GennaRose NethercottThe Lumberjack's Dove
(Harper Collins, 2018)
The poet and writer GennaRose Nethercott radiates a worldview that brings out the magic in everyday life, a magic she commits gorgeously to the page in her debut poetry book The Lumberjack's Dove, a sweetly surreal tale of grief, loss, and storytelling itself. I experienced Nethercott's characteristic aura of enchantment firsthand when she was briefly living in Chicago a few years back. She was a member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poems on demand in public places. She had also been a poems-to-order poet well before that, and continues to be one, writing original work for strangers on her 1952 Hermes Rocket. When her strange and smartly hybrid narrative was selected as a winner of the National Poetry Series Prize by Louise Glück, I couldn't wait to read the work and talk to her about it. Thus, in early February, as Nethercott was in the midst of an intense nationwide tour, we corresponded over email about Glück's exacting skill as an editor, growing up as a professional child clown, and how fabulism and fairytales can help readers bridge the gap between the facts and the truth, as well as the power of using wonder and whimsy as "tools to dismantle the status quo."
Kathleen Rooney (RAIL): Of what does a typical day in the life of GennaRose Nethercott consist?
GennaRose Nethercott: I'm an uncommonly sedentary person. A heavy lounger. Lots of intellectual work, but mostly from bed. I'll sleep until around 10am, then drag my laptop into bed with me and chip away at the endless administrative tasks that go into being a working writer—answering emails, booking readings, submitting to residencies and fellowships, etc. I think often, people don't realize how much of being a writer involves, well, not writing. There are always more emails.
In the late afternoon, I'll venture into the world. I spend winters in New Orleans, summers in Southern Vermont, springs in Boston, and autumns slipping between the three. If it's summer, maybe I'll wander through the cemetery where two drowned boys from the 1700s are buried beneath a twin tombstone. If it's winter, I'll bike into the French Quarter to write poems-to-order on the street for tourists, requested topics ranging from lost loved ones to ferrets to burglary. Spring, I'll tuck into a coffee shop near Harvard Square to write. At night, I'm either up late writing, or watching a show, or out at a bar two-step dancing/playing pool/hanging with friends.
That said, right now is anomalous. I'm in the midst of an eight-month long book tour around the entire continental U.S. So my normal day involves much driving, podcast-listening, doing live readings, and falling asleep on couches in far-off cities.
RAIL: The Lumberjack's Dove is a wonderful hybrid, mostly in prose poetic blocks as opposed to lineated stanzas, and it arcs to tell an overall narrative, reading less as a collection of poems and more as a single long one. Did you know the story would need this structure when you began, or did it evolve? How and why did you decide to shape it this way?
Nethercott: I've always been drawn to hybridity in poetry and prose alike, playing with where the lines between them could be smudged or spiraled or jump-roped over. When I started writing Lumberjack, I had just read The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson for the first time, so I was struck by the question of what defines a poem versus a novel. Why does there have to be a differentiation? Part of it was an attempt to pay homage to folkloric influences—epic poems, balladry, oral tradition—which often hover in the liminal space between poetry and story. The little prose cube idea I straight up stole from my friend Julia Story's stunning book Post Moxie. And yes, Lumberjack did have the cube-form from the get-go. My experiment was to see if I might write these small, compact, independent moments that lived firmly within their own bodies, but would coalesce into a single cohesive narrative.
RAIL: How surprising was it to be one of the winners of the 2017 National Poetry Series? Had you been sending the manuscript out a lot? What thoughts or advice do you have for your fellow poets on sending out a manuscript, as well as on the benefits and drawbacks of the contest system?
Nethercott: When I first received the phone call from NPS, I definitely blacked out a little from shock. I immediately called my parents, my brother, and then every single one of my exes in a row. I don't know what I was thinking, I was delirious, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. They were all happy for me—but maybe a little confused as to why I had called them...
I'd been sending the book out for about a year at that point. I think I sent to 11 or 12 other contests, which is honestly pretty low. I got incredibly lucky. And it had actually been a finalist in both fiction and poetry competitions, so the only reason it's being advertised so strictly as poetry is because it happened to be picked up by a poetry contest.
My advice to other poets submitting work is straightforward and adamant: publishers will come up with enough reasons to reject your work. Don't do that work for them. That is to say—don't hold back from submitting just because you think a journal or contest or publisher is out of your league. Let them make that call. Just send it.
As for the pros and cons of the contest system, overall, contests absolutely help a lot of beautiful, deserving work find its way into the world. But they also neglect so many important writers. Right now, I think the weight of a poet's success and visibility leans too heavily on contests. Let's get poets paid fairly, published widely, and celebrated bountifully whether or not they win a competition. Then we can talk about handing out ribbons. It's lovely to win a prize, but shouldn't be a requirement for being a published poet.
RAIL: Louise Glück, who selected the manuscript, writes a heck of a brilliant introduction, saying, among other things, that The Lumberjack's Dove "is, in its manner, a folktale; it is also a meditation on attachment, on loss, on transformation. Like its less humble relatives, myth and parable, it is pithy, magical, its many insights, its cautions and clarifications unfolding in a chain of brief scenes and koan-like revelations." She provides a welcoming point of entry and sets readers up to encounter the project fruitfully. Are you a fan of her work and was she an influence at all? What other authors and traditions were you drawing on as inspiration?
Nethercott: Louise is incredible—and it was an unbelievable gift to have her act as not only the selecting judge for Lumberjack, but an editor as well. I sat at her kitchen table every other week for three months as we discussed and honed the book. I'd bring her strawberries and she'd kill my darlings. It was a beautiful arrangement. She's brutal and brilliant and exacting, and has a keen eye for truth.
