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Jennifer Nelson and Jon Woodward talk about being poets in the ambit of the academy, video games, and whether unicorns are collaborations

Jennifer Nelson has two books coming out in 2024, one in art history, and one in poetry, and that is how they like it. Jon Woodward’s newest book, The Amber in Ambrose, came out in November 2023.

Jennifer Nelson and Jon Woodward corresponded in 2015 about art history, specifically in reference to a long poem (“Upside-down Crown”) that Jon was working on at the time. That poem was published in his collection The Amber in Ambrose in 2023. In December 2023 and January 2024, they texted about that correspondence, veering off into the questions of expertise, memory, symbols, and more. Jennifer was located in Ann Arbor in 2015 and Cambridge, MA, more recently, and Jon was located in Quincy, MA in 2015, and Somerville, MA more recently.

Jon Woodward: I'm wondering if people often lean on your art history expertise to inform their poetry? And I'm wondering if you lean on that experience as well? I expect the answer is "yes, obv" but does it (or did it) feel different to be queried on behalf of poetry you're not writing yourself?

Jennifer Nelson: Hi! Yeah so, yes, of course I lean on it for my own work. But actually you are really the only person who has seriously "consulted" me for poetry purposes, as far as I am aware. I think most people prefer to do their own creative research and fear being stultified by expertise of a more academic sort. (I know I am always afraid of this stultification.) But this is actually something that strikes me a lot about your work: you cannot help but transform a certain dead kind of expertise into something else. How much experience do you have for example with making video games? Playing them?

Jon: That's kind of you to say! (I do wonder what you mean by a "dead" kind of expertise? Dead as in irrelevant to other practices? Irrelevant to lived life?) To answer your question, I now have about 8 years of game development experience, though on a purely hobbyist basis, and many more than that as a player. Actually I was learning to program when we were corresponding about “Upside-down Crown!” What about you, do you play video games? Or do you love any in particular? I feel like I have a number of ensuing questions but I don't want to splinter the conversation too much.

Jennifer: I think that academic expertise by its nature tries to get things right and stay close to facts and make statements that generally feel like enclosure, with maybe a little opening here or there for future scholarship at best. That feels dead to me and like the opposite of good poems, like the ones in The Amber in Ambrose.

Jennifer: Anyway, even though the expertise required for engineering video games can't be quite as dead as academic knowledge, it is still exclusive in a way. While I like video games and still play sometimes, I am far from being a hardcore gamer, let alone an engineer. But you have this trick of even letting things at the level of jargon remain open to their multiple meanings without any passage feeling like a mere pun. Not that puns are bad. And I think people who aren't gamers might appreciate those moments, too, for this very reason. The long poem at the end feels open to multiple “legibilities” that all shuttle through the same continuum. Or something.

Jon: What you say about academic expertise is very interesting, about the premium placed on knowledge of a very solid sort. But it strikes me that during our correspondence, your expertise provided a way of seeing an image, a way of looking that took the picture plane as contingent, negotiable, and subject to all kinds of historical momentum & mistake. This is just my impression, you may feel differently, but I wonder if you're able to access that creative and almost playful way of looking more easily within a poem, or if you can bring it to bear equally when working on academic prose, even if that prose requires academic knowledge as an output?

Jon: I guess what I mean is, your expertise very much did not feel dead on arrival to me, and I wonder if it ever serves you almost in a collaborative capacity, like a collaboration between poet and expert within yourself? I often wonder this about poets who do something other than poetry for a job.

Jennifer: This question makes me feel very self nostalgic! It reminds me how long ago our correspondence was, around the time I'd just published my first book, in which I still felt it was possible to refer to historical figures as if they were friends or acquaintances I had at my house during a long party. This is something the best academic writers are able to do while still being convincing. I could only do this in poems. But at least I felt it was possible. And maybe my expertise didn't feel that dead. It definitely didn't feel like expertise.

Jennifer: Even in my second book, written probably around the time we were writing to each other, I felt it was possible to say things like "Who the fuck is Pieter Bruegel?" and have the answer be something simple and angry and in line with an overall poetic mission/vision. I don't really feel this anymore. I have let the disciplining inherent in academia go too far.

Jennifer: I think this is something different from what happens in other lines of work – I think other lines of work don't necessarily have epistemological frameworks that are counter to poetry. I really think academia does. Or that is how I've experienced it. Though I usually teach as though rivalries are not rivalries and we should look for collaboration instead--e.g. between word and image--I haven't been following this creed anymore. So thanks for your question. I think I want to find this again, the collaboration.

