A Complex Accident of Life in La Belle Ajar
A Duo Interview featuring
Jessica McHugh and Adrian Ernesto Cepeda
When I first devoured Jessica McHugh’s A Complex Accident of Life, I immediately shared on social media how much I loved and adored this blackout poetry collection as I raved More than just a collection of verses, A Complex Accident of Life is living breathing poetic masterwork of art. I wanted to know the impetus and inspiration for Jessica’s very poignantly memorable project:
AEC: Why Frankenstein? What was it about Mary Shelley that inspired you to bring these black out poems to life?
JM: When I dove headfirst into making blackout poetry I used lots of books from my personal collection--the ones that could be replaced, anyway--and Frankenstein seemed like it would yield some fantastic pieces. What’s funny is my first pass was unsuccessful; nothing jumped out at me while I was leafing through. The second time, however, was massively successful. I guess I was just in a funky mood the first time because using Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has been one of the best choices I could have made. The writing is evocative, the themes are universal, and the prose is incredibly strong. It gave me (and continues to give me) a lot to play with. But I had no idea they would be compiled into a book when I started, and I’m eternally grateful to Jacob Haddon of Apokrupha for reaching out to me with the project.
AEC. Does Shelley’s Frankenstein resonate with you because of your back issues, meaning, do you feel like Doctor and it’s one way by channeling and making the monstrous pain go away by creating these vividly breathing black out poems to life to page?
JM: I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but now that you mention it! ;) It’s true, my recent issues with my neck and the pinched nerve certainly shines a different sort of light on the difficulties of creation and how our bodies can turn on us. I had to recreate several of the poems in A Complex Accident of Life before publication while I was recovering from a pinched nerve and it was difficult. Luckily, I had a lot of help from my husband.
Adrian Ernesto Cepeda’s La Belle Ajar is what I call an Mmm book, in that I was saying “Mmm” after pretty much every line. There was always some idea Cepeda presented or combination of words that dazzled me into audible awe. Because it’s from CLASH books, I knew I was in for a great read, but I never expected to find a poetry collection I actually prefer to its inspirado novel.
JM: Your collection La Belle Ajar is comprised of cento poetry created from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, but I don't think a lot of people are familiar with the form. Could you explain how you utilized Plath's prose to create your own art through cento poetry? When did you first encounter this form? And when did you first begin experimenting with it?
AEC: I was at a poetry reading in Echo Park when a poet read a fantastic cento pulled where he took dialogue from the Prince film Purple Rain and turned it into a memorable poem. Then at a reading in Whittier, CA, the poet LeAnne Hunt suggested I read Chase Berggrun’s R E D, who crafted erasure poems from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The lightbulb of the idea was sparked, and it wasn’t until I was sick, suffering from whopping cough while mourning the death of my Mami, I wanted to channel my pain into something creative. I was in my office, I turned to face our bookshelf and The Bell Jar was glaring at me. I picked it up and, at the moment, my cento project began. While we were in the process of crafting each one of these poems, it felt so otherworldly and natural like I was meant to collaborate with Sylvia Plath. Believe me, I’ve tried to craft other cento poems with other poets who became famous novelists and those experiments were failures. The results with those authors never came out right on the page. The reason it worked so seamlessly with Sylvia was because she was so meticulous with her word choices in everything she wrote, whether it be a poem, a play, short story, or her novel The Bell Jar.
I basically went through each chapter, and since I was sick and heavily medicated, it felt like Plath was guiding me, selecting words that became the cento poems in the book. Even now, I look at the cento’s like “At first, I wondered why the room felt safe” and because of the antibiotics I was taking, I am amazed how well these centos came to life. I owe this project all to Sylvia Plath.
A.E.C. Speaking of: what is your process when it comes to black out poetry? Do you look for individual words? Or is like each passage is a Mystery Word puzzle becoming into a word canvas where the poem appears to you like Jazz?
JM: Both! Sometimes I look at a page and the entire poem is instantly visible to me. Sometimes I look at a page and I'll see a couple of words that work together but then the rest of it is like a construction project. There are times when I use the words as is and other times when I have to build new words out of the provided letters to communicate the theme of the poem. Every new piece is a mystery waiting to be solved.
