“State of Decay”: A Georgia Poets’ Roundtable

Regionalisms abound in accounts of contemporary poetry, and the American South remains one of the most complex and productive of those literary regions. Yet, with the contemporary scene saturated with MFA and PhD degrees in creative writing, young poets often uproot and move cross-country to enroll in graduate programs. Add in the compounding factor that the majority of today’s small presses solicit manuscripts exclusively online—so that poets in one part of the country often find themselves working with publishers in different states or nations—and a contemporary idea of regional poetry becomes diffuse and difficult to pin down. The days of poets living, writing, and publishing their major works within a single state are, broadly speaking, long gone. To call someone a “Georgia poet” or a “Southern writer” is a tricky proposition. For the moniker to stick, must the poems’ content be explicitly Southern: pecan pie, kudzu, and the sticky heat of an August evening? What if a so-called Georgia poet lived in the state for a handful of years before moving to a different region far from the Peach State and publishing through a non-Southern press? Branding a poet as regional is an ephemeral gesture, but one that holds a certain value as readers attempt to triangulate the complex lineages, traditions, and communities within contemporary writing. 

Regardless of these complexities, I can say this much with certainty: Gale Marie Thompson, Paul Cunningham, and Jake Syersak are three poets with recently published collections who wrote the majority of these texts while living in Athens, Georgia, enrolled in the University of Georgia’s Creative Writing PhD program. During the ongoing COVID era, situating in-person roundtable discussions has become difficult, so we have spent time over the last year discussing poetics and poetry, ranging from strange ecological intimacies to how a poetics of decay finds itself uniquely at home in Georgia. Read on and, more importantly, check out the authors’ fantastic collections. They are well worth your time

Connor Fisher: As I’ve debated different ways of kicking off this roundtable discussion, a quote from page 15 of Jake’s Mantic Compost keeps coming back to me. It’s in a long section where Jake is discussing ways that the human body and our conceptions of nature and ecology are all interwoven and form a kind of compost-ontology. The line reads: “… what casual nausea / the body is introduced by … in never-quite-connected concentric circles. Of / weird intimacies.” All three of your collections seem to engage with “weird intimacies” in one way or another, from Gale’s uncanny nearness to Helen and H.D.—both of whom engender variations and histories of selves within the book’s persona—to Paul’s abject closeness between his text’s IKEA-dwelling narrator and the abject death and degradation that takes place all around him. How did these weird intimacies help shape your books, or, to what extent is some type of unnerving closeness essential to your projects?

Paul Cunningham: A weird intimacy. Yes. Queer intimacies, too. Public and private. Bedrooms and closets. Early in the The House of the Tree of Sores, the speaker does suggest he was in love with an 18-year-old soldier who died in war. (I wrote these poems with the Bush presidency in mind.) The speaker is a “manager.” A “keyhole kind of guy.” A young American manager who attempts to manage an IKEA. He likes being a manager because he feels like he’s in control. The House of the Tree of Sores is about losing control—of one’s body, one’s tongue, one’s language. It was my hope that readers would experience a similar loss of control, but eventually learn to adapt.

It’s the foreign Swedish language that infects my protagonist’s English, warps his gender, turns him into a father (or mother?) of mysterious children (“Meat He” and “Oak-Her”) whose names, when combined, sound like “mediocre” or “Meaty” and “Ochre”. The tastemakers of American poetry continue to accuse translators of being mediocre, less than, etc. My poems rebel against this accusation. Hence the punk lyrics and imagery. The presence of the Swedish and its closeness to English allows readers to get closer to a foreign language. Some readers tell me they end up plugging things into Google Translate as they read. Some have told me that the book makes them want to try translating. A bilingual Swedish friend recently described the book as “candy”. I like this comparison. Poetry should leave a weird taste in your mouth.

Gale Marie Thompson: Yes, weird intimacies! I love that. Great work, Jake.

So, a lot of what I tend to write about—that we all tend to write about, I guess—are those nagging ideas or images or feelings that I can’t quite get away from, but never really master. I’m thinking of the second part of Jake’s quote, the “never-quite-connected concentric circles,” where as a poet I’m circling around and around a point, but never actually close in. In fact I can’t close in—I often end up spinning out instead, where everything becomes connected to everything else, and I’m too overwhelmed to even start. This happened when I started writing Helen or My Hunger, and thinking about how I see the actual figure of Helen of Troy. I kept seeing our oppressive narratives of women and other silenced voices everywhere I looked, and it was difficult not to see myself and so many other stories and themes connected to Helen. I couldn’t get a handle on her. Then, I came across a much more practical problem: as I was writing Helen (and living a few more years of my life as a person and woman), I saw that to “get a handle” on her was the opposite of what I wanted—that it caused harm. That the act of putting something into language or narrative, which seems so innocent, can reduce and oppress. That even writing the “I” or putting something into being on paper was an act of hubris, of selfishness, of power. So, as you can probably imagine, I stopped writing for a while. I’m still wrestling with it. I felt so near her—that “unnerving closeness”—but couldn’t get a handle on it, couldn’t find my way out. How do I access something in language when language is what destroys it? How do I make a statement about how making statements is evil?

