Interview: Jessie van Eerden

Jessie van Eerden’s speaking voice is gentle, inviting, smooth as a creek stone. She’s reading of prayers, of a woman wearing a black slip and smoking Pall Malls, of the “cloud of witnesses” from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, and her listeners are entranced, transported far from this dull classroom on the campus of East Tennessee State University. Van Eerden is here as part of the 2015 Appalachian Studies Association Conference, sharing a panel titled “Voice Lessons” with novelist and poet Darnell Arnoult, fiction and creative nonfiction writer Karen Salyer McElmurray, and fiction writer and editor Amanda Jo Runyon. The quartet is offering selections from their own work and discussing the concept of voice in creative writing and all the different types and pitches found in Appalachian literature.

Voice is, of course, an amorphous topic, hard to pin down, difficult to define. To quote former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it,” and I see it all over van Eerden’s work. Her voice is lyrical, complex, ruminating—characteristics on full display in her sparkling debut novel Glorybound and in her many essays that have appeared in places like Ruminate, Image, and in Best American Spiritual Writing.

In a recent conversation, van Eerden and I discussed the sensual qualities her writing, of being haunted, and her role as director of West Virginia Wesleyan University’s MFA in Writing Program.

Jason Howard: I’ve read your beautiful essay “The Long Weeping” [included in this issue of Appalachian Heritage] a few times now, and it’s so evocative—I feel like it’s almost a scene from my own childhood. Why did this moment in particular—the images, the people, the music—linger with you?

Jessie van Eerden: I am grateful to hear that this essay evokes something in you—that always feels like a real moment of contact when someone reads your work and sees himself in it. You and I may have had similar childhoods, but I am probably trying to evoke elements of childhood that might resonate with any reader, whether or not he or she grew up in a church with no indoor plumbing! I think moments of childhood sleep in us and they wake up when we read something that renders the consciousness of childhood faithfully. Children of the Eighties will likely remember the jelly shoes and Casey Kasem in the essay and find recognition there, and most will also find regular use of a hand pump very odd for that decade, but the recognition and strangeness are both on the surface—the particular moment lingers with me because I keenly remember it as a time when my life felt too big for me, as if it were swollen with all the lives of the older people in the Whetsell Settlement, my home community in rural West Virginia. I love the opening of Agee’s A Death in the Family: “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.” That notion feels true—children feel and remember so much more than we think, and they store stuff away in their old souls. When Agee describes the moment of his father watering the lawn and goes in so close to the sound and vision of the hose—the water “just a wide bell of film”—I feel my own childhood pulsing there, though my own dad would never have spent precious well water on the lawn. It’s that moment of fullness, of realization that life is full to the brim and it is something you can lose. The sacredness and the grief well up together in such moments.

JH: What else haunts you?

JVE: At the moment, I’m haunted by a recent reissue of Sally Mann’s Immediate Family, a collection of photographs of her children in rural Virginia; the photos are stunning and blurry and dreamlike, with lots of inner life pulsating all over the place. I bought the book because of a thought-provoking essay of Mann’s in the New York Times this past April in which she addresses the controversy over her work—I wasn’t that familiar with her photos or aware that many people think she exploits her kids and reveals too much about them (they’re often nude in the photos). Of all works of art, real connection happens for me most immediately with portrait photography, the kind of I-Thou contact that Martin Buber describes, instead of the I-It relationship that lets the photo remain an object. Faces and bodies in photos often feel very active and participatory in their being seen—they become a Thou to be met and reckoned with—and they can haunt you for days. Photos like hers that raise questions about ethical responsibility to your subject are particularly haunting because of how they resonate with writing work, with the responsibility we have to the people we write about, characters both invented and real. Mann’s photos are all the more tender and uncomfortable because she’s a mother photographing her children, so all the roles blur. This question of responsibility to our subjects opens to the larger question of the artist’s responsibility to the world that we’re here to bear witness to; the question itself probably haunts all artists. We are more global and connected than ever, of course—virtually—yet only by the thinnest of threads, it seems, which break if they’re strained the tiniest bit. It’s overwhelming, and I guess the way I often explore that overwhelming and baffling connection is by returning in my work to the small community I grew up in, to those musty houses where I went to youth group meetings and we had to go real slow up the gravel road in the dark because the black angus would crowd around the car and lick it and we couldn’t see them, we had to be careful—those connections between people were the first and strongest I’d sensed so they still instruct me.

