Cutting Everything Up and Putting it Back Together: An Interview with Jerika Marchan
May 27 ● BY Liz Clausen
Liz Clausen recently sat down with her longtime friend, New Orleans based poet Jerika Marchan, whose poetry collection, SWOLE, was described by the poet Douglas Kearney as “the real thing.” Marchan was born in Manila, Philippines and raised in the American South. She is a graduate of Louisiana State University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and SWOLE (Futurepoem, 2018) is her first book.
In this interview, Marchan describes her writing process and research methods, discusses writing through trauma, and explains why she resists describing SWOLE as a “Hurricane Katrina book.”
Liz Clausen: What does your writing process look like? I remember visiting when you were working on this book, and you had practically 100 Post-It notes spread across the wall.
Jerika Marchan: I love my process. It’s long and kind of arduous, but it gets me excited about the work and allows me to hear what’s bubbling to the surface. The first step is writing in a notebook—or Post-It notes, the Notes app on my phone, etc.—and then, when I feel like I’ve accumulated enough material, I aggregate all of those notes, put them in a single Word document, and print them out. It will be pages and pages of weirdo fragments and ideas. Then, I’ll cut out each little fragment and separate them according to tone and subject matter. Through all of this, I’m trying to harness what ideas I’m interested in—trying to locate pressure points.
I’m really project-oriented; I hardly ever think in terms of a single poem. I think of fragments of things and the context that they make together, basically. That’s my process. After I’ve cut them out and separated concerns, I physically paste them into a notebook and then see how different things talk to each other. And I take those pages and put them in a Word document again, and rinse and repeat until they start to solidify a little bit more.
Clausen: That’s really cool. I want to try that. I remember you did that with your undergrad thesis! Didn’t Laura Mullen tell you to do that?
Marchan: She literally told me to cut everything up, put it in a bowl, and reorder it—and that’s how I’ve been kind of living my life ever since. But I know what I’m looking for now more than I did then.
It really helps me to work with something tactile. This might sound dumb, but the Marie Kondo “sparking joy” stuff helps. Stepping away from a computer screen and seeing words in my hands that exist in the physical realm—it makes the poem tangible.
Clausen: I’m surprised more writers don’t work like this, especially when the writing is going to end up as a tangible object; it makes so much sense. Can you talk about how you decided on the forms of these individual poems?
Marchan: This is one of those things where you’ll know when it feels right. I decided on the forms by asking myself, How do I listen to what each page is saying? How do I create tension in one place, and how do I offset that tension?
The form was a little bit of a reflection of how I myself engage with the world. I believe that the things we receive via the written word can exist outside of just stanzas or paragraphs. When I engage with the open field, there’s so much more to explore in terms of what I can say and how I can be silent.
Clausen: What sort of research went into SWOLE? You have all kinds of references throughout the text, and I’m sure there must have been a ton of research that went into it. How did you approach that? What difficulties did you face?
Marchan: Well, there are some things that are left vague in the book, like dates. I didn’t want to shout it from the rooftops that this book is about Hurricane Katrina. I wanted the readers to just jump into it and then realize the state of things inside of the book.
I had to research a lot of digital, zeitgeisty things from around 2005 to 2010. I had to find YouTube clips. I had to find different Facebook groups with posts that I was referencing in the book. I also found emergency FEMA pamphlets. I wanted to know if what I remembered was accurate. So, the research was interesting and part of the joy of writing the book, but it wasn’t terribly intensive because a lot of the book is written from personal experience.
Clausen: As someone who has spent much of your life living in Louisiana, how did you emotionally manage to tackle the subject of Hurricane Katrina, which still feels like such an open wound? Did you struggle to find your way into the subject matter?
Marchan: The big ironic thing is that I never set out to write a Hurricane Katrina book. I never wanted to. Another ironic thing is that I was in Iowa City when I wrote the book. It was the winter of 2012, after my first semester in workshop, and I had no idea what I was trying to do.
The stuff I was submitting to workshop was exploratory and obnoxious. It wasn’t that terrible, but looking back, I can see myself grasping at straws, trying to impress my classmates and professors. I was straight out of college; I really didn’t know what I was doing. But when I was alone at home, I could access myself. I could be alone with whatever my innermost self wanted to say.
