At the beginning of the year, I stumbled upon the work of poet Jennifer Willoughby while scrolling through 'Poetry Twitter' late one night. The poem was 'This Year Has My Name on It' (thank you, Dalton Day) and it instantly grabbed my attention, begging me to pick up her debut book Beautiful Zero at the library the next day. I read through her only available collection (released back in 2015 via Milkweed Editions) in one sitting and it was a hypnotic experience that transported me far away from my ergonomically sound computer chair. Fast-paced, whimsical, hallucinatory, and with a voice both powerful and restless, I felt it necessary to reach out to Willoughby and learn more about her poetry, her career as a freelance copywriter, and, yes, a writing prompt involving penguins.
Your first (and only) book was released in 2015. How long had you been working on it prior to having the manuscript accepted?
Roughly five years. I started "Kaiser Variations" sequence in the summer of 2010, and they felt like the right kind of spine for the book, a cinematic middle to hang the rest of it on.
Before Beautiful Zero, did you have other various manuscripts and collections that were scrapped, or was Beautiful Zero your first attempt at something larger?
Yes. And no. I had a grad school leftover, but only one poem (Guess which? A Hundred Efforts Have Been Made!) from it actually made it into BZ. Since I didn’t have a big theme for the book, I just kept writing, adding and cutting poems as I went. I’m a ruthless cutter. I was developing a better sense of my voice and style, and I ultimately wanted a book that felt coherent in/true to that voice.
What have you been working on since the book's release?
A new book! Of poems! Just the regular kind, nothing fancy. I WISH it were a novel, I love the power of a novel to blot out everything but itself. Poems can do that, but only for a nanosecond.
I read on your website that you are a freelance copywriter. Is it difficult to split time between a poetic voice and a more professional voice? Do you ever find your poetry seeping into your copywriting and/or vice versa?
The sheer amount of stuff I write about professionally (false eyelashes, hearing aids, American history, baroque song cycles, squeaky toys ) to so many different audiences (working moms, stay at home moms, dog moms, cat moms, non-moms, doctors, students, boozers, cooks, gamers, the bored, the lonely, the socially engaged, et. al) has helped me a.) learn bushels of information about things I would otherwise have no knowledge of; and b.) experiment with voices and my imagination. You’d be surprised how often a client will say, “I don’t know, can’t you just make something up?” Why yes. Yes I can. So this a meandering way of saying I think it all runs together somehow. Copywriting is so good at teaching my poet self brevity and specificity, while poetry skills like how to make words sonically pleasing and how to achieve an emotional effect have come in extra-handy with copywriting.
I was truly drawn to your poem "Fun House II", in particular the line(s): "Because I dreamed, I was allowed my wounds. / Maybe we found a way to survive. With fishhooks." This piece really packs a punch and jabs with each quick sentence. I love the feeling of being hurried along here. How do you manage your pacing?
Thank you! That’s one of my favorites, too. I wrote the Fun House poems on two consecutive Halloweens, I wanted to write a poem that FELT horror movie-ish, the sense of building inexorable dread, and I was trying to create that breathless/choked-out/freaked out voice of someone who managed to survive something grisly.
Your poetry often seems restless and energized. Is this often how you feel in your day-to-day life?
Yes. But also languid and confused.
How do you fill a blank sheet of paper? Do you practice automatic writing or do you usually have an idea/concept before you press down on the pen?
Well, typically nothing as fully formed as an idea, usually an image or phrase that’s stuck in my head. I try not to think about where I want it to go, that ruins it. My conscious and subconscious minds are sworn enemies.
I noticed subtle mentions of hallucinogens throughout Beautiful Zero. Do you care to speak/elaborate on your relationship with psychedelics?
Ha, I wonder if I had a more active relationship with psychedelics, if I’d have a much more exciting life. Currently any hallucinogens/hallucinations are purely self-generated, no clue how. I struggled with severe depression in my early twenties, and was in the care of psychiatrists who prescribed a surprisingly vast number and creatively combined hardcore mind-altering drugs, including anti-psychotics. During the depression itself, and as side-effects of some of these drugs, I had some rather unusual experiences.
Your poem "The Universe Contracting and Expanding" ends your book so nicely, especially the final four lines: "Roots thicken in winter so they / can carve names in the snow. / Snow is a broom so I sweep / the doom off all my beautiful." Can you speak on this kind of 'leap frog' anaphora poem? Did you create it with intentions as the final piece of the book, or was it with you all along?
Thank you again! I have a very primitive relationship with form, I like anaphora and lists, you know, just baby step training wheel techniques—if I try something more sophisticated I sound like a complete jackass. But that poem, those lines were like untying a ribbon, they just flowed and I was happy it turned out as well as it did. Because for me it felt like the poem was breathing, it seemed like a good coda, a place to exhale and be done.
Outside of your own work, what/who have you been reading as of late?
Flowers of Anti-Martyrdom by Dorian Geisler, they are these strange little antihero prose poems that at first I was like NO and then I was all YES. Mary Ruefle, her bunny poem, her whole book Trances from the Blast. The critic William Logan, he can be razor funny cruel, I think I like to read him in winter because it’s easy to hate everything when it’s cold. Stephen Burt’s Close Calls with Nonsense is the opposite, tonally, smart and funny but without the skewering and I love that too. Also loads of crap mysteries to turn off my brain.
For my author/poet interview series, I'm asking every writer to generate a writing prompt. Do you have a prompt that you care to share? It can be one you create out of thin air, one you've previously crafted, or it can be a favorite of yours that has been passed down from an outside source.
I love the internet as an exquisite corpse line generator.
1. Open your Google
2. Enter the first few words of a question (Like: How do I… How to …What should I…)
3. Auto-suggest will suggest the randomest, weirdest, sometimes heartbreaking questions.
4. Click on them! Or click “I’m feeling lucky!”
(So I just got these as my top two: How to…turn on startup sound in Microsoft Windows and How to…make penguin bottles)
5. Mix and match words/phrases until you have something you can work with. For example: HOW TO TURN ON PENGUINS. The poem practically writes itself.
Do you have any advice for poets working on their craft?
Stick with it. Writing poetry can feel so solitary, so cut off from normalized daily life I think it’s easier to despair, especially when you get rejected over and over, don’t have a quote unquote big idea or don’t have people you trust to read your work. That isolation can be liberating and oppressive, often at the same time. Read. I know that sounds obvious, but it helps so much when you find writers you like, they talk to you, they help you locate yourself and your voice, or where it wants to go.
Do you have any final thoughts / words of wisdom? Thank you!
I once had the good fortune to read with Lynda Barry. She gave me the paper copy of her MINDBLOWING DOG POEM on which she had written “Sing to make them forget.” And she did, she sang “You Are My Sunshine” without opening her mouth and it was brilliant and hilarious. And that seemed like a very good piece of advice, so I am saving it for when I really screw up.