The HyperTexts

Jennifer Reeser Interview with Michael R. Burch

Jennifer Reeser has published four collections of poetry, including An Alabaster Flask, winner of the Word Press First Book Prize, 2003, which X. J. Kennedy, poet and former editor of The Paris Review, said in a review "...ought to have been a candidate for a Pulitzer." Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Web a number of times by different journals. She has won The New England Prize, The Lyric Memorial Prize, and multiple awards from The World Order of Narrative and Formalist Poets. Her writing has been featured on the World Wide Web editions of POETRY, Verse Daily, Goodreads and E-verse Radio, and has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Longman's college text, An Introduction to Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia and X. J. Kennedy. Her translations of Anna Akhmatova, approved by Akhmatova's heir and authorized by FTM Agency, Moscow, Russia, appear in Poets Translate Poets: A Hudson Review Anthology. She has contributed poems, scholarly articles and translations of French and Russian literature to publications which include POETRY, The Hudson Review, Light Quarterly, The Formalist, Mezzo Cammin, the Rockford Institute's Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, First Things, and The National Review. Her verse and vocals have been set to music by classical/art song composer Lori Laitman and the American recording artist Briareus. She is a mentor on the faculty for the West Chester Poetry Conference, the nation's largest annual conference on poetry. She is the former assistant editor of Iambs & Trochees, and lives amid the bayous of southern Louisiana with her husband and children. Her latest book, The Lalaurie Horror, an epic poem written in terza rima, debuted on Amazon's poetry bestseller charts. The interview below was conducted by Michael R. Burch, the editor of The HyperTexts, shortly after the book made its initial big splash.

MB: Jennifer, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview with us. Please tell our readers what you've been up to recently, and about your new book, The Lalaurie Horror, which I understand is on Amazon's best-seller lists in the poetry category.

JR: Yes, upon its release, both print and electronic editions of the book went to the top positions for Epic New Releases at Amazon Books, and into the Top Twenty for overall poetry sales in New Releases. The Kindle edition at present is a Top Ten Bestseller in the category of Epic Poetry, and the book has been added to Amazon's list of Top 100 Bestsellers for the total Book Category, both print and electronic, in Epic Poetry—all positions in which my book remains, going into its second week now after release.

(As of the date this interview was published, October 1, 2013, Jennifer's book continued to do well, with the following rankings on Amazon: #1 Bestselling new eBook in Kindle Store, Epic Poetry category; #2 Bestselling new paperback in Epic Poetry; #3 Bestselling new title in Epic Poetry, print and electronic stores combined; #19 Bestselling eBook in Kindle store, Epic Poetry category; #27 Bestselling new eBook in Poetry genre, overall; #62 Bestselling new paperback in Poetry, overall.)

The book is a fifteen-thousand-word work of fiction, set in present-day New Orleans, but based on events which took place in the nineteenth century. Delphine Lalaurie was a wealthy, beautiful Creole socialite who was found to be torturing slaves in her French Quarter mansion. The mansion is now considered to be one of the most beautiful homes in the United States. It was recently in the possession of Nicolas Cage, the Hollywood actor. It is also reputed to be the most haunted house in the Big Easy. This story is a literary "ghost tour" through the Lalaurie mansion with various historical and mythical characters as guides, exploring much of New Orleans's unique culture and history, as well as matters of spiritual significance, in terms of truth, beauty and art, I hope.

So with that project reaching fulfillment, I am taking a vacation from my own poetry, to focus on others. First of all, I have been devoting the bulk of my professional efforts to my French and Russian translations. The Hudson Review has recently released an anthology containing my Akhmatova translations, along with much brilliant work from the journal's history, so I am engaged in the promotion of that book. My husband is a working writer, with an upcoming invitation to participate in the state's festival for authors, and I am serving as his "secretary" of sorts. Also I am currently involved in judging a global contest for poets. It's important to me, to give back to the community, so I try to strike a balance between my own interests, and those of humanity at large.

MB: Jennifer, I'm glad to hear that you're giving back to the larger poetic community. That's something I've been doing myself, for the last two decades, through The HyperTexts.

My wife Beth and I visited New Orleans a few years ago. For such a lively city, it certainly has a ghostly atmosphere. What other American city has so many cemeteries, graves and haunted buildings as tourist attractions? Other than the city itself and its rich history and culture, did you have other influences? Do I detect notes of Dante, Dickens and Ann Rice in your poem, or is that just my imagination?

