Jana Prikryl, whom New Yorker critic James Wood has called “one of the most original voices of her generation,” is the author of two poetry collections: The After Party (2016) and the just-published No Matter. Her essays on photography and film have appeared in The Nation and The New York Review of Books, where she works as a senior editor and poetry editor. Born in the former Czechoslovakia, Prikryl lived in Canada from the age of 6 until her 2003 move to the United States. She currently lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her spouse, Colin Gee, and their young son.
What was the impetus behind this collection? How was it different from your debut, The After Party?
The After Party came together slowly, almost despite me, over more than a decade. It was only after I’d written “Thirty Thousand Islands,” the sequence that forms the second half of the book, that I realized how I might put the things I’d squirreled away for 15 years in order. Whereas No Matter started germinating quickly as soon as I finished The After Party, and then I got a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, at Harvard University, where I had nine months to work on it. Radcliffe also delivered me from New York City while I wrote, which allowed me to really consider the place where it felt like I’d just barely survived my 30s. Meanwhile, the U.S. was coming apart in the wake of the 2016 election. So I was writing in a very focused, daily way, trying to use the anger and alarm I felt that year to find new forms and new experiments on the page.
Where, when and how do you write poems?
This is a tricky question because it has changed a lot lately. For most of my life I wrote whenever I could, which usually meant weekends and evenings, around the edges of my job as an editor at The New York Review of Books. Then my son was born a few weeks after The After Party came out and I wrote virtually nothing for a year. Then at Radcliffe I wrote almost all of No Matter during regular working hours, five days a week. Since last summer I’ve been back at my job in New York, with a toddler at home, so I’m again writing very little. This year I’ve found my most productive moments come for a few minutes at a time on the subway.
New York, which the poems sometimes refer to as a “second city” for its inhabitants, plays a prominent role in the collection. What’s your relationship to the city?
I moved to New York for grad school in 2003 (a master in cultural reporting and criticism at NYU), though I was really drawn to the glamour and magnetism of the city. It’s clear to me that I wouldn’t be who I am now without New York and the writers and editors and artists I’ve encountered here over the last 16 years. But as a friend of mine (who happens to be from Toronto) once told me, New York is a great place to live if you’re a single, 25-year-old white man. It’s a place of vast and visible inequality, where it can be rough to be female, foreign, unmoneyed and both ambitious and hoping eventually to have a family. I think women have always experienced big cities very differently from men; you could say that the realistic novel wouldn’t exist without this problem. Even today, a woman’s status and value exists in a “marketplace” separate from a man’s, especially during her thirties, when so much of her future hinges on the choices she makes right then. I found it was brutal to be a fairly inward, introverted person navigating this jostling place, where every encounter seems public and every confidence taken as a unit of exchange. So there’s a dimension of No Matter that reflects my disenchantment with the city and part of the book is a kind of burlesque on that frantic desire just to get out alive. Of course I’m still here!
I particularly loved the collection’s repeating series “Waves” poems, which feel like an antidote to the exhaustion of the city that you just described. Is it important to you to seek out vestiges of the natural environment in such an unremittingly urban one?
Yeah, I think nature’s importance tends to expand for any city dweller, though I haven’t been very good at getting out to it during my years in New York. I think one thing those “Wave” poems dramatize is this feeling of being starved of an elemental thing while struggling to appease some other elemental appetite, like ambition – like a calcium deficiency when you’re getting too much iron, or is it the other way around? The “Waves” poems also seem to me, I guess not coincidentally, to circle the question of vulnerability, human and mortal, as well as female and immigrant and visible minority. I think of them as flirting with poignancy (a dangerous volatile substance) in a riskier way than some of the other poems in the book.
Having a child has an obvious impact on one’s work in terms of the hours it sucks out of the day, the sheer exhaustion of it. Do you feel like motherhood has affected you creatively?
This feels strange to say but … I am not sure that it has? I’m not the kind of writer who tends to think through the medium of her closest relationships; maybe the last time I wrote a “love poem” I was somewhere in my mid-twenties (i.e., a very long time ago). The subject of my new book, insofar as it has one, might be boiled down as “what people owe one another in a society that’s not morally despicable,” but while I was experimenting on the page, the whole point was to feel free. Then again, a major part of motherhood for me has been a kind of utter submission – not so much to the exhaustion and drudgery of it (which is real!), but more to its terrible contingency and fears of the worst. A person’s relationship to death (which has never felt too far away from me) suddenly gets up-close and personal when they have a child. One way I try to cope with parental anxieties is just total surrender, and questions of submission (and stoicism) do run through this new collection. At what point does that kind of surrender turn into something darker, something selfish rather than selfless? I wasn’t thinking of my own motherhood when I wrote the series of “Stoic” poems in this book, but I now realize they aren’t unrelated to my experience of the last three years.
Do you see yourself in the United States long-term?
I wish I could answer this definitely. We’re in a peculiar moment in the U.S., when it feels like almost any unthinkable thing could happen. So much hinges on 2020, and even the best-case scenario thereafter involves a now openly racist, xenophobic right-wing party pulling policies and debates in its hateful direction. So I do find myself longing to move back to Canada, both for my sanity’s sake and my child’s; but it’s a question involving so many factors (not least, two jobs) that I usually finish the thought in more of a pretzel than I started.
Emily Donaldson is editor of Canadian Notes & Queries and Best Canadian Essays 2019.
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