my body. Rather, there is clownery: a profound act, a display of my whole body and its ability to generate an authentic form of energy through intentional performativity.
Regardless of when I’m actively performing poetry or not, I think I’m still like a court jester, tiptoeing the line of potentiality often forced between poetry and humor. Poetry and clownery, for me, work hand in hand, and my serious drive in both of these fields necessarily intersects to negate any powers that claim the authority to hierarchize words, sounds, and linguistic expression. The mothers, dogs, and clowns, as Bowie sings in “Life On Mars?”, have no need for such hegemony. Perhaps that’s the reason I cofounded RENESME LITERARY, a Twitter-based literary project based in the themes of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and, more broadly, in what our journal calls “abominations”—that is, any work of literary art that strays from and even defies mainstream publishing ideals, as well as the works pushed out of traditional venues in favor of maintaining the quiet of a status quo. I am excited to be part of Sundress Publications to uphold these exact values and support the great work of all writers, especially marginalized and oppressed writers.
Writing about myself is never going to get any easier, and this is no different. Nevertheless, my excitement to be part of Sundress Publications as an Editorial Intern this year eclipses those feelings of inadequacy. But then again, I think of with these words from Meat Loaf’s “Bad Attitude”: “Behind every man who has somethin’ to say / There’s a boy who had nothin’ to prove.” And I also remember the opening line of Jericho Brown’s “Duplex” that I’ve carried with me every day for years, especially for those moments when I think of negating my artistic worth due to my love of explicating gibberish and nonsense: “A poem is a gesture towards home.” A poem is a gesture towards home, and each writer looks towards that home through their writing, whether they know that home yet or not. However, I’m finding that home slowly but surely, and I look forward to continuing that journey through service to Sundress.
An ending manifesto: I am a clown, I am a poet, I am a poet clown. I’ll have them rolling in the aisles, and I’ll applaud in the aisles for them the same night.
Jillian A. Fantin (they/them) is a poet with roots in the American South and north central England. They are a 2021 Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Poet Fellow, a 2020 Jefferson County Memorial Project Research Fellow, and the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of RENESME LITERARY. Jillian received BAs in English and Political Science with an emphasis in Political Theory from a small university in Birmingham, Alabama, and an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus in Poetry and a graduate minor in Gender Studies from the University of Notre Dame. Their writing appears or is forthcoming in American Journal of Poetry, Spectra Poets, Barrelhouse, and poetry.onl, among others.