With her debut collection ‘Star Things,’ Madison poet explores identity through the cosmos

Poet Jess L Parker, winner of the inaugural Dynamo Verlag Book Prize, will celebrate with an Oct. 21 book launch at Old Sugar Distillery.
On the left is the cover of the book Star Things and on the right the author poet Jess. L Parker stands in a pink sweater with blonde hair and her arms crossed
Courtesy of Jess L Parker and Dynamo Verlag.
"Star Things" won the 2020 Dynamo Verlag Book Prize.

Star Things,” a debut poetry collection from Madison’s Jess L Parker, is more than ten years in the making. Fluid and cosmic, glittering and layered, the collection’s 61 poems were crafted throughout Parker’s 20s as she contemplated her humanity against the cosmos and the unseen depths that each body holds. “We had much to drink and more to climb. There was a moonrock and radish uphill; sliced and wide open was the sky,” she begins in “Saturn Rising,” the opening poem.

Parker was awarded second place in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets’ Kay Saunders Emerging Poet Award in 2019. She began culling and curating from what was originally 90 poems, most written over the past decade and 15 or so previously published in journals. She pitched “Star Things” to Seattle boutique publisher Dynamo Verlag in January 2021, just after having her first baby — it was chosen for publication as the inaugural Dynamo Verlag Book Prize. Parker holds a master’s degree in Spanish Literature from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and currently leads a sales strategy team at American Family Insurance. A launch party with poetry reading and book signing is planned for Oct. 21 at 7:00 p.m. at Old Sugar Distillery.

How did this collection come to be?
I’m originally from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, so that’s where I spent my childhood and did my undergraduate degree, and this book started up in that area. The poems have traveled and evolved with me. I like to think the book starts out as one thing and evolves throughout the collection into something else, and that reflects the time period through which I wrote it, ending the book in my early 30s.

I can see how an infinite and expanding universe could serve as an apt metaphor for the human experience. What draws you to writing about the sky?
I’ve always had something to say about the sky, something to say about the stars, and what I like about this backdrop is when we have challenges or hardships in life, it can be comforting to think about this expansive universe that is so much greater and more permanent than any of our problems. I’ve found comfort in that. And I like to use what’s transpiring in the sky as a way to communicate what is going on internally. But I like to think of “Star Things” as more connected by motif or images as opposed to having a running theme. I knew that there was a celestial theme that would tie these poems together, but it was loosely in a way that allowed me to explore other subject matter as well.

What are those tensions and themes and questions that you kept finding yourself returning to over 10 years that have come out in these poems?
There’s a question of identity that shows up in the book. Even though it might not jump off the page, it’s an undercurrent. And especially in the time that we live in, where there’s a lot of pressure to fit neatly into one category, you have a specific profession or hobby or you’re a parent and there is a sense that you want to have those things neat and tidy and separate. So there’s certainly tension in the book of those things spilling over. There’s a particular poem, “Lukewarm” that deals with this; a can of soda is all shaken up and spilling over and there’s tension about whether it would be more comfortable to keep things neatly apart.

What was the process of publishing a book of poetry like?
The process can be pretty grueling. Some writers don’t persevere, and understandably so, because at one point in time I did the math that I had a ratio of 10-to-one rejections-for-acceptances of individual poems that I would submit. And that’s a pretty typical experience. You’re submitting hundreds of poems. Fortunately, I’ve had some mentors who have gone through the process and have held onto words from Brene Brown who talks about being closer than you think you are to achieving your goal. So, I remind myself of that often. It might feel daunting at times, but it could be that one more submission or that one more step that I take that is really the last step.

What is your writing practice, considering you’re a partner and parent with a full-time job?
There’s some fluidity to it. I have found, for me, that if I force it it’s not as enjoyable. One thing that I do is I keep notebooks everywhere. Because it’s really easy to lose a poem if you just don’t have a way to write it down. So there will be moments throughout the day or sometimes I’ll wake up and have a few lines in my head and the best thing that I have done for myself is having notebooks and pens all over the place so that I can quickly get it out. I might write down three or four lines and come back to those things when my son is napping and see what happens.

What are you working on next?
I’m about halfway through what I believe will be my next collection of poems, although it’s still shaping itself. And there’s a sense of moving on. I was fairly intentional about capping this collection of poems before my son was born. So, that collection is centered in the time period before motherhood. And my next collection, while I already know there is imagery of the sky and the stars, it allows itself to open up to poems about pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum. And I’ve been intentional about allowing those experiences to distinguish the two collections. So although there are some things that carry over, there’s a clear division for me in, this is the body of work before motherhood and this is after.

What can people do that they may not realize to support your work and other local writers?
One thing I love about poetry is that you can sit down and read several complete pieces of work in 10 minutes or less. So, it can be a small commitment to pick up and read a local poet’s collection. With “Star Things”, in particular, you could sit down and read the book in an hour. With the pace of life today, it can feel daunting to sit down and read an entire book especially if poetry is not your go-to genre. I’ve recently caught onto keeping a book of poetry by my bedside and have finished 3 collections in the last month just by reading two or three poems before bed.

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