Featured Fig: Becca Jensen

Short form interviews with Les Figues authors, playful and provocative, smart and beautiful.

Becca Jensen’s Among the Dead: Ah! and Afterward Yes!, winner of the inaugural Les Figues Press NOS Contest, is a full-length poetry collection that explores ideas of bringing together, pulling apart, loss, drowning, exile, and being. The poems are comprised of adventure and event, sequences and discrete moments; in each case, there is the possibility of finding comfort, kinship–or at the very least, meaning–in our stories. The work centers on a family of five: Mrs. G (“a fisherman”), Mr. G (“the sea”), the daughter, a chorus, and a collector.


Citations from English and classical literature are equally prominent; their cadences permeate the storyline as well as the characters’ identities, down to the very air they breathe.

Les Figues intern Camille Thigpen interviewed Jensen via email over the course of a week.

Camille Thigpen: Two of the first things I noticed while reading Among the Dead: Ah! and Afterward Yes! were the characters and the variety of allusions. Did you want to work with the references or with the story/characters first? In what way was there a divide between these elements originally?

Becca Jensen: For a long time I wanted to be a good person. And for me that meant being engaged in the world. So anything that took away from the present, active world was selfish and bad. Reading fell into that category. One of my most vivid memories of college is of sneaking away from some drug-infused party to go back to my dorm room and read one of the few non-school books I allowed myself to read at that time, Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear. Because, in my head, that was living rebelliously. At some point, I gave up on fighting the good person fight, or at least how I had narrowly defined it. Instead, I began to read, compulsively read. I got a job as a secretary and would read there. I would read while walking to work, in the line at the grocery store—if I was out to dinner with a friend and she got up to go to the bathroom, I would spend that minute or so reading. Given the choice, I would have shut out the world with a book. After a while, most of my interactions were with dead people, or people who were such strangers that they might as well be dead. Basically, I only began to write as a way to manufacture conversations with some dead strangers. I still value the act of reading more than I value the act of writing. So with Among the Dead I wanted to write a book that kept to this value system, that would encourage a playful, interactive relationship between the reader and the book, the story and the allusions.

CT: To extract the term “interactive” from your answer and plop it in a different context: the members of this family often seem to interact but not to connect with one another; I’m thinking particularly of the poem “O So Wonderfully Tired Was He.” To what extent does this reflect your sense of how people—even if they are close to and/or love one another—usually are?

BJ: I love your interpretation of that poem and the overall lack of connection between the characters. I think it’s a great and valid reading, though it’s not necessarily what I was thinking about when I was writing it. For me, that poem and one of the general obsessions of the book is less about a lack of connection than a loss of connection. My truth, or the one I’m most interested in, is that it’s not that we can’t connect with one another, but that we can’t hold on to those connections. The people we love leave us. The parts of ourselves that we love leave us. Sometimes we have to trade the parts of ourselves we love to get the people we love for a while. Or we leave the people we love and lose parts of ourselves that we’d just assumed we got to keep. When you look at it this way, the plot of our lives is all just a series of hauntings. There’s a poem by Jessica Fjeld that says this all perfectly. I love that poem but can’t even remember enough of it to find it through Google. Just another thing I’ve lost.

There’s this interview that Townes Van Zandt does with a Dutch TV show. The interviewer starts off by stating that, along with Guy Clark, Van Zandt is considered to be the godfather of Texan folk, and then he asks Van Zandt why his style is particularly Texan. Van Zandt pauses, looks to the left, swallows and then says with quiet certainty, “I suppose our accents.” That actually has nothing to do with anything, I just love his deadpan answer. A bit later the interviewer asks him, “How come most of your songs are sad songs?” Van Zandt replies, “Well, you know, I don’t think they’re all that sad. Some…I have a few that just, they aren’t sad, they’re like hopeless. About a totally hopeless situation. And the rest aren’t sad, they’re just the way it goes. I don’t. Well you know.” At this point Van Zandt pauses, looks down and smiles slightly. Then he looks at the interviewer with such confidence and maybe a bit of anger and asks, “You don’t think life is sad?”