So, in the deep dark winter in Iowa City, when I wasn’t thinking about workshop, fragments started floating up out of me. I started thinking about landscapes and the most natural things to me, like home and family. And weirdly enough, in my horrible state of homesickness, this is what came out: all these memories that I had kind of repressed, because all throughout my teenage years and through college I hardly thought about Hurricane Katrina. Maybe it was kind of a survival instinct, but there are months of my memories that just aren’t there—it felt like a Rip Van Winkle kind of thing. The book tries to acknowledge these gaps in my memory; and when I wrote it, it kind of streamed out of me.
Clausen: So, how did you take care of yourself while writing this book, which deals with so much trauma?
Marchan: Because I am not very good at grappling with things that hurt me terribly, I shift into a persona, which is one of the reasons why the book has so many voices. The voice in the book that feels closest to me as a human being is the fourteen-year-old girl who doesn’t know how to feel when everything is falling apart. That is the big baseline of the whole book.
I also had to zoom out and imagine myself as an adult in that situation. I had to take a lot of inspiration from what I heard on the news as a teenager, and I had to realize how messed up some stuff was. I had to grapple with how unclear certain things still are, and I was able to use that uncertainty to find my way into writing material. I had to kind of give myself permission to be wrong, and I had to let go of how other people saw the events.
Clausen: Can you give an example of an external perception you had to let go of?
Marchan: There are some people who believe, for political reasons, that trauma is not collectively felt. And the book engages with community trauma as well as personal trauma.
Also, it was really strange for me to have to reconcile the fact that I was writing about my community, about the people and places I grew up in, but I was in Iowa City when I was writing the book and hadn’t seen how New Orleans was changing. So, I had to just give myself and my damaged memory the space to shoot out whatever it felt like saying—even if it was wrong, even if it wasn’t this particular place that was closed down, or even if the ferries were still running up to a certain day. You’re going to make mistakes about recollections. You can’t inspect everything that is cloudy to begin with.
Finally, it was difficult to write this because I feared that people would say, You’re mining a disaster for your own recognition. I had to shut out my fear or anxiety that those things would happen.
Clausen: I think it’s so smart that you took this questioning stance throughout your book, because I never got the sense that you were saying, This is how things were. It seemed like you were saying, This is how I remember this, and these are the questions I still have.
Marchan: Memory is so faulty anyway. Mistakes that I made for that work were like, Listen, these are not facts. Stuff happened, and other people think that Katrina was a natural disaster. Katrina was not necessarily just a natural disaster. Katrina was a political disaster. Katrina was man made, because institutions let certain populations go. Not many people will see it that way.
Clausen: Do you find yourself having to have these conversations about Katrina all the time now that you wrote this book, and what is that like? How do you navigate this experience of people bringing up the worst thing you ever went through? I can’t imagine.
Marchan: To be honest, I was scared when the book came out. It’s still really hard for me to read that book in New Orleans. But the best part is getting the response from local people here, who tell me, I know exactly what you’re describing. It’s so deeply affecting to have people who lived through very similar things come up and say, This was hard for me to sit through because I was there.
But there’s a healing that happens, I think, whenever I read this book in New Orleans. All the people here know why I’m writing about this. I feel like I haven’t had to justify myself to anyone who is from here.
But I read recently in New York, and it was a different crowd. In New Orleans, the trauma is tangible and present; but, in other spaces, that hole is somewhat intellectualized and removed. Whenever I read in other cities, I want to do right by all the people who have lived through Katrina. I want to let people know that Katrina is still something that affects people every day.
Clausen: I’m curious whether or not you consider yourself a political writer, and if you could talk a bit about how current events have changed your work.
Marchan: I don’t want to consider myself a political writer, because I don’t want to make things difficult for my family. But I think, necessarily, I have to be a political writer—just because I’m an immigrant, man! And my story is my family’s story. The only reason I’m here is because my family made decisions to be here. I can’t escape how I look; I can’t escape my ancestry, my lineage. If I try to not be that, or not speak to it, I don’t have anything else.