Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Jessica Goodfellow on Roofs and Repetition

Roofs appear rather frequently in the poems I write, even though I am quite uninformed and even rather uninterested in the mechanics and terminology of roofing. Wondering about this, I got an oversized index card and wrote on it “roofs.” Then I went looking through my old poems, searching for other recurring themes and images, jotting them down on my card. I could find motifs and patterns, but as with roofs, I couldn’t imagine why these words had appealed to me on multiple occasions. So I recalled the mathematician George Pólya who famously said, “If there is a problem you can’t solve, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it.”

Since I couldn’t solve the problem of unconscious repetition, I decided an easier problem was to push the use of repeated images to the limit: conscious repetition. My plan was to write a series of poems experimenting with this idea, to see what would happen, what I might learn. I made rules to encourage redundancy. They included: forming the title of each poem from two words, the first being the second word of the title of the previous poem, and the second being the first word of the subsequent poem’s title; consciously repeating the words I had noted plus other potent words that appeared as I went along; and judiciously using poetic form.

Here is what I thought might happen: use of repetition would illustrate the impossibility, in the long term, of unselfing the self. It’s a banal problem, a small idea, but what better way to express its dullness and insistence than through repetition?

Here is what did happen: my poems ran away from me as they often do. In only the second poem of the series, a voice emerged that was not mine. I thought it an aberration, but the unmistakable voice showed up again in the third poem. This persona is hijacking my series, I thought, and indeed it did. Then a second voice showed up, in a relationship with the first one (a second marriage—I soothed myself with the knowledge that some repetition was going on here). Suddenly an entire unbidden narrative sprang up behind the poems, a suggested story not about self but about two selves.

This is the first time I’ve ever written something in which form was not merely the vehicle, but also the content. William Matthews wrote, “. . . form and content . . . want to be each other.” In that case, they probably didn’t need my help. Maybe through conscious repetition I bound form and content up so tightly that there wasn’t anywhere for the unconscious to spin its mystery. Maybe that’s why the voices appeared, to form two sloping planes of a roof from under which the unconscious could peek out while remaining concealed.

Maybe I need to find an easier problem.


  1. Thank you for the Polya aphorism. As someone who regularly gets stuck on the big questions in my writing, I think I'm going to find it very helpful.
    Whenever I read your poems I'm struck by how different they are from anyone else's. That leaves me wondering who the triggering poets have been for you, and how your aesthetic has evolved--take that question any way you will.

  2. Jessica GoodfellowJanuary 5, 2009 at 12:55 AM

    Hi Lee,
    First, thanks very much for inviting me to participate in this forum.

    Triggering poets, hmmm. When I was in my teens and twenties, I was drawn to poetry of precision: Louise Glück, Mark Strand, Charles Wright, Jack Gilbert. The words resonated with the equations that I used to demarcate my worlds. It was a decade or two later, when I could not keep my competing worldviews from colliding, that I acknowledged enough chaos to appreciate poetry of extravagance: Valerie Wohlfeld, Corinne Lee, Cole Swensen. And then I found poets who were extravagantly precise: Stefi Weisburd, Allison Titus, Thom Satterlee, Ben Lerner. And I was comforted. However the poet who has made the biggest impression on me for at least a decade now is Anne Carson. I marvel at her fluidity, her shape-changing purity, the range of her scholarly eye.

    I have been told before that my poems are a bit unusual, and I’m never sure how to respond since the thinking behind them is just a continuation of the conversations I have with myself in my head all the time. Thus they seem fairly normal to me! If my poems are different from others, it is probably because I was educated in mathematics, economics, statistics. My vocabulary and syntax, I think, tend to reflect this hyper-rational training, and it may bump up against the irrationality I write about in unusual tensions. I read advice to beginning writers once (and I apologize because I cannot remember to whom to attribute it) that suggested that reading non-fiction is extremely important for creativity. That kind of tension.

    As for how my aesthetic has evolved, mostly it has been an inverted negative, a struggling against. Because I have a vocabulary full of problem-solving tools, everything tends to look like a problem to me, and I have spent the last couple of years trying not to write that way. I desire for my writing to be about the words, but the ideas keep getting in my way. I keep failing. And failing. And failing (hopefully) better.

