Discovery and Poetry: Interview with Marlin M. Jenkins by Katie Willingham

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Marlin M. Jenkins chapbook Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020) mines the universe of Pokémon and its creature encyclopedia, the Pokédex, reflecting back to us the complexities of the human world–its flaws and delights, as well as the narratives that shape us, damage us, and drive us to grow and change. Navigating both the worlds we are born into and the worlds we invent with equal care and curiosity, Jenkins reminds us that discovery is only the beginning.

This interview was held over the phone in March 2020 and edited for clarity and length. 


Katie Willingham (KW): Marlin, thank you so much for doing this interview, and thanks for sharing your book with the world!

Marlin M. Jenkins (MMJ): Yeah, I’m really happy for it to be in the world and making its way into people’s hands and people’s lives. That feels really special.

KW: What is an unexpected way that is happening right now since I know some of the traditional ways are a bit closed off at the moment?

MMJ: Yeah, I think when it was still in the stage of pre-orders, one thing that I hadn’t really thought a lot about was that people wouldn’t only be buying it for themselves but would be buying it as a gift. So I saw comments online of people saying, “Oh, I ordered a copy for me and for my nephew, or for my friend.” And then when readings started, having people say, “Hey, can you sign this for my dad.” So, just the idea that people want to gift the book to somebody has just been really heartwarming, and it wasn’t something I thought about before it made its way into the world.

KW: I’m glad that it’s spreading further than you anticipated and beyond the circle of the known! First off, I basically wrote down a word cloud and then it became this question. So, I’ll read you my word cloud. I wrote: lineage/ fate/ gift/ given/ blood/ seed/ canon. There’s so much about lineage and what is given in this book—whether it’s about family or about the received canon or a seed on your back that grows when you grow and I’m wondering if you can talk about representing this kind of discovery that’s not about learning something new that no one has ever uncovered before, but about learning what you already are or already have?

MMJ: That’s an interesting question. First, word clouds are really interesting to me! I was just doing this with this full-length collection I’m working on, and it was interesting for me to think about what words pop up because they pervade the entire manuscript versus words that pop up because they’re repeated a lot in one poem. Like the word “canon,” for example. There’s the poem “canon” where it pops up, and it’s maybe in one other poem elsewhere. Another is “gift” which pops up a couple of times, in particular in the Togekiss poem towards the end. It’s interesting where the repetition is localized or where it’s big picture. But definitely those themes run throughout.

On discovery—discovery is one of the most important parts of poetry to me and one of the things that keeps me continually engaged is what can the poem teach us, and what can we discover throughout it and how can we use the poem as a point of reflection? I really want my poems to be teaching me about myself and about my family and that lineage. I was really interested when I was writing this in genetics and birth and the intersection of physical inheritance versus cultural inheritance. That’s something I engage with a lot, but the encyclopedic nature of the subject material here definitely fed into that. When I was working with these Pokédex entries—these little burbs that come from the Pokémon video games—I was really struck that the first three Pokémon in the Pokédex all have entries that mention them being born. They say, “from the time it was born” or “from birth,” and the fact that all three of the first Pokémon have that made me think about how we start at this moment of birth, but something also precedes that. What starts when we start and where does it come from?

KW: I was thinking today about how this book has a hero’s journey happening and that is it’s own canon and it’s own canon that is tied to masculinity in certain ways: venturing forth and having trials and overcoming something—and I’m curious what keeps you returning to those narratives despite recognizing their shortcomings (as I think you do in this book)? What makes you want to draw on them but also attend to some of those shortcomings?

MMJ: There’s so many different ways to start with this one. It’s a really interesting question. This is maybe a hot take that a lot of people are going to hate me for, but my  hot Star Wars take is that Luke Skywalker does not become an interesting character until the sequel trilogy.

KW: Say more!

