Redefining north.

Writers on Writing #121: Jessica Cuello and Jenna Le


When Writers Interview Each Other

Note from the editors: Some readers may know Jessica Cuello's poetry from her recent collection Hunt, which won The 2016 Washington Prize, and Jenna Le's poetry from her collection A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, which Ocean Vuong described as being "as much about loss as it is about art--making and being human--and utterly, forgivably alive." Between them they have four full-length collections of poetry, as well as multiple chapbooks, short fictions, essays, criticism, translations, and accolades. Passages North is excited to publish one of Cuello's Moby Dick-themed poems in our forthcoming issue in February 2018. Le and Cuello took the opportunity to talk with each other about the similarities between their most recent collections, as they both deal with whales and address questions of progress and capitalism.

Jenna Le: Hi Jessica, I’m so happy that we were introduced to each other by Donna Vorreyer (herself a wonderful poet who draws inspiration from global myths about dolphins and whales)! After hearing about your new Moby Dick-themed poetry collection, Hunt, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy right away. It’s interesting how much whales are part of the zeitgeist right now---or perhaps it’s that they’ve never stopped being part of the zeitgeist?---as I’ve seen them invoked in recent collections by poets as diverse as Chelsea Woodard, Jeremiah Webster, Rajiv Mohabir, and others. And whales seem to have such intense, fiercely personal meaning to each of us who invokes them. In Hunt, it appeared to me that you were especially drawn to the parallels between the treatment of whales and women through history: how both have at times been stultifyingly Other-ized, emotionalized, turned into myths and muses, reshaped into foci of obsession and targets of both physical and economic violence. In my latest poetry collection, A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, I was likewise attracted by whales as an entry-point for a discussion about the experiences of historically marginalized, less fully enfranchised human beings---although in my book I was most interested in how whale-lore could illuminate the struggles of immigrants to America, especially immigrants from Asia. I wonder if you encountered some of the same problems I had while writing my book: the problem of using animals as a means to open a dialogue about humans without letting the animal-ness of the animals diminish the human-ness of the humans (or vice versa!), or the problem of exploring the symbolism of whales without losing sight of the fact that they are more than symbols, that they are real living beings as well.

Jessica Cuello: Yes, It was a great problem when I began writing the poems! There was an absurdity that I faced initially that is exactly as you say---it diminished the animals and, at the same time, ridiculed the human experience I foisted upon them. Whales are both spooky and otherworldly to me. A simple picture of a breached tail makes me awestruck, but I don’t think the awe would register so deeply if there wasn’t a level of identification with whales.

I began these poems 14 years ago after seeing Frank Stella’s Moby Dick sculptures while spending a summer on a Melville NEH seminar; the poems, written as human characters, didn’t work, and I abandoned the project. About four years ago, I spent some time staring at whale skeletons and bones---even a whale brain---at the whaling museum in New Bedford. I began writing the poems again and this time I knew that the poems would be written from the whale viewpoint. During the interval when the poems were abandoned, my kids were born; pregnancy, birth, nursing---all of mothering---made me conscious of the body as animal. I remember staring at cows in fields and identifying with them--and not in a metaphorical way! This led to the idea of what happens to the self when the body is an object of desire--or how commodification of bodies (or violence to the body) negates the rest of a being in the mind of the desirer (or aggressor). But I had to work through the idea of animal as a persona first to get can a whale have human concerns without being ridiculous, cartoonish, or fable-like?

I love how the poems in A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora move in the reverse direction--the animal anatomy and behavior appear as part of people, not the other way around--like in the poem “Mirror Gazing” where the “navel is the whale’s eye / a sluggish pupil.” The surprising presence of whale imagery evokes the same wild awe that I mention above. Or in “Whale Song,”  where “.... like gods, / whales live among us in our towns, / wearing human masks.”

JL: That’s interesting that you can trace your project back to a museum experience. Mine also, in a way, started with a museum visit, to the “Whales: Giants of the Deep” exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in 2013. Being a grown-ass adult woman who studied science at university and everything, I was bowled over by how many of the facts about whales expounded in the exhibit were new to me: in particular, the fact that whales are descendants of land mammals. Just as we’re taught to think of progress as going in one direction, we generally think of evolution as going in one direction, from sea to land, and the fact that whales in their cosmic wisdom had gone in the opposite direction, from land to sea, struck me as deeply pregnant. I didn’t start writing A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora until some time later, though, when one day I was sitting at a bookstore studying for my board exams and, feeling kind of frustrated and fed up, I turned to my companion and asked, “Why can’t we just be whales?” It started off as a random remark, but it stuck: in my spare time, I began reading about whales, researching them, encouraging friends to send me photos of whale-related things they saw. One friend and I, as a kind of a loaded joke, would begin incorporating whale jargon into our conversations. Dashing up the subway stairs at the end of a work day, I would shoot off a text: “I just ‘breached’ on 86th Street.” Or, on instant messenger, I would type, “Well, it’s time to brush my ‘baleen’ and go to bed.” It was simultaneously a wry joke (is it really possible for our small human brains to conceptualize whales without humor, I wonder?), a coping mechanism, and an awkward attempt at identification with something that, as you say, is so obviously bigger and spookier than ourselves. And being immersed in this new vocabulary, I began seeing whales everywhere: in our navels, our fat (blubber!), our bodies, but also our survival struggles and our histories of migration. And that became my book.

