A Poet Demystifies Her Process

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Speaker 1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. Forcing myself to read my work out loud, I think makes things tighter ultimately. You can have 12 great lines of poetry, but if you read it out loud and it feels lateral, lateral, lateral, lateral, you have to do some. You can figure out, Oh, it’s just these three lines. You don’t need the 12.

Karen Han: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, Karen Han.

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Isaac Butler: And I’m your other host, Isaac Butler.

Karen Han: Hi, Isaac. How are you?

Isaac Butler: I’m going to go with tired. Tired? That’s how I am. Tired. How are you?

Karen Han: Yeah, I feel the same way. It’s been a weirdly long week, even though, like. But not for, like, a really good reason.

Isaac Butler: Because you did so much epic trick or treating.

Karen Han: I wish. I wish.

Isaac Butler: You did. You do a costume and costumes going on? Yeah.

Karen Han: My boyfriend and I went as I was Ricky Joop, and he was jean jacket from Nope.

Isaac Butler: Awesome. My family went is Harry Potter characters at my daughter’s insistence. So she was Harry Potter. I was Snape. So but I because I was Snape, I just figured out that we should do Alan Rickman themes every year. And like next year I could be like in a Die Hard. Yeah, she could be Bruce Willis maybe and could be Nakatomi Tower.

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Karen Han: I don’t. I was about to say exactly that. Yeah. Yeah. All right, So who did you talk to you for this week’s episode?

Isaac Butler: I talked to the wonderful poet Jay Hope Stein, and so there’s no confusion during the interview. She just goes by Jenny in everyday life. So. But. But Jay Hope Stein is her professional name, and she is the author of a recent poetry collection on Becoming a Mother. That’s really wonderful, titled Little Astronaut.

Karen Han: Oh, wow. Well, I cannot wait to hear your conversation. But before we get to that, what can we look forward to in the Slate Plus segment this week?

Isaac Butler: There’s a lot in the Slate Plus segment this week. We’ve been very generous with our Slate Plus listeners. You know, I thought little astronaut is so conceptually unified. It is just about pregnancy and early parenting and marriage in the midst of all that. So I just wanted to know what she did with all the ideas that weren’t right for the book while she was writing the book. And that led to a really wide reaching conversation about Greek myths, the ethics of writing about your family. You know, if you’re not into poetry and you’re kind of intimidated by it, where you might start all sorts of things like that. So so there’s a lot going on this week.

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Karen Han: That’s fascinating. Well, I am the slate. Plus, my brothers cannot wait to listen to it. All right. Let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with poet Jay Hope Stein.

Isaac Butler: Jenny Stein, thank you so much for joining us today on working to talk about your process.

Speaker 1: Thanks for having me.

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Isaac Butler: So as they say in The Sound of Music, let’s start at the very beginning. You are a poet. How did you come to poetry? Did you always love poetry? Did you have a kind of epiphanic moment when you discovered it or what?

Speaker 1: Well, I did love poetry as a kid, but to be honest, like, it wasn’t until college that I started to really get into it. I had a friend named Benjamin Vardaman again, who was like my friend in college, who was a poet. Already in college. He’s a really good poet. And he introduced me to Charles Simic and the Beat Poets and got me really excited about poetry. So I really got inspired in college by my friends. But I didn’t start writing until after college. And then I was writing pretty intensely. And then one day I threw all my poems out in a garbage can on 23rd Street, and I got like a corporate job.

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Isaac Butler: Where you literally threw them all out because you were like, Well, I’m done with this life. I have to destroy. My earlier work.

Speaker 1: At Poets are very dramatic. Yeah.

Isaac Butler: Yes, that’s true. I’ve been told.

Speaker 1: I was like, I have to make a living. I can’t sit here and write poems all day. I had a lot going on personally, so it took me a while to come back to poetry again.

Isaac Butler: And what caused you to reconnect with poetry?

Speaker 1: I think meeting Mike was very influential because he I met Mike when he was 25. My husband, Mike Birbiglia, who’s the wonderful comic, and he was 25 years old when I met him. And he was just pursuing his dream. And I think that that was very influential. And I watched his work ethic and watched how he did everything and was pretty blown away. He would say, like, I remember I’m one of our first dates. He was like, I’m going to do a one person show about sleepwalking. It’s going to be called Sleepwalk With Me. And he just had I was like, okay, I know a lot of people who say they’re going to do a lot of things, but then he got on stage like a week later and just put it up like he was just did it. Whatever he had, he just put it up. And that had a huge effect on me that you just have to do it and it doesn’t have to be done yet. You have to just start doing it.

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Isaac Butler: And does that for you? I mean, obviously for him that means he’s getting up in front of an audience just doing it. You know, like as a comic, you have to have an audience to develop your work. Do you do the same thing or are you going to like poetry readings and open mics or whatever? Or is just doing it a more private affair?

Speaker 1: I’m much more private than him, so I did not have an audience, nor did I share with really anybody for many years. But eventually I started doing poetry readings and I started performing my poetry. I was performing or reading my poetry for ten people at a time, 20 people at a time. And that was really good for me, actually, to hear my poetry out loud because I was just writing it and there was just another life to it. And I think that I had originally thought, No, I’m not a performer, I’m not a reader, I’m a writer. But it does help my process every once in a while to hear what I’ve written aloud.

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Isaac Butler: What do you learn from hearing it out loud? Because I read most of the things I write out loud before I turn them in, but not to other people, just to myself, just to like how the sentences feel or whatever. But I’m just wondering, like, what is opened up for you by, you know, hearing it out loud or feeling how it feels in your mouth or whatever?

