Home » Author Interview: Jason Purcell
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Author photo credit Zachary Ayotte.
Uche Umezurike spoke with Purcell about their poetry collection Swollening, a tender debut that examines the queer, sick body as a reaction to an ill world and asks it how to move on toward hope.
Uche Umezurike: Jason, congrats on your debut poetry collection, Swollening! It offers a complex and affecting glimpse into childhood memories, family, illness, gender, friendship. So, how do you feel about your book? In what ways do you find your book speaking to this moment of—what seems to me to be—increasing human suffering?
Jason Purcell: Thank you, Uche! Such a delight to talk with you about this collection! Indeed, while writing this collection I was thinking about what it means to be sick in a world that is itself sick, and more and more being sick seemed like the natural way for the body to respond. As you say, we are increasingly aware of the human suffering around us, and the suffering seems to be pitched up, hurtling us toward yet more pain, violence, and destruction. With that in mind, it was also important for me to take an imaginative, hopeful leap toward another world, a future predicated on friendship, care, and relation in a world that we help to heal.
There are several references to the body—for instance, our “belonging to bodies” or “proximity to bodies,” as the speaker says in the poem “in the garden with my faggots.” But, of course, the book also deals with other facets of human experience. So why was it crucial for you to write about the body?
The body is the vehicle through which we experience the world, and so is often first on the line in a very real, material sense. Violence hits our bodies, particularly when we exist at the intersection of marginalization, and trauma lives within our bodies and can be passed down across generations of bodies. For me as a queer sick writer, the body is a place from which I’ve been alienated, which has been disciplined and regulated by things like homophobia or prescriptive gender norms or the apparatus of medical care; I spent a lot of time trying to be validated by these systems. Now, through my writing, I’ve arrived at a different place, wherein I can validate my body’s worth and participation in the world, can draw my own map of it, and can come to be in relation with my own body and the bodies of others on more liberatory terms.
I want to follow up on those moving remarks of yours. I am struck by how you write with such sensitivity about sickness, yet I step away after reading Swollening with the sense that the speaker has not allowed their encounters with pain and memories of pain to leave them gloomy or enfeebled. What does it mean to you to write about pain? How did you approach this process, and what did you find challenging?
My relationship to pain has changed through the writing and editing stages—there certainly have been many times where I’ve felt enfeebled and restricted by pain! —but my ambition with this collection was to write my experience with pain as honestly and generously as possible. It has become something that I live alongside and so I strove to write a narrative of pain that held the different complicated stages: the onset, the denial, the grief, and finally a shift toward acceptance and hope for other possibilities on the horizon.
That said, it was a challenge to reach that point. I was so fortunate to work with Joshua Whitehead on this collection, and he would ask me to say what it was I really meant to say, not to hide from it. I think I had a habit of obscuring the truth as a way of protecting myself from the awkwardness or vulnerability or shame I felt around the topic of pain, but as a result, the poems weren’t doing what I wanted them to. Josh very gently helped me find the language of pain and use it to let the poems speak.
While working on your book, which poets did you find helpful in thinking about desire, intimacy, and vulnerability? Did you hope to have your poetry be in conversation with theirs?
I asked Joshua Whitehead to edit my collection because I’m so inspired by the ways in which he writes about the body, trauma, and queerness. I was also inspired by poets like Billy-Ray Belcourt, Ocean Vuong, Anne-Marie Turza, Dionne Brand, and Anne Boyer. There are ways in which I hoped that my poetry could be in conversation with theirs, though they’re each such exquisite poets that it’s a big ask! I did hope, though, to be able to contribute to ongoing conversations about queerness, sickness, pain, gender, masculinity, any of the themes of the collection. I hoped Swollening could be the book I was looking for while I traversed the muddy field of the above.
I am curious about how you might approach rhythm, say, for poems such as “Talking to your first kiss on this side of death,” “Sleeping with the house guest,” or “magpie.” Do you have any specific approach to deciding on the form of a poem? What decides rhythm for you, Jason?
The collection is entirely free verse, and I think it’s because I felt that the restrictions of form might suggest a sort of logic to the experience of pain or illness or queerness, that the form might organize an idea that makes aesthetic sense, but what I felt in writing is that sickness and pain defy logic and sense. Free verse, then, allowed the poem to form on its own, to mimic the ways in which pain and sickness imposes its formlessness onto life.
To answer the latter part of your question, I’m only discovering the rhythm of these poems now that I’m reading them aloud to an audience. I don’t read out loud as I write or as I revise, and Josh and I didn’t use that method when combing through the poems. Perhaps I’m more of a visual reader than an auditory one, because I find myself more concerned with how the words are laid out and look on the page than anything else. Unmusical of me!
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Alberta, Canada. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Umezurike is the author of Wish Maker (Masobe Books, 2021), Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griots Lounge Publishing, 2021), and a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems (Daraja Press, 2020). His poems and short fiction have been widely anthologized online and in print magazines, and he has interviewed over forty writers for Read Alberta, Prism International, Brittle Paper, and Africa in Words.