Jake Syersak: Funny, it sounds like we’re all using poetry to tune our own little multiverse of voices: funneling the noise into the “I” or else the “I” into the noise. I have this image right now in my head, of a long series of megaphones glued to one another, mouthpiece to mouthpiece and then speaker to speaker, and back again, in some great continuous chain, and a voice just traveling along, sometimes amplifying, sometimes diminishing. When I think of Gale’s or Paul’s or my own work, I think primarily of this image. The result is half the intimacy of one’s own voice(s) in conversation with itself and half the squealing feedback that, I assume, has to result? But nevertheless reach out to something, somewhere …?

Doomed, wildly-escalating, and clearly out-of-control mixed metaphor aside, Mantic Compost was written while it was becoming clearer and clearer to me that grave ecological disaster was more or less imminent. The one shining light seemed to be the radical egalitarianism promised by various theories of Speculative Realism (Vital Materialism, Object-oriented Ontology, etc.). All of them offer a way, without degrading into metaphysical occultism, toward envisioning mutual co-dependence of objects in the world. If you can find a way to view yourself, a human, as ontologically existent as, say, a daffodil, or at the very least as mutually dependent, even if only phenomenologically-speaking, the sixth mass extinction doesn’t look too bad. And it promises that if more people think along the same lines, we may even slalom the apocalypse.

Probably that sounds depressing or fatalistic. It’s not. The extremities of metaphor (the essence of poetry), the conflation of human and nonhuman-oriented ontologies, the ability to simultaneously amplify or diminish ourselves or the world around us, provides us a radical vulnerability, a radical intimacy—dizzying and sometimes even nausea-inducing—through which we might just survive.

PC: I’ve also been accused of fatalism or apocalypticism when I so much as suggest that irreparable damage has been done to the earth. Irreversible species lost, too. Jake’s description of a radical intimacy reminds me of Guattari’s “ecosophy” or Timothy Morton’s “ecognosis.” Regarding ontological being and daffodils, I’ve never forgotten this one question Morton posed during their “Being Ecological” talk: “What if every thought was actually a kind of flower—part of our plant’s sexual display or, at any rate, a byproduct of it?” I like the “our plant” of that. Thinking of ourselves as equal to plants.

CF: Jake, I love the metaphor of the megaphones glued to one another as a way of grappling with what all three of your projects are doing, and I also relish the possibility of slaloming the apocalypse, philosophical onto-optimism intact. I want to come back to something that Gale mentioned about closing in on “writing” Helen, then realizing that this approach is actually a destructive path. There is a palpable tension there between discovering a historical persona or physical object vs. letting this space—whether it’s Helen of Troy or an IKEA store—stand as an evocative space to project anew into. This reminded me of an instance late in the Helen or My Hunger collection, where Gale writes:

When is a throat not like a cave? My question is about being stalled, about intimacy. …

You offer a blankness, Helen, and I am learning how to speak to you. How very loud I carve into the old voices. When I yawn, my littered body opens out like a cup for you.

Jake’s collection deals with a similar theme, in passages where he addresses the often-contradictory relationship between landscape and painting. It seems to me that, following avenues of thought after someone like William Wordsworth, Mantic Compost probes into ways that art and poetry try to come into contact with some external real (much like Helen of Troy) but simultaneously recreate or negate them. An example of this is when Jake writes:

It’s like this: whenever I see you at work on a rendition of the sky’s pouring out its light onto the icy treetops, I think you are inventing yourself into the weather, sunconsciously.

Inventing oneself into weather can mean, bluntly, negating the actual weather to reimagine it with the artist involved as a tangible component. In short, I’m curious to hear how the three of you used your collection as a way of speaking into a blankness, and what these blanknesses, variously defined, offer you as a writer.

GMT: The idea of “blankness” was the main discovery of Helen or My Hunger in the first place: not only was I never going to “reach” Helen of Troy, but that through all of the oppressive mythology and retellings and time passing, there really isn’t a “real” Helen any more to even talk about. She may as well have been a fake entity placed by the gods, because the only real Helen to us is the object she becomes. This was important when it came to prepping the manuscript for publication. Part of me wanted to go back and add specific research or citations to lines, to confirm certain “historical” accuracies about her. But I came to realize that what was most significant to us now (and to the book) was how she came to exist as a symbol, how she came to be an oppressive narrative about beauty and women. For example, we may not 100% know exactly her hair and skin tone, but in the last thousand years or so she’s become whiter and blonder in representations, and that is the Helen we’re up against.