AEC: Do you use a particular color pen with your original black out drafts? What is your instrument for creating black out poems? Does one color help you more than others?
JM: I use a pencil while I’m building the poem, though I try to use as little as possible because erasing damages the page. Once I’m satisfied with what I’ve found I sort of take a step back from it and envision what colors and shapes the poem feels like. It sounds weird, but I can see the mood of each piece most of the time. As for favorite colors, I use a lot of black for outlining and connecting words. I also use a lot of blues, purples, and silvers, and I have dozens of glittery and metallic pens for giving the pieces a little extra pizzazz and personality. I also enjoy doing papercraft if I feel the poem calls for it.
J.M. I always found the craft in The Bell Jar as a whole to be such an iconic novel. I feel like I know people who read it while they were younger and didn’t appreciate it until they got older, I’ve known people for whom it was always tied to their souls, and people like me who experienced for the first time as an adult and got blown away by its beauty. When did your greatest connection to the source material take place? What about it spoke to you?
A.E.C. My wife is the Plath scholar in my family and for years before Plath and her work had been calling to me. I wrote a piece about the universality of Plath that was published in the Sylvia Plath Society’s newsletter. Plath scholar Linda Wagner-Martin when she wrote: “While Esther Greenwood is female, the hesitancy and anxiety that she feels are universal, and the novel’s willingness to tell about those states of mind in a voice that has an undertone of comedy makes the narrative palatable to [all] readers.” When Plath opens up and writes expressing her ecstasies and agonies about her pain on the page in The Bell Jar, she resonates with my own. The grief and depression that I was feeling after my Mami’s death led me to picking up The Bell Jar and Plath changed my life when we crafted these cento poems that became La Belle Ajar published this year with CLASH Books.
JM: Which is your favorite piece, and why is it “I Was Starving?” (j/k it is a standout piece though)
A.E.C. It’s hard to choose because of the way Plath helped me craft these cento verses, they are kind of like our poetic offspring but I have to say it’s between “Handsome in his Own Way,” the way we captured Esther’s wanton desire and “How Did You Get Here” which eloquently mirrors, sadly, how Plath felt during those last days of her life. That last line guts me every time, “I braced for my tongue to disappear.”
J.M. The phrase “vases of dead flowers bowed to me” from “Of Course, His Mother Killed Him” is a whole mood. Are there any phrases in this collection that strike you as especially powerful even after you’ve read them a million times?
A.E.C. Yes! While, as Linda Wagner-Martin points out in her book The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties, that “there is evidence of the forbidden sexual experience that haunts Esther throughout the book,” the lines that I treasure are where the voice of Esther is empowered with her sexuality. I love lines like “I couldn’t breathe laughing about his virginity” in “The Arrow Shoots from Infinite Security.” I didn’t want to just rehash the brilliant plot points of The Bell Jar, with Plath’s help and guidance from beyond, the goal for the both of us, we attempted to craft a modern version where Esther is more emboldened with her desire and sexuality.
JM: Your titles are poignant as well. I especially love “The Arrow Shoots from Infinite Security.” Are the titles also lines from the book, or did you create those yourself?
Every word, all the words including the title of the poems came from The Bell Jar, they are all Plath. The titles came from the first lines or the first page(s) of each of the chapter in Plath’s book. Sometimes they were just cento lines that didn’t fit in the poem and were wanting me to make them the title of the poem.
A.E.C. Focusing on titles in A Complex Accident of Life: Titles are challenging and tough for some poets, writers, and artists. How did you come up with the titles to each piece? Did they come to you effortlessly or was titling each verse as difficult as the creation of the blackout poems?
JM: I definitely have difficulty coming up with titles, especially for poems. Luckily these poems provided them for me. When I finish blocking out and coloring a piece, I turn it over and find the title in words left visible in the negative space. And because it’s just the other side of the page, the titles tend to relate to the poem pretty well.
The title of the collection, however, is a line from the poem “The First Kiss,” which I call my “birthday poem” because it says “November was half-extinguished,” and my birthday is on November 15th.
