This week Luisa got to chat with Jessie Lynn McMains, author of The Loneliest Show On Earth. (You can read an excerpt from her book The Loneliest Show On Earth here and then go buy your self a copy here.). Some of her most recent poetry has appeared on Memoir Mixtapes, FIVE:2:ONE, and Neon Mariposa Magazine.
Luisa: Where does your love of the occult come from? There are so many tarot cards and soothsayers, and I was just wondering what drew you to that in the first place.
Jessie: I mean, I don’t really know, because I was kind of into it since I was really little. I mean, I was one of those little kids who was like, “I want to be a witch”.
L: Oh, I totally get that! I dressed up as a witch for Halloween for about ten years in a row. Because it was like, what else would I be? I also lived for Charmed.
J: Yeah, I think Charmed is after my time, so I can’t remember, pop culture-wise, anything specific until I was a teenager. More of that stuff was coming out when I was a teenager. But I’m sure that fed into it, because I know I got my first tarot deck at fifteen. So I can’t really point to anything that might’ve gotten me into it specifically, but my mom, I wouldn’t say that she was into the occult, but you know, she was kind of a hippie before I was born, and was around people who were into New Age and occult stuff. And she had runes and things, so it was just kind of always around me, even though it wasn’t a direct influence.
L: So my family is Brazilian. We’re very superstitious, culturally. There are things like Candomble, which is kind of like santeria, and while I’ve never done it, a lot of people do find it empowering. Do you get that same sense of agency and control with tarot cards or other occult things that you were drawn to?
J: Yeah, I think definitely when I started officially casting spells, there was definitely a sense of you being a preteen or teenage girl or a young person, there’s a certain sense of powerlessness in general, obviously to varying degrees based on your race, class or culture. I think that anyone who is disenfranchised, especially when you’re young and even less in control in some ways–it can be powerful to reclaim part of yourself through occult things, even if it isn’t visible to most. Like, if I’m casting this spell, I’m making something happen or preventing something from happening. Or in the case of tarot cards or any other sort of fortune-telling, I might see what might happen and maybe change the course of it. I think a lot of marginalized people are drawn to occult things for that reason.
L: It does go against the status quo. One thing I sort of got the same vibe from is the new Sabrina the Witch. It’s very different from the 90s one, where it’s about a lady who lives in the suburbs with her two aunts. The new version is a very intersectional feminist show and is more with the times. And on top of that, it talks about darkness, not as necessarily a good thing, but as something that coexists with good. And how everybody has a little bit of darkness, and how darkness isn’t always bad. I got that same honest and sincere vibe from a lot of the parts that I was reading.
Which brings me to my next point. I love the interplay of gender and this attitude of not boxing people in. On page 13, in the passage that says:
Some days I’m the half-man, half-woman, all my gender confusion solved by drawing a line down the center of my body.
I really loved that passage, because the way that it talks about gender is just so freeing. Not really caring what meshes with what, and again, breaking these traditional boxes of what people think is a given.
How do you feel about gender in terms of it being liberating to you?
J: Part of the reason that I use the figure of the half-man, half-woman, and some other characters in the book is because I use she/they pronouns. That said, personally, I don’t actually care about pronouns for myself. I obviously respect other people’s pronouns, but for myself, there have even been times when people have referred to me as he/him depending upon the context of how they knew me. I feel like any pronoun only sometimes fits me.
L: That leads me to my next tangent, which is about all of the identities that the speaker gives themselves, like the Wolf Girl, the half-man, half-woman, the Bird Girl. All of these different identities. Regardless of gender, how do you see identity formation or self-evolution? As a separate stage of different selves or as a linked, chronological process? Because there are so many different selves, and I know that sometimes, different selves arise because we need them for survival, versus different selves arising because we’re finally free to be who we are. And I was just wondering what your thoughts on that were.
J: Oh, that’s a good question. Actually, interestingly, I’m reading an anthology now called After Confession, and it’s all different essays on confessional or autobiographical poetry. And a lot of the essays have to do with the question of, does anyone really have a singular self? Don’t we all have these fractured identities within us depending on who we’re with or at what time in our life we’re at? So it’s funny that you mention that. I don’t think identity is “we were this and now we’re this”. I think all the selves are in there, and they’ll come out depending on the context of where you are.
L: So many of these passages are addressed to lovers or children. When writing this, did you intend for it to be a guide of some sort?
J: No, not really. I think you can look at it as either there’s one speaker who has all these different identities or it can be different speakers who are kind of connected. But yeah, I never thought of it that way. That’s something that I’d have to think about more before answering that question.
L: When I was reading, I did see that some poems were addressed to babies, and one was addressed to a true love. So I was wondering if they were a compendium of experiences.
J: Yes! And then some of the poems are simply addressed to the reader. The easiest way to put it is that all the speakers are me and not me. And therefore all the people I’m addressing are real people, but also not.
L: That was another question I had, because the line “all of this is true, all of this is fiction”, often appears throughout the book. I feel that’s an interesting quality of the book because you invite the reader to see things through your perspective.
I did notice that you use a lot of blue and black throughout the book. For example, in the lines “my pickled punks asleep, embalmed, floating forever in subaqueous twilight, in their jars of ultramarine, of Spanish blue”. Is there any specific reason for that?
J: Not really, when color enters the picture I just let the mood of what I’m writing choose the color. Also, blue and black are my two favorite colors, so that’s probably why you see a good bit of it in there.
L: I did see a link between miscarriage and magic, with the lady who has the fetuses in the jars. Was that link intentional?
J: So there’s definitely a link because she’s found a way to celebrate these miracles even though they were also losses, which is a kind of magic. Not only that, they were all products of who their parents were, which I mean, everyone is, but not usually quite so overtly.
There’s a lot of that in old fairy tales. About a child being born a certain way because the mother saw something that scared her while she was pregnant with the child, so then they’re born with a deformity as punishment for the mother’s actions.
Actually, in the original version of Rapunzel, the mother was craving this lettuce that grew in the witch’s garden and that’s why Rapunzel was cursed because her mother couldn’t resist her pregnancy cravings, basically. That’s where I got some of it from, where, in the logic of old stories, something could be imprinted that easily upon a child.
L: So in that context, what are your thoughts in regards to these carnival children? They’re gone, of course, but would you say they’re products of vicarious trauma, damaged beyond repair?
J: Definitely. And there’s the vicarious trauma of what the speaker, mother, has experienced that would even rob these children of the chance at life. But then also, as much as she’s cherishing the memories of these children, that is also a reliving of the trauma. She’s not letting go.