I'll tell you a dumb story that makes me endlessly giddy—I used to say that my one hope for The Lumberjack's Dove (a story about a man who chops off his hand with an axe) is that it would someday be reviewed by a loathsome critic who would accuse the book of being "heavy handed." It was a dreadful pun. I was into it. A few years later, I'm going through a printed draft of the manuscript which Louise has scribbled notes all over. I reach one page where a segment is underlined dramatically in red ink, and off in the margin it says, in all caps "HEAVY HANDED!!" I was like, oh my god, this is it, I've made it.
The Lumberjack's Dove was born from a blend of traditional folkloric tropes, the mythic woodlands of Vermont, shape shifting lore, the iconic fallacy of "Americana," and overall, a sensation of loss, longing, and stubbornness to move on. As with almost all my work, it's inspired largely by my lifelong struggle to understand when to hold on, when to let go, and how to know the difference. When does longing cross into entitlement? How much of longing is even about the longed-for, rather than a flaw in the self? Does reaching for the lost inevitably destroy or damage that which is yearned for?
I'm endlessly indebted to the labors of Kelly Link, Angela Carter, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Ray Bradbury, and other fantasist short fiction writers. It may seem odd that as a poet, I read primarily short fiction. But whatever, that's just what I'm into.
RAIL: You are a hardcore road warrior when it comes to touring, covering thousands of miles and dozens of cities, living out of your car and teaming up with collaborators. How did you come to embrace that geographically ambitious approach? What do you most enjoy about traveling in support of a book, and what are the biggest challenges?
Nethercott: Actually, two days ago, my car was rear-ended and destroyed while I was inside. It's strange, to have your whole life dependent on an object that can be yanked from you in an instant. I'm trying to tell myself it was just a tool, a thing… but there's an intense anthropomorphic, emotional bond with a vehicle that carries you through living, through space. Alas, hazards of the road…
Being in motion has always been part of my creative work, ever since I was young. I grew up as a professional child clown, touring with the family act—but that's another story altogether. It's funny, people often say to me, "You're so brave, to be traveling by yourself, to be spending so much time on the road!" And I'm never sure how to respond to that, because it seems so natural to me. For one, no one would tell a man traveling alone that he was "so brave." I think there's a deep-rooted sexism in being surprised that an adult woman can operate in the world alone. It's infantilizing.
Beyond that, though, it seems braver to me to be static. To commit to the same structure, day after day. That's what freaks me out. Maybe it's cowardly of me. But I thrive on the uncertainty of transience, of waking up with no idea what will come next. And to be doing so in support of my book feels like an act of service to an art I believe in. It gives me a chance to actually connect with the people who are reading my work, to spark small moments of human connection. I write in intense isolation. Touring allows me to emerge, to reach out, to connect. It lets me journey with my poetry, as opposed to sending it away like a letter. That said, I'm exhausted 100 percent of the time. And oh boy do I miss having my own bed…
RAIL: If people were not looking carefully, The Lumberjack's Dove might, at first glance,seem too cute by half—the kind of lowkey witchy/spiritual accessory you could scoop up on a table at Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie. But if you engage with it, you realize it's much deeper than that, and just because it traffics deliberately in wonder and whimsy and aims to make the reader marvel doesn't mean it's unserious. In fact, Glück also says, "Serious art does not need to be weighty or explicitly topical. It can be, as it is here, apparently as light as a feather." I'm intrigued by the need people have in all times and cultures for stories, not necessarily as "escapism," but as a way to keep the imagination fed and alive and able to see lighter alternatives to the darkness that besets them. How important are wonder and the ability to marvel to your work and to your worldview? What do you think we need to sustain us in what can feel like pretty dark times?
Nethercott: I don't actually view my work as particularly fantastical—that is, magical thinking is such a large part of how I experience personhood that to me, fabulism and fairytales seem closer to reality than realism does. I've always found "realism" to be a problematic term—it assumes that there is one single, objective reality. Whose reality? All too often, what is deemed "reality" simply represents the experiences of those in power. If you're in power, you get to choose the cultural narrative. And to be a marginalized person living in a society that isn't designed for you—that's surrealism. There's a massive amount of dissonance there, in which your own experience isn't reflected in the culture and media around you. It makes it all the more vital to keep telling stories in your own voice.
For me, the power of the magical, the supernatural, is in its ability to mend that dissonance. It allows for the external world a character inhabits (and laws of logic therein) to match that character's internal landscape. In the case of The Lumberjack's Dove, when a person loses something dear to them, it shape-shifts into a form so unrecognizable, it becomes a new entity. Lumberjack is left longing for something that no longer exists, nor has anything to do with him, anymore. Loss and grief do feel like a limb that has been severed. The sensation is hyperbolic. That feels True. It may not be the facts (Do hands turn into doves? Not that I've seen), but it is the Truth.
It's important to question why we consider the fantastical to be frivolous in the first place. I think it reflects on capitalism, in which a person's worth is based on productivity. To dwell on whimsy is not financially productive, so it's deemed trivial, unimportant. It reflects on the fallacy of a single, unified human experience—contingent on fitting into rules set by those in power. It reflects upon how we experience time, and memory, and self. Especially now, when we as a country are being fed racist, fascistic ideals being disguised as fact, it's all the more essential to question the narratives that are presented as "reality."
So yes, "wonder" and "whimsy" are important ways of accessing levity in times of darkness—but more importantly, they're tools to dismantle the status quo. To question if the reality we are being fed is reality at all. And to provide alternatives to the way things are—to show us the way things could be.