JR: Years ago, I overheard a tour guide in the French Quarter say to his group, "I am often asked why New Orleans is regarded as the most haunted city in the United States. I tell them the reason is, no one ever wants to leave New Orleans."

I would certainly like to think those authors have left their mark on my writing. I began writing in earnest around the age of ten to twelve years old, when the bulk of my authorial character formed, although honestly I've been writing for so long now that I can't remember exactly when I started! But in high school, I became devoted to Anne Rice's work, and did, indeed, absorb much of her style and texture, I think. Dickens, too, was an influence—greatly influential as regards intricacies of plot and complexity, but even more-so, as far as his concerns for social justice, and criticisms of human injustice, something which is a component of this particular book. Dante—what can I say? My whole framework, in the form of terza rima, is a tribute to him, with allusions and references to his masterpiece. My protagonist/narrator does not have the luxury of a tangible Virgil for the journey, but through the writing, I as the author had an invisible, intellectual leader in Alighieri.

MB: It's interesting that I picked up on those influences when I read Canto VIII, which you allowed THT to publish, although Dante was rather obvious due to the terza rima cantos. How about the ghosts themselves, as influences? Have you experienced anything unusual during the process of writing and publishing the book?

JR: Not a thing, Mike. Not so much as a nightmare. I am the dullest person when it comes to paranormal phenomena.

MB: I'm glad to hear that spooks aren't haunting your dreams! Please tell me your thoughts and feelings about Dickens. He and William Blake are heroes of mine, because I believe they helped change English and western culture in important ways: for instance, by helping to end what was effectively child slave labor.

JR: By nature, I approach and interpret literature in an intuitive, symbolic way, rather than in a sensory, literal fashion (something I must force myself towards, in writing to speak to a mostly-sensory, literal world). What appeals to me best in Dickens is the warmth of his tones. He will always be the quintessential "Christmas" writer to me, the one to whom I return in the dead of winter to survive the cold. Also, I relate to his characters more fully than I relate to the characters of virtually any other writer—with the possible exception of Hans Christian Andersen—although I would not necessarily say his novels are my favorites, of all writers. The waifs, the strays, the dispossessed, ignored, and the poor. For example, I can remember as a child in grade school, routinely being "banished" to a dank, dim alcove off the main classroom of an old, rundown building, to work independently from the other children, for whatever reason. This was not an isolated occurrence, but the type of thing that recurs through my life. In The Lalaurie Horror, in fact, I have intrajected into my protagonist/narrator this peculiar outcast quality. I think you may have felt that, whether consciously or unconsciously, in your astute recognition of Dickens's influence.

MB: Jennifer, we have at least two things in common, since in grade school I too felt like an outcast and was placed in a reading group of one (because I was ahead of my classmates, already reading at a college level).

I did think of Dickens almost immediately when I started reading your poem. And he certainly seems like a good influence to me: warm and wise. One might venture that his novella A Christmas Carol was written from the standpoint of an angel confronting man's dark side by exposing it, in the hope that readers might recognize themselves and choose to change. How much did his ghosts influence your story?

JR: I am sure that subliminally, they were likely an enormous influence, though I did not have his writings in mind, while composing the story, as far as the creation of character. I very much desired to reflect in my characterizations those distinct ghosts one might encounter through a Catholic and voodoo world view: French, Hispanic, African and Haitian in heritage, rather than Anglo-Saxon.

MB: I was reminded of Morley's ghost, the first of Dickens' to appear. But your ghosts certainly had different "colorings."

How did religion inform your poem? I find it fascinating (and disturbing) that so many Christians believe in hell and/or purgatory, and yet the Hebrew prophets never mentioned anything about suffering after death, much less a place like hell. One would think that if God was speaking through the prophets and there was such a place, he would have mentioned something about it to someone. Your ghosts seem to exist in hell or purgatory or limbo. Is this pure imagination on your part, or did religion enter in?

JR: Pathos ought to be the poet's concern. In my bag of craftsman's maxims is, "Religion saves men's souls; poetry makes them worth saving." There are characters who exist in the book apart from the ghosts. The first figure introduced, the tour guide, in fact, is himself a scientist and skeptic, postulating upon the law of conservation of energy and how it might apply to the question of a possible afterlife. My ghosts exist in a house—not hell, purgatory, or limbo. As far as religious prejudice might enter the picture, my attitude as writer was that of T. S. Eliot: "O Lord, teach us to care, and not to care."