Speaker 1: Well, sometimes I forgot what I was saying until I hear it, like, I know what. And I’m like, Oh, okay. And I sort of understand what I’m trying to do more, and that helps me continue. And the other thing is with poetry, everything is sound related. It’s rhythm related. You could also see what you can strike away. That’s already in the poem. You can have 12 great lines of poetry, but if you read it out loud and it feels lateral, lateral, lateral, lateral, you have to do some. You can figure out, Oh, it’s just these three lines. You don’t need the 12. And then that’s really helpful.

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Speaker 1: I started recording my poems for Instagram and that I’m not like very big on social media or anything, but that’s been really good for my process also. And I’ve edited quite a few poems and that way where I just start reading them for Instagram and then I’m like, That could go, that can go, Oh, that should be said better. And then by the time, let’s say an hour later, I’ve completely revised the poem. So first thing myself, to read my work out loud, I think makes things tighter ultimately.

Isaac Butler: Yeah. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Isaac Butler: When you were first learning to write poetry or exploring poetry is something you wanted to do, You know, I guess I’m wondering kind of how you learn how to do that. Is it by imitating other poets? Is that how you kind of started out, or you were you buying craft books?

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Speaker 1: I was definitely imitating a lot. So I think at first I wanted to be Charles Simic. I was trying to write short prose pieces and I wanted to be friends, write who writes these really emotive short poems. And I think those are really good to start with because you can sort of write a few lines and sort of be like, Oh, I wrote a poem and that kind of thing and sort of try to get from A to B in just a few lines.

Speaker 1: But then I started writing really long form poetry, and I ended up really enjoying works like The Scent of A Lot by Alice Notley, which is a full length book of poetry, which is the poem is the whole the whole book is the poem and Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. And so I’m very influenced ultimately by books of poetry that work on a line level, but then also on a page level and then across the whole book so that it’s sort of a journey. So that ended up being what I was most influenced by. But along the way, I think I imitated anyone I was reading at the time, you know, and that and that’s really helpful just to learn different skills.

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Isaac Butler: What did that imitation look like? Were you very formal about it like I am today going to write a Charles Simic poem that means X, Y, or Z? Or was it more like by osmosis you start kind of it comes out.

Speaker 1: Sometimes I look at a poem and I always have and said, I wish I could write a poem like this. And then I try to write a poem like that and it’s nothing like it. But in my mind, I think that’s what I’m doing. And then other times it’s literally like taking one line and saying like, How can I take a line that works this way with sound and heart and meaning and apply it to what I’m writing about and really, like, spend like a whole day with a line and trying to imitate it, but make it work for whatever I’m trying to work on. So it really depends. I mean, it could even just be a word, like I can just see a word and say, I have to use this word somewhere. So poets get kind of stuck on sounds and words, and I’ve been known to do that.

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Isaac Butler: Yeah, I remember. There’s one of those the turn. There’s a few of those in the method where like I read them in a book and I was like, Oh, I like that word. I’m going to have to find a place to shoehorn that word. And the only one I remember at the time I had is admiration.

Speaker 1: Whoa.

Isaac Butler: Which was like the criticisms. Yeah. And I was like, Where’s this going to go? And there’s there’s one chapter. I found it, and I was like, high fiving myself around the office.

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Karen Han: So you used.

Isaac Butler: It? I did? Oh, yeah. Yeah. No, I had a list of them. And then I would like make sure I had the definition correct. And then I would be like, if I find a place to use this word, I’ll do it. And then it. And then it came up. I was very happy about it.

Speaker 1: I studied with Ilya Kaminsky and he makes all of his students keep journals of words and phrases and things that they come upon when they’re reading that they like, and you just kind of keep a little journal. I don’t do this anymore, but sometimes I’ll grab things here and there and just write them down, but you just keep them and then they and then the osmosis starts to happen, I think. Yeah, totally. I don’t ever look back at them, but they’re in me when I once I write them down. So I think stays with me.

Isaac Butler: Do you have a specific place that you write from? Like, do you have an office that you write from or you kind of go to a cafe or you are right from anywhere kind of person.

Speaker 1: As like, you know this, you’ve seen me around. Okay, well, I haven’t been there a while because I’ve been away so much. But when I was writing Little Astronaut, I wrote part of it standing at Stumptown, like, standing in that front area at Stumptown at one of those standing tables. But I also wrote much of it at Route class. So yeah, I have a very hard time writing from home. I actually during the pandemic, I created a whole like desk environment that when I’m.

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Isaac Butler: Speaking to you for mine right now.

Speaker 1: See, I couldn’t get anything done at my in my desk environment. This couldn’t happen for me. I needed to be out in the middle of somewhere where I was invisible, even if it’s just a park bench or anything or stoop. I don’t like writing at a desk very much. It’s not. It’s not for me.

Isaac Butler: And do you have any rituals you do before you start writing to kind of be like, I’m now in writing mode.

Speaker 1: I try to sort of give myself what I call a diet of particular things to listen to, particular things to read. So that sort of the osmosis you were talking about kind of takes over, whether it’s a feeling or something I’m interested in and learning about it. Like, you know, it could be nonfiction if I’m writing about extinction or something like that, I’ll heavy up on the Extinction books. Yeah, I like to sort of be in the headspace of, you know, have like a playlist that I listen to. And sometimes the playlist will include poets, reading work and. Whitman. And, you know, I get into Whitman phases a lot and that really gets just gets me going. It just sort of puts me in a writing mode.

