Lori Desrosiers interviewed Jessamyn Smyth
on her chapbook, Kitsune, from Finishing Line Press, 2013.
LD: The power of these poems and the surprising intimacy of them is what struck me the most. The mythical fox image and the image of the woman possessed by the spirit of the man/fox is riveting. How did you come upon the idea for Kitsune in the first place?
JS: I’m glad the power and intimacy (vulnerability) are both present and accounted for—that’s the mix I wanted for this arc of poems.
The choice of kitsune as the organizing symbol came from a few different threads. At baseline, I’m a Classics geek and a lover of archetypes, which create a shared universal out of unshared specifics, right? For a long time, and very well, they’ve been creating catharsis we need.
Specifically for this book, the kitsune trickster figure was the right one because he is without malice, full of joy and playfulness, and rewarding to be around—but his bottomless hunger and fundamental inability to live in the relationships he creates with humans makes every kitsune story quite tragic, in the end. For both the fox-spirit and the human.
In some myths, the kitsune’s arc is toward enlightenment (the nine-tailed fox, etc.), but here, I was using the daily/hearth myths, which are more about passionate and impossible love, usually encountered on the road entirely by accident, and often with fatal consequences. I used primarily Japanese stories as the basis, with some influence from traditions of the American continent (which change so much from north to south!). I also intentionally opened up the possibility that the human woman, in response to the kitsune, reveals herself to also be a creature of ravenous hunger, perhaps even a stronger one—which brings in traces of the more Korean tradition of the kitsune being a woman who steals souls.
Really, none of this is necessary to know in reading the poems, but it’s what informs them.
I was interested in muddying the waters of how each of these lovers sees and feels the other, and also keeping a very household/daily/un-mythic level of reality present, so it resonates in a personal way with readers.
In bits and pieces over the last ten years, I’ve been working on two other short collections like this one: “Raven” and “Coyote.” Each is entirely different in tone and approach, and at some point the three will come together in a collection called “Tricksters Make Inconstant Lovers.” That’s what I call the larger manuscript right now, anyway. It’s still cooking. Who knows what it will be in the end.
LD: The reader who has had a relationship where the lover is ephemeral as the persona in the poems can relate to these on another, perhaps more visceral level. Is that what you had in mind when writing them? How did this evolve?
JS: Definitely. When I sent the manuscript to first readers, the primary question I asked was: is this working, and if so, what is it doing in you, viscerally?
All of them talked in various ways about how the manuscript reflected back to them their own hopes, longings, failures, and risks in a way that caused a resonant emotional reaction. One said it scrambled his synapses and left him sobbing without even being able to say why (except that it was useful sobbing). So I knew it was pressing the nerves I intended to press.
My intent was to create a powerful, skinless, and cathartic experience of the kind of love that’s more possession than anything sustainable, but to do this in a way that implicates all of us as shape-shifters of various kinds. We all change in/are changed by intimacy and love and passion—but when that fails, when the love is catastrophic for whatever reasons, we are also changed by that failure. For better or for worse? We don’t know until the next time, if there is one, that we risk ourselves.
LD: Your images in all the work I’ve read of yours so far are rich and imaginative. In “Carnivores” there is a wonderful cadence to the lines and the repetition of the melodic and frightening adjective “hot-copper” works so well. The domestic cat who ventures into the wild:
A sleek calico, momentarily escaped
from oppressive human comforts,
stalks a bag of hot-copper blood
and crunching bone
Then the twist to the image of the man whose spirit is of the wild:
of late, in dreams his flesh laid bare:
hot-copper expanses, fiddlehead curl
of muscle bunched at the edge.
There are so many great images I could point out in Kitsune. Where do you find your inspiration for them?
JS: Thank you! Really, my particular sensibility comes through being a sort of shape-shifter myself, I think. I feel much more at home (and more fully myself) in animal worlds than I do in human ones—but obviously, I’m stuck in this human condition: I tend to approach humans with a sort of anthropological eye, and the blank white page with an entirely animal presence.
“Carnivores” goes right at that, actually: the kitsune sees himself as prey, the human woman sees herself as feline. To her, ‘catching’ the fox spirit means ecstatic union that is wholly natural and mutually beneficial. To him, her hunger for union—particularly union that casts off the human disguises and lives in that undomesticated animal realm—looks like predation. In a way, this poem cycle is about what happens when two shape-shifters with very different mythic structures collide.
I think artists in general are various shades of this sort of liminal being; consciously alive to many different worlds (humans, animals, technology, the natural world, the dead/underworlds, the worlds of myth and archetype, etc.), but fully part of none of them.
It’s also possible I’m just a freak. (If so, I’m pretty comfortable with it these days.)
LD: Who do you consider your “poetry parents”? That is, whose work inspires you?
JS: So many. So many! I slept with a dictionary as my security-object before I could even read, so that hints at where my reading-inclinations were headed.
Anne Carson and Adrienne Rich make it more possible for me to be me both on the page and in this world. Robert Frost reminds me what home is. My grandpa Ted Morrison’s “Dream of Alcestis” in particular reminds me that wit doesn’t just mean smart, it also means funny and emotionally intelligent. Mary Oliver reminds me why I do not give up on this world and helps me keep going, open. So many prose writers, too: this is truly an impossible question for me. Single poems or novellas or essays have been known to change everything for me—EVERYTHING I TELL YOU!—one day, then change it back or change it to something entirely new the next. When I love someone’s work, I’m completely permeable to it—and get really obnoxious about it, too, thrusting Oliver de la Paz’s “Wolf Boy” or Cornelius Eady’s “The Gardenia” or Beatrice Hawley’s “Advice” or Rebecca Brown’s “Excerpts From a Family Medical Dictionary” or Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Fires” or Ej Levy’s “Love, In Theory” all up in their faces and shouting about short lives and compelling urgencies. In a reticent New Englander sort of way, of course.
LD: What is your writing process?
Whatever works on any given day.
Which is, generally: applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.
To order Kitsune go to https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product_info.php?cPath=4&products_id=1652