The frog princess

Ahead of her reading at the Kingston Fall Book Mega-Launch, Jenny Sampirisi talks about Croak, her poetry collection centered around girls and frogs

Jenny Sampirisi co-founded the Toronto New School of Writing in 2010, which offers writing workshops ranging from one day to 10-week courses.
Jenny Sampirisi co-founded the Toronto New School of Writing in 2010, which offers writing workshops ranging from one day to 10-week courses.

1. What is Croak and what inspired you to start writing it?

Croak found me in many ways. In its many incarnations over the years it seemed it was tapping into a variety of emotions and ideas that were already present in our time and culture. I started writing it because I’d noticed the many intersections of body, environment, time and notions of “the self” so I started from there and it leapt its way into its current form.

2. You must have done lots of research into biology and the environment before starting Croak. As an artist, what interests you about science?

The language of science is fascinating! It’s able to become intensely impersonal even while it depicts incredible and at times terrifying truths. I did do a lot of research. I was looking for moments where affect could enter into the emotionless prose of science-speak. The most exciting moments for me were finding words, phrases or ideas that conveyed a larger fear at play or sense of risk faced by a vulnerable species. Every time I came across something that made me nervous in the science, I wanted to see how that might enter the text and become amplified.

3. Why frogs?

Frogs are intensely symbolic in almost every time and culture. They play a big part in myth and fairy tale as well as being actual creatures in the real world in grave danger of disappearing. They are, in fact, absorbing toxins through their skins and as a result switching genders and physically deforming/morphing.

They’re ripe for poetic discourse, especially one that looks at the deforming and synthesizing of a self.

4. Why girls?

Girls and frogs already seemed attached at the hip through fairy tales so it was a very small leap for me to work with the two. Ultimately Croak is a story of the compromises we make in relationships and the many ways we gain and lose aspects of ourselves when we enter into a “love story” with another individual.

The girls in the book are struggling to understand themselves in relation to the frogs and the frogs are doing the same in relation to the girls. They’re all trying to figure out how to be “some other better.” With all my writing, I look to see how this type of emotional confusion can be translated into physical confusion and having frogs and girls perform this given the many compromises already present in the source texts, it made a lot of sense to have this play out between the two.

5. You explore and push the boundaries of language, like in the paragraphs where much of the content is blacked out. How did you develop your own style of writing?

My style comes from reading a lot and talking to other writers a lot too. I get excited by people who try new things on the page and experiment with voice. There’s nothing in Croak that is particularly new in the world of poetry. It’s all been done before.

I think it looks strange because this isn’t a book that chooses a single formal path and uses it consistently. I didn’t want to write a book that had a template of form that could be followed at all times, though there are certainly guiding principles such as the character’s names as headings and repeated ideas/phrases/voices throughout. Because these characters are struggling with the self, it seemed right to me that their voices take many forms.

6. What attracts you to poetry, as opposed to other forms of writing?

I think I’m attracted to poetry because it doesn’t have the same expectations that narrative has. Many readers understand that poetry will be challenging. Personally, I enjoy reading something that makes me think on multiple levels simultaneously. I like the feeling of uncertainty that I get from reading good poetry. It can be a place where multiple readings and interpretations are possible. It feels like a dynamic space to make multiple meanings present at one time. That’s fantastic!

7. What do you hope readers take away from the book?

I hope people read it and see it as a question [or] series of questions rather than an answer. It really is a text that’s unnerving, not just about our distorted sense of self, but also about love, lust and sex, and how in our modern world these very natural things have been mutated and transformed.

We’re so self aware of everything that we are, and of everything that we aren’t, and of everything that we have to give up and compromise on for love. We’re all sort of flapping around in the muck, disquieted and disfigured.

8. How did writing Croak differ from writing your first novel is/was?

is/was was my master’s thesis at the University of Windsor. I had an editor working with me right in the heat of the writing process and I had feedback from multiple trusted voices throughout. When Insomniac [Press] picked it up it went through another set of intense edits. I feel like is/was was a book that had a lot of attention and time gifted to it by very intelligent people.

Croak was written mostly alone, with guidance entering only in the late stages. In a way, I think Croak needed more silence to be written because the quiet allowed me to feel safe (and brave) while trying new ideas out on the page.

9. Croak can read like a play. Have you ever imagined it as a stage production? How do you feel about spoken as opposed to written language? Yes! Absolutely. It is very much a play. So far it’s been staged twice in small formats. Both times it was staged with a dancer and a musician. In future I would really like to stage it on a larger scale with multiple dancers and musicians and vocalists. There’s not much difference for me creatively between spoken and written word. They’re both enacting a performance. I’m hyper aware of how we construct ourselves with language — what we say and how we say it.

What I like about the idea of staging it is that it allows for the voices on the page to become embodied, which is very much what the characters are struggling with. The dancer I’ve been working with, Megan English, has added so much to my understanding of the text.

10. As managing editor for BookThug, a facilitator for the WordPress blog Other Cl/utter, executive member of the Scream Literary Festival, a teacher at the Toronto New School of Writing and a professor at Ryerson University, how do you find time to write?

Ha! I’m not exactly sure. The best I can say is that all of those activities feed into my writing in some way. I wouldn’t do them otherwise. I get a lot out of participating in the literary and academic communities and I’m always learning from other writers and thinkers. Finding time to write isn’t so hard when you spend all day every day engaged with writing and writers.

There’s also an element of “fight or flight” associated with writing. Every time I sit down to write, it’s usually that I’m looking to fight my way through some problem or curiosity I have around language. The alternative is to ignore those problems and questions and my silly brain just won’t let me, even after a long day.

11. What are you reading right now?

Sina Queyras’ Autobiography of Childhood. It’s a fabulous novel. I think it accomplishes a lot of what we usually ascribe to poetry, that being a sense of simultaneity of voice and time and experience. The writing is incredible and gives me the itch to write novels again.

Jenny Sampirisi submitted her answers via email. The interview has been edited for space. She will give a reading of Croak at the Kingston at the Artel on Oct. 3 at 7 p.m.

— Caitlin Choi

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