Q&A with author Jefferson Navicky
Interviewed by Claire Guyton
CG: What was your inspiration for “Three Women Writing Around My Head”?
JN: I was writing somewhere (maybe a cafe?), and I looked into a mirror, which had another mirror in its reflection, and because of these multiple levels of reflection, it made it seem like three women, who were seated elsewhere in the cafe, were hovering over my head. Kind of like the cliché, a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and in this case, maybe a third deity (a leprechaun? cupid? Tinker Bell? who knows).
CG: When I read your piece, I immediately connected it to your job as an archivist at UNE’s Maine Women Writers Collection. In an email exchange I asked if there are any women floating around in your head because of the work you do, and you named Kate Barnes, Ruth Moore, and Sarah Orne Jewett. Can you tell me one thing about each that you only know because of your work at MWWC, and that you found surprising or really interesting, or, for any reason, just love knowing?
I love talking about the Maine Women Writers Collection. I’ll start with Sarah Orne Jewett. Because of a handwritten 1895 letter in response to a fan, I know that she didn’t lay out her chapters before she wrote them in order for the writing to emerge more organically. I love this little detail, because it highlights Jewett’s commitment to making her writing feel authentic and not pre-packaged, and I appreciate that quality in her writing.
One Saturday afternoon a few years ago, my wife and I took an enchanted boat ride from Bass Harbor out to Gotts Island where Ruth Moore grew up in the early 20th century and where her father ran the post office from the back of their house. Her family house is still there, and has been owned by the same family who bought it from the Moore family. Because of the tour of the house, which in some cases has not been changed at all from the time Moore’s father ran the post office, I know that it used to cost 10 cents (in addition to postage!) to send a letter by registered mail to any post office in the world.
At the moment, I know so much about Kate Barnes’s life, because I’m processing her papers—literally, her life is spread out around me. I often feel so lucky to be able to glimpse the quiet moments of her life, not just the bigger moments of Maine’s First Poet Laureate. She had an amazing ability to convey her life in letters and journals, so funny and immediate, honest and incredibly vulnerable. You can see this quality in the letters she sent to her parents when she was away at boarding school, and you can see it in the dream journals she kept later in life. I especially love these dream journals. There’s one dream where Barnes sees a fellow poet walking down the street, arms loaded with all the books the other poet has published. The other poet, who is a lot younger than Barnes, wants to show Barnes her new tattoo and tongue piercing. The description is such a perfect poet dream jealousy scenario, and the way Barnes writes it is so cringe-worthy funny. When I read it, I thought, I could have that dream!
CG: When we talked about companion pieces for “Three Women,” you mentioned your love of Ruth Moore’s novel Spoonhandle. Tell me why you love it.
JN: I love Spoonhandle for many reasons. The story itself is romantically magical, full of the self-reliant streak that sustains any island. The dialogue is also so good it makes me want to chew the words myself: “Hauls like a halibut,” Hod said, panting. “If it’s a shark, it’s a jeasly big one.” I might one day get a bumper sticker that says, “Hauls like a halibut, Hod said.” And while I’ve yet to use “jeasly” successfully in a sentence, I’d sure like to someday.
But the book means a lot more to me than just the story. My then-girlfriend (now wife) had on her car the bumper sticker: “I READ RUTH MOORE.” I’d just moved to Maine and had no idea who Ruth Moore was, but I knew I’d like her (both my wife and Ruth Moore!). The bumper sticker was a talisman into a world of Maine literature that has become very close to my heart. At some point, we met Gary Lawless, who printed the bumper stickers in support of his reissuing of Ruth Moore’s books through his press, Blackberry Books. Then I had to pinch myself that I was so lucky to become the Archivist at MWWC where we house the Ruth Moore papers.
Finally, Moore lived in Bass Harbor on Mount Desert Island, and coincidentally my wife’s grandmother has a summer house basically one town away, so we’ve made pilgrimages to both Moore’s house in Bass Harbor, and as I mentioned above, her family’s former house on Gotts Island. In short, Spoonhandle has become short-hand for a kind of love I feel incredibly grateful for.
CG: I think my favorite part of “Three Women”—well, in addition to the final line—is that reference to cupcakes: “Love buys you single cupcakes at the store even though they’re ridiculously expensive and waste tons of packaging.” Yes! Now you have to tell me if this line is based on personal experience. And if a cupcake is not the indulgent, love-showering, go-to treat in your home, what is?
JN: Yes, it certainly is based on experience. When we first moved into our cottage in Freeport, it was a long day of moving, exhausting in that particular way that only moving one’s home can be. My wife zipped out to the market to get some easy food for dinner, and when she returned, she had a single cupcake with probably as much icing on it as cake. That’s my kind of cupcake!
CG: I love many, many, many books, stories, essays, poems. But there are only a handful of pieces I have read with such interest and joy that I find myself wishing I had written them myself. That’s a different, sharp, envy-as-praise kind of appreciation and love for another’s work. Have you ever felt that? If so, give us an example of something that inspired that reaction, and please say why you think it struck that chord in you.
JN: Yes, of course I’ve felt that. I feel it most with poems, I think, because for me, poems are emotional thought-magic; so if someone hits a particularly good one, there’s this spark of enchantment, and who honestly doesn’t wish they’d grabbed a piece of it too? That spark is one of the biggest reasons I write anything. I felt it this past weekend when I read David Baker’s poem “We Are Gone” in the August 10th issue of The New Yorker. That poem has magic, like it grabbed me as soon as I began reading it and said, “Listen, I’m going to be great.” The poem is so beguiling, because it sounds pretty loose and intuitive, but it’s actually very tightly controlled, which is a sign of real skill. But probably, the reason why I loved it so much is that it’s achingly beautiful, and that’s enough to do it for me.