Coach House asks Jenny Sampirisi a few questions about Croak
CH: Croak mashes up girls and frogs, pop culture and classical literature, and prose poems and dialogue. How do you see these things intersecting?
JS: It seemed to me all these things were already talking to one another and that most people who might read the book already have a literacy around intertexts. The mash-up sense of culture is what we're living. Want to see what Cookie Monster and Tom Waits have in common? It's on YouTube. I think this creative 'mashing' of cultural signifiers has become a comfortable identity for a whole generation. Time doesn't hold the same linear path that we once felt it did. Everything, past or present, is happening now.
We've grown up with the 'jump cut' as a common narrative event. The Simpsons and Family Guy, and many other media, often jump away from the central plot line to engage in intertexual play, commonly referencing cultural events that predate their own audience. We know this language; we speak it fluently. Time/culture is already blurry and we're okay with that. When I learned that living frogs were deforming, most commonly by growing or losing limbs, I started to think of what a limb might be to a gendered body, to a culture that in many ways splinters and recombines itself and to a sense of voice and language that must accommodate or adapt to such shifts. I also couldn't resist the idea that all these extra fingers and toes represented a ‘digital transformation’ (har har) on a figurative level as well.
CH: One of the consistent forms in the book is the prose poem; what led you to work in that form?
JS: I love poetry. I love writers who write down the margins. I can read it for days. But when I write down the margin, I quickly get exhausted by the beginning/middle/endness that the style takes on in my mind. That's the first reason. I've never really been able to write that way, and it was a revelation when I discovered prose poetry via Daphne Marlatt, Susan Holbrook and Renee Gladman. It's the form my thinking is most comfortable with. However, it's not arbitrary to Croak. That sense of simultaneity that I wanted necessitated that the typical hierarchies break down a bit. I needed ideas to bleed together and become muddy. Prose poetry allowed me to create that out-of-breath style that I felt the characters needed to possess, especially since they're all, in a way, running toward death. I wanted to capture a sense of sliding from thought to thought and from past to present without whitespace to guide the transition. Go go go!
CH: Your first novel, is/was, was really invested in the sound of language. Does that appear here at all in
JS: Sound, sound, sound. Who can get away from it? When I wrote is/was, I was keenly aware of what is said and what is unsaid and how those two impulses can contradict one another. I love a good contradiction. With Croak, sound was central. The word 'croak' itself has an onomatopoeic quality. I looked for words that were interesting, sound-wise, and also I wanted a sense of multiple voices interrupting one another. I used Samuel Beckett's Words and Music to guide some of those interjections (tuning forks, thumps, groans, moans, crackles, etc. enter the text often). This is also a book that's about language and how it might deform a speaker or a voice. Some pieces are entirely sound-based, while others tell stories that engage repetition and evolution of language.
CH: The girls in Croak are nameless, only every referred to as Girl One and Girl Zero, or en masse as ‘The Girls.’ How do identity and gender figure into your writing?
JS: The binaries for the Frogs and the Girls that are set up in the text come first from the idea of data being processed (1s and 0s) and second through an existential sense of being and nothingness that laid the groundwork for the text. Gender is where I live as a woman and I feel, at this time and place and as a teacher to a younger generation, that I’m constantly confronted with complacency around how women are viewed and treated. The Girls of Croak are deforming. They're frustrated and often voiceless. Sometimes they're uncooperative and other times they're passively led to their fates. They grapple with compromises or the choice of giving up values and identity to feel love as the girl in The Frog Prince must do. Those figures are tragic for me. To call a woman a girl is to devalue her status as an adult capable of making decisions. There's also sexual connotation where 'girl' is somehow more desirable than 'woman.' I am aware that by designating these figures in this way, I'm contributing to this deformity, but I hope it makes my readers rightfully angry. I'm hoping to shake up that complacency. The final section of the book labeled 'Catharsis' ends with the Girls declaring, 'so it is that we’ve failed then.' And if we allow them to go on being compromised in the ways that they experience in Croak, then we have.
CH: If you had to grow an extra limb, like one of your frogs, where would you like that limb to be?
JS: I think the extra limb would be my voice. It would grow out of my throat and it would be phenomenally splintered and flexible.
CH: If Croak were to be performed as an opera, who would play the girls? The frogs? How would you stage it?
JS: Dancers would play all the characters, I think. Megan English, a dancer and choreographer in Toronto, played a Frogirl onstage in Toronto last summer as part of a workshop weekend. Her performance changed the book for me. I realized just how physical these creatures I've created are. I think the staging of this would be a constructive challenge for dancers who are so in tune with their 'parts' as simultaneous and individual events on a stage. The torso doing this. The arm doing that. The leg up. The head down. I'd be absolutely enthralled to see dancers in these roles. The characters are already open to physical and musical interpretation. I think I'd need about a dozen dancers, a composer and several vocalists. I'd love to stage it at some point.
CH: Michigan J. or Kermit?
JS: I'd have to say Flip the Frog. Michigan J. and Kermy are great, but Flip the Frog is like cartoons on acid. After Ub Iwerks created Mickey Mouse, he and Walt Disney had a falling out (Disney felt Iwerks' work was too risque and surreal for children). Iwerks created Flip the Frog as a rival to Mickey. Flip has Iwerks' trademark flowing, rubbery style mixed with a level of vaudevillian imagination that would seem grotesque by today's castrated kids' entertainment standards. Ub ub ub ub ub ub.