Under Pressure: Jessica Abughattas

Jessica Abughattas is the author of Strip, winner of the 2020 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize selected by Fady Joudah and Hayan Charara. A Kundiman fellow, her poems appear in The Adroit Journal, Best of the Net 2019, Tupelo Quarterly, among other venues. She lives in Los Angeles.


Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did working on Strip take, from conception to publication?

Jessica Abughattas: The oldest poems are four years old now, so in that sense, four years. In the sense of sequencing and conceiving of a manuscript, I started doing that early in 2018.

SHP: Where did you get your title inspiration from?

JA: I mined my manuscript for words or phrases and ended up staring at the word strip. I wrote a first draft of the poem “Strip” then, and months later rewrote it to resemble its form in the book. So the title came first. It’s a command. It’s something the book required from me. I like that it contains “rip.” It evokes place; both pleasure and suffering.

SHP: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

JA: Film.

SHP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

JA: I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but Jenny Factor encouraged me early on to think of a book as an art object. It helps me not to over-identify with it, its praise or criticism. I’m not the book I published at 28 any more than I will be the one I’ll write at 40. I want to continue writing for a long time, so I try to counter self-limiting beliefs with the reality that I’m evolving. It doesn’t serve me to obsess over what I think I ought to have done differently.

SHP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

JA: Good pressure. Even when there aren’t deadlines, I impose them to help me generate. I still procrastinate to meet them, but that’s not the point.

SHP: Your book interrogates desire in many ways. Could you tell us about the power of desire, or the engine behind many of these poems?

JA: This book’s mantra is “I want.” Pleasure can feel empowering when you’ve been subject to states of disempowerment, whether it be due to dysfunctional relationship/family dynamics or persecuted identities. To own it, state it felt like something I was taking back. But desire, the craving and longing for pleasure, brings suffering (“It infuriates me that he’s good at living”). It is suffering, to ruminate on possibilities and lack. The speaker contemplates desire and pleasure, what of it belongs to the self. Ultimately, there’s pleasure to be found in what is. (“I love my misery. / I give thanks to it.”)

SHP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

JA: Outside in nature, driving, in the middle of my work day, first thing in the morning. No sense of a pattern yet. While it’s a nice idea to wait for inspiration to find you, I prefer to be in the habit of writing all the time, even if it’s just jotting down a sentence that I thought of in the middle of a chore. A lot of my drafts begin in the Notes folder on my phone.

SHP: What advice would you share for those sending out a manuscript now?

JA: Let everything be up for negotiation, be willing to re-envision poems, titles, and sequences that have been considered “done” to you. Mess everything up and see if you still agree with your choices. When you solicit outside feedback, try everything on, but trust your gut above all else.

Facing rejection, remember your expression is your gift and you were meant for kindness. Let the mother archetype inside say “They are wrong” if that’s what it takes to keep going. Find close readers who appreciate you. June Jordan’s mantra “I will love who loves me. I will love as much as I am loved.”

SHP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

JA: Spiritual practice, in any form, whether grounding myself with movement, visualization, or standing outside in the sun and noticing the sensory pleasures of nature in my yard. Even contemplative reading, or contemplating what feels tense or stuck in my body. Mind-body connection has been a healing force that has propelled my writing. When I was younger, I wrote from a place of panic, anxiety, and discomfort, but I’m learning to attend to myself rather than beating myself up to be productive. It’s not easy to do.

SHP: If you could describe Strip using a 3 song playlist, which songs would you choose and why?

JA:Perfect Places” by Lorde, because indeed, what the fuck are perfect places? “Scott Street” by Phoebe Bridgers for its sense of humor. “Lucky” by Britney Spears – self-explanatory.

Order Strip here