So, in speaking to the “blankness” I basically started to write toward a fusion of all of the harmful gender/beauty narratives we’ve been given, or representations we’ve been trained to see as the models of who we should be. So Helen becomes at times mother, grandmother, ancestor, teacher, friend, the Self, and so on. Of course, I didn’t realize all of this until halfway through writing the manuscript, and so this discovery is ultimately what helped me finish it. I had to give in to the failure of “reaching” Helen, and I had to acknowledge the hubris in trying to do so in the first place. Then I suppose this failure—of gender, of body, of communication—turns into a refusal of all three by the end of the book (a shriek on the radio, writing to Helen as “a wave body”). Finally, the last poem sort of gives power and resolution to that refusal (“I wait until the hunger returns / that I deserve this riddled hunger”). The blankness began as a way to help me communicate difficult things, but then became its own sort of power.  

CF: That’s fascinating; I love the idea of giving in to failures as a way to move forward through the manuscript, until the blankness becomes its own, as you said, power and poetics. I think that idea will segue well into the next question; I want to ask how these three manuscripts relate to Georgia, whether as a place, culture, or ecology. The books’ content is not explicitly Southern, but I do feel that there is some sort of Georgian thread that binds the texts together.

A possible theme that comes up in all three books is the image and affect of decay. Decay lurks in the margins of the poetries, from Jake’s title (Mantic Compost) to a beautiful and haunting sequence that occurs near the end of Paul’s manuscript, as the protagonist watches the IKEA-turned-tree crumble into chaos around him: 

One of the tree’s tentacles whips me hard, lifts me onto the centermost table. … A spinning, burning earth suspended in a house of mirrors. A humiliated earth. … A burdened body, running in place atop the eagle’d globes of plinths, of withering root systems. I am framed by wooden swags of fruit, rosettes, flames. I become gadrooned, double-screwed. I am somewhere beneath the peel, somewhere before the burning fruit. America.

So, to pose a question here, (how) do you see your work as operating within a Georgian poetics or participating in the broader tradition of Southern literatures? Is this poetics of decay uniquely pertaining to the culture, climate, and ecology of Georgia?

PC: I wasn’t yet living in Georgia when I began constructing The House of the Tree of Sores, but I will say that a lot of the language you’ve highlighted (“swags,” “rosettes,” “gadrooned,” “eagle’d globes”) was selected from various descriptions I came across in American interior woodwork books I checked out from Hesburgh Library while living in South Bend, Indiana. I have no doubt that I referenced a southern colonial style of woodwork/architecture in those poems at some point. My focus in the latter end of the book was to acknowledge how an American nationalism was quite literally carved into the wooden interiors of early American homes. I wanted this to serve as a noticeable contrast to the architecture of an IKEA’s architectural style (i.e. unpainted concrete, metal cladding, wire mesh, a clean, stripped-away effect). Architect Dorte Mandrup took a deeply analytical approach to designing the IKEA building. This approach reminded me of the stripped away, modernist style of Wittgenstein House. I read a great deal about Wittgenstein’s architectural reasoning before writing The House of the Tree of Sores. A ton of research went into this book actually. I feel like a lot of people don’t think of “research” when they think about poets.

GMT: ​​I came up with the germ of the idea for Helen or My Hunger while reading at a park in Athens, GA. I was reading H.D.’s Helen in Egypt under a bunch of wisteria, near this huge abandoned train trestle being choked by overgrown kudzu. Overgrowing as a type of decay. So there must be something to the layers of decay and palimpsest of memories in the landscape that helped to bring about my need to unstitch/stitch away at the layers of Helen.

The landscape of the South in general carries so many ghosts with it, layers of ancestral trauma worked into the ground, the hard red clay of Georgia, both repressed and irrepressible. Where I live now, in the mountains of North Georgia, we are seemingly forgotten. The white settlers here were losers in a land lottery. Those who lived here had to figure out how to cultivate and live in regions isolated by high mountain ridges. Now is a good time to also mention that North Georgia is where the Trail of Tears began. The settlement of this region was only possible because the entire area was wiped clean of its native peoples. Now the name of the town where I go get my groceries is how I remember a tribe who lived here and were massacred here. The landscape keeps reminding us.

