Andrew Romanelli: Echo Bay defies simple categorization because of the many perspectives it provides. We peruse casino walls filled with polaroids of folks who have been 86’s witness, a suburban marriage dissolve as a U-Haul “swallows the evidence,” and cruise the Valley of Fire where “the road slick with sun / spreads easily, like a woman / opening her inside parts.” Jennifer, how do you know which hat to put on, and when?
Jennifer Battisti: My hope is that collectively the poems might expose the entanglement of roles and the ideas within identity which many women must navigate and show that poetry can straddle all of them. It wasn’t until the poems were arranged in a manuscript that I could see an evolution taking place. I am curious about the circular nature of memory. How we carry pieces of our previous selves with us, and that their presence is, in fact, necessary for healing in the present moment.
AR: Echo Bay is set in the Vegas Valley. Las Vegas is undoubtedly influenced by the many tourists who visit and by the people who move here from all over the world. How does this affect you as a poet?
JB: I think Las Vegas has a robust ecosystem. It’s precisely because of the constant influx of tourism and growth that our city is able to thrive in the ever-changing climate of desire, economics, and trends. As a local, I find the voyeuristic view of indulgence captivating. Vegas is versatile, accommodating. It belongs to everyone from all over the world, which I suppose is an advantage to poets who write about Vegas. For readers, there is a universal connection to our city. I am interested in the unique perspectives of locals and am always trying to weave the iconic and the indigenous onto the page and to mirror the juxtaposition of Vegas culture. Our reputation is that we are inauthentic, but look closer, and I think you’ll see the honesty. We aren’t hiding anything. I wanted to capture the collision of spectacle and scared.
AR: Geography, runs a rocky vein through the body of Echo Bay. How significant was it for you to encapsulate these lesser known or no-longer-existent locales and your memories that are hitched to them?
JB: Having lived in the same place my entire life, and in the same house for all of my childhood years, it is difficult for me to separate place from memory. The visual details of most of my life are a short drive away. The act of returning to the same place with reverence and curiosity yields new perspectives, and in that way, place becomes both setting and character. There is an undercurrent of grief and letting go in Echo Bay. In the loss of autonomy in becoming a mother, in the disillusion of a marriage, in a childhood which has haunted the speaker. Geography works to anchor these abstract themes, but honestly, I just hear poems better in the desert. Joan Didion said, “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” I learn more about love and grief from the landscape than from anywhere else. In returning to the marina where my family had spent every summer, I saw how even after abandonment and without any obvious purpose anymore, there was still an experience to be felt. I had not been able to meet my pain over the loss of my father fully until I hiked past the “No Trespassing” sign and begun to pay attention. Sometimes our pain has to sit in the soil for a while before it can be made into art. The Mojave has plenty of room to house your grief, if you let it.
AR: You cover a lot of personal ground that, at times, offers the reader a passenger-seat perspective while, at others, an astute, mountain bluebird’s eye view. For instance, in the title poem, we read about the childhood ritual of “finger-nail half-moons etched on Styrofoam cups” and of how “grief is a row boat in the desert / thundering nowhere, / waiting for a ghost.” In “The God of Small Deaths,” we witness an arduous birth where “I drank the good gas and a cactus burst in my throat.” Is this balance a shared catharsis with your reader?
JB: I think it’s important to balance emotional intensity and intimacy with some ambiguity in poetry to allow the reader to come to their own personal truth. Some of the material I was writing about in Echo Bay needed to be telescoped as a way to harness the details, as much for economics as effect. In other places, I hoped that distance would both invite the reader into the experience as well as work as a sort of surveyor of the landscape, giving the poem a peripheral, especially in the heavier pieces where there was an undercurrent of trauma. I wanted to capture the acute awareness and dissociative nature which is a hallmark in trauma recall. If a shared catharsis takes place between the reader and myself, well, I guess I couldn’t hope for anything better than that.
AR: The language or accent of Las Vegas is a comixing of its various characters that inhabit it. Your chapbook possesses the ability to communicate with the born and raised as well as someone who has never been here. What are your thoughts on the accessibility of poetry?
JB: Poetry should be inclusive but I don’t want to discount the importance of craft. I absolutely benefited from an academic foundation, but I would credit having a consistent practice of reading poetry as the best way to learn about it. I would also argue that experience is as significant as education. I think poets like Billy Collins are accessible done right whereas Instagram poetry, for example, often comes off as trite and obvious, which dilutes the true nature of poetry.
In “Off Boulder Hwy,” I wrote about an area in the outskirts of the city, far from the iconic strip. My hope is that the tone of the work will appeal to many of us who have grown up in the kind of neighborhood where things were broken but were also paralleled by formative wisdom about class, addiction, community, and the human condition. The reader should trust the source but also have freedom to transpose their own perception. I don’t think I agree with the idea of handing the reader the poem with the wrapper already torn off. A good poem surprises you, transports you to somewhere new, and is somewhat accessible—more Tootsie Pop than Everlasting Gobstopper, if that makes sense!
AR: What do you find to be rewarding in poetry and what do you find off-putting?
JB: Poetry is rewarding in that it provides a container for the heartbreaking, extraordinary, peculiar complexities of life, and also, the ordinary nuanced moments of a life. If I put an experience into a poem, I can get it to be still, which feels a little like, there, it’s settled. Reading poetry works like a shared emotional seismograph between the speaker and myself. Poetry, both writing it and receiving it, asks us to be mindful, of language, of experience, of each other. When I read Mary Oliver, I feel like I am having a conversation with the earth, and in that conversation, I get access to compassion, empathy, and despair. I grew up feeling severed from a sense of belonging, and poetry mends the disconnect both internally and with the outside world. I find the idea that poetry is completely useless off-putting. Cocktail umbrellas, yes, but poetry?
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Andrew Romanelli is a recipient of the John Oliver Simon poetry award and Steiner’s New Voices poetry award. He is an Editor of 300 Days of Sun and lives in Las Vegas where he is completing his BA in English and plans to pursue an MFA in poetry next fall.
Echo Bay by Jennifer Battisti is available now from Tolsun Books (Tolleson, AZ 2018)