    Thanks for your flexible question. Jessica

  3. Hi Jessica:

    Your prose explanation itself is like a poem! Perhaps the roof is an effort to contain all these various personae. Is that what you mean by the "sloping planes" allowing the voices to peek out? I think of a roof as more of a container than an opening, more of protection and cohesion even, than of concealment.

    It reminds me of all the various selves and identities we need to juggle when we live, love, and try to create in multiple countries!

    Looking forward to waving at you soon, from my rooftop in Osaka to yours in Kobe.

    Tracy Slater

  4. Hi Jessica:

    Your prose is as lovely as a poem.

    Perhaps the roofs are an effort to contain all the multiple voices and selves? Is that what you mean by the "sloping planes"? I think of a roof more as containment, as cohesion and security from chaos, than as concealment.

    But I think the issue of multiple selves and identities is a crucial one, especially for those of us who live, love, and try to create in countries and cultures different from our native ones. And so is learning how to contain it all.

    Looking forward to waving to you soon, from my rooftop in Osaka to yours in Kobe.

  5. Jessica GoodfellowJanuary 8, 2009 at 6:35 AM

    Hi Tracy,

    It’s so nice to hear from you. Thanks for your perceptive question.

    One of the things I was thinking when I mentioned two sloping planes of a roof is child psychologist D. W. Winnicott’s “. . . it is a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found.” For me, the roof can function as a symbol of these contradictory desires, since as you mentioned, a roof provides a haven from frightening elements both natural and human, giving us a place where we can let our selves be safely discovered and an address at which we can be found, yet is also is hiding us as it contains us, or anyway it can be used to hide us.

    Today I was listening to a podcast of an old interview of novelist Allen Kurzweil by radio host Michael Silverblatt. Kurzweil said, “Writing can be a method by which to understand. It can also be a method by which to ignore. In that it shares a quality with the act of reading.” We readers and writers certainly do our share of understanding and ignoring, sometimes simultaneously.

    As for multiple selves and identities for the intercultural individual, as you and I both are, a roof that could contain it all would be wonderful. Let me know if you find one!

    Take care, and thanks for your comment.


  6. Hi Jessica,

    I love both your prose and your poetry. Although I've never pursued it to the same extent, I've always thought that writing and learning languages, too, should be more of a logical than a creative matter. The mathematical approach seems like a lot less work (once you've got it figured out, the rest should follow), although there are limits to what you can do with it, I've found. Being creative and spare and logical is so much more work. I love the notion of your having a bunch of problem-solving tools with which to approach your poetry. It reminds me of something a psychiatrist once told me (long explanation) but the gist was that you needed the right tools to get along with life. (How do you expect to get along with all those old-fashioned tools, was what he said.) Having tools to deal with creativity might make it less work--just have to get the right ones. Or maybe it's better to take your idea of failing and eventually failing better.

  7. Jessica GoodfellowJanuary 11, 2009 at 7:10 AM

    Hi Deborah,

    It’s great to see you in this forum. Thanks for your comments. First of all, I can’t take credit for “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” That’s Samuel Beckett, and I apologize for not citing him when I echoed him.

    I’ve been looking around for another quote on and off all day and can’t find it, but the gist of it was that poetry is not about finding answers, but about asking the right questions. (If someone knows who said that and in which better words, please chime in!). One of the ways I feel like I fail in writing poems is in being too focused on solutions to problems, too easily satisfied by using my comfortable tools. James Baldwin said, "The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers." More revealing and concealing, more planes of roofs!

    I’ve always suspected that people who write poetry are engaged in an activity in which they expect to fail, or rather a task that they expect cannot be done. This seems to me to be part of the lure of poetry, its nobility. I’ve never actually asked anyone though. I’d love to know if anyone out there also feels that way.