Speaker 1: Hmm. So for little astronaut, I had a really specific writing process, which is Mike was on stage performing the new one. And in the middle of the show, all these toys fall all around him. And also my poetry notebooks full. And so I had to make these props for Mike to use on stage. I had to make three Johnny poetry notebooks. And so he’s like, Make them look realistic. So I started writing in them, but then he took them and he, like they and they fell from the ceiling eight shows a week. And then I would beg him to like, bring them back to me so I could keep writing them. So a lot of the poems from Little Astronaut were written in those notebooks, just like I’d have them for his day off on Monday. I would, like, write in them, and then they would fall from the ceiling eight times a week, and then he’d bring them back to me and I would, like, write in them. And then so I’d say like the seeds for about 80% of the book are in those notebooks.

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Isaac Butler: Oh, wow.

Isaac Butler: We should probably clarify for those who don’t know that both little astronaut, your most recent collection of poems, and the new one, which was both a show written and performed by Mike, and a book that the two of you authored together are about your pregnancy and the birth and early days of parenting your daughter Una. And that is a fascinating origin story for a book. I don’t think you might be the first person I’ve interviewed for this show where the origin of the work is. Chunks of it had to fall from the ceiling eight times a week.

Speaker 1: But no, it’s a really strange process. I was going to tell you that the other seeds of the book were my friend, Ilya Kaminsky, the poet. He when I first had Una, I was like in the first couple of months I wasn’t getting any writing done. And he was like, Write an email to yourself every day, just anything you can think of and a thought, observation, rant, whatever it is, a color. And then by the end of two months you’ll have seeds for a book. And that also ended up being the seeds for.

Isaac Butler: Oh, that’s wild. Yeah. Because I was wondering because, you know, obviously the poems feel extremely well crafted, right? But there’s also an immediacy to them. Like sometimes it feels emotionally it has this charge of like, you’ve just finished breastfeeding, you’ve put the kid down, you’ve run to the desk and you’ve written the thing that we just read. And I know a lot of craft actually happens between those two things, but that’s interesting that it’s actually based on things that may have happened days, weeks, months earlier. How do you get yourself back into the the headspace or is it easy for you? You know, you’re reading the email and suddenly you’re like, Oh, God, I remember this moment. I can channel it now.

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Speaker 1: Well, you know, I wrote this book over the course of about six years. And so I wrote them in different in different chunks. Oh, I’m a slow one. I’m a pretty slow writer. I have you know, I have a book I finished in 2015 that I just made some changes on, you know, So I’m pretty slow in my process. And little astronaut probably had three or four major writing moments where I like, outputted about, you know, 15 or 20 poems. And so the first 20 or so came easy. And then the next batch, it got harder and harder as I got farther away from it because my daughter’s seven now.

Speaker 1: And so when I was writing the last batch of poems, she was about five or six, and it was hard to get into the headspace. The best way for me to get into the headspace was actually to read what I had already done the book as it was, and hear what the book needed, what it was missing, what could sort of make some of the themes more connected, where I could take them that I haven’t already taken them.

Speaker 1: And so that was sort of the final step. And so that was less immediate. But the first batch of poems were very immediate, and I was really like thankful to have those moments that I wrote while they were happening because. Like. One of the things I think is really fun about poetry is that you can do that. You can kind of get away with just saying like, this is happening right now and then, you know, sort of jump out to the reader and say, by the way, this is happening right now. There are stakes here.

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Isaac Butler: So I find that like when I’m at the beginning of a big project, whatever it is, like, I often have to set some kind of set of rules for myself. I mean, they’re pretty arbitrary, but I mean, I’ll give you an example. Like for the method, it was like, I only want to quote primary sources in the book. Like, I want it to feel like it’s the people I want it to be in three acts, you know, just like little things like that. Because otherwise choice paralysis sets in, right? Because on the blank page, it’s like you could literally do anything. Do you do that? Is that part of your process? And if so, what were your rules for little astronaut?

Speaker 1: I do that. I love rules. And I think that they’re all like in my own head and nobody could possibly figure out what they are. Sometimes they’re even just rules with sound or rhythms or something I’m playing with internally in poems or structurally. For little astronaut in particular, I sort of have a different two different processes. One is I just like I call the expansion process where I’m just like expanding in every direction. It’s wild, it’s unwieldy, it’s like 500 pages of craziness. And then I sit down as like a sober person who looks through it and says, This works, this doesn’t work, this works. It’s almost like I didn’t write it and I’m so detached from it. I’m like, Oh, that’s crazy that I wrote that and no memory of writing these things, but and so then so that person, the sort of pragmatic person, comes in and sort of sees what’s useful.

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Speaker 1: And then from there I kind of assess like it looks like what I have going on, or this thread in this thread in this thread, how can I do a batch of poems that musically are like this and a package of poems that me work musically, more meditatively? They have more space. How can I do some sort of ranty, kind of loutish poems that are a little bit like this one and sort of weave those together and try to make some kind of a pattern or tapestry with them. So I, I really enjoy work that can pull that off. So I’m always trying to pull that off, right? Make it more musical and make it more of a pattern that you can depend on. But then something also is a little out of place or strange or within that pattern.

Karen Han: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Jay Hope Stein.

Karen Han: Listeners, we want to hear from you. Whether it’s to ask us for advice on a creative problem, tell us a guest you’d like to hear on the show or share your own creative triumphs. Drop us a line at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at 304933w0rk. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts.

