An interview with Jane Lewty

By Claire Glass


Jane Lewty is one of MAKE’s seasoned book reviewers. With a background in literary criticism, she is perceptive and analytical, as well as creative in her delivery. In her 2010 review of Geometrics, a collection of poems by Guillevic, she unpacks the use of the term Englished as opposed to translated, which appears as a precursor to the text. She goes on to flesh out the choice as she sees it; deeply connected to the mission of Geometrics itself. Englished, she asserts, readies a reader for an unconventional diffusion of ideas. In the very foundation of Geometrics, she explains, even before the poems begin, we are told that this version of the text in English does not fancy itself a carbon copy of the original, but rather an approximate rekindling of an unmatchable object. A seemingly minute detail becomes our gateway into understanding Geometrics.

With the litheness of a mathematician, Lewty grapples with the technical just as she does the visceral response in her poetry. As a reviewer she is acrobatic, able to inject herself into the composition of a piece of writing as though she were involved from its inception. This is likely due to her background in literary criticism, which she was kind enough to discuss with me in an interview via e-mail this week while in transit from her home in Amsterdam to a conference in Paris.

We at MAKE were thrilled to learn that a book of her poetry, Bravura Cool, is set for a 2012 release under 1913 Press. Jane’s poetry, like her reviews, is captivating for its organic subject matter and the often-lonely world it evokes. She deftly positions clinical language alongside discussions of events in nature to make vivid the disordered intersections of the natural world with the human one. Her use of antiquated technical terminology, which requires extensive research on her part, infuses her work with a truly unique tone that is both detached and nostalgic.

Jane discussed how her background as a literary critic has informed her creative work, as well as the philosophies that guide her criticism. Just as worlds of nature and technology collide in her poetry, so do her various written lives.

Q: How has your background in literary criticism informed or influenced your writing?


A: I can’t unlearn the practice of literary criticism and how meticulous it has to be; therefore it does affect my poetry. To compartmentalize isn’t productive. I feel quite defiant in that regard and agree with Cynthia Ozick’s (and others’) notion of creative criticism, a more contemplative form of analysis rather than a resounding academic argument. In terms of poetry, most of my writing is research-informed—from its idea, to its structure and intended impact. Some might argue that it’s hardly an instinctive way to begin writing, but to me it’s unmeditated. There’s so much interdisciplinary work being produced at the moment, and I anticipate at some point I’ll combine the two.

Q: How much critical analysis do you engage in while editing a given work, if any? Does this background change the perspective from which you approach the task of editing?

A: I do think that competence in, for example, prosody can be useful to the editing process, but, again, I try to avoid the idea that there should be two sides of the aisle. It goes without saying that an editor should initially stand back and consider a work on its own terms without any surround sound of history, context, etc. It’s not always helpful to say to a writer something like, “this is a fine imitation of Ben Jonson” (unless it’s intended to be).

Q: We’re very interested in the process of getting a book published. It’s a remarkable feat and we know there are many avenues by which a writer may find this success. How did you come to enter your work to be published through 1913? Did you look to other publishers first?

A: I didn’t send the manuscript to many presses, only those I thought might respond favorable. I’ve learned that the easiest way to be disappointed is to submit to every competition, which is what I used to do. I’m under no illusion that my poetry appeals to everyone, so I minimized the objective and asked myself which poets I hold in high regard and where they’re published. It’s more reassuring to submit to a press who’ve invested in the kind of poetry I’m drawn to myself and 1913 is definitely one of those places. You can get very absorbed in the cycle of submitting, and waiting to hear the results rather than turning aside from the process and beginning new work. There have been times when my revisions to a poem or manuscript have been tailored in the light of rejection from a larger press, when I wasn’t thinking about how it would have really fitted in.

Q: Since we haven’t had the privilege of reading your book just yet, can you offer a description of what we might expect? I’m interested in the content of the book, as well as the process of writing. If the book is a collection of poems, as I understand it to be, did you envision each poem working in conjunction with the next when you wrote them? Are there characters or themes that will be recurring throughout?

A: I tried hard to make the book cohere. That being said, there’s more than one theme.  I’m reluctant to nail it down as being about something—in fact many of the poems refer to misinterpretation, mistakes, codifying, elision. I’m interested in the situations in which confusion and negative transformation might occur—a chemical procedure, a radio signal, weather systems, the synapses of the brain, an experience of extreme solitude, the intermediary state of rootlessness or drifting. There’s a poem about a séance that might be said to divide the collection, from which arises some repetitions and echo. Companion poems don’t appear side by side, other poems might be described as rewrites of something that occurred earlier.

