Side A Poem: “My Breakdown Is Like Buster Keaton Trying to Smile” by Jessie Janeshek

My Breakdown Is Like Buster Keaton Trying to Smile

I keep looking through binoculars
over and out toward the river
calories are negotiable
but in every rendition I have a black eye.

It’s all about pratfalls
my globe-sized stomach
garroted or garrulous
and/or love before breakfast.

Oct/Nov adjust the knob
it always rains in my dreams
even the one where I’m swallowed into a cult.
Across the water         I see the house
where the older boys
shoved their tongues down my throat
and called me an actress.

A quartet of hot nurses
in their thin paper hats
and their little white skirts
drive by in their white Jeep
whereby we’re aroused
yet reassured
there’s depth and a moral.

Still I fuck myself up with their rainbow ponies
and their peachy keen daysleep
and another orange capsule.
Still it’s my lack when he says
I miss your flapper curls
and well guess what I say
I miss my own luster.

Interview with Jessie Janeshek:

HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?

JJ: I’ve always thrived on creating; I wanted to be an artist before I could write. I wrote fiction more or less until I figured out what poetry was while a high school student with a good creative writing teacher. The summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I attended a sort of academic summer camp for regional students held at a local college. I recall we each drew a slip of paper out of a hat that was to be a topic for a poem. Mine was “fly on a bald man’s head.” I don’t remember the content of the poem, but I do remember writing it in the late-night light of the bathroom while my roommate slept, and I remember it was well-received by our instructor, which made me think maybe I could write poetry. Maybe I should write poetry. Looking back, it was transformational.

HFR: What are you reading?

JJ: I teach college (American literature, creative writing, and FYC), so I’m always (re)reading the literature I’m teaching as well as student work. During the pandemic, I’ve basically only read thrillers, mostly by women like Ruth Ware, Clare Mackintosh, Claire Douglas (guess the British love the name Clare/Claire), Cass Green, and Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen. I keep waiting to want to read something “literary” again, aside from what I’m reading and teaching at work, but I might just have to force myself to do it. Or just say fuck it and keep reading thrillers.

HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “My Breakdown Is Like Buster Keaton Trying to Smile”?

JJ: The poem was prompted by the convergence of cultural and personal nostalgia, basically how all my poems start.

Cultural nostalgia: I’ve long been very interested in Buster Keaton’s work and career trajectory and, more broadly, the sort of sad comedian or sad clown stereotype, because that’s also how I roll. Humor is much more intricate and interesting to me than the serious or dramatic. And, really, when it comes down to it, it’s the same thing, isn’t it? It just depends on the angle. My most recent full-length, MADCAP, opens with a quotation sometimes attributed to Buster but also sometimes attributed to Charlie Chaplin: “Tragedy is a close-up, comedy a long-shot.”

Keaton more or less had full control over his career until he signed with MGM in 1928 and started making movies there until the mid-1930s. His creativity was severely compromised by what the mainstream, “family-friendly” studio wanted from him. He was already a heavy drinker, and the loss of creative control made him depressed and more of a drinker, but then he needed the MGM money … to continue to fund the drinking and to support his family according to the lifestyle they’d grown accustomed to in Hollywood, and it just became an impossible cycle.

I relate to the experience of feeling like your creativity is being compromised whether it’s due to factors out of your own control and/or your own patterns of self-destruction. If I don’t laugh, I cry.

Personal nostalgia: I grew up on the West Virginia/Ohio border; my parents and grandparents both have homes overlooking the Ohio River. When I was a kid, I used to spend long hours in my grandparents’ yard looking across the river to Toronto, Ohio, and also looking up the river to other parts of my hometown. I was fascinated with being able to zoom the binoculars enough to see people driving in their car on the same roads my family and I drove. For some reason that childhood experience of being alone overlooking the river with binoculars in the evening has been making itself into a lot of poems in the last year or so.

HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?

JJ: I’m always writing poems like a tortoise, slow and steady. During the pandemic, I’ve not been as super productive as, say, Taylor Swift (although my hair has also grown long enough to do a cottagecore braid crown—see video), but I’ve more or less kept chugging along. I’m in the process of putting together my fourth full-length manuscript, which will be comprised of poems written over the past three years or so. I continue to explore my recurring themes (see stuff on personal/cultural nostalgia above), and this new manuscript has more of a 1940s theme. Lots of red lips and victory rolls and battles with false optimism on the homefront.  I turned forty last November and have been thinking a lot about getting “old.” Sometimes it’s depressing and sometimes it assures that I am a happier existentialist than I was in my 30s because what really matters anyway? I find myself giving less of a fuck about everything as I age and letting go more, and it’s beautiful and empowering. I also find myself getting sad more. And, yeah, getting older sucks, and it’s hard to watch your body and mind and maybe soul spiral out of control no matter how hard you try to keep things in check. I think my current feelings regarding that loss of control can be well summed up by the last three lines in the poem published here:

Still it’s my lack when he says
I miss your flapper curls
and well guess what I say

I miss my own luster.

Time’s ticking, and I do miss my own former luster, inconsequential as it was.

HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?

JJ: Ummm. Crap. Okay. I’ve been listening to a ton of Joni Mitchell lately. I loved her when I was college-aged and then she kind of fell out of favor with me. I think I felt like her songs were hokey. After studying piano for a decade as a kid, I’ve been learning guitar for the past four months or so, and my mom and I were talking about Joni, which overlapped with Lana Del Rey’s “For Free” cover; all of these factors pushed me to dive back in. Her song writing is impeccable. I knew she had polio when she was a child, but I didn’t know that it affected her ability to make chord shapes on the guitar. So, in order to adapt, she had to use a lot of alternate tunings and finger positions, which contributes to the sort of discordant, haunting quality of her work. “Electricity” is one of my favorite songs ever.

Jessie Janeshek’s full-length collections are MADCAP (Stalking Horse Press, 2019), The Shaky Phase (Stalking Horse Press, 2017), and Invisible Mink (Iris Press, 2010). Her chapbooks include Spanish Donkey/Pear of Anguish (Grey Book Press, 2016), Rah-Rah Nostalgia (dancing girl press, 2016), Supernoir (Grey Book Press, 2017), Auto-Harlow (Shirt Pocket Press, 2018), Channel U (Grey Book Press, 2020) and Hardscape (Reality Beach 2020). Read more at jessiejaneshek.net.

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