I love how defiantly triumphant Van Zandt is in that moment. How matter of fact. How well he wears his sadness. I think the pantoum wears sadness well, too. It’s not that I was conscious of it when I wrote “O So Wonderfully Tired Was He,” but in the end that’s what made that poem work for me. Well actually it’s what always makes a poem work for me—finding a form that fits the tone of a poem. The particular repetition of the pantoum allows you to pick up an idea in one stanza, keep half of it in the next stanza, entirely let it go in the following stanza. It allows you to both create and destroy, to see and lose. It’s a way of finding beauty even in the things you cannot hold on to.

CT: The daughter is explicitly associated with ten people (fictional and otherwise) who have drowned, which inscribes her in what could be considered a tradition of losing one’s life in a body of water. Complete loss and aloneness seem impossible in this work, in that they lead to other passages: words, feelings, and references. How might one navigate finding loss as well as oneself in loss?

BJ: Immanuel Kant believed there was this thing, this feeling-idea, called the mathematical sublime. You see something so extraordinary, so beyond even the boundaries of beauty that you become overwhelmed by the experience. The something strikes you with such awe that you cannot comprehend where it begins and ends. It has no limits, no otherness; it is infinite. Such an experience is even terrifying, particularly because in its infiniteness the mathematical sublime contains even you. You become a part of something outside yourself.

Then there’s this idea of being wherein you, the subject, exist only in opposition to what you are not, the other. Because you cannot truly comprehend that you exist without the other, the other actually becomes a critical part of who you are. So there is a part of you that is wholly foreign, a part of yourself from which you are alienated, a part of you that is always irrefutably lost.

I think when you experience something like Kant’s mathematical sublime—and there are other versions of this feeling; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transparent eyeball is another somewhat more tranquil example—when you become a part of something outside yourself—it’s like seeing that lost and alienated part of your soul walking around in broad daylight. It’s astonishing. And then, of course, it’s over.


CT: This story struck me as a gathering of fragments that find association with one another through recurrent words, ideas, and phrases. How thoroughly does the interweaving unify the snippets? Alternatively, if the work ultimately concerns bits and pieces floating about, to what extent does the mathematical sublime enable it to function as one text?

BJ: One of my favorite Anne Carson poems, and poems in general, is called “On Reading” from her book Short Talks:

Some fathers hate to read but love to
take the family on trips. Some children
hate trips but love to read. Funny how
often these find themselves passengers
in the same automobile. I glimpsed the
stupendous clear-cut shoulders of the
Rockies from between paragraphs of
Madame Bovary. Cloud shadows roved
languidly across her huge rock throat,
traced her fir flanks. Since those days I
do not look at hair on female flesh
without thinking, Deciduous?

For me, this is what the best kind of reading is about: Making your own meaning out of the possibilities of a book. The way I see it, the text itself isn’t a representation of the mathematical sublime. At most all it can do is recreate the sense of the infinite possibilities of meaning. In Among the Dead, I wanted to mimic this drowning infinite through lists, fragments, indexes, recurrent images and obsessions. All these disparate pieces can talk to each other but never in a way that fully shuts down certain possibilities. But as a reader, when you come along and superimpose meaning onto a text, when you connect the dots using your own particular background, likes and dislikes, experiences—that’s when the mathematical sublime happens.

So there’s a second part of Kant’s mathematical sublime, which I didn’t bring up because a) how much can you go into Kant without sounding annoying and b) I don’t really like the way he talks about it. But OK. So you are in the mathematical sublime. You are in awe. Maybe terrified. You are seeing a part of your soul, this lost piece of you, for the first time. So this is a big deal. It’s also strange because apparently your soul is this old synagogue in the Lower East Side across from a boutique teashop that the singer Moby owns. You’ve noticed this synagogue before, just not in any special way. But today you’ve come across it, and its roof has collapsed in. Everything is jagged and open to the sky. Some of the walls have crumpled so that you can see parts of the inside. Like the handful of small multicolored stained glass windows with the Star of David in them. Also, the altar, which raised so many generations however many inches closer to God. The destruction is glorious in its incompleteness. And it occurs to you that if only everything would just collapse a bit, if everything just looked like some giant of a toddler had strolled through on an afternoon tirade, the world would be unbearably beautiful. And it’s the idea of all this unrealized possibility just sitting below our roofs, behind our windows and doors that makes your mind swim. That makes you realize the infiniteness of all we can’t see. And yet you can comprehend the idea of this infinite unseen, you can imagine its particulars, you can make meaning out of it—and in doing all of this you are able to quantify and contain the infinite. This makes you feel good, invincible even. Infinite universe=0; you=1.