Q: What are the differences between publishing individual works as opposed to an entire book? I imagine the selection and rejection process would be completely different when it comes to the enormity of a book versus an individual poem. But I’m much more interested in what you think!

A: Once I’d compiled a tentative collection, there were some poems I found hard to relinquish without some kind of explanatory note—by that I mean another poem—but that’s my fault for writing a book with ideas that intersect. Some pieces do stand on their own, though, and I’ve been delighted to see how they are positioned in journals alongside other writers and different types of work, because I’ve been concerned for such a long time with how they contribute to the balance of my own collection. I also get the chance to see strengths and weaknesses of a poem that I hadn’t engaged with since having written it.

Q: In that same vein– I’ve been able to read some of your poetry online, and it seems you are fascinated with scientific language and terminology that describes the natural state of things. In the piece below you evoke scientific language to describe the visceral experience of music. You also use a musical vocabulary, which I see as being its own sort of scientific language, like that of meteorology or mathematics, in combination with those mentions of meteors or space.

I read the poem we discussed in Issue 5 of Blackbox Manifold.

Hear basso continuo hear away:
A canon looping
around a moon

(moon a well-lagged water tank)           Hear its ratio
A major dominant, B minor submediant – 3rd below the first
note of a scale–        note called “blue-for-alice”

gage-flung      all music here is gage-flung     no tone
no passing or state

of escape in cadence

or in, as I remember, Satellite Osumi
It burned up in ’03.

Numb sidling creature                       a shadowcone
a sometime perigee/or apigee (that is, wherever the elliptic sits)
its chord the gap
of entering edge & trailing edge of air

And earth –your earth–what that
stands for—for once
the fixed middle–
pulling a stray flux line in a stray chain of parts–

Osumi      burned up     Wrong circuit type:   was it a ‘tether/tundra/killer’ (socalled)
or simply ‘escape’ satellite
straining away, thin as filament silk

though I am sure I saw it static stayed lightly quivering east-to-west, synchronous with us
an analemma in the sky

appearing in the thought-up angle
between orbit’s vector and band of solstice

A way to equinox is the 8    unitless
like a mug tilted turned twice.      Hear its phasing–
round rota summer is incumen in.

A: That particular poem, now called “Outering,” was originally part of a sequence I wrote some time ago about a project called Makrolab, established in the 1990s by the artist Marko Peljhan. Makrolab was an assembled unit, usually placed in a remote part of the world, and staffed by people who were willing to work in isolation. It tracked every type of telecommunication using data from invisible signals, and general human activity picked up by their technologies. As a scientific experiment, it deliberately extended its capacities into a sphere that couldn’t be compressed or completely analyzed. I’m similarly drawn to vocabulary that aims to be clinical, detached and specific, yet nevertheless attempts to relay what might be unutterable, terrifying or emotionally devastating.

Q: From where do you glean inspiration for this sort of work? Will we see similar subject matter in your book?

A: Parts of Bravura Cool are most definitely a restaging—I feel I’ve indoctrinated myself after what seems like many years researching the parallels of science and literature. For example, I have journals on electricity from the 1920s, many of which use terms that are now obsolete, and in a more general sense I’ve worked on the influence of disembodied sound on the written word. In terms of poetry, I resisted the topic for a while, but learned to appreciate the experience of writing what I’ve always written about, but in a different way.

Q: What does it mean to you that your book was chosen?

A: A great deal. I’m sure it’s the goal of any writer to be appreciated by both people and a press you admire.

Jane Lewty is an assistant professor of English Literature and creative writing at the University of Amsterdam and holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (2009) Her reviews and poetry have been placed in Blazevox, MAKE magazine, Otoliths, Blackbox Manifold, VOLT and others. She has co-edited two essay collections: Broadcasting Modernism (University Press of Florida, 2009) and Pornotopias: Image, Apocalypse, Desire from Litteraria Pragensia, who are issuing her chapbook later this year. She is also a co-editor of VLAK magazine.

Claire Glass grew up in Philadelphia but was secretly born in Camden, New Jersey. She moved to Chicago after graduating from New York University this past May. She writes essays and short stories, mostly about her family and gross things she witnesses while on public transportation. She works for Chicago Publishes at the Cultural Center and writes for Gapers Block’s Book Club section.


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