Karen Han: Now let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with Jay Hope Stein.

Isaac Butler: So little. Astrid is, of course, very personal. It’s highly autobiographical and it’s very honest about all sorts of aspects of your life from, you know, fights you and Mike are having to your sex life or the physical and emotional complexities of being a new mother. How do you decide what you’re going to share with the world and what you’re not?

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Speaker 1: Oh, my gosh. Did I put all that in? Sometimes I just try not to think about it. But Mike is an autobiographical writer, right? And part of our marriage was like when it was just us alone in bed talking about getting married was that I had to agree that he could write about our lives. And. And he had to agree that I had I could participate in that process so that I felt okay about it. So in that process, over the years, we’ve learned to be as honest as we can, I think, but also save something just for us. And so we’re always saving something that’s just for us, which I think is really important.

Speaker 1: But this is my first autobiographical piece. Most of my work is really far out and not related to my life at all, although I could sneak things in but and disguise things. But they don’t come off as me talking about my life. But I have worked with Mike a lot over the years. So I think that when I have a kid and when my friend Ilya had suggested just write observations about So when Ilya said, like, write to yourself every day, I was like, I’ll do that. But there’s no way I’m writing a book about it. Or Mother. I’m like, That’s not happening. I’m in the middle of something totally different that’s really far out. But it came really naturally. I guess I just sort of had a lot to express in the moment. And your original question was, How do I decide what not to say? I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t have said all that stuff.

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Isaac Butler: No, I mean, I think the work benefits are and I don’t think there’s any problem with it. Well, you know, one of the major motifs of little Astro, I mean, it’s right there in the title Outer space, you know, the how we relate to the world, how we relate to other planets. You compare yourself to Kepler at one point to a kiss at another. And I was that motif there from the beginning. Did that just sort of develop at some point? Then you went back and threaded it through or, you know, how did that erupt into the book?

Speaker 1: Well, I started with the first poem, Little Astronaut, which is sort of like this very short poem that was in my show, and it compares baby to being an astronaut. And so I wrote most of the space poems in the book as the very last batch of poems. So you saw right through that Isaac.

Isaac Butler: So I was really curious. I really had no idea. I was like, Oh, I wonder how this developed as a theme.

Speaker 1: I had a couple of them there from the beginning, but then when I looked at the book before I wrote my final batch of about ten poems or so, when I read the book, what I felt like it wanted was to explore that theme a little bit more and explore that metaphor. Mm hmm. And so I wrote some relationship poems about Mike and I and that have some space themes in them and compare us to Voyager two and Voyager one, which are have left our heliosphere.

Speaker 1: And then I explore just even, you know, the thing of like taking your child and holding them up to the ceiling and having them sort of be like a little astronaut up in the air and them drilling down on you and that kind of imagery. I wanted to take that, and I wrote a space poem about that, too. And so I definitely wanted to tighten that up at the end. So I bet, though, I think the last ten poems or so that I wrote have a lot of imagery like that in it that I felt like the book was missing and really needed another format.

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Isaac Butler: You returned to a bunch that I really enjoy is the the toasts. I know they’re not always overtly called toasts, but the first one appears the a toast to a third arm, which I’ll just read to that a little bit to the stranger who offers to hold a door for me. No need. I walk backwards into doors to inspire a third arm, and then the next stanzas to a different group of people. To a different group of people. And that’s a thing that’s going on throughout the collection. As you’re toasting people, you’re you’re saying, you know, to my daughter this, Yeah, I found that so pleasurable. I’m just wondering, did you just stumble upon that one day and were like, Oh, this is cool. I got to do this as much as possible?

Speaker 1: I think that I had some poems that were like full when I looked back at the very seeds that I had written when they were happening. They were all like these rants like, People are coming up to me and doing this. This person is doing this. And instead of like just writing a full rant, I was like wanting to thank them for doing that and sort of be more thankful of like people handing me napkins on the street because I’m like, look, like I could use a napkin and stuff like that. But I actually ended up composing those poems from those seeds. I composed those while I was doing the shows with Mike. So there’s the The Toast poems are the ones that I wrote in that time period that I would get up on stage and read.

Isaac Butler: Oh, that’s great, because they do have a certain performed quality because, of course, you perform a toast, right? You know, here’s to the bride or whatever. And so that that’s really fascinating.

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Speaker 1: Yeah. There’s one that’s used to be called a toast to my husband, but now it’s called We Learned to Dance. But I used to read that one on stage. And then there is a point where Jack Antonoff, the musician, and Mike and I would sing that poem. And then Mike, the chorus would be like this song that Mike used to sing to Una, like Interspaced in my home. And it was this really far out, kind of crazy, like so far out of my usual experience, which is just sitting with my computer and writing like little poems on my computer. But yeah, that was super fun. And I think that a lot of the musicality came from just performing those on stage.

Isaac Butler: So you have the poems. You’re starting to realize this is a thematically linked collection. This is a book length collection of, you know, the poems are going to fit together, whether it’s on the line, the page, or the whole whole thing. How do you start to think about arranging them the sequence they go in? You know, the book is in five parts. How do you figure out which goes in which part and why? And because it’s not chronological. For example, there I notice there’s one poem where she’s three and then another one where, you know, we’re back to early days and things like that. So I’m just curious about how you start to arrange it into a book that has an arc or a shape or what have you given that it’s not a narrative shape necessarily?