I was born in Georgia and grew up in the Southeast. I don’t consider myself a “Southern Writer,” and you can’t tell from my work that it explicitly belongs in a southern tradition, but I am still a product of this background, formed by traditions and ideas and avowals that are only recently becoming clear to me. In terms of Helen or My Hunger, I can think about this in terms of the mythos of gender and its expectations in the South, growing up being reminded time and time again what “ladies” do and don’t do, the repeated platitudes and figurative idioms of feminine civility. Not to mention the obvious choking cultural memory of “southernness,” of white southernness, of harmful white southern femininity. So how do I tackle a choking, decaying language with my own choking, decaying language? That is the question.

JS: I wrote about 80-90% of this collection in Georgia. I don’t see it as particularly “Georgian,” but I do think it’s representative of my personal immersion in that space, in terms of who I was at the time and who I was becoming.

Funny enough, even though it’s a decidedly ecologically-oriented collection, the poems actually began as really sappy break up poems. I had just moved to Georgia as a disastrous (decaying) relationship was coming to its end. I started writing the poems that appear in the first section, “A Like Sore,” out of that hurt. Stuff that was never intended to see the light of day—I was just writing myself through it. As I got more and more into ecological work and theory during my studies at the University of Georgia, I started to see that part of what I was writing was a “breakup” between how myself and how I had conceived of the concept of “nature” up to that point. So the poems became nicely recyclable as such. If you read that section with this in mind, I think you can still detect some of the original sap.

That aside, I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of “landscape,” which my first book, Yield Architecture, dealt with more explicitly. Mantic Compost was a project of immersion, of trying to immerse myself in landscape, rather than just dwelling in or on it.  

There’s no doubt though that Mantic Compost contains some old stand-by Georgian imagery: wisteria, kudzu, oleander, etc. But as Gale so rightly mentioned, there’s decay on the very air in Georgia and around the south: the forgottenness and ghosts and the confederate monuments and what-not. Even in urban spaces there you can get the sense of feeling marooned. Let’s not forget also that these were also the deep years of Trumpism. Decay wasn’t just localized. It was everywhere. And the inscribed genealogy of that decay was becoming more and more pronounced there.

The more I think about it, the more decay was hard to avoid in Georgia. One also thinks towards the extreme color and poverty lines that persist there. I used to paint houses in and around town each summer for next-to-nothing-an-hour for my crooked landlord, forage and grow food to the best of my ability in my backyard, and stole groceries weekly to survive. When I wrote, “it wasn’t until I’d planted an herb garden & filed for unemployment that I felt truly American, thoroughly Arcadian, though,” I wasn’t lying. That was the feeling of immersion in the landscape for me at the time: marooned and surviving. I even remember once, walking across the street to start painting early in the morning, and seeing someone riding by on a bicycle, to which they’d strapped a gas-powered leaf blower, in order to give it propulsion. A poor man’s makeshift motorcycle. Sometimes the immersion was absurdly laughable, but it was a laughter that always curdled and decayed into something more haunting. Decay was never not around and we tried to survive it the best we could. At its core, that’s what Mantic Compost is all about.

Gale Marie Thompson is the author of Helen or My Hunger (YesYes Books 2020), Soldier On (Tupelo Press 2015), and two chapbooks. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Tin House Online, The Adroit Journal, jubilat, and Crazyhorse, among others. She is the founding editor of Jellyfish Poetry and co-host of the arts advice podcast Now That We’re Friends. She lives in the mountains of North Georgia, where she directs the Creative Writing program at Young Harris College.

Jake Syersak is a poet, translator, and editor. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Georgia. He is author of the poetry collections Mantic Compost (Trembling Pillow Press, 2022) and Yield Architecture (Burnside Review Books, 2018). He is the co-translator, with Pierre Joris, of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s hybrid novel Agadir (Diálogos Press, 2020). Forthcoming translations include Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Resurrection of Wildflowers (Oomph! Press, 2022); I, Caustic (Litmus Press, 2022); and Proximal Morocco— (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2023). 

Paul Cunningham is the recipient of the 2021 Diann Blakely Poetry Prize and the 2015 Sparks Prize Fellowship. He is the author of Fall Garment (forthcoming from Schism Press in 2022) and The House of the Tree of Sores (Schism Press, 2020). His most recent poetry chapbook is The Inmost (Carrion Bloom Books, 2020). His interests include literary translation in theory and practice, decadent poetics, and ecocritical studies. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia and he holds a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. He co-manages Action Books, an international press for poetry and translation.

Connor Fisher is the author of The Isotope of I (forthcoming from Schism Press in winter 2021 ) and of four poetry and hybrid prose chapbooks. He holds an MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a PhD in Creative Writing and English from the University of Georgia. His poetry has appeared in journals including the Denver QuarterlyRandom Sample ReviewTammyOxidant|EngineTiger Moth Review, and Clade Song. He currently lives and teaches in northern Mississippi. 

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