MMJ: I’m a huge Star Wars nerd, but I personally don’t think Luke is that interesting a character – what is interesting to me is the world around him. In the new trilogy, I was really drawn to this idea of Luke as disillusioned. In the prequel trilogy, the only people that are really challenging the system and the institution of the Jedi are bad guys. Until the sequels, we don’t really get the sense that maybe this institution isn’t all good until you see that through Luke and how he tries to carry on this legacy without the system or institution of it in the same way. I think I’ve meandered here with my Star Wars hot takes, but I think that idea of how we examine the thing and examine the institution of it is part of what I’m interested in. How do we look at the hero’s journey as something that’s useful but also looks a little more deeply at the ways we interpret or perpetuate it? That’s something that’s happening in this chapbook in ways that you point out, and maybe also makes its way into my work more generally.

When I was putting this together, there were a handful of poems— like the main series that are clearly written as a series— but then some of the other poems really weren’t written to be  part of  this project and then clearly had connections, especially because I was working on them at the same time. So the poem “Self Portrait as Fear of the Dark,” which has the phrase “capable monsters” that the title comes from – that’s the poem that really directly addresses the hero’s journey. I was thinking a lot about Star Wars when I wrote that poem. There’s the moment that goes, “in every hero’s journey, the antagonist is what the hero could become.” I didn’t verify if that’s really true in all of these examples, but it’s something I remember hearing someone say or learning in undergrad and then was really drawn to it. So that idea that Luke Skywalker could easily become the next Darth Vader and how we could so easily become the villain because of the same things that make us a hero, but then maybe it’s more complicated than that — much more messy and much less black and white than a lot of stories would make us believe.

And this chapbook is really wrestling with those received narratives, especially a received narrative of masculinity. What does it mean to see or not see oneself as a particular thing? What does it mean to wrestle with that thing in a way that’s saying some of these things I reject and some of these things I can’t completely reject because to reject them would be to deny them in a way that means I’m ignoring them? That’s what I was trying to work through here, especially in terms of masculinity.

KW: I love that you brought us to “Self Portrait as Fear of the Dark” because it’s one of my favorite poems here, and it holds a special place in the book. I wonder if you have some thoughts about that discovery and how it came to fall in the place that it does in the book? For me, there’s such an important hinge that happens between “Self Portrait as Fear of the Dark” and “Pokédex Entry #260: Swampert,” and I want to know how that came to be and how it came to be at this part of the book?

MMJ: This poem is definitely one of the ones that I’m referring to when I say it wasn’t written as part of this project. It’s an interesting poem to me, too, because I think people are responding well to it in context. I never want to conflate publication with the quality of a poem, but this poem might hold the record or at least is in the top three for poems that have racked up the most number of rejections for me. So I kind of gave up on this poem making its way into the world. I really love it, I really believe in it, but no one wanted to publish it. It didn’t get published until a website picked it up after the chapbook was forthcoming, and they sent a message to the editor and said, “Hey, are there poems in this chapbook that aren’t published yet? We’d like to take a look at them.” It exists as part of the project now, but it very much existed on its own until it kind of ended up merging into the collection.

As far as the sequence of it, I have to give a shout out to Mathew Olzmann for that! Matthew was the editor I worked with most directly during the process of putting together and revising the collection. We went back and forth between Capable Monsters and My Capable Monsters but we had a lot of conversations about this poem. Matthew flagged this poem as important and central to the collection, which wasn’t something that I really thought was true until he pointed it out. I thought of it as this outlier that only kind of fit. From that conversation, I think that’s how the title was chosen. There was a version where this was the first or second poem, and then Olzmann suggested maybe having a delay where we build to the poem where the title appears. I played with a couple different sequencing options, and this ended up making the most sense, and I think for those reasons you’re talking about: that balance of when are we talking about the individual versus very overtly about the collective, especially because it does interrogate some of those questions of what does it mean to  exist in community? What does it mean to exist with others? And how does that fit with things like the narrative of a hero’s journey?

KW: Fascinating that it came to be important later in the process and came to be moved later in the book ironically because of its prominence, but I think that it works really well. This feels kind of related – so the universe of Pokémon is all about battling and these Pokémon have different abilities that play off of each other and make them good at battling in different ways. There’s this undercurrent of violence that’s going on and there are very smart ways that you touch on that in relation to culture and masculinity. I wanted to bring us back to that idea of discovery and becoming and defending at the same time. What do you hope the universe of Pokémon will show your readers about that?

