A brief conversation with author Jessica Denzer. Read but all is to be dared in Issue Zero of L’Esprit Literary Review.
L’Esprit Literary Review: How did your piece come to be and what do you want our readers to know about your work? Is there any context you would like to provide?
Jessica Denzer: This essay came out of a conversation. I had been speaking with a friend who had been running for the Achilles project, which is a program that pairs disabled runners with abled runners. It was one of those situations where you’re having a normal conversation but also, you’re in the middle of the “off” part of an on again-off again relationship that is seconds from being terminally off, and so everything, even the small talk is super heavy with meaning. I was also in the third year of teaching this Ancient Epics class and had been reading a ton of Sappho and Homer, and I just found myself obsessing over her fragments. At some point during the conversation my brain just started pulling all the pieces together. I think I probably zoned out for at least one fourth of the conversation while my neurons wrote the first half of the essay, but we’ll keep that between us!
LLR: What is your creative process like? Can you speak to the journey of working on this piece some?
JD: Sure! This essay took a little over two years to write. It’s an amazing experience to spend that kind of time with such an intimate piece because time is not static. So, every time I came back to the essay, I was a different person revisiting this very dramatic and hard time in my life. It got rejected a lot, I think for several reasons, but the primary reason was it just wasn’t ready; I just hadn’t pulled all the threads tight enough because it was hard to see outside of the feelings for a long time. In the beginning, which I think is true for a lot of my work, the words came out of a feeling that needed to be expressed and sometimes the feeling is so strong and so alive, that it’s hard to do anything but cycle and ruminate on the emotion. But eventually, with this essay, and again, for a lot of my work, the feeling remains alive, but it’s no longer tided specifically to that moment. It molds itself into the bigger questions we’re all asking, and I am definitely asking in this piece: what it means to love and to hurt, and the be alive? You know, the little things. And when I could move to the bigger ideas beyond the specific moment, I was able to focus on structure and language, which is what ultimately drives the piece.
LLR: How would you define your literary ancestors, as a writer generally and/or with regards towards this piece? Which novels, stories, literary movements, traditions, or ideas do you see your work as being in conversation with?
JD: For this essay? Obviously Sappho! But also, Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Virginia Woolf, Melissa Febos, Roberto Calasso. During the revisions I reread Carson’s “The Glass Essay” and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, as well as Calasso’s Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. But I think all those writers, even though they’re doing different things, have perfected something that I’m always trying to do: they work from the flow of the sentence, the poetry of it. Even in the most gut wrenching of moments, it’s their language that roots it onto the page and so into the reader’s mind. It’s the language that comes first to reveal the idea, the experience, and the feeling.
LLR: What was the last book, story, poem, work of art that moved you?
JD: Ha, that’s a hard one. You’re asking me in the middle of a semester! I’ve been rereading and teaching Machiavelli, so we can talk all day about tyranny if you want. But something that really moved me? I’m going to be a New York Review of Books propagandist, as usual, and tell you that I really loved Józef Czapski’s Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, which was so incredible. And Jean Giono’s Melville: a Novel. The NYRB translation is wonderful. I reread it immediately upon finishing the first read. I’ve also been reading and rereading a lot of Marie Howe and Rachel Eliza Griffiths. I also recently revisited Goodnight Moon, and I have to tell you, that book is phenomenal.
LLR: Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
JD: Thank you for reading!
Read but all is to be dared in Issue Zero of L’Esprit Literary Review, available here.