Emily Ruth Verona
Jessica McHugh Interview
As we enter National Poetry Month, Frightful is talking to the Bram Stoker and Elgin Award nominated blackout poet Jessica McHugh. Her collection A Complex Accident of Life, inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein came out in 2020. A year later Strange Nests, inspired by Frances Hodgson Burnett classic The Secret Garden, was released. Jessica’s upcoming collection is called The Quiet Ways I Destroy You and it is inspired by one of my all-time favorite books: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
Read the full interview below.
How did you find your way to blackout poetry? I admit that I didn’t know much about it before reading Strange Nests. You write poetry and fiction. Which did you start in?
I’ve been writing poetry all my life, but I didn’t start making blackout poetry until February 2019. I just wanted to make cheap thank you gifts for some folks who helped out my family during a rough time, but I ended up falling in love with the art form. Before that, I was focusing on novels and short stories. I’ve always wanted to make visual art though—I drew and painted when I was younger and kinda got bullied out of it—so blackout poetry has become incredibly fulfilling to me.
How do you go about choosing works to explore? Have you always loved Frankenstein and The Secret Garden or did you read them later on and think they’d be great to work with?
I read both when I was younger and definitely vibed more with Frankenstein and its many adaptations. But both came to me unexpectedly as blackout poetry material. The first time I tried to blackout Frankenstein, I couldn’t find anything, but a few months later, something clicked and I started making tons. After posting those on social media, Jacob Haddon of Apokrupha asked me if I’d be interested in putting together a collection. I hadn’t even considered it at that point, so I very enthusiastically said yes, and the rest is history. The Secret Garden was also a surprise. I was looking for something to distract me from the grief of my brother’s death a few weeks prior. But after I made a few poems from The Secret Garden, I realized just how well that story resonates with the transformative nature of grief, and I decided to make Strange Nests to explore the stages of mourning while I was actually going through them. Little Women is the first time I feel like I’ve made a collection from a book I chose rather than it choosing me. And despite tasking myself with the massive challenge of making 155 poems to coincide with the 155th anniversary of the novel’s publication, I loved every single second of the process.
Your poems also function as beautiful pieces of visual art. Did you always intend to illustrate each page or was it something that just sort of happened?
Thank you! I started with simpler designs, for the most part, but I’ve always viewed the blackout portion as another layer communicating the personality of the poem or even another part of its story. As I made more and more pieces, my skills grew, as did my creativity, and more complex illustrations eventually entered the mix. This was especially true of Strange Nests, which is interesting because my brother who passed away was the one who bullied me out of visual art in the first place. Something unlocked in me during the creation of that collection, and ever since it came out, I’ve felt completely free to explore that side of me again. I feel like my artistic growth shows so much in The Quiet Ways I Destroy You...as does the fact that I work at a tattoo shop and am constantly surrounded by floral art references.
Can you talk a little about working on The Quiet Ways I Destroy You? You’ve described it as cosmic horror celebrating “the unapologetic symbiosis of sisterhood, feminine rage, and joyful vengeance that spreads in women’s whispers.” Seriously, I LOVE that.
This collection was an absolute delight to work on. It only took a few poems for the theme to pop out at me—this symbiotic sisterhood like a giant root system standing as one—but the deeper I got, the more I found all the little intricacies involved in recognizing the plights of many different kinds of female-identifying people and how we all find each other. Mycorrhizal fungi were actually a big inspiration as well, symbolizing how we connect, help, warn, and support each other...while wreaking a little havoc along the way.
In Little Women, Marmee says “I am angry nearly every day of my life” to her daughter, Jo. Did you think about that a lot during this project?
Ha! To say the least. I channeled that a lot during the writing and the art portion of many of these poems. And considering those two stages are often weeks to months apart, that’s a lot of anger! Luckily I think there’s a good balance of rage and joy in this collection, as there was in the creation. Also, all hail Queen Marmee.
You do blackout poetry commissions as well. What’s it like approaching a text someone else has chosen for you?
If they’ve chosen a theme, I tend to focus more on finding vocabulary that communicates that rather than the book itself, but I will say it’s sometimes easier working with text I don’t know very well so I don’t have preconceived notions about the story or characters. That being said, I love creating poems that communicate themes in direct opposition of the book’s original intent. Horror from Charlotte’s Web, romance from Carrie, something coherent from Finnegan’s Wake, etc...
Any advice for poets who have never tried to write blackout poetry before and might not know where to start?
Your first task is finding an anchor word / phrase, which will serve as the subject of your poem. Once you have that, you can do a little artistic word search to form it into a coherent thought. You can also start off with similes or metaphors like “Love is a ___” or “She’s like __,” and see if anything down the page links up well. I go into these techniques and more in Seek & Hide: an Educational & Interactive Blackout Poetry Playbook, coming from Apokrupha later this year.
Q. Do you have any other work coming out this year you’d like to tell people about?
A. In addition to The Quiet Ways I Destroy You and Seek and Hide coming from Apokrupha, I have a sonnet appearing in Shakespeare Unleashed a new horror anthology from Monstrous Books & Crystal Lake Publishing, and I’m a featured poet in Under Her Eye, a women in horror poetry collection from Black Spot Books. I’m also hoping to write the final book in my horror series, The Gardening Guidebooks Trilogy, this year for release from Ghoulish Books in 2024.
Q. What’s your favorite recent read? Any genre or category. It doesn’t have to be horror.
A. I recently read and loved Grace R. Reynolds new dark poetry collection, The Lies We Weave, and I really enjoyed the riotously gross and hilarious novel Maggots Screaming by Max Booth III. I’m also halfway through the amazing Gemma Amor’s Full Immersion, which I highly recommend.
Thank you so much for talking to Frightful!
The Quiet Ways I Destroy You will hit shelves later this year.
Jessica McHugh is a 2x Bram Stoker Award-nominated poet, a multi-genre novelist, & an internationally-produced playwright who spends her days surrounded by artistic inspiration at a Maryland tattoo shop. She’s had twenty-nine books published in fourteen years, including her Elgin Award-nominated blackout poetry collections, “A Complex Accident of Life" and "Strange Nests,” her sci-fi bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” and her cross-generational horror series, “The Gardening Guidebooks Trilogy.” Explore the growing worlds of Jessica McHugh at McHughniverse.com.
Instagram / Twitter / Tiktok: @theJessMcHugh
A Complex Accident of Life is available here.
Strange Nests is available here.
The Gardening Guidebooks bundle is available here.