Register Tuesday | November 30 | 2021

In the Subtext of Things

An interview with Jenny Boully

Jenny Boully is the author of The Body (Slope Editions, 2002), an experimental book of poetry that employs blank pages with footnotes—notes to an absent or non-existent text—to strange and, at times, delightful effect. Poet George Murray spoke with Boully on-line this past July.

George Murray: The Body must have been a huge undertaking. Why did you start writing it and how long did it take to finish?

Jenny Boully: I had just broken up with someone, during which this person and I spoke without speaking or said one thing while really meaning another and when you engage in this type of behavior, essentially what you’re doing is admitting that the world is indeed composed of symbols and everything is metaphor. To engage in metaphor, I think, is to live one’s own secret life, which is what one does when one is heartbroken anyhow—one tends to create meaning and significance wherever the opportunity presents itself. The Body began from this sort of life, living in the subtext of things, and so, I wanted to know, if one had merely the subtext of a failed love affair, what would one have? In matters of separation, all one has left are fragments and one never really knows what really happens—everything exists and continues to exist as one utter confusion—and so, we construct our stories accordingly. Sometimes, I think, the dream that reveals itself as utterly significant to the fact is more important, has more bearing on our lives, than the reality of events. And so, I wanted to communicate textually, in the manner in which I had been communicating with the world, and The Body, with its footnotes to an absent text, became the manifestation of that metaphor. Of course, in the creation, the aim wasn’t so apparent, so, when I began writing these footnotes, my aim was to go back and supply the “text.” It took a few weeks to realize that there wasn’t going to be a text, and so, if I was only going to have footnotes, then I ought to truly represent it that way, and thus the blank pages were born. I began writing in July of 2000 and finished in January of 2002. Most of these months were spent reading, dreaming, writing letters, and note-taking—the composition was ongoing; when I wasn’t actually writing out the footnotes, I was obsessing in the subtext of things.

GM: Absence plays a central role in The Body. How do you build a book of notes around, basically, nothing?

JB: This, it seems, is the crux of theology, and yet, as humans, we’ve managed to build systems and empires, whole world-views and religions, which are founded solely on seemingly nothing. When writing The Body, I meant for it to not just be a love story or an avant-garde bit of literary theory, I wanted it first and foremost to be a sort of spiritual autobiography, as it puts faith in the Great Absence; it believes the void is not a void, is rather something that is forever winking at us. What if Absence were an optical illusion? If it’s not, that’s rather unfortunate, because that’s exactly what I want it to be.

GM: For an author, what is the lure of a concept book like this as opposed to more traditional 20th-century forms, such as academic essay, narrative fiction, and lyrical poetry? What’s the lure for a reader?

JB: When one is in a forest composed of only one type of tree, one easily fails to read whatever the trees are saying, as one leaf seems to have said what so many leaves have previously said in exactly the same way. What’s exciting is when one tree breeds with another and what we have is a self-sustaining hybrid. Old trees will always be awesome in that they alone can teach us the ways of the old world, long-gone; Anna Karenina is alone witness to one particular type of tree, grown in a particular time. A good botanist, of course, studies all sorts of plants, is excited and spurred on by the various possibilities. Our era of literature, especially poetry, is unique—talent is rewarded where it is least evident and most editors don’t read anymore; I don’t mean that they don’t read just submissions, they don’t read period. They haven’t read Homer or Virgil or Auden or Eliot or Wordsworth—the oldest tree in the forest, the key to understanding and judging saplings and the vitality of new species, is non-existent for these editors, and yet these very editors are setting the standards for our times. Poets themselves don’t read anymore, and therefore they write from the foundation of failed trees. But I digress. What is exciting about a new work is that it is new, and the basic human inclination is to be in love with newness. The completion of a concept book means that I will continue to read, and to read so much is to grow humble, is to discover that so many writers have had similar thoughts to mine, that I am not unique in my novelty. I think what I’m trying to suggest is that no concept is quite novel if one has done the research—but the lure nonetheless is the basic premise of our universe, in that, from hydrogen, it is possible to fuse dozens of other atomic elements and new ones are added to the chart every so often. And so, literature—as Joseph Campbell, David Jones, and countless others have suggested—has a primal source and all of literature is but a footnote to this source. For a reader, I think the lure of a concept book is that one can participate in a very different universe, however briefly.

GM: What were you reading when you wrote The Body? What are you reading now?

JB: I just finished Nabokov’s Pale Fire. It’s fortunate that I read this text after The Body was published, because I would have thrown my book in a filing cabinet forever after reading this:

Lines 939-940: Man’s life, etc.
If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.

Or, more likely, I would have footnoted this commentary note in my footnotes, as it sums up beautifully what I was attempting to assert in my book. Coincidence, I firmly believe, is the most beautiful of all winged things, as it reminds us that the void is not a void, but rather a “vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.” I began reading Speak, Memory last night, which is proving to be one of the most beautiful things in the world, like the first page and a half of Tropic of Cancer. (I realize that I’ve referenced Speak, Memory in footnote 142, without having read the work; however, that’s how it happened: E. gave me that excerpt, and I pasted it into my journal.) When beginning The Body, I had finished reading Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, Kafka’s Trial, Kathy Acker’s Pussy, King of the Pirates, Joseph Campbell’s essays, and various issues of Conjunctions. Of course, there was a lot more, but these are the texts and authors that stand out. During the year and a half that it took to write The Body, I was reading a lot of literary theory; I was also reading a lot of what my poetry professor John Matthias called “The Generation of Robert Lowell”—Delmore Schwartz, Berryman, Bellow, Pound, Eliot et al. I was also researching one of the most metaphorically beautiful poetry texts—Doubled Flowering by Araki Yasusada—and this research put me in touch with Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, Ern Malley, and other so-called hoax literatures, in which I’m trying to become an expert; this research also demanded that I read a small essay by Eliot Weinberger, contained in his book Karmic Traces—I ended up reading the whole book in a mad sweep. And of course, there’s a very lovely issue of the Seneca Review, devoted entirely to the lyric essay, which was edited by John D’Agata; this was a favorite on my bookshelf, and I think the innovation of this issue really made me think in terms of form. GM: Level with us a moment: did you write this with an ancillary text in front of you? Does “The Body” actually exist physically? Will we ever see it? JB: In so far as our lives are textual, the ancillary text to The Body does indeed exist, as The Body is not so much a poem, but an autobiography. When composing The Body, I toyed with the idea of putting in one “reverse page”—a page with blank footnotes and with the primary text visible; of course, I didn’t end up doing that, but I often wonder how different a text I would have produced if I had. What excites me about my little book is that the possibilities are endless; I had a bunch of appendices and indexes that didn’t make it into the book and the idea of a variorum edition is something that I plan to work on someday. A variorum edition with the ancillary text and the missing scaffolding—that’s a very exciting idea to me. It’s like dying, in so far as one can finally read that vast obscure text and have the masterpiece be complete.