In a wonderful poem by West Virginia poet Irene McKinney, “Homage to Hazel Dickens,” she writes: “Whether we go or stay, we’ve lost it./ The porch, the cold crocks of cream in the cellar,// the redbone hound in the yard, the wild azalea all orange/ and sweet, we’ve lost it standing here looking at it// this way.” When you look at your home, the very stuff of your day, with a certain kind of gaze that recognizes the stuff is imbued with preciousness because it’s fleeting, I think everything starts to haunt you—the faces of your freshmen composition students, your mailman who limps, the girls down the road who do each other’s makeup on the front porch. Of course we can’t look at things that way all the time, with that kind of gaze—we’d short circuit or explode and we wouldn’t be able to tie our shoes for the ridiculous weeping! But the spiritual practice of writing is what trains us to see that way at sustained wonderful increments and to try to render what we see, to say Look. I think when you look at a piece of art that rises up in you and haunts you, it melds with the stuff already haunting around in your mind so that there’s a real sense of interconnectedness, maybe wholeness.

JH: You’re a very sensual writer—I keep thinking about how, in the essay, you describe “the divot in the pillow on the camphor-smell bed” and legs “caked in pantyhose.” Where do you think your attention to the senses comes from?

JVE: It probably comes mostly from reading and being stunned again and again by writers who convey a sense of fatefulness, as the poet Li-Young Lee puts it, that sense of inevitability: yes, that is exactly right, that image, that experience, my whole being thrums with how very right it is. When I have that moment of having some sliver of experience of the world rendered so perfectly by a writer, all I think is ‘I want to do that!’ because it’s such a magical experience. I also got some good training in attending to the senses from growing up with a lot of hands-on garden work—a lot of touching of the world, digging potatoes, weeding carrots carefully so you didn’t pull up the carrots themselves—and with three older creative siblings who were always making stuff like laser beams out Maxwell House coffee cans, pallet-and-tarp forts, kites, periscopes out of paper towel rolls. On the back of the kitchen cabinet door, my mom kept a list of things to do when we got bored so if we ever whined, she’d open the cupboard to her list and say, “Go make periscopes!” She always had the best ideas. (Today she called to tell me how to make my own deodorant, so she still has the best ideas!)

JH: Much of your writing—including “The Long Weeping” and your novel Glorybound—is heavily rooted in the spiritual, and you’ve had work featured in Rock & Sling and Best American Spiritual Writing. What has been your own experience with religion and the spirit, and how has it informed your art?

JVE: Talking about faith-informed writing feels similar to talking about place-informed writing: both kinds of writing are about the landscapes that forge your imagination. I don’t think we have a lot of choice about what those landscapes are, or even about what our primary concerns are in our writing. It’s hard to talk about personal experience with religion since it’s just that, pretty personal, but I can say that for me it has to do with unfoldment—a word my friend and colleague Devon McNamara used the other day in regard to working through our tasks not as one works down a check list, robotically, but in a spirit of natural unfoldment. Isn’t that beautiful? I apply it here to spirituality because it’s something that keeps unfolding. Many of us who grew up fundamentalist in small churches, then went off to college and “got out in the world,” whatever that means, often feel that the chapter on religion in our lives is closed and there simply to be written about and excavated as a thing of the past, the way you talk about your mom cooking with too much butter—endearing, but of course you use olive or coconut oil now, you have better sense. But it seems too easy to me to block off religion in that dismissive way. Religion is important to such a vast majority of people because it asks the hardest questions—we can flat out disagree over how it answers them if we want, and we can argue it’s too packaged or narrow-minded, and also that the rigid answers can do a great deal of damage to people. But religion’s questions about death, meaning, time, love—they are just as real as they are when they’re posed by philosophy, art, physics. I grew up looking at those questions through the lens of altar calls and Bible studies and revivals, and it seems to me the lens continues to grow larger, still including those things but also other things.

Also, I grew up, in some ways, without such strict compartments (compartments the publishing market subscribes to, unfortunately: Spiritual Writing, Appalachian Writing, Paranormal Writing). Doing your hair and praying over somebody’s tumor were activities that shared the same moment and the same room—talking to the beautician and talking to God, both seemed to be available and accessible auditors. Compartmentalism can cause trouble. For instance, 80 a problem with faith-interested (as well as place-interested writing) is that it can be self-referential and tribal, or coded, and can close out those who are from other landscapes. Maybe the way you avoid that “clubbiness” is by focusing the heart of your work on the forging and firing action, on that lived experience of being shaped in your imagination, because that is shared by everyone, even if the active forces or landscapes vary drastically. But human formation and growth and development, when that is your subject you’re getting down to a pretty deep root we all share.