But I want to go back to what you were saying about directionality, about reverse directions, because I think it’s very interesting. The thing that first captured my attention about whales was their reverse directionality---how their ancestors migrated from land to sea---and I sense a similar preoccupation in Hunt, in how your poems use whales to subvert humankind’s traditionally unidirectional understanding of progress, to question the wisdom of unchecked capitalism, of being this exceptionalist species that “maraud[s]” and “kill[s] and sell[s].” And I’m intrigued by how you propose a less linear, more “fluid,” more community-based model for how we can relate, both women and men, in “Girls as Schools of Fish” and “Men Squeeze the Whale Flesh Together.” Do you see your poems as falling under the umbrella of eco-poetry? Are you influenced by any eco-poets, or do you see your poetry as belonging to a different political/philosophical project? As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that, though your poems are set in a specific time and place, they also speak directly to our current age, our current socio-political position, our current environmental concerns.

JC: Ha! I actually learned that whales descended from land mammals from your book!

I can see that there is an eco-poetics to Hunt, but I didn’t approach the poems from that direction. If I write from an idea or an ethics, my poems tend to be doomed. I do think that environmental concerns are directly related to our violence to people; on my mind now is Flint, Michigan and the DAPL.

I stole the brotherhood of “Men Squeeze the Whale Flesh Together” from Melville himself; the chapter is an homage to democracy and it’s also kind of erotic. The poems in Hunt were borne out of a passion for Moby Dick and my own obsessions (which emerge from a kind of mixture of repression and pressure), but they ended up being eerily timely. At a reading in November, a week after the election, I read a few of the Ahab poems. When I read the first lines, “The word brother is not his word. / It’s Me and Them” from “The Chase ~ First Day” the room grew deeply quiet. We all knew. I had a lump in my throat reading the last lines.

A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora has a timely prescience too. I’m most moved by the relationship of the child to the immigrant parents--the child who both partakes of and witnesses her parents’ world. One of my favorite poems is “Chè Bắp” about the process of making and serving corn pudding; the tenderness of the preparation recalls an almost sacred continuity between parents and child. Our very humanity depends on keeping families together.

JL: Yes! I had a similar experience at a reading in November, reading my poem “Prom Night,” which is about having refugee parents, and my poem “Ark,” which tells the interfaith love story of a Muslim Bangladeshi immigrant taxi driver I met during Hurricane Sandy. I don’t normally get choked up reading those poems, nor do I always feel that the room and I are on one wavelength when I’m reading them, but that night something was just different. I didn’t originally intend those poems to be “political”; like you, I don’t generally approach my poems from that direction---not because I don’t believe poetry and politics should be intertwined, far from it, but because, like you say, I have a track record of producing “doomed” poems when I go at it that way. In both “Prom Night” and “Ark,” I mostly just wanted to say something about love, how rare and precious it is, and how it sometimes manifests in strange ways that we can’t fully fathom without knowing everything that’s going on inside each other’s brains. And how I can’t fathom why someone would want to take that away from someone else.

I’m so glad you liked “Chè Bắp.” Family is endlessly fascinating to me; it can alternately be an instrument of love, of nourishment, of fear, of abuse, of hurt. So often we make the mistake of working out our own issues on the next generation, perpetuating the cycle of unhappiness: you portrayed that theme so lucidly in “The Counterpane,” your poem about an embittered stepparent, I thought. If only we could all be as self-aware as the speaker in that poem! What makes that poem great, to me, is how clearly it shows the ways the political intrudes on the personal, how in a society where not everyone is free, even the basic unit of the family becomes poisoned.

And I’m so glad you brought this conversation back to Melville. How impossible it is to write about whales in the shadow of his achievement! Could we talk about some of our other literary and artistic obsessions? What other writers and artists do you feel you’re writing in the shadow of? I thought I could sense some of Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” in the revenge fantasy “Queen Mab: The Whale Has a Dream,” for example.

JC:  “Pirate Jenny” wasn’t on my mind, but I love the comparison! I like what you say about love. I appreciate love’s fearless presence in your poems about family. As for literary obsessions...I’ve been reading Shane McCrae’s In the Language of My Captor and it makes me fired up to write. I read his book Mule before I began Hunt and I was blown away---I reread it the entire summer. His language makes me want to write better poems...or to cut away the lies from my own language. He is a breathtaking poet. What about you? And are you working on something new?

JL: I’ve been splitting my time between studying writers who use poetic form with exquisite skill in their work---for example, how Hannah Sanghee Park revitalizes the sonnet form in The Same-Different, or how Austin Allen does the same for the rubaiyat form in Pleasures of the Game---and marveling at writers who pioneer the hinterlands between verse and prose, like Natalie Vestin and Jenny Boully and Sophia Terazawa. And Max Ritvo. There are some Max Ritvo poems I could read all day.

I’m not currently working on a book, at least not consciously, although I’m always writing new poems. I’ve been writing quite a bit about dreams lately, and mental illness, and mothers. And what’s next for you?

JC: I’ve started new poems; I thought Hunt had emptied the poems out of me, but I am back at the very beginning. It’s been lovely to talk about whales, migration, love, and corn pudding with you. Thank you!

JL: Thank you so much! I enjoyed this conversation a lot.

Jessica Cuello's first book, Pricking, was published by Tiger Bark Press in 2016. Her second collection, Hunt, was the winner of The 2016 Washington Prize from The Word Works. Jessica is also the author of the chapbooks My Father's Bargain (2015)By Fire (2013), and Curie (2011). She has been the recipient of The New Letters Poetry Prize and a Saltonstall Fellowship.

Jenna Le, a daughter of Vietnamese refugees, lives and works as a physician and educator in New Hampshire. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor & Plume, 2016). Her poetry has appeared in AGNI Online, The Best of the Raintown Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles ReviewMassachusetts ReviewThe Village Voice, and elsewhere. Her website is

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