“Shapeshifting as Magic”: An Interview with Jessica Q. Stark

The “Not Abandon, but Abide” interview series is dedicated to Southern poets abiding by hope in the South. Their poetry actively resists the notion that we all co-sign the actions of the monoculture. Poetry shakes what we thought we knew.

With Buffalo Girl, Jessica Q. Stark has written a book that is “about” its subjects — in shorthand, the relationship between a specific mother and daughter and the latter’s reckoning with her own identity — while also plying thorny concepts familiar to scholars of postmodernism and postcolonial theory. In her poem “Passing,” she writes, “without language we might finally be vanished, / touchless, free.” Buffalo Girl compels the reader to think about intersections of power and ownership, language and representation, all hooked to a family story that reads as earnestly personal, and for the author, consequential.

And yet, Buffalo Girl seemingly can’t stop referencing, whether it’s the canon of the mother’s story, the inflexible pedagogy of fairy tales, or American consumerism and its toxic effects. This is a book that speaks to itself, literally, as a poem called “Catalogue of Random Acts of Violence” might be answered by a poem whose body comprises “The Woods,” a single phrase, repeated (from “In Earnest, She Replied:”). Alongside the poems, readers will find erasures and collages of photographs taken by the writer’s mother, fairy tale engravings, and the writer’s own landscape pictures. The Appendix and Notes sections of the book are rich resources, and Stark has gone to some trouble to contextualize her project.

Jessica Q. Stark is the author of four poetry chapbooks, including Render (Eat Poems Series, 2022) and Innanet (The Offending Adam, 2021), and her first full-length poetry collection is called Savage Planet (Birds, LLC, 2020). She teaches at the University of North Florida.

This interview took place over email in March 2023.

There are a few applications of the word buffalo in Buffalo Girl.  What does a ‘buffalo girl’ mean in the context of this story?

Thank you for this question! The term is intentionally vague. I resist defining it simply because I think one of its most vital definitions relates to its shapeshifting as magic, as a mode of obscurity and thus, survival. It’s meant to be read as both derogatory and celebratory, as profane and cute, as historically contingent, but specific to my personal relationship to my mother.

One of the many stories that my mother told me about was about little buffalo girls and boys who would ride water buffalo in rural parts of Vietnam, singing songs while tending rice paddies in the very early morning. Buffalo girls have a very different lineage in American popular culture, and I’ve written about some of this inheritance in the notes section in the back of this book. Both histories are important to what lies at the heart of this book, which is to say: there exists a fine line between fantasy and reality, of cruelty and survival, of eros and death. In the context of this book, I suppose a buffalo girl can’t be defined, but you know one when you see one. Do you think you are a buffalo girl, Erin?

I relate to resisting and searching for a way through shifting power structures, and to wanting to find agency in my own inherited stories. I think being a buffalo girl is something that someone can decide, yes!  You include synopses of different Red Riding Hood stories in the Appendix, so the reader can see how they are all different versions of a similar legend. Do you see yourself as telling a story?  Retelling a legend?  Deconstructing?

I’m interested in telling a kind of story about a lot of different stories — personal, historical, national. I became interested in the Little Red Riding Hood story because of that tension between the singular and the collective. When we think about it, it feels so stable, but we know that there are several versions — many with wildly different endings for the young girl. This is how I feel about telling a story that involves myself, my mother. There are certain circumstances that happened, jobs that were had, places that were visited, but that the conditions and specificity around these markers shift with the unstable archive of memory, gossip, revision. In terms of the Red Riding Hood story, though, what I’m really interested in is inverting the common thread among most versions: the idea that the little girl needs saving, that she doesn’t quite know what she wants, that in every iteration she is a victim to be pitied. That things are done to her. That her curiosity is morally punishable. This move also speaks deeply to my relationship to myself, my mother.

How did this book start for you?  What kind of research was involved?

The book started first in researching the phylogenetics behind Little Red Riding Hood. I wanted to know where it came from. How far it went back. Where it started. I tried to find as many versions as I could. I researched and read them for about a year before writing the first poem for Buffalo Girl while I was publishing my first book. I knew I wanted to write about my mother, but I didn’t relay these impulses together until much later, well into the research of these stories. I found that the story predates written language, that it’s extremely cross-cultural, and that its “true” origins are contested and vague. These felt apt serendipities in relation to how I relate to my own lineage, to my own stories I tell about myself.

Most of the Red Riding Hood stories are from German and French, except for the “Tiger Woman” story from Huan Chih-chun, but then you also bring in historical Triệu Thị Trinh, Trần Lệ Xuân, and the Trưng sisters. In these latter stories, the female figures are decidedly not victims.  You also cite a Vietnam “run by women” in “Hungry Poem with Laughter Coming from an Unknown Source.”  Could you say a little more about these stories, as they relate to female power and its locations?