A.E.C. I felt a true connection with Sylvia Plath when I crafted the cento poems in La Belle Ajar. What part did Mary Shelley play in these poems? Did you feel a connection with the author when you were crafting these poems? Did she help or inspire the process? Would you ask… what would Mary Shelley think? She would love “Girl of Twenty.”
JM: I hope that Mary Shelley would like what I created from her beautiful work. I definitely felt her essence as I was crafting a lot of these pieces, as I think many of them speak to the complicated rage, joy, and fear being a female horror writer...and a woman in general.
A.E.C. How did you discover black out poetry? Is there a poet, writer or artist who inspired you and your calling in the art of black out poetry?
JM: I first tried blackout poetry a few years ago when I was given a blackout poem created by Jonathan Edward Lawson and Jennifer Barnes as part of a gift bag at DogCon 5. It was hanging in my home for years before I actually gave my own blackout poetry a shot. I was terrible at it, but I suppose a Game Informer magazine probably wasn’t the best source material. I tried it again in February 2019 with a Shirley Jackson collection of stories and essays and quickly fell in love with the process and finished products. I do follow a lot of blackout poetry artists on Instagram, but I honestly hadn’t experienced much of it before I started doing my own.
JM: Focusing on form, I’ve only written one cento because of a National Poetry Writing Month in 2012, in which I used lines from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” How many different works of art would you say you’ve used as your poetic playground? Could you list a few?
Cento is still a relatively new form to me. I’ve tried blackout poetry. You are the expert my friend. Saying that the few of the best ones that I have attempted were Plath related. My main forte is writing ekphrastic poems. My latest obsession are footnote poems. Taking lines from authors and culling them together and footnoting each line by poet on the page. The Southern Florida Poetry Journal published one, “I Think it’s Much Scarier to Live Life Alone” this year in their August 18, 2020 issue.
A.E.C. Every time I pick up your poetry book I am mesmerized by both the art and the way you crafted the poems on the page. Do you have a favorite poem in the collection?
JM “Cultivation.” I’d actually love to get a couple lines from it tattooed on me. I also really love “The First Kiss” and “Fortunate.”
A.E.C. Do you have any outtakes, ones that you wanted to add but may be unearthed in a special limited edition in the future?
J.M. There's only one Frankenstein blackout poem that wasn't included in A Complex Accident of Life. I felt like it was too romantic--as far as falling in love with another person, I mean. The other pieces are more romantic in regards to loving your genuine self and embracing your passion, and this one was an “I love him and I’ll follow him anywhere” kind of poem. It just didn’t fit.
A.E.C. I love the blackout poetry Note from the Author, simply genius!!! What made you want to add this to the collection?
J.M. Thank you! That was all Jacob. Because of the way the poems’ appearances differ due to scanning issues, and because I wanted to talk about the inception of this collection, I very much wanted to have an author’s note. But after putting the collection together with the text on one page and visual poem on the other, Jacob discovered that the author’s note looked strange. So he suggested I make a blackout poem of those pages too, and I was 100% on board. I love those pieces so much.
J.M. Since writers need spaces to write, where do you create? Do you have a dedicated space, or do you just go with the flow and write wherever the mood strikes? In that vein, do you need perfect conditions to write, or do you just follow the inspirado? Do you feel more creative in the morning or evening?
A.E.C. My wife and I have a two-bedroom apartment in SGV in LA. One of the rooms is setup as my office where I write. I wake up every day around 5:00-5:30 AM to write. I am more creative in the early morning hours before the sun is up. Something I learned from Leonard Cohen. I write my best stuff en la manana.
As for inspiration, I always keep notepads so I can write down lines or ideas for poems around our house. Something I learned in a poetry workshop helmed by Dr. Kirsten Ogden at Pasadena City College. Putting my words to writing by hand, changed my creative life. One of the many advices I learned from Dr. Ogden in her magnificent poetry workshop.
J.M. Besides reading and writing, what do you do to relax and/or have fun?
