I recently interviewed Jessica Drake-Thomas about her new book, Burials, forthcoming October 6th, 2020 from Clash Books. Burials is an important book that writes and embodies stories back into spaces in which they have been historically and socially evacuated or silenced. It was, in many ways, healing to spend time thinking deeply alongside these poems.
1. “As the strand frizzles away,
much like his patience
for your mental instability
and your constant texting,
close your eyes.”
Can you speak to representations of mental illness in the book and how witchcraft, as historical referent, metaphor, and concrete practice, as represented by the above lines from “Love Spell Number One,” provides a space and practice for narratives that might otherwise remain unspoken or silenced?
Mental illness and witchcraft both historically and in my experience, intersect. The stories and paths are similar—I’m speaking from the perspective of the Outsider on two different levels. I am someone whose experiences are something other than the norm. There’s a similar fear-based reaction to both from those who one could consider Insiders.
In terms of “Love Spell Number One,” it’s a piece about reclaiming your power, when someone else has taken it from you. Witchcraft, for me, has been (in conjunction with proper psychiatric care) a way to heal myself and to take back not only my voice, but my agency, as well. In a way, Burials can be used as a grimoire, of sorts—what’s there will actually work when put into practice.
2. One of my favorite poems in the book is “The House-Woman,” especially the lines:
“Like all houses
I was shelter, inhabitable,
My mouth became a door
a large, round Hello
for anyone to walk in.”
How does the concept and representation of transformation operate in your work?
“The House-Woman” is an interesting piece. As a woman who has struggled with addiction issues, there was a time when I began to feel almost as if other people and their wishes were inhabiting me. I felt like things were happening to me that I couldn’t quite control because I was so intoxicated so often.
Looking at my self and my body as a house was to look at myself in the way that other people did—as something to be used, then left. In the day and age of technology and screens, I feel like for a lot of people that I interact with, people aren’t so much important as people, it’s what people can do for them. I really hate this. I try to focus on people who are genuine. I’ve gone into the weeds.
Transformation operates in my work to provide a different perspective. To make things more as they are, rather then what they seem in order to reveal a deeper truth. I’ve always been an embellisher, and I’ve always been interested in magic—two things which rely on transformation in order to promote understanding.
3. There is multiple representations, both literally and figuratively, of the self and others within this collection:
any versions of myself
that are not my own,
and this version of me
that you’ve created,
weak and wanting,
The multiplicity of identity seems to be linked to trauma, especially in the above lines. Can you speak to the multiple selves that you develop within in your work and how they function within the narratives?
Part of being a writer is containing a multitude of selves. Part of being mentally ill, particularly with bipolar disorder, is containing very different selves. I mean, there’s a vast difference between who I present as when I’m manic, versus when I’m depressed, and even when I’m properly medicated—I feel like a different person.
I’ve experienced a lot of trauma in my past, and I think this quote in particular, is in a way, how my stronger self is protecting another one who is a bit gentler and has definitely been hurt.
4. Similar to the first question about silence, I’d like to ask you about the relationship between physical and internal, of the exposed and the hidden. I’m thinking particularly about the lines:
“and children can grow up
to become demons,
wrapped in flash.”
What is the relationship between the seen and the unseen in this collection?
In the way that this collection is about giving voice to the silenced, it’s also about making the unseen seen. That particular poem, “Changeling,” is about those accused of being changelings. People who had been said to have been stolen and replaced by a fairy. The cure for it was to throw them in the fire, then the fairy would die and the original person replaced. I can think of one instance—Bridget Cleary, who in 1890 was burned to death by her husband for being a changeling. However, it appears that he was just angry because her business was successful, and he didn’t know how to handle his wife’s success.
I mean the difference between what is seen and what is unseen, and what people choose to see is the lens through which they’re looking.
5. You have a fairly substantial notes section at the end of your book, which signals that a lot of research was completed for the book. Can you talk about your writing process for this book? Particularly, was this research that you had already done that helped give shape to the book, or did you research particularly with the book in mind?
I do a lot of research. I follow as many strands of thought as I am able, so that I explore each fully. I like to have a good awareness of what’s already been done, so I can figure out how I can do it differently. For Burials, it all seemed to come about organically. Everything that I was reading and watching and doing at the time felt connected and important. I came across a whole bunch of spell books as well as books discussing spell creation and shadow work which were influential to my process. Tarot had a really big part in shaping the book, as well. When I got stuck on a piece, I would do a drawing, and then whatever would come of that would shape the rest of the poem. Sometimes, I would start with a reading, then practice going into a trance-state, using ritual and spell work to put myself into the right headspace.
I definitely didn’t plan to write this book. I’d been going through a dry spell with my writing, and I had no plans to write any book, only a lot of hope that someday I would. I just kind of started writing, and then didn’t stop.
Jessica Drake-Thomas is a poet, novelist, reviewer, and PhD student. She's the author of Burials, and several unpublished works.