Jenny Molberg is the author of two poetry collections: Marvels of the Invisible (winner of the Berkshire Prize, Tupelo Press, 2017) and Refusal (LSU Press, 2020). She has received fellowships and scholarships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and the Longleaf Writers Conference. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Tupelo Quarterly, Boulevard, The Missouri Review,West Branch, Poetry Northwest, and other publications. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Missouri, where she directs Pleiades Press and co-edits Pleiades magazine. Find her online at jennymolberg.com.
August 18, 2020
Ashlea Hernandez: As I read through each section of Refusal, I felt like one built off the other, almost like the progression of a narrative. When I read the first and second sections, I read them as if the daughter of the second section is the victim of abuse in the first and subsequent sections. How did you come to arrange the poems into their sections and the sections as a whole?
Jenny Molberg: Though I make use of persona and imagined situations, much of the collection is confessional in nature, so reading the speaker of the second section as an adult version of the others is a welcome reading. I’ve learned a lot about the codependency that arises from a childhood with an alcoholic parent, and though there is nothing that justifies abuse in later life (or ever), I think working through that codependency helped me to understand why later codependent relationships felt familiar to me. Out of respect for the anonymity of Alcoholics Anonymous, I’ll avoid details, but I will say that confrontation, vulnerability, and forgiveness has allowed me to foster a healthy relationship with my mom, and I’m proud that she has been sober for almost fifteen years, is one of my best friends, and is someone I admire greatly.
When I was arranging the book into sections, I realized there were four clear movements happening—a marriage that had fallen apart and a speaker who was bolstered by the mother and other friendships, the sort of “backstory” of an unstable adolescence, the more imaginative third section where I cast the self into storylines to get a clearer understanding of the journey, and the fourth section, which I think deals with self-recognition, forgiveness, and healing. Since I think of the book as related to water and the moon in its many iterations: honeymoon, the rabbit who vanishes into the moon, the female body, the tides, the Ophelia character—I think, like the moon, the speaker of the book journeys through four major phases.
AH: In the dedication, you write that this collection is “for all writers of unsent letters” and many poems are called epistles. What went into your choice to use the epistolary form as the backbone of the collection?
JM: When I was living alone in rural Missouri, experiencing isolation in the wake of a divorce, I was talking with a poet friend who was going through something similar, and I expressed a wish for a kind of imaginary hospital for modern-day relationship trouble, patriarchal abuse and harassment. I’m grateful to her, because she is the kind of friend who says “write that down—that’s a poem!” so I did, and I addressed it as a letter to her. The epistolary sequence sprung out of that conversation—once I had written “Epistle from the Hospital for Cheaters,” I couldn’t stop inventing these hospitals and imagining what kind of letter might arrive to a friend from these places. I love the practice of letter-writing, including the discovery process of writing a letter to someone who has wronged or hurt you that you never intend to send—being a writer of unsent letters means doing the work of putting words to the unsayable, where the language exists in a text that is never seen.
AH: The second section explores how having an alcoholic mother affected the daughter as well as snapshots from the daughter’s childhood through adolescence. This section is where I could see a shift into poems that experiment with visual form which carries into the third section. There is also “The Spirit Change” which is a poetic sequence of several poems. Why did you use this section to include the more visual poems? And how do the forms influence the meaning for poems like “Epistle in Utero,” “No doubt the universe” in “The Spirit Change” sequence, and even “Self-Portrait as Penelope?”
JM: “The Spirit Change” actually began as an essay, where I was researching the neurological effects of alcoholism and using Alcoholics Anonymous’ The Big Book as a guiding text (I find that book a fascinating process of self-discovery, even outside of alcoholism). But, as with most essays I try to write, it became a poem. What I love about poetry, among so many other things, is the meaning of negative space, of visualization, of repetition and extended metaphor and breath. I think the visual forms have most to do with process—I was coming at issues from many different angles, and those are the shapes they took.
AH: I thoroughly enjoyed seeing classic characters reimagined into heroines and conquerors. Ophelia overcomes Hamlet and Demogorgon, Penelope rebukes Odysseus for killing her suitor-geese, and the Giant Squid is revealed to be the embodiment of feminism. All these characters are given new life in your poems and become stronger than where they started. How did you choose which classical women to explore and untangle them from the roles their original male writers prescribed for them?