A.E.C. I listen to music. For so many years, starting in high school, music was my only friend. Listening to my music which is anything from The Beatles, Ibrahim Ferrer, Prince, Lou Reed, Nina Simone, Buena Vista Social Club, Otis Redding, Liz Phair. But lately, I have been reconnecting with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. They are inspiring my work. Sometimes I press play on a Miles or Coltrane track or album and the words just flow. More than writing, it feels like they are inspiring me to paint word pictures on the page. I also binge watch shows like Better Things, VIDA, Gentefied and Love Life.
The last few months have been very triggering. I’ve been suffering from emotional, physical and mental health issues. Along with the help and treatment I am receiving, I have been enjoying watching the LA Dodgers broadcast on SpectrumSports. Hearing Joe Davis and Orel Hershiser along with Alanna Rizo has been very calming for my anxiety. Also watching Jeopardy and cooking shows like Amy Schumer Learns to Cook and The Chef Show has also helped calm, relax, and inspired me to cook more in the kitchen.
J.M.. Do you have plans for another collection, cento, or otherwise? What’s next for Adrian Ernesto Cepeda?
A.E.C. Since NightWorms selected my latest poetry collection, La Belle Ajar, for their monthly Horror Fiction Book Subscription Service, I have a collection of poems, La Petite Mort: 21 poems that end the same just about ready to submit to publishers. Some of the poems are centos but all have the theme of death. I feel like this collection would be perfect for those who love the genre of horror and gothic genre, especially those dedicated monthly NightWorms readers who were enchanted by La Belle Ajar, they will blissfully die whilst reading La Petite Mort.
I have a chapbook of political poems, Silencio No Mas, that I would love to have published before the election. As of right now, I am still waiting to hear back from publishers who are deciding whether or not to publish my chapbook.
I also have a very personal collection that I want to have ready to submit in mid to late 2021. It’s a collection of poemas, Speaking Con Su Sombra, inspired by and written for mi Mami who died in 2017.
A.E.C. Because A Complex Accident of Life was one of my favorite poetry books of 2020, what is next for you? I keep seeing American Psycho posts on your social media pages… should we expect a Bret Easton Ellis inspired Black Out Poetry collection in our future?
J.M. Oh my, that would be amazing! I should try some Bret Easton Ellis blackout poetry soon! I was actually talking about American Psycho because I wrote an American Psycho porn parody short story for the Danger Slater and Brian Asman edited anthology “Boinking Bizarro,” now available from Death’s Head Press. I think it’s my favorite thing I wrote all year. As for 2021, my horror novel Rabbits in the Garden is being re-released by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing with a brand new edit in the summer, and they are publishing the long-awaited sequel Hares in the Hedgerow around Thanksgiving 2021. I have some other irons in the fire too, some of which I can’t quite spill the beans on yet, but I’m extremely excited for what the future holds for the McHughniverse.
I know I am not the only one who cannot wait for the next collection and novel that will be coming soon from the McHughniverse. For now, if you are looking for the perfect Holiday gifts for the poetry connoisseur in your life you can order Jessica McHugh’s A Complex Accident of Life here and my latest poetry book Adrian Ernesto Cepeda’s La Belle Ajar, a collection from CLASH Books.
Viva La Poesia!
Jessica McHugh is a novelist, poet, and internationally-produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She's had twenty-four books published in twelve years, including her bizarro romp, "The Green Kangaroos," her YA series, "The Darla Decker Diaries," and her blackout poetry collection, "A Complex Accident of Life." Please visit JessicaMcHughBooks.com
Adrian Ernesto Cepeda is the author of Flashes & Verses… Becoming Attractions from Unsolicited Press, Between the Spine from Picture Show Press and La Belle Ajar from CLASH Books.
His poetry has been featured in Harvard Palabritas, Glass Poetry: Poets Resist, Cultural Weekly, Yes, Poetry, Frontier Poetry, The Fem, poeticdiversity, Rigorous, Luna Luna Magazine, The Wild Word, The Revolution Relaunch and Palette Poetry.
Adrian is an Angelino Poet who lives with his wife and their adorably spoiled cat Woody Gold in Los Angeles.