Speaker 1: The way I look at the current structure of this book is there’s a little prologue of When I’m Pregnant called Maternity Pants. That’s the prologue. And then it goes into when one as an infant in the beginning, and then there’s Voyager, when she’s sort of mobile. And then at some point I have a flashback to when I’m pregnant again, when I had a lot of issues going on when I was pregnant. But within that, I flash forward to being with her. So I might have a poem on one page called Magic Trick, which is about how my placenta was bleeding and sort of what I was going through at that point and not so sure the pregnancy was going to work out. And then on the other page facing it, I’ll have a poem about how I can’t get out of bed and, you know, waves a magic wand over me and says, Wish magic, get out of bed. And, you know, and sort of playing with putting those together.

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Speaker 1: So in this particular book, for me, what became important was poems that were in spreads with each other, so that when you’re a burden, you’re turning the page, the poems that you see that are within a spread facing each other, that they are almost illustrations for each other. Because originally this was going to be an illustrated book and it was laid out and I had like put illustration here, but the illustrator couldn’t get it. We couldn’t figure out schedules. And so I had to rearrange the book.

Speaker 1: And then what happened was I began to think of, you know, a poem about tethering. It’s called tethering about how Mike and I are connected. And then what’s facing that is a poem about, you know, taking toilet paper and like, tethering our house with him. And so I started to think about the poems being connected in this way. And the way the pages turn became very important to me. And what was on a centerfold like facing each other, what was in the spreads? And so I don’t always work that way, but that was just particular for this book. I also think that if you gave me another opportunity to edit, I would always change something, right? So I think I’m a big editor, so every time I look at something of mine, I’ll change it. And I’m sure anyone who’s ever worked with me and tried to print anything for me knows this and trying to show me anything.

Isaac Butler: At some point it’s got to you got to be comfortable with it being taken away from you and put into the world, you know. How did you do that? Well, I guess with this, at some point, your editor must have been like, okay, it’s done.

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Speaker 1: You can’t change it. Yeah, yeah, it was a deadline. Otherwise I would still be going. And that’s I don’t I haven’t published a lot of my books for that reason. So I have like one book that’s been done since 2015 that I haven’t published that I just added some stuff to. But yeah, I don’t know. That book’s probably more than ready to be published already and I could change that all day long, so someone should take it from me. If anybody’s listening, please take it from me.

Isaac Butler: Whether you publish it or not. Just take it away.

Speaker 1: Take it away, away. Just get it off my computer. I have like versions of it since like 2007 or six or something.

Isaac Butler: So I’ve heard poets complain before about getting this question, so I was a little sheepish about asking it. But I’m going to go ahead and ask whatever. We throw caution to the wind at working.

Speaker 1: I’m not someone who complains about things that poets would complain about.

Isaac Butler: Okay, great. Good, good. How do you decide where the library goes? That seems to me like the most basic question about poetry. And I just, you know, lots of people seem very confused by it. So how do you figure out where the line breaks? You go.

Speaker 1: Okay, I love line breaks, I love line break decisions. I don’t I couldn’t possibly explain how to decide that. And I think every poet has their own way of doing it. But I think it’s one of the most exciting things about writing poems. It helps you. I mean, it helps me find my rhythm Sometimes you want to break where you need a breath. Sometimes you want to break in a place that you shouldn’t or for some wordplay. But I mean, sometimes you just want to break in. No way to like in jam a thought and and make it so it sort of goes against where you wanna automatically breather automatically take a pause I change my line break sometimes after. I read my poems out loud and I sometimes make them more expected after I read them out loud, because sometimes I play with them too much. And there there are less expected than the average reader would want them to be.

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Speaker 1: But then when I started reading them out loud, I was like, These are hard for me to read out loud. Like, I need some break here. I can’t breathe if I don’t break here. So. So, I mean, everyone has a different way of doing it, but it’s so fun to play with line breaks. I mean, I could do it all day. I wish I just had, like, tons of material, and I just like to play with line breaks all day.

Isaac Butler: And then occasionally there’s a few things in the in the book. They’re mostly letters to Una that are prose poems or don’t have traditional lyrics or whatever. Was that? Is that painful for you? Were you like, I want that. I should have put line breaks in here. This is so hard. It’s a paragraph. Oh, my God.

Speaker 1: Yeah, actually, there is a poem in there. A dear Una. It’s called like, you know, Johann Sebastian Bach or something like that. And it’s just like a block of text and it just goes. And I actually made an Instagram video of it recently, and I was trying to read it and I was like, I’m so mad at myself. I should have made that. Like, I should have put more space in that. I’m like, people would enjoy this, have more space, because right now it’s just like all on top of itself. But I like to put in stuff on top of itself, and I think that definitely lends kind of intensity of like this is just being thrown out onto the page versus like this is going to like fall on the page in such a way as to let you breathe and you can’t really breathe in some of those poems.

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Isaac Butler: Well, there’s a way in which the the intensity of that, you know, that contrast is really powerful because suddenly you’re just being overwhelmed by this language, you know, And it feels like you’re the writer being overwhelmed by it, and the reader is being overwhelmed by it. There’s almost something mimetic about it.

Speaker 1: That’s right. And it’s funny. So I almost feel like when I was reading that particular poem, I was sort of feeling like I wanted more around it. And to me, that’s almost like doing a cover of a poem or something like a more of a ballad cover instead of like a hardcore jam punk version of the poem. But I think both are cool. Like, I think, Well, what does it look like one way? What does it look like the other way? Like I like both versions of it. And I would be like if I had to reprint this book, I would probably change that poem and make it put some air into it. Whereas there’s another poem where I’m like really complaining about my book, and I would just keep that as like a full block of text that’s just like right in their face because that for the purpose of that poem.