MB: I like those quotes. I also like this one by Albert Camus, "How can one live without grace? One has to do what Christianity never did: be concerned with the damned." If I believed in hell, I would be very concerned about the damned. For instance, how could I bring a child into the world, if the child might end up in hell? I think that's a very tricky question for Christianity. Do you think a poem like yours raises the question of whether we should still be having children at this stage in our evolution? What if they become like your ghosts, if there is an afterlife?

JR: I think my poem will raise questions for some, for others, it will merely entertain.

MB: I think the same could be said of Dante, Milton and Dickens, so you're in good company! While there is absolutely nothing wrong with entertaining people, do you have higher goals for your book? What would be a best-case scenario for you as the author?

JR: Delighted you asked! It would be more than enough for me, to feel that I have achieved the "limits of art." This may not be the case among all poets, but as for me, I feel the poet's calling is a high calling, however it achieves realization, whether in the common or the cultured. My dream would be to see my work become a classic, a model of truth and beauty. But my ultimate desire is two-fold. Not only would I like to see the piece achieve immortality, but that it would serve as a tribute to my home, a record of us here to serve as a testament. So much has arisen from my psyche, since the near-fatal blows which were dealt us several years ago, first by Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, then the ruinous Rita, which followed shortly afterward to erase the other half of the state; compounded then by the most massive environmental disaster in United States history, the Macondo Well Blowout which poisoned the Gulf waters off our coast. One night, you go to bed, trusting everything will be as it was when you wake. Then you wake to find it gone. My greatest happiness would be in knowing I had created an enduring legacy worthy of this rich, rich culture.

MB: Jennifer, those certainly seem like worthy goals to me, and I wish you all the success in the world!

JR: Mike, I am so grateful for the generous wishes, and the warm invitation to appear here on your excellent site.  Thank you, and thanks to the readers who have persevered to the end of this interview. God bless you.
The Lalaurie Horror
Canto VIII

Though I had separated from the party,
through antique walls, I heard our guide's sure strains,
"Half Irish, and half French, born a 'Macarty...'"
My revenant resumed: "Five hurricanes
did I survive—the first, when I was seven,
then City Hall lost all its windowpanes
after the third storm, in 1811;
twelve willows tossed in one, and hellish hail.
Say, poet, why did I not go to Heaven
then? Why?  To have vanished in a gale
without one blot upon my name, young, damp,
lauding those levees strong enough to fail?"
As though a fashion model down a ramp,
the entity moved on, and with a palm
without one callous, bent to grasp a lamp
set on a table laid with lemon balm,
decorative peppers, jars of creeping jenny —
calm as the eye of a hurricane is calm.
I saw it was one lantern among many
placed between vines and vases of verbena —
polished and bright and copper as a penny,
nearly to an ethereal patina.
With an expression regal and depraved,
she said, "I call this hurricane lamp, 'Katrina.'"
Its wick was warped, misshapen, base engraved
with scroll motifs, commingling with a medley
of twisted figures—rigid and enslaved.
Above its wick, a ripple flickered redly,
imprisoned in a chimney red as blood.
"Here is my darling—cruellest and most deadly.
This is my treasure which withstood a flood
of fifteen feet in 1812. The levee
had been destroyed, and everything turned mud.
Here—hold her in your hand, and feel how heavy.
But not for long. I want you to behold
the rest of my collection, this brass bevy
of beauties in my hall—the finest sold
in France or anywhere, each with a name
that will, except for hers, remain untold.
So much alike, and yet, none is the same.
I think to find the essence of a thing
is what I wanted, even more than fame."
Her free hand waved, embellished by a ring.
"You see, I am the consummate collector —
my taxidermy, in the far right wing..."
Had I provided an excessive vector
for garrulousness, withholding word and screed
alike which might invalidate her specter?
Katrina's chimney glass began to bleed,
my ghost's green wrist veins spreading in the glow
invasively as alligator weed.
Without a sound, the air began to blow
around and over me, in slender draughts;
across and under me, behind, below
my lips and chin—almost as if the hafts
of unseen sculptors' knives, intent to trace
anew, in some pursuit of perfect crafts,
the hollows, curves and outlines of my face.
Malevolent, mysterious, the jets
enclosed me—and I welcomed their embrace.
The papered walls, of roses and rosettes,
alongside passing slowly, grew in age,
with scenes of titillating, vague toilettes,
hung with framed, oval, profile silhouettes.

Jennifer Reeser's epic ghost story, written in terza rima cantos, can be purchased here: The Lalaurie Horror. To read more of her poetry, you can click on her hyperlinked name at the top of this page.

The HyperTexts