JM: Thank you! What a great question. In dealing with trauma and trying to understand perspectives other than my own, I think it was useful to me to utilize persona; it’s a comforting thought that you’re not alone in your feelings and experience, and recognize them in works of literature, some so old they seem unfathomable. I chose Ophelia because she strikes me as a character in literature who is dominated by the male narrative of the writer who created her and the male characters in the play who determine her fate—same with Penelope. I read a male critic who wrote that “without Hamlet, Ophelia has no story,” and thought that was the result of the male perspective that invented her. We so rarely see inside the minds of female characters written by men, who are victims or vessels for male narrative and character development, so I wanted to reimagine them with agency and authority over their own actions. With the giant squid, I’m fascinated with animal science and thought she seemed symbolic as an elusive but fully living creature—all of these voices, to me, seemed poked and prodded, objects of our voyeurism, and I recognized myself in them and tried to give them voice.
AH: The female personas in the collection are all under the weight of relationships with abusive narcissists. The one that struck me the most was “Epistle from the Henares River.” The final two stanzas really illustrated that when someone is in an abusive relationship, they’re not really alone. In this case, the persona’s mother is right there, no doubt feeling helpless as she hears her daughter being abused by her husband. It struck me that abuse is felt by all who love the victims. You mention also that the Poet and the Demogorgon were abused and trained by their fathers. How did you draw in the family dynamic from not just the perspective of the victims but also the abusers? How is that important to understanding the cycle of abuse?
JM: This is such a challenging question, because much of it is psychological and I’m no authority, but I think it’s important to see people who are abusive as fully human, though it is often easier to make them into monsters in order to fully feel anger and move on. I think that’s much of the tension in the poems—the abusive, narcissistic tendencies seem monstrous, but of course, this behavior is learned, just as codependency can be learned from a relationship affected by addiction. In “Epistle from the Henares River,” I was thinking about the alienation from loved ones that occurs during abuse, and the familiar feeling of helplessness when you witness someone you love being abused. In my life, I have known abusive and narcissistic men who may be mirroring behavior from their fathers, but I’ve also seen men who treat people poorly who have wonderful, kind fathers. Family dynamics are important in understanding why people behave the way they do, but it’s also not the whole story—poetry, I think, can create spaces where there’s room for speculation, metaphor, and imaginative gestures that actively work toward understanding, and I think if we can look toward a bigger picture of the full story of someone’s behavior, as with family dynamics, we can work toward change. We cannot do this if we see someone who behaves abusively as springing fully-formed onto earth, without influences, agency, and the potential for change.
AH: The perspective of the narcissistic abusers in poems like “Said the Poet” and even ones where we only hear the dialogue from the Poet or Demogorgon like “Epistle from the Hospital for Laundry” really show the breakdown in logic for the abuser and their use of gaslighting to unsettle their victims. Why was it important for you to show what happens from their perspectives and how destructive their tactics are for the victims?
JM: I don’t fully understand the breakdown in logic in the mind of a narcissistic abuser, and I think that’s much of why I wanted to attempt to write it out. It also helped me, too, in the midst of the clouded judgement and self-questioning that arises in being the target of abuse, to keep a journal of things being said to me, which is where “Said the Poet” began. Much of this is imaginative work that breaks down the flawed logic that, as a victim, I had truly come to believe.
AH: In the acknowledgements, you mention the influence of the #MeToo movement on this collection. I feel like “Epistle from the Hospital for Harassment” really speaks to the issues women have illuminated in the #MeToo movement. Given the context of the collection and this poem’s place in it, how did you go about including sexual harassment and its effects on the victim?
JM: The #MeToo movement and its founder, Tarana Burke, have had an enormous impact on our cultural movements toward change, and as I was experiencing abuse and harassment, and witnessing the election of Donald Trump, the Christine Blasey Ford testimony, and many other horrifying emblems of the systemic destruction of women, nonbinary, and marginalized people, I recognized my own experience and frustration with a white male-dominated system that claims the right to abuse and harass people. It’s so important that we see this movement as intersectional, and that we also recognize the calamitous effects that still happen today when one speaks out against harassment and abuse. Telling the truth, in our society, is extremely dangerous, as I have seen firsthand, and men in positions of power who take advantage of the system that exalts them will do just about anything to silence their victims. Writing this poetry allowed me to break some silences and to connect with others who have experienced similar harassment and abuse, but sadly, it comes at a cost, for some more than others. I felt that it was urgent that I placed my voice and body in front of this kind of toxic power, and I hope to, in my own small way, play a part in the destruction of these systems.
AH: What do you hope readers take away from Refusal?
JM: It’s a simple hope—I want to have a conversation with a reader. If even just one person recognizes their experience in the poems and feels called to speak their truth, I think the book has done its job.