JH: You wrote most of Glorybound when you lived in Seattle, far across the country from your native West Virginia, where the novel is set. Did you find that this physical—and perhaps emotional—distance informed your writing of the book?

JVE: Probably, yes. I remember that it was hard to hear the dialog, and it helped that I revised the novel during a few months when I was living back in West Virginia. Mainly though I wonder if time affects composition more than space does. In Seattle I had huge chunks of time to occupy that novel as I drafted it, because I had the great fortune of having a fellowship from Image that enabled me to write while teaching only one class at Seattle Pacific University. Now I live in West Virginia but I often have much smaller increments of time to really steep myself in the place of the novel I’m currently working on (this novel is also set in West Virginia) so I feel it’s sometimes harder to conjure the West Virginia that is right outside my doorstep!

Also, I was in a writing workshop with Seattleites for a brief time while drafting Glorybound, and I remember they hated the first draft of the first chapter that opened with Aimee Lemley in a low-cut blouse sitting on the cinder-block steps in front of her trailer. No way you can start a “southern” novel that way, they insisted—I didn’t correct them that it wasn’t a southern novel, it was a mountain novel, but, anyway, I was interested in their resistance. It was an interesting environment in which to try to depict a much-abused and much-stereotyped place where people do live in trailer parks (as they also do ten miles out of Seattle).

JH: In my own writing life, I think a lot about what Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in one of his letters: “A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.” Why was it necessary for you to write Glorybound?

JVE: That’s one of the best questions to ask of any piece of writing. I ask it of my students constantly, and I ask it of myself always. If there is no urgency for me in a piece of writing, I move on (whether I’m reading it or writing it). Life is too short! Not that I don’t read fun stuff—I’m not some kind of strict humorless reader (and maybe Rilke could’ve loosened up, who knows?)—but fun doesn’t mean vacuous or self-indulgent. I remember in grad school it was fashionable to romp around with random stuff that interested you, word play, stunt essays, and much of it seemed self-indulgent to me, or hermetic, but maybe I just didn’t understand it (even when I was the one trying to do it). Probably that’s the case. I can say that I did feel a need to write Glorybound. It treats many of the themes I was obsessed with in essay-writing when pursuing my MFA in nonfiction, and the novel poured out more or less right after I finished my degree. For that novel, maybe on the surface I needed to write about patriarchy in the church or about the interior textures of people whom I feel are dismissed in our broader culture (Bible-reading girls cooped up in a trailer in West Virginia), but mostly I think I needed cede over the reins of a project to characters who could teach me how to make something whole, a unified world that could be a mirror for this real world. I needed to just learn more about that miraculous work—I’m still learning.

JH: You direct the West Virginia Wesleyan University Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing program. What sets this program apart from other low-res programs?

JVE: Every program tries to be unique, and I think every program probably is unique! We have an embarrassment of riches in this country when it comes to opportunities to deepen one’s writing in the company of other writers. We are lucky dogs. I naturally feel that Wesleyan’s program is particularly unique, and maybe that kind of pride in what you’re invested in is inevitable because you see it up close, you see it’s the real deal. There are some stand-out qualities of the program for sure. First, it was founded by Irene McKinney, one of West Virginia’s most important and most visionary poets, and she cast the tone for a rigorous and nurturing program, a balance that’s not easy to achieve in an MFA program. Irene went back for her undergraduate degree when she was married with kids; in her words in her poem “At 24”: “I was writing to save my life as I knew it/could be.” That kind of vision of writing as salvific, as fulfillment of your deepest potential, as something you’ve waited to pursue and need to pursue, pervades the program, and I love that. The program also cultivates literature that’s interested in place, though does not exclude writers for whom place is not a central concern of their work. We invite Appalachian writers like Ann Pancake, Maggie Anderson, Crystal Wilkinson, and Scott McClanahan to come and contribute to the ongoing conversation about what it means to make literature in this region for readers inside it and also beyond it. We stress good writing, period, but we do keep alive that strand of conversation about how to be vigilant against flat, stereotypical or sentimental writing about the region; how to convey the many kinds of Appalachias that exist and keep shifting; how to avoid getting too insular or tribal. We are intentional about inviting in minority voices of the region, Affrilachian voices in particular, to complicate a picture of a region associated mostly with whiteness.