Jennifer: I am curious about how your regular paid work affects you. I'm on a bus and left your book at home, but I know there are poems in your book that connect to the Museum of Comparative Zoology! (MCZ)

Jon: It's so fascinating, hearing how your relationship to your academic work has changed; my relationship to work has shifted significantly. I've been writing a lot lately about museum work, and very explicitly! People often ask me if I write about museum stuff, and I always have said something like "well there's a form of attention that entomologists have, I'm interested in exploring that" etc. I mean to say, I always distrusted that idea of "writing about" the museum, or the work; people do some really weird magical thinking about (for example) Nabokov and his butterfly work, how charming, how precious, without really wanting to understand much about it. I've been thinking and writing lately about the real work of a collection. We act as memory; we record occurrences on a planet that's changing too rapidly for any of us. We don't know what our work might be useful for in the future. Alongside that, I think zoology might be kind of impossible! I think it might be a cursed problem, trying to know animal life.

Jon: I so admire the idea of seeing through false rivalries, & teaching towards that. That kind of restructuring of category and perception would've backflipped me in my undergrad days. Do you ever get a vicarious jolt of energy from a student hearing something like that for the first time and their whole cosmos reorients?

Jennifer: I do like when that happens but it's less a jolt than a glow – my satisfactions tend to come out of long duration or at least hope for long term change and continued pushing. I like to follow with "so how does that change what you want to write about?" or "how does this affect the thing that made you want to take this class?"

Jennifer: I think your generosity in finding the poetics of the real work of collecting is really exciting. Like, I'm also interested in that since collecting was part of the early history of so much poetry, insofar as so much early surviving poetry seems reliant on bursts of extensive list-making.

Jennifer: I wish I had your poems in front of me (I'm waiting for the bus back) but I am thinking of that earlier poem in the collection that repeats its structure of clauses nested in other clauses.

Jennifer: And I can't help but wonder if that's another way that collecting has impacted your work – the seriality of it? Like the necessary parallelism of catalog entries and of physical processing – enacted in this poem through this repetition of difficult syntactic nesting. Idk, perhaps this is a reach.

Jon: Ha! Not a reach, I can see the connection, though I wouldn't have seen it from inside myself. I think you're onto something with the seriality of that piece (the title poem of the book) acting as a kind of consolidation of memory, as a record. The poem's central question is (to me) what lasts and how? Does duration result from being fed with ambrosia, or being trapped in amber? I let the tension between those two words (unrelated to each other) propel a series of little ruminations.

Jon: Here's a weird question, but I think it touches on multiple things above. Would you agree that you are a fan of (the famously undying and unknowable animal) the unicorn? That's just the pre-question, the real question is, do you have a favorite unicorn image / painting / tapestry / representation? What does a well-informed aficionado look for in a unicorn? Or is favoring and preferring just so far beside the point?

Jennifer: I love this tension between ambrosia athanatos and amber thanatos. I actually didn't get that from the title of the book till you explained it, but it's beautiful, and is another way of articulating the cognitive suspension engineered by all those nested clauses.

Jennifer: I guess my favorite unicorn image has changed since childhood – now I really like the one at the Musée de Cluny where the unicorn is on the sidelines as the woman presents herself at the vulval gap in the tent MON SEUL DESIR. I used to love the one at the Cloisters where the unicorn is violent and fighting. Still do, but no longer favorite.

Jennifer: My love for the unicorn is so great that I can't see any point beyond favoring, haha. How were you going to relate this to our conversation!? I am intrigued.

Jennifer: I am very curious about the relationship between memory and record and this kind of cognitive challenge the reader faces in those clauses as a kind of self-inscription or self-registering within your particular poetic record.

Jon: I wanted to ask about unicorns with at least one eye on collaboration. People use animals as symbols; I'm not sure that this mode of symbolization cares whether the animal is real or not. An elephant can symbolize memory in the same way that a phoenix can symbolize renewal.

Jon: But in the case of an animal that's not real, the symbol overtakes the animal. More than just representing, the unicorn *is* purity, or grace, or unknowable wildness, or whatever. Unlike an elephant that exists because it exists, the unicorn only exists to point to something. Maybe I'm wrong! I hope you're willing to tell me if so. But... to get to collaboration…

Jon: A symbol that can't be brought back in reference to reality has a tendency to whip around, to mean multiple and sometimes contradictory things; we can get a handle on what's happening, maybe, by referring to an archive (even a live archive of images built by someone's expertise), and triangulating off of multiple examples, tracking changes over time, unpacking, unlocking.

Jon: This was (by my recollection) very much the benefit of discussing images of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ with you, previously, and the mouth of Hell; multiple exemplars make for insight, which our sort of one-sided collaboration yielded. So on one level this is an extended "thank you..."

