On “The Court of No Record”

Interview / Jenny Molberg

Jen­ny Molberg

Edi­tor Lau­ren Brazeal Garza: Jen­ny Molberg’s The Court of No Record sear­ing­ly draws inspi­ra­tion from court pro­ceed­ings and crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tions, show­ing how the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem ulti­mate­ly fails women. Dur­ing our inter­view, she offered won­der­ful insights into the cre­ation of the col­lec­tion, touch­ing upon erasure—and how vic­tims of crime are often called upon to erase them­selves and their truth in per­suit of jus­tice, the banal­i­ty of evil and silenc­ing, and how poet­ry bears wit­ness to the unsayable. 

Your most recent col­lec­tion, The Court of No Record, explores ideas of trau­ma and how trau­ma can inhab­it and even erase one’s entire iden­ti­ty. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to speak to this impor­tant top­ic with­in the col­lec­tion and/or indi­vid­ual poems?

In an essay I return to again and again, Sol­maz Sharif’s “The Near Tran­si­tive Prop­er­ties of the Polit­i­cal and Poet­i­cal: Era­sure,” she writes, “After all, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of era­sure as a poet­ic tac­tic in the Unit­ed States is hap­pen­ing along­side a pro­lif­er­a­tion of our aware­ness of it as a state tac­tic. And it seems, many era­sure projects today hold these things as unre­lat­ed. Still, when it comes to era­sure, this very form of palimpsest, the ghost is not only death or the degra­da­tions of time—the ghost is the state itself.” 

In the wake of inti­mate part­ner vio­lence, with expe­ri­ences of past trau­ma and sex­u­al assault press­ing their hands against my inner mir­ror, I found myself in court, sev­er­al times, try­ing to artic­u­late my Truth against what the court allowed me to speak of the truth. The whole sto­ry, the con­text of a sit­u­a­tion, the big pic­ture of the Truth, I’ve learned, is alarm­ing­ly irrel­e­vant to the U.S. court sys­tem. It’s inter­est­ing that you use the word “erase” in this ques­tion, as I wrote many of these poems as an out­cry, a reac­tion, and a defense of the self I knew, fight­ing against what a tox­i­cal­ly mas­cu­line cul­ture, and a “jus­tice” sys­tem want­ed me to erase of myself. In the midst of trau­ma, I often had the sense that I, as I had once known myself, was slip­ping away, buy­ing into the gaslight­ing waged against me, until my own per­cep­tion of real­i­ty became mud­dled, like I was look­ing at a famil­iar lake through thick fog.

After the events that were the impe­tus of this book (which, iron­i­cal­ly, are dan­ger­ous to direct­ly address in writ­ing), I was left with near­ly 400 pages of court tran­script. I want­ed to cre­ate, in Sharif’s words, a kind of palimpsest with that text, where I could write the truth over what hap­pened to me—a com­plete and vio­lent dis­re­gard of my truth, a state-sup­port­ed silenc­ing. In writ­ing these poems, I had expe­ri­enced enough self-era­sure, so I want­ed to insert, to foot­note, to make addi­tions to the text of trau­ma. I want­ed to paint over the exist­ing por­trait of me, because it wasn’t the truth; in doing so, I felt that I was prob­a­bly speak­ing towards the expe­ri­ence of many oth­er sur­vivors who are unsafe in telling their sto­ries. I want­ed to write in a kind of sec­ondary lan­guage to any­one who had expe­ri­enced inti­mate part­ner vio­lence, abuse, and assault—to cre­ate a court­room where we might be heard, an under­ground record of the actu­al truth. 

Han­nah Arendt spoke of the banal­i­ty of evil. Many of the poems in The Court of No Record explore this idea though their form and technique—particularly in the sec­ond sec­tion. Can you speak to how this evolved as you wrote the collection? 

I think this ques­tion is a per­fect segue from the first—in order to cre­ate a truth­ful court­room set­ting, I had to play into the banal­i­ty of its silenc­ing, to use form and lan­guage that spot­light­ed its some­times-absurd eva­sions of the truth, and to invent char­ac­ters that embod­ied the relent­less silenc­ing of sur­vivors. For exam­ple, when I wrote per­sona poems from the per­spec­tive of the abuser’s lawyer, I wrote most­ly in misog­y­nis­tic vers­es from the Old Tes­ta­ment, as this mir­rored the expe­ri­ence of being shamed and humil­i­at­ed for liv­ing in a female body and speak­ing out against abuse. When I wrote the sec­ond section’s “evi­dence” poems to cap­ture the undoc­u­ment­ed evi­dence of abuse or assault—the invis­i­ble proof of memory—I used Ade­laide Crapsey’s cinquain form, a high­ly for­mal syl­lab­ic verse, to show that evi­dence of abuse can be proven in exact mea­sure­ments, but is all too often dismissed. 

The fact that I had to be care­ful about what I was saying—that I need­ed to, in Emi­ly Dickinson’s words, “tell it slant” in order to pro­tect myself and others—created a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion to writ­ing in fixed form. That is, I need­ed to write from the mar­gins of my own expe­ri­ence rather than in a Con­fes­sion­al mode—there were intrin­sic for­mal con­straints. I looked to the work of female foren­sic sci­en­tists, dream lan­guage, and metaphor (like the dogs in the book’s sec­ond sec­tion, or in “Bitch as Sheep­dog”) to get to the heart of the vio­lence and silenc­ing I had experienced.