Isaac Butler: It sounds like you want to remix part of your poetry. I get a get another producer end up and Exactly.

Speaker 1: That would be so fun.

Isaac Butler: Well, Jenny, thank you so much for joining us today to talk to us about your process.

Speaker 1: Oh, yeah. Thanks for having me, Isaac.

Karen Han: That was such a fascinating conversation. And Isaac, you’ve worn a lot of different hats over the course of your life as far. And I wanted to know if you’ve ever experienced the kind of transition that Jenny talks about, just totally throwing everything out and going into a totally different career.

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Isaac Butler: I mean, I thought I was doing that and then it didn’t work out that way. So I went to grad school for writing. I had just sort of made up my mind that I was done with New York City and I was done with theater. I was going to go to Minneapolis, I was going to go study writing full time, you know? Mm hmm. It’s sort of like a, you know, that Simpsons episode where Homer gets the job at the bowling alley and then he, like, burns the bridge on his way out from the nuclear plant after resigning. That’s for employing me for eight years.

Isaac Butler: So anyway, the day after I accepted a position at the University of Minnesota, I got offered the best gig of my directing career to date back in New York City for a year and a half from then. And so just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in and I had to figure out how to balance doing theater and writing and studying and being in Minneapolis and being in New York and all that stuff, I really had to figure out how to do both of those things. And at the end of it, I realized I did, in fact still want to do theater every now and then. And I did probably want to move back to New York when I was done.

Karen Han: As someone who knows you, I’m like, Wow, Isaac not New York. That’s wild. But I loved what Jenny had to say about reading her work out loud.

Karen Han: You’ve mentioned in the conversation that you read your own work out loud as well, but not to other people. Have you ever read it to other people? And when did you start reading your work out loud and why?

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Isaac Butler: I don’t really read out loud, like to other people, although I do know that Jonathan Lethem does. He told me this that when he finishes a book at some point in the writing process of like revising it, he will read the entire book out loud to like his partner or to a small group of friends or whatever over a series of nights. I don’t do that, but I do read my work out loud. Whenever I finish a major draft of anything, I read it out loud. And that’s true for books or for any kind of article. I spent a lot of time on something that it’s like, I don’t know that like I get the it’s someone’s died and I get the assignment at 10 a.m. and it’s due at 2pmi probably won’t take the time to read it out loud, but in terms of I did used to go and do readings that weren’t connected to book events though, because as you may have noticed, I’m an extrovert and have a joy of performing for other people.

Isaac Butler: And when I was in graduate school, like, storytelling was a big thing. You know, it’s not really as big anymore, but like The Moth was huge and there were a lot of kind of copycat moth shows all over New York City. I never did The Moth because you can’t actually bring writing on stage with you when you do it. But a series that would allow you to read from notes or from a piece of paper, I would do those. And that was a lot of fun because you learn how to tell a joke in a way that’ll get an audience to laugh. You learn a lot about what your persona on the page needs to be to connect to people. I don’t do it as much anymore because I rarely write about my own life now, and a lot of that’s, you know, that’s all kind of autobiographical. But they were a lot of fun and I enjoyed them. And I highly recommend that writers get their work in front of a crowd just to see what happens, because I just think you’ll learn a lot about it while you’re writing.

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Karen Han: Yeah, it’s a very, very different experience That’s that. I can’t imagine reading more than like 500 words out loud to somebody. That’s such a huge time commitment.

Isaac Butler: I know. I know. What Jonathan, I do know when he was doing Chronic City he for each event on the book tour just read the book in order. So is this like whatever it is. And then the final night of the tour he read as much of the book as he had not gotten through on the rest of the tour. But Chronic City is like a long book and it was like an eight hour reading. His final is final night.

Karen Han: Thank you.

Isaac Butler: Yeah, very exhausting for him.

Karen Han: I also really enjoyed hearing Jenny talk about the writers that she admired and wanted to emulate at the beginning of career, and I wanted to turn that question around on you to ask if you had similar role models and what drew you to them in particular.

Isaac Butler: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, I think everyone who’s starting out in a creative endeavors imitating their heroes, whether they realize it or not, so it’s actually just helpful to realize you’re doing that and then admit it, and then you can do it in a systematic way. I’ve talked a lot on this show about actually copying out by hand the sentences that writers I admired wrote.

Karen Han: And then, yeah, I remember that sentences worked.

Isaac Butler: That was really helpful. But yeah, so when I was starting out, when I went to graduate school, you know, the thing that drew me to nonfiction because I was primarily a reader of fiction, was essay collections by novelists. I really loved, you know, David Foster Wallace Two collections were our Jonathan Lethem first collection was out, His second one came out while I was in graduate school. Patti Smith’s first collection of essays is actually, I think, her best book. I think it’s better than her novels. And so one of the things I actually needed to learn how to do in grad school was not write like that, because so, for example, a lot of those writers are writing essays about their own aesthetic formation as they grow up, right? No one wants to read about that from a nobody. The reason why you care about the aesthetic formation of David Foster Wallace is because he’s David Foster Wallace. So I had to learn how to write like other stuff, you know? But the but, but, but certainly the writing style was was something I tried to crib whenever I could.

