Interview with Jenn Shapland
by Elizabeth DeMeo
I find it refreshing that your work deals so explicitly with the personal. In the case of “Google Your Feelings,” for instance, you’re quite upfront in your discussion of your own anxiety. Do you find yourself drawing lines between what you’re willing and unwilling to share with readers, or is writing a place for you where nothing is off the table?
Things that are truly off the table are so far off the table I can't even see them, I don't even know what they are. Maybe someday I will. But I often gravitate toward subjects that make me uncomfortable, or that push social boundaries of some kind in writing about them. I've written about mental health a few times—my own anxiety in several pieces, depression and suicide in my hometown in "The Tracks." The hardest part of writing about mental health doesn't have to do with disclosure for me. It's not about something feeling too personal. Rather, it's a struggle to find language to communicate my own experience and to interpret others' behavior. This struggle to put nebulous or elusive things into words is in large part why I write.
Plus, the world could use more writing by women from inside their lives. I think that personal writing, if by personal writing we mean writing explicitly about oneself and writing about one's own feelings, can be important, especially within a culture obsessed with self-image. Writing about myself can be an antidote to how it feels to me to perform a self on social media or in public settings. It's a kind of exposure in the interest of communicating something other than "hey, check me out!" But any kind of writing performs a self, and exposes one too.
Your work often feels, to me, like a refuge in the sense that it creates spaces to discuss topics women are frequently told to keep quiet about, such as our bodies in “My Vaginas and the Vaginas of My Friends,” and violence and harassment in “Maybe I Just Needed to Kill.” Do you think there’s a reason you gravitate towards these kinds of spaces as a writer? Has this always been the case?
I like the idea of writing as a refuge, which is what reading has always been for me. I come from pretty repressed, Midwestern, Catholic territory, and I guess my writing is, for now, a reaction to that. I write from a need to speak, to name and describe things that have been at some point difficult for me to talk about, and things that just aren’t talked about. In the vagina essay (what shorthand!), I wanted to bring conversations between women out into the open, and to demystify the space of the doctor's office a bit. I feel like women don't have a lot of language or space to talk about their bodies on their own terms, and I wrote that piece, in part, because I thought it might make some space. And it has. I've read that piece at a few readings, and a lot of women come up to me afterwards to share their stories. Vagina stories. I never know what to say so I just listen. In the gun essay, I wanted to talk about some history that I haven't had another outlet for, a report from the field of academic sexual harassment. But I also wanted to consider my own anger and feeling of powerlessness, and to connect it to what I see as other public expressions of those feelings that take the form of violence.
To write about things that are difficult to talk about, or that don't have a place to be talked about, means that each of these pieces has been a relief to write, and a bit scary to publish. But each time I publish on a difficult topic, I hear from people who make it clear to me the piece has helped them cope, or speak, or understand. So then I feel okay. Though I will also say that publishing is never as fun for me as writing. Once you write something down, you're always going to kind of regret it.
In “Maybe I Just Needed to Kill,” you write, “I was confused about graduate school and what I was doing there, what kind of validation I was seeking, and somewhere deep down I just wanted to be writing.” I know many writers in graduate programs who feel this way, and I also know many people on college campuses who are frustrated by the gun culture you describe in the aforementioned piece. How has being a part of campus culture and academia changed your writing?
I learned a lot about writing while I was a graduate student: how to begin and to finish a long term project, how to work with other writers and advisors, how to read/speak in front of people. I rely on all of these skills now, as I finish my first book and teach my first nonfiction workshop at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Academia is also where my writing first started happening. I started writing about my work as an intern at the Ransom Center, a humanities archive in Austin, because I found interacting with other people's papers and belongings so intimate and odd. I wanted to communicate something about the experience, but I deeply loathed academic writing and couldn’t conceive of a way to say what I wanted to say within the confines of that genre. I basically wrote my way out of academia.
As a grad student, I also learned a lot about what it means to work for a large institution (corporation) that does not have your own interests or needs in mind, and I learned about the difficulty of speaking back or out against it from within. I learned that many people who land permanent positions in institutions like the university have ambitions to work against or to change the system, but even the most radical among them reach a point of kind of just participating in it and reinforcing it. So the big thing I learned from academia was that I didn't really want to be a part of it in a permanent way, and I didn't want it to be the grounds for my identity. I'm very happy teaching as an adjunct, where I have freedom to teach without being touched by departmental politics or expectations. And I can write whatever the hell I want. There are moments (like at the grocery store checkout counter, sweating about my debit card balance) when I can see the appeal of a job with a salary and benefits, and if you ask me ten years from now my answer may change. But for now, I'm a contented freelancer.
There’s a kind of threading throughout your writing that I adore. You engage with the work and lives of Eileen Myles, Gertrude Stein, and Agnes Martin to name a few, which reminds me of a less formalized version of what Maggie Nelson does in The Argonauts. Though I’ve always thought of this kind of writing as opening the door to a wider literary conversation, I’m starting to also think of it as a line of defense, a linking of arms amongst writers whose subject matter has traditionally been marginalized or silenced. Do you view your references to others and their work in these ways, or differently? Why is this kind of engagement important?
I don't know if I've ever thought of it as linking arms, though I do like the idea of forming alliances through words. Would any of those writers or artists link arms with me? Who knows! But I like to invite voices and ideas into the room of my writing. It helps me connect the threads of my own ideas through what I read (and a writer is so much the product of what she reads/has read). And it allows me to draw attention to certain voices and works that have been important to me, in the hopes that someone else who needs/wants them might find their way to them. The syllabus for the workshop I'm teaching is really just a list of things that I have read and loved, or been challenged by, or been baffled by, or been surprised by. I made them read Audre Lorde aloud on the first day, my heart exploded a little. They were probably bored. The fact that the list consists of mostly women and/or queers and/or people of color indicates my own allegiances as much as it indicates what I read and what I like/am drawn to.