    Thanks again for writing in. Jessica

  8. Hi again,
    Thanks for your response. I believe you are right about the nobility of poetry because it lays bare questions hidden by answers--and yet, when I read, I'm definitely looking for answers. So I have to sympathize with your natural tendency to want to provide them. And it may also be why I like your work! Life presents so many questions, and printed pages are where I look for comfort! As you know, I'm a translator, and it may be that poetry and translation are on opposite ends of the literary spectrum. Poetry offers tantalizing hints and clues whereas translation has got to get it down. A lot of times my job is to figure out what the writer intended to say and make sure that it is clearly stated. Back to the roofs, I'd say that pulling back one roof to reveal others is in the realm of, perhaps not providing answers, but getting the reader to look at elements that need to be considered to get a better answer.

  9. Jessica GoodfellowJanuary 12, 2009 at 9:07 PM

    Hi Deborah,
    Thanks for your comments. I’m interested in your contrast between the work of translation and the writing of poetry because I’ve always supposed that translation is closer to poetry than to prose composition due to the absolute focus on word choice. But I see your point about a good translation having fidelity to something outside itself (the original, and not just on the word-to-word level either) while a poem, I suppose, only has to have fidelity to itself. Well, I just made that up without thinking it through entirely. I hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me!
    I like your image of pulling back one roof to reveal others. It reminds me of the Kenneth Koch’s poem “One Train May Hide Another.”
    Thanks for your thought-provoking response. Jessica

  10. This is fascinating. It's very rare that I see a poetry exercise that I'd like to try, or to adapt for myself, but I'm going to think for a while about this one.

  11. Jessica,
    I agree; this is an experiment I'd like to try. I love the poems here and your discussion of them, and every time I read something by you I'm inspired.

  12. Hi Tad and Erin,

    Thanks for your comments. It's good to hear this might be useful for someone else. I'm working on poems 26 and 27 of the series and am not bored yet, something I didn't expect from a project on repetition.

    For those who don't know, Erin was the inaugural poet on this journal forum, so be sure to check out the archives and see her insightful postings. I love your work too, Erin!


  13. Dear Jessica,

    Thanks for the compliment. And I was glad to see your mention of "poems 26 and 27," because I'd been wondering how many poems there are in the series. Have you written other sets of poems that consciously began as series?

    Take care,

  14. Jessica GoodfellowJanuary 24, 2009 at 9:04 AM

    Hi Erin,

    Good to hear from you again. I have in the past written series of poems based on very general themes, such as math or water or weather. Like many people, I have to struggle to make time to write, and when I finally do sit down, facing a blank page can be daunting. However, if I have a theme in mind, I carry it around with me all the time, jotting down ideas and lines when they occur to me. Then when I sit down to write, I have somewhere to begin. So previously, writing with a theme or a series in mind was for a practical, rather than an aesthetic purpose.

    This is the first time that order of a series will matter as well, since the titles link the poems. Or perhaps I will abandon that order eventually, making this series resemble more organically the observations it arises from. Who knows. So many things to think about yet.

    Thanks for your question.


  15. Very, very stimulating blueprint of the creative process. It reminds me of a simple philosophy exercise where you sit in a quiet place for thirty minutes and call out your name as if you were trying to get the attention of someone (in this case, yourself) and eventually begin to experience the phenomenon of identity mayhem, the "What is I?"; a similarity I find in your example of your poetic voice getting away from you.

    And I may be reaching too far into the metaphorical vice grip, but your opening passage about roofs reminded me of Heidegger's essay "Building Dwelling Thinking", in which he writes, "Only if we were capable of dwelling, only then can we build...A craft which, itself sprung from dwelling, still uses its tools as frames and things...enough will have been gained if dwelling and building have become worthy of questioning and thus have remained worthy of thought."

  16. Jessica GoodfellowJanuary 28, 2009 at 8:57 AM

    Hi Nate,

    Thanks for your astute observations. In particular, thank you for directing me toward the Heidegger essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” of which I had been unaware. Reading through it, I am stunned by the number of keywords which match repeated words in my own series, including: space, being, dwelling, gods (deities), language, moon (sky). I had recently begun to think that in order to dwell, one had to have a sense of the self that requires a dwelling. Heidegger of course has a much more comprehensive explanation of the nature of dwelling, of being on this earth and under the sky, and building (roofing!), all examined through the effect of language on being. I had thought I was wandering around lost in these relationships, when in fact I follow a master of language and consciousness. Thank you for pointing me toward this essay.