JoAnna Novak on ‘Noirmania’ and Sexy Prepositions

Noirmania is the poetry debut from JoAnna Novak, who’s also a novelist and nonfiction writer. It’s a book-length poem, with a dark, noirish tone, and featuring line art that experiments with 3-D illusions. It begins, “I was dead less then,” and I was hooked from there. Last year she published her first novel, I Must Have You, with Skyhorse Publishing. Her nonfiction appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Salon. Her writing, across genres, is vital to our generation, exploring sexuality, body image, and our relationship to language. She is the founding editor of the literary journal and chapbook publisher Tammy. I had the chance to interview Novak this month.


Sarah Blake

Is this the first book-length poem you’ve written? What was that process like for you?

JoAnna Novak

Yes, and though I’ve always loved book-length poems, I never expected to write one. Noirmania came about when I was doing one of those Oulipian decentralizing things with another manuscript of my poems that had been sort of molting and morphing for a couple years. I’d put about 80 pages of poems through a series of Google translations, randomized all the resulting text, did a Find/Replace of one word with another (I don’t remember which words anymore, only that this was part of the process), enlarged the font to something like 20, and printed out the entire 200 pages that resulted. I wasn’t intending to write a book—it was just Labor Day weekend and I wanted to try out this process. But I ended up, over the course of the weekend, writing Noirmania, which was a process of Sharpie-ing out text, retyping it, and, of course, creating the nine-line form, which I started thinking of as a loose Spenserian stanza.

Sarah Blake

Can you talk more about those Spenserian stanzas?

JoAnna Novak

Sixteenth-century poet Edmund Spenser invented the form—eight lines of iambic pentameter followed by a single line, or “alexandrine,” in hexameter—in his epic poem The Faerie Queene. I have to admit, though, that I really mostly remember the Spenserian as a nine-line stanza, which gave me a natural boundary as I carved words out of that mass of text.

Sarah Blake

One of my favorite parts of the poem is its words: rosariums, twiggery, -xteriorally. Do you come to poetry through words?

JoAnna Novak

Absolutely. I fetishize them. The ones you’ve mentioned are so exotically beautiful, but I’m often taken with words as simple as “scatter” or “swallow.” Usually, the sound of a word is what seduces me, but sometimes it’s an uncommon usage. I just saw “circular” used to mean “mailer”—I’d forgotten about that definition! This fall, I was really in love with the “-uz” in “muzzy.” I love words that are new to me, words that are familiar that I’ve forgotten, really basic words that we say every day…like “against.” I used to think “against” was the sexiest preposition.

Sarah Blake

And now that we’ve talked about words, we have to talk about Noirmania—how did this striking title come about for the book?

JoAnna Novak

Chanel puts out a magazine called 31 Rue Cambon. In one of their 2016 issues, that word—”Noirmania”—was in a headline. When I began this project on Labor Day, I decided that whatever came out of that big Oulipian mess of text, I wanted to have that title. I wrote toward it.

Sarah Blake

I love the lines: “I never remember the beginning                    unless I need to / absent myself from a good thing.” The use of white space and the linebreak to keep turning the line from “I never remember the beginning” to “I never remember the beginning unless I need to” to “I never remember the beginning unless I need to absent myself from a good thing.” I think it’s a beautiful example of the magic of poetry. What’s your relationship to the page and how a poem moves across and down it?

JoAnna Novak

I agree that line breaks and enjambment create magic, for sure, and I love when you can be tugged between multiples readings of a line. I write prose, too, and so a lot of the time, when I’m typing a poem, I’m eager to think about the gaps and leaps and aporias I can create by tabbing or spacing. I like the gulps and caesuras a poem splattered with white space can have. And then, too, I think working with the whole page can be an extremely useful editing tool. I’m bolder in what I excise when I write with a lot of white space. Sometimes I’ll work a draft of a poem that way and then bring it back to a more controlled form—I like when language retains that distilled feeling.  

Sarah Blake

At the end of the book is the Kabinet—taking words from Noirmania and expanding upon them, often pointing to other words that aren’t listed at all—a mysterious working encyclopedia of sorts. How did this come about?

JoAnna Novak

I had written the poem (everything minus the Kabinet), and I kept rereading, caught up in the sorcery of objects and nouns. I wanted to see what those terms looked like when I compiled them, to see what they might reveal about the world I’d created in the poem. Building the Kabinet—it’s a discursive glossary, I guess—let me fashion a mythology around an already kind of mystical text. And, of course, it let me write very declarative sentences. I like that.

Noirmania by JoAnna Novak
Inside the Castle Publishing
Published January 23, 2018

JoAnna Novak is the author of the novel I Must Have You and the book-length poem Noirmania. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Salon, Guernica, and BOMB. She received her MFA in fiction from Washington University and her MFA in poetry from University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.

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