On a related note, you’ve written in Tin House about building a lesbian library in New Mexico, a place many lesbian artists have historically travelled to in search of a sense of community. “Of course,” you note, “[this travel is] a largely invisible history, as lesbian histories tend to be, so what if we could follow this path while also making it public?” In this vein, do you find it difficult to acknowledge those who have come before you while at the same time carving a new place for yourself as an artist? Alternately, are these aims, in fact, complementary?
This is a funny question to answer right now, as I'm currently housesitting for a fabulous New Mexico lesbian artist and feel daily the power of her work and her mind around me. Since moving to New Mexico, I have experienced firsthand the alchemical might of connections between writers, artists, and thinkers who have gravitated to a place, in the past and present. I'm hoping to do some research on women writers and artists and their homes in New Mexico, because when something excites me research is the way I express that love. I feel at home here, maybe for the first time, among women who are pursuing creative work. And I feel pleasantly adrift from any kind of literary "scene." I have far more friends who are visual artists here than writers, and I can move through the world without feeling much need to present myself as a particular kind of writer.
Your willingness to try various forms—as in your questions for personal effects in Electric Lit, for example—is one of the qualities that first drew me to your work. Is there a particular form of writing that you feel is your home or default mode, or have you always felt comfortable experimenting?
It doesn't strike me as experimental in the least. I'm just feeling my way through. When I started writing, I didn't know what I was writing. Could this be nonfiction? Did this count? For the book I just finished, I wrote these teeny short chapters—I didn't know they were chapters or part of a book when I started writing them—in response to specific objects and encounters, and then arranged and rearranged them until they helped tell a story about what it was like to be Carson McCullers, using my own life as a sort of medium. In essays like the Agnes Martin piece, a list helped constrain me. I felt with that piece like I could have written so much, written forever, so it was important to rein myself in so that I could prioritize. I often work with short sections or headings, and I tend to write short in general, to strive for compression or distillation of an idea or experience. Maggie Nelson has a line about "rinsing" her sentences that really hits home with my revision process.
“Consider,” you write in a blog post on Carson McCullers’ personal style, “Leo Tolstoy’s tunic and beard, Gertrude Stein’s long vests and cropped hair, David Foster Wallace’s bandana, Flannery O’Connor’s cat-eye glasses . . . personal style doesn’t just bring the writing to life. It makes the writer more human and more of a character all her own.” I feel I now have to ask, especially since I know you design and make clothing for Agnes, how your own style feeds into the work that you do as a writer. In what ways are the two in conversation?
Clothes are more a part of my writing than I ever anticipated. I often say that it was her clothes, which I cataloged, that drew me to the Carson McCullers project in the first place. Style is so important for many people's queer identity formation, my own included, and I ended up writing a lot about this in the book. Making clothes happened sort of by accident. I was writing my dissertation and kind of miserable because I never felt like anything was ever finished. I just kept writing, kept revising. So I started sewing, which I learned to do as a kid in a home ec class, we made flannel boxer shorts (mine had snoozing ducks on them). Almost immediately I stopped using patterns, which are usually based on strict gender binaries and body shapes, and started cutting pieces freehand. It turned out I had a lot of ideas about clothes and their construction, despite not having any kind of professional background. I wanted to change the way I felt in my clothes, more than I wanted to look a certain way. My friends saw the things I made and suddenly everybody wanted a caftan. I made a website and Agnes was born. The part I never foresaw is that now, I split my time about 50/50 between writing and sewing most days. I write in the morning, and I make caftans in the afternoon. Which has led me to think about what my sewing is—Is it an arts and crafts project? A kind of art? A business? A hobby? I don't have an answer yet, but I really enjoy it, I love picking fabrics and imagining new pieces, and I love making clothing for people of any/all genders.
What’s next for you?
I spent the summer revising The Autobiography of Carson McCullers. I just sent my agent what I hope is the final edit. Now I'm in a period of transition, which is SO not my happy place. I feel like I've just washed up on shore, or let's make this a lake, I’m more at home in lakes. I just washed up on a sandbar or something, and I'm sort of wading, keeping my feet wet, but no longer swimming or treading deep water like I have been for several years with the book and with my dissertation before that. It's been a hot summer in New Mexico, so I've been feeling the water metaphors for writing. I have a Jo Ann Beard quote pinned above my desk at home, she's talking about what it feels like to her to be writing: "When I finally sit down, I spend a lot of time trying to sink down into the dream of it and then stay there. It’s like walking on the bottom of the ocean, all these incredible creatures float past, neon and scary, so absorbing, but the surface is always calling." These days I'm putting together a collection of essays, I write regularly for a local arts magazine called THE, and I'm percolating a number of new projects that have yet to take shape. I'm dipping my toes in.
JENN SHAPLAND is a nonfiction writer living in New Mexico. Her work won a 2017 Pushcart Prize and has been published in Tin House, THE Magazine, Pastelegram, The Lifted Brow, and Electric Literature. She teaches in the Creative Writing department at the Institute of American Indian Arts and she designs and makes clothing for Agnes.
ELIZABETH DEMEO is Nonfiction Editor and Book Reviews Editor of The Arkansas International and MFA candidate in the Program in Creative Writing & Translation at the University of Arkansas.