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Karen Han: That’s fascinating. And I think I hope something that we sort of come back to on the podcast because the idea of like emulating somebody versus knowing what not to emulate or writing helpful to you is a pretty good lesson.

Isaac Butler: Yeah.

Karen Han: But for now, to get back to your conversation with Jenny, you mentioned that you set rules for yourself while you were writing The Method, and I wanted to know if you always set rules for yourself while writing or if it felt more necessary here, given that it’s such a bigger project and how you decide what rules you want to set and then when to bend the rules, if at all.

Isaac Butler: Well, the nice thing about setting the rules is that you can break them, right? Like, but you have to like, sort of forget that you’re the one who came up with the rules so that you feel some pressure not to break it whenever it’s convenient. I just think it’s you know, this is actually comes from directing and figuring out kind of what the conceptual rules of a production are. I just think it’s really useful because once you have the box, you can be more creative within that box, you know? But I also think, like most of what you and I do, Karen, we’ve set rules even if we don’t realize it, like the angle that you commit to in a pitch with an editor is a rule. Your deadline is a rule than a word count is a rule. So sometimes it’s just something as simple as that. It’s like really just to get yourself out of choice paralysis and to just figure out what the boundaries are so that you can do as much as possible within those boundaries.

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Karen Han: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Yeah, I guess it’s it’s sort of like writing an outline for yourself, like you have quote unquote rules that you’ve established, but it’s just to help you figure out how to keep moving forward. Yeah, sort of.

Karen Han: Speaking of rules and structure, I loved hearing Jenny talk about laying out the book because I think that’s not something that we, I don’t know, think about as much when we think about publishing. Did you have much of a say in how your book was laid out? And if so, what were your considerations as to what was important to you?

Isaac Butler: My big consideration was just that I liked the font. You know, it’s like the readers. I actually don’t remember the name of the font, but it’s very lovely. It’s very elegant. It reads fun, but serious nonfiction. But, you know, like prose, nonfiction. It’s like there’s not that much to discuss in terms of the the layout. And I liked what they came up with. And so we went ahead and went with that. The one point of debate was about the photo insert. I did not want to do a photo insert. The photo insert is like those six glossy pages that have yeah, photos of the people in the book because I don’t read them. When I read nonfiction books, I always skip them. I was like, Fuck that, who cares? And my editor was like, Are you nuts? Readers love that. We’ve actually, you know, there’s market research that shows that people will buy the book because of what’s in the the photo insert. You have to have the photo insert. Wow. Oh, okay. Well, then I guess I’ll have a photo.

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Karen Han: Well, if you say so. Yeah.

Isaac Butler: All right. But you I have to imagine with your book, there must have been tons of layout considerations.

Karen Han: Yeah, Although I was really, really lucky. All the design work was taken care of by the team at Little White Lies, and they did a really, really gorgeous job, which they do good work. They really shipment’s.

Isaac Butler: Great.

Karen Han: But the main part of the book that I had the most say on was the cover of it, because that was the only part of the design book that at least I was involved in several iterations of where I was sort of like, Oh, like I wish X wasn’t present, I wish X was bigger. And we had it was more like this, but it was really fun. And it’s also I feel like I actually received my first hard copies of the book the other day in the mail. And look, Did you cry? No, but I can’t. I kind of went numb for like the rest of the day.

Isaac Butler: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a really powerful moment, isn’t it?

Karen Han: Yeah, but when I was looking at it, I feel like I wasn’t too like, Oh, what did I do? I look so stupid. Like, in part because there was such a big component of it that other people did, you know, with like their design work is so beautiful that I don’t worry about my writing as much, if that makes sense.

Isaac Butler: No, I meant cry because you’re just so moved by like.

Karen Han: Oh, you’re.

Isaac Butler: Thing and it’s in the world. Not because it was bad. You’re writing for bad. It’s going to be good.

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Karen Han: Thank you. My reminder that my book is out November 22nd. It’s called Bong Joon Ho Distant Cinema. It’s from Abrams in Little White Lies.

Isaac Butler: We hope you enjoyed book promotion called.

Karen Han: Actually, that is the last question that I had for you. So, listeners, we really hope that you’ve enjoyed the show. And if you have, remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and then you’ll never miss an episode. And just a reminder that by joining Slate Plus, you’ll get ad free podcasts. Extra segments on shows like the Waves and Culture Gabfest, and you’ll never hit a paywall on the Slate site. To learn more, go to Slate.com slash working Plus.

Isaac Butler: Thanks to Jay Hope Stein and to our producer Cameron Drews, who makes our recordings sound like poetry. We’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with romance novelist Harper Bliss. Until then, get back to work.

Isaac Butler: Hayslip Plus listeners, thank you so much for everything you do to support what we do right here. I’m working. We got a little bit extra from this week’s episode. We hope you enjoy it. You know, you said you were resistant to the idea that you were going to write a book about this subject matter. And then at some point, of course, it clicked over and you were writing a book about this subject matter. Once that happens, does every idea into relate to this or are there moments where you’re like, okay, I’m going to write this thing down for later when I’m done with this book? Because this is like a totally different idea.

Speaker 1: I mean, I’m sort I’m torn. I have a lot of poems that are kind of brewing inside me that I’m not letting myself write that are would, you know, sort of be in the vein of a little astronaut. But I also feel like, you know, seven years old now and I don’t want to really, like, objectify her and be like, oh, you said this today. I’m putting that in a poem, you know, that kind of thing.