There are a great number of Vietnamese legends that involve powerful women and leaders. Some sources cite that ancient Vietnam was a strong, matriarchal society, though other sources contest this as true. To me, the Vietnamese women I’ve known have always ruled this world. That a society run by these women is the only ancient history that makes sense, even if based on legends, hearsay. I like interweaving disparate sources in micro-level relationships. I could only think of my relationship to my mother in a way that thinks about the stories we tell about women, their follies, their strength, their lovers, their enemies. I was interested in the Little Red Riding Hood story for feeling so antithetical to the strength required in this world to be a girl, to become a woman; I wanted to rip apart this idea of the roving victim as the only through-line of gazing back.

The series of “Kleptomania” poems often have to do with taking food. Stealing here is an act of liberation, yet in other places, it’s violence. The poem “Catalogue of Random Acts of Violence” even includes an attempted kidnapping.  What’s stealing? What can’t be stolen?  

My mother often mentioned hunger as an issue in Vietnam growing up. I think about inheriting different kinds of hunger and the potentially, interrelated impulse towards taking, towards stealing. In my mind, the idea of stealing is so contextually contingent; who is a ‘thief’? Does it matter where you are? Who holds the apples? How much would you need to steal to be unethical? And under what terms? Is it based on needs or hunger, specifically? What about the needs of your grandmother, your great-greats?

The more I think about the ethics around stealing and impulse and addictions, the deeper I’m in the woods — it’s all shade and bramble. Histories, false and true, cannot be outrun forever and therefore, often cannot be stolen, in truth. In short, I’m interested in reckonings that manifest in unusual ways.

The artwork in Buffalo Girl is intertextual in that you are working with erasure and collage. How do you want readers to interact with the artwork?  What other poets can you recommend that use a strong visual element in their work?

I hope that the artwork works as poems in themselves. I was interested in using specific images when I developed this manuscript, but I knew I wanted to pull in anachronistic collage work that connects these visual elements to my subjective, flawed point of view in mixing them with these somewhat banal photographs I took. The photographs and illustrations are framed by the foliage that permeates my life in Florida, which is the mold around my memory, so connected in my mind to my limited ability to recreate a history, a story (even my own) with utmost accuracy. There is unavoidable erasure in the act of telling any kind of story and I wanted to visually represent that adoration and violence. I’ve studied and loved many authors that used visual elements in their work including Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Don Mee Choi, Bianca Stone, Sommer Browning, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Alexa Luborsky, Vi Khi Nao, Kathryn Cowles, I could really go on. I also studied a lot of poets that dabbled in creating “amateur”-ish comics in the 20th century — Robert Creeley, Joe Brainard, Barbara Guest, and so many more. I really love the idea of important marginalia in books. I think that it has to do with that wide canvas I’m drawn to again and again. I want it all. And everything, even trash, makes it. 

To follow up on your comments on matriarchy, these lines stand out: addressed to “Mother” in “Aubade with Buffalo Girls in Flight,” “I owe you nothing for // what I left out of this catalogue.    Still, I owe you for tender volume, / or the way I      never told you cried after // driving you home to the         airport that year.”  Those lines turn on contradictions and negations.  How do you reckon with the relationship between Kimle Mac Quick and the mother of this book?  Has your own motherhood impacted your perspective on this material, and/or creative decisions you made in Buffalo Girl? 

The poem “Con Cào Cào” in this book grapples directly with your first question. I’ve said before that this book is about my mother, but in truth, it’s more about a feeling — my feeling — about someone I deeply love and someone that I could never fully know. I want to honor the aspects of my mother and her stories that I don’t know. That I could never really understand. And I wanted to acknowledge the imperfection of this re-telling. This was very important to me. One of the reasons why I love poetry is because it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. It invites representation that hosts white space, elision, disorder, silence.

I’m sure coming into my own motherhood enabled me to write this book out of the deep fear of loss that maternity instilled. When I became a mother, I remember feeling surprised with the great onus and responsibility of keeping a being alive that should outlive me. It made me think of course, too, about the unsaid debts of mothers, the tax of childrearing on women’s minds, and our bodies. The great magic of lineage and inheritance and all the hours and years that go unspoken.

For this series I’m talking to poets born and raised as well as those brought to live in the South by circumstance or desire, and I aim to resist entrenched definitions of the South that feel essentialist, flat, untrue. Could something similar be said about Florida and Florida poets (and yourself as, potentially, a Florida poet)?

I am hopelessly devoted to Florida. The humidity, the violent summer storms, the foliage resemble at times the tropical conditions I’ve experienced in Vietnam, which I think contributes a lot to why I love it here. I love the sea and its proximity. Someone once told me that the ocean is calming because it counterintuitively reminds us of death; the largeness of this world, unpeopled. I like living close to that thought. And yes, I also hate essentialist depictions of Florida and/or the South that elide how much wildness, beauty, and wreckage lives here. Writers love conflict; I love conflict. And I’m drawn to this conflicted place as an energy source, a complex point of frustration, and a home that consistently resists easy categorizations. Easy is boring and heat brings out the worst in people. What better place to think into the limits of our desperately shared human condition? On our vexed connection and rupture with this Earth, with each other? I’m not going anywhere.

Buffalo Girl
By Jessica Q. Stark
BOA Editions
Published April 18, 2023
Author Photo: Daniel Stark