The same thing happens in a certain kind of sublime reading. It’s what happens when you naturally “get” a poem or novel or snippet; you feel that same flash of brilliance that comes with the mathematical sublime. And I don’t think it matters whether your interpretation of a text is right or wrong or how the author intended you to read it. All that matters is that something in the text spoke to you and you’ve created meaning out of that conversion. This is all an intellectualization of something that feels a lot like a high, like an adrenaline rush. I think it’s what Emily Dickinson meant when she said that when she felt that the top of her head was taken off, she knew it was poetry. I particularly like that metaphor because of its association with the infinite. With no top to your head, you join the boundless, the world without limits. This brings us back to Kant, who is, if nothing else, a man of punctuality, and just like the citizens of Königsberg, you can set your watches according to his walking schedule.

CT: Could you describe your conception of the characters? As in, do you conceive of them as fragments and/or motifs that come apart and together, that are lost and found? Or are they more active elements of the work?

BJ: They are representatives of obsessions I’m interested in thinking about. I always love hearing how others interpret them, but for me, and on a very basic level, Mrs. G represents what gets left behind, Mr. G represents what gets to move forward, the daughter is the reader of these two mostly incongruent realities, the collector is the reader of the material evidence of these two realities, and the chorus is the reader of the work in its entirety. So I think there’s definitely a conversation going on between the characters, but they all have their different agendas.

CT: Speaking of agendas, could you fill me in on any current projects? Is there overlap between your process in working on these and on Among the Dead?

BJ: I’m sort of working on a rehashing of the Boxcar Children series, which is a series created by Gertrude Chandler Warner about four orphaned children who make their home out of an abandoned boxcar. It’s similar to The Swiss Family Robinson, but minus the adults and instead of an island the children disappear into what seems like a fairly suburban forest. But that’s kind of come to a standstill. Mainly because I also want to incorporate a series of poems about the Black Death and possibly other examples of human/universe cruelty into this rehashing, but I can’t yet figure out why this makes sense to me. It might have something to do with the violence of the imagination, but I’m not sure how to sustain my interest in that idea yet.

In the meantime, I’ve been tinkering with a young adult book. I’ve never worked on fiction before, and never thought I would or could. It’s strange witnessing your imagination work in a different way. With poetry, ideas, images and lines always came to me in a rush of euphoria. The inspirations for these flashes took forever, but the writing itself always felt like I was being visited by a speedy ghost who was far more brilliant than I was. With fiction, so far at least, I feel much more in control, but in a surreal way. When I’m writing it’s like I’m awake in my own dream or like my brain is swimming underwater. So far I’ve just rewritten the first chapter, but it’s been a lot of fun.

CT: Among the Dead was selected and published by Les Figues Press through their inaugural NOS Book Contest. Could you describe the experience of entering—and then winning—the contest?

BJ: I remember reading in an article—I think it was in Poets & Writers—that you should only submit to contests with presses you actually liked. I remember feeling a little hopeless about that advice because I had a hard time fully liking any press. When my husband and I moved to Los Angeles, I did some research on the poetry scene out there and heard about Les Figues. One day we were at this outdoor music festival in our neighborhood and there was Les Figues with a book tent. I bought four books that day: Amina Cain’s I Go To Some Hollow; Allison Carter’s A Fixed, Formal Arrangement; Feminaissance, edited by Christine Wertheim; and Lily Hoang’s The Evolutionary Revolution. Since that time I’ve read other Les Figues books and each one has either been brilliant or 100 percent intriguing; Amina Cain’s book is hands down one of the best books I’ve ever read. The only other author who has tricked me so fully into believing her protagonists are actually my friends and then when the book’s over I feel completely betrayed that they’ve abandoned me, is Lorrie Moore. So anyway when I heard Les Figues was going to start a book contest I was thrilled. When I got the phone call on Christmas Eve letting me know that I won the contest, I think I was a seemingly implausible mix of rambling speechlessness.

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