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Isaac Butler: Yeah. There’s something really different about talking publicly, having done it before on like parenting podcasts or whatever. There’s something really different about talking about something your child is going through when they’re one. Yeah, and something they’re going through when they can like talk and read and hear and tell you what they think about it and all those other things.

Speaker 1: Yeah, it feels a little weird. I would have to ask her and co-author and her with her something. And actually she and I didn’t write a book together in the pandemic, a children’s book. And I’m actually really, really interested in children’s literature. And so I have some I’d like to explore children’s literature more. I’m very excited about children’s literature. There’s something about it. I think it’s because I didn’t read a lot as a kid, and I’m reading all this stuff now and I’m like, Wow, children’s literature is amazing. Like, I started really getting into reading when I was reading adult things like existentialism, you know? So I sort of missed all the fun stuff, you know, the fantasy and everything. So I’m very interested in children’s. I try I don’t know if I could pull it off, but we’ve been reading a lot of Kate DiCamillo. Have you guys run her?

Isaac Butler: We haven’t read her yet, but I know who she is. Yeah.

Speaker 1: She’s really we’re.

Isaac Butler: We’re doing double year Greek myths right now.

Speaker 1: Oh, you are?

Isaac Butler: Yeah. Looks like a book of Greek myths. Very beautifully illustrated. It’s what I read. Both my wife and I read it as kids. And so Iris was. I was trying to explain the love triangle between her Festus and Aphrodite and Aries to Iris, and she was like, Wait, He built a net and it captured them while they were snuggling. And I was like, Yeah, that turned into us reading all your Greek myths.

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Speaker 1: Well, well. So we found out, you know, who’s going to be studying Greek myths this year. And so Mike and I were going to brush up.

Isaac Butler: Oh, cool. Well, yours is really wonderful.

Speaker 1: I mean, looks like.

Isaac Butler: You know, they use the term married someone to me in a whole lot of different things. Okay. What? The original. That’s how they deal with seduces many consensual and not consensual affairs.

Speaker 1: Oh.

Isaac Butler: Well, you know, Anyway, back to poetry for a second. Although it is interesting, you know, that word digressing here to think about like the kids experience of poetry versus an adult’s experience of poetry, because it’s like so fun for them, Right? You know, like my daughter wrote a poem about the door of her school turning into a monster and eating people because she just read all this Shel Silverstein. And she, like, loved that stuff. Like, so much of our early encounter with literature is poetry. And then as we grow older, it becomes this thing that I guess we all wear a scarf and, you know, it’s supposed to we grow up to have this weird hatred and contempt for it.

Speaker 1: It’s interesting. There’s a lot of different kinds of poetry now. Yeah, there’s there’s so much out there and there’s I think there’s there’s poetry out there for everyone right now. I think little astronaut, for me, what I when I look at that compared to my other work, I find it to be a little bit more accessible. I would say my other work is a little bit more avant garde. And I think it’s possible that, you know, being a mom brought out this sort of accessibility in me, in my work.

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Speaker 1: And so I talked to Jean Korelitz, the novelist, about this once, and she was saying she used to write poetry like obscure poetry. And then when she became a mom, she started writing fiction and she said, there is something that happened in her brain that was like, I want to be understood. I want to be clear, you know? And it’s possible that that something like that happened to me. But I still, you know, I miss some of my other projects that I was working on and I want to go back to them. But I do think that I’m very interested in children’s literature, and it’s possible I would follow up a little astronaut with something similar if I could figure out a way to not feel like I’m objectifying Oona.

Isaac Butler: You know, I do think there’s probably some percentage of our listeners who find poetry may be intimidating. You know, they don’t read a lot of it, in part because they just don’t know even where to begin. And so I was wondering if you had any any advice for folks who might be, shall we say, poetry, curious about how they can expand their their knowledge, their love, their interest in the form? Because, you know, there’s a lot of it out there.

Speaker 1: Yeah. So there’s a lot of poetry out there and a lot of good poetry. Yeah, she’s very alive and well right now. I would say there’s so many different kinds of voices and different levels of how like sort of avant garde or accessible you want to be. There’s like Instagram poets that people like. I’m intimidated by poetry sometimes, too, So but I would say. You know, there’s some good resources out there. I mean, the Poetry Foundation does a pretty great job of culminating some really good poetry. So you can just sort of play around on their site and find some really good things.

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Speaker 1: It’s funny, I used to have this website called Poetry Crush, and I would write about poets that I have crushes on. And my tagline was, Sometimes people are mean, but not here. And and I wanted to bring it back because people always ask me about, like, what are some of their poems that they might like if they liked my work? For instance, what are other poems they would like? And so I was going to start doing something, and Esther, I started to try, but I just didn’t have time for it. But I was going to do something on Instagram that’s like, Here’s poems I recommend and things like that. But.

Speaker 1: But yeah, like Maggie Smith, I feel like is a really great poet, especially for people who are just like wanting to learn about poetry. And I mean, she’s just she’s a wonderful poet. I love Ilya Kaminsky’s work and Jericho Brown’s work. I mean, I could go on and on and on, but there’s so many wonderful poets right now. But yeah, I don’t know. Someone could DM me and ask me and all can recommend some things based on what their interests are.

Isaac Butler: All right. So that’s a good tip.

Speaker 1: That’s good. That’s my side project. Sorry, That was. I can go on and on. I mean, poetry is so vast.

Isaac Butler: All right. That’s it for this week. Catch you next time right here on working.

Isaac Butler: So.