MMJ: I had this running joke in college with a writer friend of mine where I always had mixed feelings about everything so it kind of became this joke like, “Marlin always has mixed feelings and is never certain about anything.” And I feel like that’s really true! I feel like so many things that I love, I also want to hold space for how they’re deeply flawed and deeply troublesome. It’s true that the world of Pokémon is beautiful and complex and fascinating and very much about teamwork and friendship and growth and change. At the same time, it’s a world where these creatures with feelings are made to fight each other. And that’s really messed up! I really wanted to not turn away from that and recognize that beauty and also that disturbing nature of what the world is built on. 

KW: Further along those lines, what feels most important about Pokémon as a lens for living? What feels uniquely powerful to you about it that made you want to spend so much time in this universe, not just as a person but in your poetry?

MMJ: Where to start? I think part of what I’m really drawn to is the vastness of it, the complexity that we don’t necessarily think about or talk about. Part of what I thought about a lot and maybe struggled with while writing this is how direct or face-value the metaphors were. Many poems that didn’t work or didn’t make their way in are ones where the content or the concept/metaphor from the quoted text from the games was a little too on the nose. So part of the process was navigating that. So the poem “Pokédex Entry #468: Togekiss”  [https://www.arkint.org/marlin-m-jenkins] was one that was tricky to write, because it could have been too flat of a connection. The quoted text that starts that poem is “It shares many blessings with people who respect one another and avoid needless strife. It will never appear where there is strife. Its sightings have become rare recently.” And that felt like a very easy, “Oh yeah! Humanity kind of sucks!” So what is our relationship to the natural world and how it responds to us based on the violence we are inflicting? I had to be careful in writing this poem to make sure it wasn’t just “Humans suck. We need to respect each other more!” I had to lean into specificity through curiosity. Navigating that is part of what kept me interested—figuring out what texts to quote and how close or how far from the quoted text could  I take the poem.

KW: I love what you say about staying curious about this space and especially a space you know so well.  Can you talk about some of your tools for doing that in this process?

MMJ: One of the things I love about the world and kept me engaged is that it’s so vast, and no matter how much I know about it there is always more to learn. A lot of the things I found when researching and reading up on Pokémon and these Pokédex entries were things I didn’t already know or things that I had known but forgotten. I always felt there was something new for me to explore. There are so many games, and I’ve played so many of them, but there’s some I haven’t played. And there’s always a new generation of Pokémon that adds so much to the world, and there’s so many of these new creatures to spend time with and get to know. So it really goes back to that vastness.

KW: I also think that’s true for your readers, that this is a world they likely know, but might know in a limited way. And I also think there’s something valuable in that it’s pop culture. Because it is an unexamined or less-examined space, and you’re giving your attention to it. It makes it so clear how to approach something with care and examine its joys and flaws at the same time. And if it was something we were unfamiliar with, we would have to take that at face value and see the levels it is reaching as readily.

MMJ: Yeah, one of the things I think about my relationship with Pokémon that was central here is that there was a period of ten years or so where I didn’t really interact with the world in any meaningful way. I played—and this is mentioned in the book—I played Pokémon Blue and a little bit of Pokémon Red in the late 90s, but then my mom made me get rid of the games, and Pokémon was banned in our house. So, for about ten years, I wasn’t playing the games or watching the show or anything else. My friends were and people at school were, but I wasn’t interacting with the world directly. I didn’t start playing the games again until I was 18, and I think re-entering that space and having most of the time I’ve spent with the game be as an adult has really shaped my relationship to the world. For me, it’s not just nostalgia because my most meaningful interactions were once I was an adult. I was already thinking a lot about how much my writing is influenced by video games, and how much my interest in narrative and world building is rooted in video games. I wasn’t super interested in reading as a kid—I became really disillusioned with reading because I hated what we were reading in school—but  I was still interested in reading through playing video games and playing on the Game Boy where there is no voice, you’re just reading. Video games were important to my development as a human, a writer, and a reader. Because of that experience, I was able to kind of bring that reflection into this world as I reentered it and was able to examine it more closely.

