Five Questions: An Interview with Jenny Boully

Born in Korat, Thailand, Jenny Boully is a celebrated poet of contemporary poetry who grew up in Texas, and studied at Hollins University and the University of Notre Dame. She has authored three books of great acclaim, “The Body” in 2002, “The Book of Beginnings and Endings” in 2002, and “[one love affair]*” in 2006. Of “The Body”, critic Arielle Greenberg described her work as a “text on absence, love, ontology and identity—minus the text”, as the entire book is solely composed of footnotes. Her work has appeared in the literary magazines Boston Review and Conjunctions. Lately, she splits her time between Texas and Brooklyn, as she works on her PhD from the Graduate Center of the City of New York.

Candice Wang: The Body is written solely in the form of footnotes. Please elaborate on your structural decision and how it illuminates the purpose of your poem.

Jenny Boully: The Body is about absence and loss. It is also about subtext, interpreting meaning, what gets said and what remains hidden. When I was starting out, I was composing solely in footnotes. At that point, I had every intention of going back and writing in the main story. When I had gathered about twenty footnotes, however, it occurred to me that the story would have to remain unread. So the blank pages to the footnotes were born. I thought it was the most appropriate form to document the loss and absence and inferred meanings.

CW: The Body was originally published as a lyric essay, but it has been published in Best American Poetry 2002. Would you categorize your poem in the realm of prose poetry, or lyrical essay? Why or why not?

JB: What I love about The Body is precisely its ability to fit into multiple genres or defy genre altogether. When I originally wrote it, I worried that it wouldn’t find publication due to its poetic nature in the form of essayistic prose. I had read about the Seneca Review’s mission to publish what they were calling lyric essays. It seemed to me that the lyric essay, as they had defined it, was exactly what The Body was. I’m happy to call it an essay.

CW: In the contributor’s notes section of Best American Poetry 2002, you mentioned that the works of Kafka had a hand in inspiring your poetry. Please elaborate on how Kafka has inspired The Body.

JB: In Kafka’s world, there are random, seemingly bizarre appearances and disappearances. It is a world in which one wonders if what transpired even transpired at all. Additionally, Kafka’s own writing made similar moves–and what I often love most about his books are his deleted passages–the things that remained unsaid. I love how meaning morphs depending on what is found in the afterlife of books.

CW: You mention within The Body that dreams are the footnotes to life. What does one gain from trying to fabricate the body of life from the footnotes, instead of the other way around, as is typical?

JB: If you read “footnotes,” I believe that means you are paying more attention, looking for the nuances, the details, what everyone else doesn’t see necessarily. That seems a much better way to live to me. If you believe that everything manifests for some reason, then it would seem to me that you’re more alert in your living life and more in tune with messages, wherever they might come from. You’re always looking to see how things connect, how you fit in.

CW: How do you think contemporary poetry can maintain its relevance to modern society? What does poetry bring to our outlook on life?

JB: I really don’t know a good way to answer this question. I wish I could be more optimistic, but I’m finding that poetry is becoming less popular, less read, less understood. I do believe, however, that language is one of the most amazing human developments, and I love that poets are the ones who lavish attention to language and uphold it and pay it serious attention. I think poetry can help up feel connected to humanity; I wish it were more prevalent.

I would like to extend my gratitude to Professor Boully for taking time to create thoughtful responses for this interview. I had a wonderful experience interviewing her, and gaining valuable insight from such an esteemed poet about her own work, as well as her view of poetry’s role in modern society.

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