Jon: And on another, I'm trying to construct a really rickety idea about how the unicorn is a kind of moving collaboration between humans and non-humans, which points to what's best in people, or what exceeds human virtue, really. I don't know, is this a silly idea? Is it better if the unicorn resists the kind of instrumentalization I'm doing? Is the unicorn collaborative or is it an asymptote?

Jennifer: I think unicorns existed just as much as rhinoceroses until relatively late in my period, to give a potentially stultifying academic first response!

Jennifer: But beyond that literal flux in what was real c 1400-1700, I also am not sure I agree that non-existent symbols have less potentially intrinsic meaning than existent ones. I do think that unless something was (is!?) part of daily life, its meaning skews toward being indexical of other things. And maybe even then.

Jennifer: One of my mentors said to me that mastering iconography is the first responsibility of an art history professor. And part of that is what you describe, running around intellectually amid all the shifts and variants and multivalences. So I am flattered that's something you made out of the facts I delivered!

Jennifer: To move toward the last thing you said, I suspect our difference here is my weakness. I don't attribute real volition to concepts, even unicorns. I don't believe we can collaborate with them. I think we can nurture, grow, prune, reconfigure, etc, do all sorts of things with and to them. And in that light, yes, I think that is part of what is special about unicorns vs say, manticores or basilisks. There is something about this concept that exceeds almost any single use. Something similar happens with dragons and with very little else, even phoenixes. And maybe that excess can feel a little like there is a volition to collaborate with.

Jennifer: On the other hand, I imagine a more generous and less hubristic spirit like yourself, who can perceive the collaboration inherent in thinking even in the realm of concepts, might write poems that reflect this cooperative attitude toward all things. I want to meditate on this.

Jon: So whether through bad communication or just a ramshackle idea to begin with, I think I conveyed something unintended. I imagine the unicorn as the outcome of (rather than participant in) a collaboration, if a one-sided one, between people and... the animal world, I guess? Collaboration isn't really a good fit for what I'm talking about; or at any rate doesn't mesh well with ground truths about how symbols work. But I'm glad I ventured it anyway because I'm excited to learn more about whatever process or phenomenon it is that results in a symbol running away (as in a runaway truck) into multivalent usage, into excess as you say. And I also think you're onto something with the recognition that that complexity can feel like volition stirring! Maybe not literally, but definitely in a way that I hadn't considered before.

Jon: I guess the other thing I wanted to circle back to was your mentor's notion that a mastery of iconography was a matter of responsibility for an art historian. Is that mastery possible? Because on its surface it seems like the mandate is being able to see an image through many other people's eyes, at many arbitrary points in time, and in many historical contexts. It seems daunting! And not to say "it seems impossible why do it," because I think zoology might be really important and also might be impossible; I'm more curious if incompleteness is built into that iconographic mastery, and what that feels like if so.

Jennifer: I think the runaway symbol is the default status of communication, right? And institutions create lanes or sometimes pens but that's like how communication works?

Jennifer: So the mastery is possible but actually much more difficult than the layperson might realize, because as you suggest, one is trying to follow the symbols around in multiple spacetime vectors.

Jennifer: So yes, I think incompleteness is built into all communication and efforts to track it. And its incompleteness is parallel to that of zoology, isn't it? I'm not sure but (during a recent tour of the MCZ) when we talked about how there was of course no such thing as a standard exemplum of an animal but you had to pick them anyway, etc., it felt quite similar.

Jennifer: I should add that it's not always institutions with a capital I. Could be communities that do the shaping.

Jon: I agree about the similarities; it feels like that incompleteness is baked into zoology precisely through the mechanism you mention (choosing a holotype specimen as exemplary during the formal description process). It's worth noting how infrequently this incompleteness is acknowledged by individuals doing either research or collections work. Maybe that's because there's no ready alternative; maybe it's too obvious to merit mention.

Jennifer: I think that many poetic insights happen by diving into the realm of "too obvious to see clearly"!

Jennifer Nelson is a poet and early modernist art historian. This May, their biography of Lucas Cranach the Elder is coming out in the Renaissance Lives series with Reaktion Press, and later this year their poetry manuscript On the Way to the Paintings of Forest Robberies, winner of the Ottoline Prize, will be published by Fence Books. They have also published three previous books of poetry and an art historical monograph, Disharmony of the Spheres: The Europe of Holbein’s Ambassadors (Penn State University Press). They are an associate professor in Art History at the University of Delaware and currently the Hilles Bush Fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Jon Woodward’s
books include Rain, Uncanny Valley, and The Amber in Ambrose. In 2022, The Economy Press published his chapbook POOLGOER and SPELEOGRAPHER,  as well as a chapbook of his translations of Brazilian poet Nicolas Behr, entitled mirror-city. A handful of web projects and videogame-adjacent prototypes can be found on his website, He lives in the Boston area with his wife Sam, and works at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

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