KW: That provides a lot of clarity for why it was a natural move for you to occupy this space aslant to it. You also have a gift for bringing up the poems I want to talk about! Because I also want to talk about “Pokédex Entry #468: Togekiss.” I understand how it was a difficult poem to get right, and I should say first that, for me, it really succeeds because it doesn’t go somewhere easy and it also succeeds at talking in a different way about the relationship between technology and violence. I really appreciate the backwards momentum, the move to go back and back instead of forwards and forwards the way a lot of the book does, where the rest of the book has the momentum of growing up and discovery. This poem reverses that.

MMJ: I think a lot about the image and concept behind the Sankofa. It translates to something like “go back and retrieve.” It’s a West African symbol from the Akan people of a bird that is facing forward but its neck is bent backwards. So that idea that we have to be looking back and examine the past in order to move forward is what I was thinking about in this poem. In general in my work, that’s a very formative concept. Here, I wanted to look at history as not only this thing we can reflect on and learn from, but really history as the study of how we got where we are.

KW: I think what’s also incredible about this poem is that it doesn’t find resolution and this question is always alive in a way that asks your readers to also carry it.

MMJ: Yes, and it’s also a meditation on rareness. A big theme throughout the Pokémon games that isn’t one of the main focus points but is definitely noticeable is a reflection on endangered or extinct species in ways that are human-caused. Some Pokémon are endangered because they’re hunted. One of the poems that didn’t make it into the book—it never really made it out of notes—was a poem I was trying to write about Absol who is one of my favorite Pokémon. The deal with Absol is that people think that it brings doom and destruction, but it actually warns people that danger is coming. But because people only see it when danger is about to come, they assume it’s the thing that brings the harm. So then that puts the creature itself in danger. It’s coming to warn people, but because it’s misunderstood, it becomes the thing that is in danger of violence.

KW: This makes me think about Mewtwo as well.

MMJ: Yes, Mewtwo was created as this form of violence, but there’s only one of them and it’s this legendary, one-of-a-kind thing. And Lapras is a Pokémon that’s being hunted. I was interested in this idea that some of these creatures are rare in a way that is directly because of humans. And Togekiss is interesting to me because its scarcity is its own decision. It’s not that it’s been hunted, but it decides not to come around because it recognizes the violence of humans. That was something that really drew me to writing this poem. It wants to stay away from harm that not only might be directed at it but that people are directing at each other.  

KW: So, it’s kind of the shadow poem to the “Absol” poem that didn’t come to be.

M: Yeah!

KW: Are you still writing any Pokémon poems, or do you miss the form that it offered as a space to enter and know something about the structure of where you were going? Or when you finished this project, were you feeling really done with repeating that?

MMJ: That’s a good question. By the time this came together as a chapbook, I was feeling kind of done. It’s something that you could spend forever on—there are hundreds and hundreds of Pokédex entries now, but I reached a point where it felt like if I keep doing this, it will feel overwrought, and I wanted to focus in other directions. But there are a couple more that I still might come back to. I really wanted to write a Pikachu poem and that didn’t happen. Maybe ironically— because Pikachu is such a well-known Pokémon— it may be one of the harder ones to write, because it exists in the collective consciousness in a different way. Pikachu obviously still lives in this collection through the mention of Ash’s Pikachu in the poem “some theories and origins” and also in the “Mimikyu” poem because Mimikyu mimics the image of Pikachu, but I might still write a Pikachu poem if an angle presents itself. I’ve also worked on poems that make passing reference to the Pokémon Slowpoke and Scizor, but those moments ended up getting edited out. I feel like the series has run its course, but there are a few exceptions that may make their way into poems or an essay later on.

KW: I’m always excited to see more callback poems, and even a poem that calls back to an author’s earlier book. I think there’s something compelling about being like, “And here’s poem that kind of brings you to this world from my other world that you might know about.”