In terms of how the banal­i­ty of evil evolves in the book, I was cog­nizant about the way the sec­tions grew out and away from each other—the first address­es cul­tur­al obses­sion with vio­lence against women, the sec­ond con­fronts the court sys­tem, becom­ing more per­son­al, and then in the third, I adopt the “bitch per­sona,” a voice that allowed me to more open­ly rail against those dam­ag­ing sys­tems, let­ting a sense of humor and defi­ance into the voice. Writ­ing poems like “Bitch Inter­rupts a Wed­ding” and “Bitch Under a Tree Eat­ing Wendy’s,” I want­ed to take back my own voice, inhab­it­ing the sex­ist lan­guage that had been waged against me, to grap­ple with the fact that my own inter­nal­ized tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty had led me to believe that speak­ing up for myself made me a “bitch”. 

An over­ar­ch­ing theme in The Account Mag­a­zine is the act of offer­ing “an account”—of bear­ing wit­ness, or car­ry­ing and offer­ing tes­ti­mo­ny. How do you see the poems in The Court of No Record inter­ro­gat­ing these ideas?

Lau­ren, thank you for these thought­ful ques­tions and thank you and the entire staff at The Account Mag­a­zine for doing such impor­tant work—seeing poet­ry as tes­ti­mo­ny is inte­gral to my own cre­ative process, and so many of the poets I cher­ish and return to. With The Court of No Record, the idea of an “account” is cen­tral to the book’s exis­tence. The great Björk comes to mind: “You shouldn’t let poets lie to you.” “Lying,” or bend­ing facts to get at the emo­tion­al truth of a sit­u­a­tion, was one of my ear­li­est lessons in poet­ry, and one that I began to inter­ro­gate as I was writ­ing this book. In writ­ing these poems, I sought Truth-with-a-cap­i­tal‑T, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly bal­anc­ing the fact that speak­ing the Truth about my per­son­al expe­ri­ences with abuse was not safe for me. This leads, I think, to a ques­tion about the author-speak­er divide—it’s dif­fi­cult not to con­flate the two—but that con­fla­tion can lead to a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion for the author, which I’ve unfor­tu­nate­ly learned through first­hand expe­ri­ence. How can poet­ry tell the Truth while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly keep­ing the poet safe? How can writ­ing serve as tes­ti­mo­ny in a sit­u­a­tion where wit­ness is a dan­ger­ous act? As a long­time dis­ci­ple of the poet­ry of wit­ness, the work of such poets as Car­olyn Forché, Paul Celan, Muriel Rukeyser, Czesław Miłosz, Yusef Komun­yakaa, and so many oth­ers (I could go on and on), I repeat Forché’s words on resis­tance in the poet­ry of wit­ness like a prayer: “If we have not, if we do not, what in the end, have we become? And if we do not, what, in the end, shall we be?” 

Poet­ry, unlike oth­er forms of writ­ing, allows an embod­i­ment of the unsayable on the page, through metaphor, neg­a­tive space, eli­sion, and oth­er tech­niques. With these poems, I want­ed to embody the silenc­ing that often occurs, per­son­al­ly, cul­tur­al­ly, and legal­ly, when sur­vivors speak their sto­ries. I want­ed to, as Forché writes, look beyond the per­son­al and the polit­i­cal to “the social”: “a place of resis­tance and strug­gle, where books are pub­lished, poems read, and protest dis­sem­i­nat­ed.” I hope that these poems con­tribute to an often-silenced dia­logue about inti­mate part­ner vio­lence, gen­der-based vio­lence, and emo­tion­al, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and phys­i­cal abuse—that they both serve as tes­ti­mo­ny and bear wit­ness to a larg­er soci­etal prob­lem. Though the sub­ject mat­ter is dark, in the end, I hope that read­ers can feel hopeful—that to write into the canyon of silence is pos­si­ble; that, when able, if we can speak against the pact of silence that so often accom­pa­nies abuse, we can cre­ate a bar­ri­er of safe­ty; and that, in con­fronting and inter­ro­gat­ing com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of vio­lence against female bod­ies, the pow­er of tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty will be diminished.

Jen­ny Mol­berg is the author of Mar­vels of the Invis­i­ble (win­ner of the Berk­shire Prize, Tupe­lo Press, 2017), Refusal (LSU Press, 2020), and The Court of No Record (LSU Press, 2023). Her poems and essays have recent­ly appeared or are forth­com­ing in Ploughshares, The Cincin­nati Review, VIDA, The Mis­souri Review, The Rum­pus, The Adroit Jour­nal, Oprah Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She has received fel­low­ships and schol­ar­ships from the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts, the Sewa­nee Writ­ers Con­fer­ence, Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter, and the Lon­gleaf Writ­ers Con­fer­ence. Hav­ing earned her MFA from Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty and her PhD from the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Texas, she is cur­rent­ly Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor and Chair of Cre­ative Writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cen­tral Mis­souri, where she edits Pleiades: Lit­er­a­ture in Con­text. Find her online at jennymolberg.com.