Also, because I’m a practical person, I will note that the program is uniquely affordable among low-residency programs. It’s important to us to keep it that way.

In the current economic and academic climate, it is common to discourage folks from enrolling in MFA programs. Maybe there’s wisdom in that; who can really say? I feel such programs are like church services—almost despite all the infrastructure and ritual and trappings, real contact can happen, a vision at the altar can happen, incredible art can get made. I do feel the writers in our program receive superb feedback and keen attention to their work; I don’t know that that’s unique among MFA programs; I hope it’s not. It may be unique that for the thesis manuscript we have four established writers who give pages and pages of feedback for each thesis, and three of us host a conversation about the manuscript with the writer—I feel that this emphasis on creating the best manuscript possible is a wonderful aspect of the program.

Honestly, no one needs an MFA program to write, but the context can be life-changing nonetheless.

JH: Who are some of your faculty members?

JVE: I am so fortunate to get to teach with a solid and generous group of core faculty and also with incredible circulating guest faculty. Some of the guest faculty have ties to Appalachia—Karen Salyer McElmurray, Carter Sickels, Mary Carroll-Hackett, Marie Manilla; some are fine writers from other places like Julia Kasdorf and Kim Dana Kupperman. Many low-residency programs have an on-site director but a far-flung faculty, but I am grateful to have these five core faculty members on campus with me so that we can collaborate to build each residency’s curriculum and share ideas about mentoring students: Mark DeFoe, Devon McNamara, Richard Schmitt, Doug Van Gundy and Eric Waggoner. It feels like we are very much part of something together and not just “teaching in a program.”

JH: Many of the program’s students are either native or have ties to Appalachia. How do you think the program prepares them to contribute to the region’s literary community and beyond?

JVE: As I mentioned, we do cultivate a vigilance here in favor of accurate and multidimensional depiction of the region, for students who do set their work in West Virginia and want to confront things like the devastation of mountaintop removal sites, the water poisoning of the fracking industry, the negligence of the chemical companies along the Elk River, or who want to explore the cultural and material poverty here explicitly, alongside the strong ties of family and significant regional themes like leaving and staying. But our requirements for our writing mentors is a record of fine writing and commitment to teaching, and we feel it’s important to have an inflow of diverse writers from across the country, with many perspectives, so that the room doesn’t get too stuffy or provincial. Irene McKinney’s assessment in the first year of the program still feels true to me about many of the writers in the 85 program: “Our students seem to feel very strongly that they are regional writers with a national audience.”

JH: As writers and writing teachers, we often talk a lot about voice. Do you approach your work with a particular voice in mind, or do you allow it to present itself as you write—in effect to surrender to what’s happening on the page?

JVE: Yes, I feel that voice as a topic is amorphous and complex, mystical even, but also quite practical in some ways. When you talk about use of multiple registers or the effect of Germanic and Latinate verbs, you get into very pragmatic, toolbox issues of voice. There is probably an inborn voice you’ve got going that you don’t have a lot of say about, though I don’t believe it’s wholly static—it gets to be born more than once. Isn’t it incredible really what goes into the making of a voice? It’s simultaneously collaborative and innate, in your DNA but also in the stuff you breathe in daily—the albums you love, the most recent book you puzzled over, the grandfather you worshipped and hated, the teachers who have helped speak you into being. But there is also the distinct voice in each piece of writing, and maybe we have to meet that voice with the other more comprehensive voice of our being so that each piece is really a synergism of sound. I don’t really know. The voice of the novel I’m working on now is quite different than that of my first and second, and it does seem like it’s a voice I had to find: it was somewhere just a little outside of the voice I already knew. I love your verb, surrender—it’s a much more active and rigorous posture than mere passivity. Surrender requires great love and attentiveness.

Jason Kyle Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words and co-author of Something's Rising, both works of literary journalism. His essays, features, and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Oxford American, Salon, The Millions, The Nation, Sojourners, and on C-SPAN's Book TV and NPR. Howard is editor of Appalachian Review, a literary quarterly based at Berea College, where he teaches and directs the creative writing program. He serves on the graduate faculty of the Spalding University School of Creative and Professional Writing, and holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and degrees from The George Washington University and the University of Kentucky.

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