MMJ: I also love that idea. Two poets that come to mind immediately are Monica Youn and Vievee Francis. So Monica Youn’s book Blackacre begins with that poem “Palinode”—a palinode being a poem that retracts, changes, or builds on an idea from a previous poem or previous thought. And in Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis, the first poem is “Another Anti-Pastoral.” I love that the first poem starts with “another” so it’s inherently building. That’s something I really want to do—have that intertextuality. I’m so interested in clearly creating this intertextuality with other forms of art but also in and across poems.

I just went to an event a local prison here in Minnesota, and it was so amazing to interact with the writers and the community in that space. It’s set up so that a handful of readers from the prison read, and then a couple folks come in to read along with them, and I was lucky enough to be one of the readers at that event. And I had someone ask afterward, “Oh, is that it? Are you going to do more with that?” And I started to explain “I feel like it’s self-contained and the poem stands on its own,” and he said, “Yeah, I know, but are you going to build on that concept? Are you going to do more with that?”  I think I really do want to take that advice of sitting more with that poem and idea. It’s not in the chapbook— it’s in a separate project, but I think I do want to build on it and not necessarily write a sequel poem but go deeper. 

KW: That gives us a little peek at what might be down the road for Marlin M. Jenkins.

MMJ: Yes, I’m excited for future things! It’s weird—I know lots of people experience this, but when you work on a project for a long time, you get to see how that relationship to the project changes over time also. The earliest poems I wrote for this chapbook were written in August 2016, so that three and a half years from the first poem being written to this thing making its way into the world has been interesting.

KW: What is the newest poem in Capable Monsters?

MMJ: “canon,” “Pokédex Entry #7: Squirtle” and the “Togekiss” poem. “Togekiss” and “canon” weren’t finished as drafts until after the thing was in the process of sequencing and had been accepted for publication. The squirtle poem had been drafted a little earlier but wasn’t finished. I had drafted it and read it at an open mic, and then I shelved it and struggled with it, and then I rewrote the second half of it, so it feels still pretty new.

KW: I wanted to end with asking about Clefairy and something maybe minute inside Clefairy, but I also wanted to go here because there’s a different kind of joy here that you choose to end the collection on. To me, it feels very in keeping with your work. It also connects to what we were talking about with callbacks between poems or books. Here there are these adjustments of language right next to each other— “jubilee,” “revival,” “reception,” and these moments where synonyms build a chorus. I would love to hear you talk about poetic minutia like that a little and what it does for you to have these words that are alike but not identical living together and what that’s doing?

MMJ: I love this little poem!

KW: It’s so musical!

MMJ: Yes, that’s the hope! That it matches up and stylistically ties to the content. One of the things that’s so special to me about this poem is that it does feel like what we just talked about— it’s a kind of follow up poem to “Pokedex Entry #131: Lapras.” It’s thinking about another way to talk about that idea of being a rarity and being endangered or in danger. And there’s so much pain in so many of these poems, and so many of my poems, and poetry in general that I wanted to write a poem that was more oriented towards hope and collective energy and community. As far as those synonyms, honestly, I have mixed feelings! There’s a part of me that believes it’s an imprecision that out of stubbornness I refused to edit out and that maybe it’s not the move here, but the other side of that is what you were talking about—that wrestling with this imprecision as something that’s useful. I really like poems that not necessarily correct themselves but that nod towards their imperfection and nod towards process. That’s part of what I was thinking about here—jubilee is what I want to talk about but it’s not just that, it’s also revival, but not it’s not just that, it’s also reception. Having these different associations that are a shade different and become not just one thing but also a riff. I go back and forth about how I feel about its effectiveness, but I’m really glad that you flagged that as something that’s working here because I really want to lean into that idea of multiplicity.

KW: And I see it also as multiple entry points too –like which word kind of feels joyful to you and here, which feels like the gathering that you recognize and those are all permitted and holding space together here.

MMJ: For sure!

KW: Thank you for creating the opportunity for this profound experience of art!

MMJ: Thank you. I’m glad this book was able to make its way into your world in such a meaningful way.