Elizabeth Bolanos: Lost Wax felt to me like such a remarkably humble yet perfect title for your book. You’re a writer, a traveler, a professor, and assistant director of an MFA program. I sensed that as a child, you may have imagined yourself exploring all these areas. How did all these elements come together for you?
Jericho Parms: I had many imaginations as a child that related to traveling and exploring a world that I knew early on was much larger than my own experience of it. I often credit that to my parents who nurtured curiosity and a sense of exploration when I was young. Art and writing were key components of that experience, but it was really when I was a bit older, and began to write and travel on my own when I was in college that those interests began to coalesce, first through a budding passion for journalism, then during the years I worked in an art museum. When I stumbled on the essay as a form, it allowed all of those interests to come together.
EB: You’ve visited so many places, from Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Guatemala, to all over the United States. What’s your favorite travel destination and why?
JP: Picking favorites is such a challenge. Ireland holds a special place for me, and is one of the more strikingly beautiful places I’ve been in recent years. I admire, too, the palpable sense of history and deep respect for literary culture in Ireland. Spain is the place I have most returned to, for many reasons, not least of which because it was one of the first countries I explored on my own. Spain has always renewed my sense of independence and exploration, my love of color and texture, and being there inspires me to slow down, to take things in. But there are, of course, so many remarkable places I still hope to visit.
EB: In Lost Wax, you talk about color, quoting painter Hans Hofmann’s understanding of it and giving us your own examples, such as red being the color of love and lunacy. You also mention a friend who said different kinds of reds, like burgundy, mean different things. If you could describe yourself using only colors, what would they be? Or would describing yourself using only colors even be possible?
JP: I like to imagine we are all living mood rings, constantly changing our colors depending on the day, the hour, the weather, our company or solitude. In that sense, I don’t know that I could describe myself using color with any certainty. Talk long enough about color and I think we inevitably fall into the realm of synesthesia, or at the very least, metaphor. The spectrum of colors we assign to our own identities and those of others—and the language of those colors—is a topic I’ve been exploring through writing lately. Where do our concepts of whiteness and blackness begin and end? What does it mean to be a brown face in a predominantly white space? How does our use of language when applied to identity contribute to or bridge the human divides we continuously find ourselves facing?
To circle back to Hans Hofmann, “It is not the form that dictates the color but the color that brings out the form.” The essay “A Chapter on Red,” in which Hofmann’s line serves as an epigraph, was an attempt to explore and reveal the meditative quality and associative potential of color to both reflect and expose experience. And yet, any writer would have approached an essay on red differently. Color is a series of perceptions, after all. We all see and conceptualize color differently, which means that in the end, color can both illuminate and blind us to the reality of our shared human condition.
EB: Your book also made me think about memory. There’s a part where you mention the memory of a fruit stand where you and a boy you once loved would sit down and eat peaches after seeing a movie. He would talk about the fruit trees in Romania. You said when you were informed by a friend that the fruit stand was gone, the memories of those times with him were all you thought about that day. Why did that moment and that memory stick with you?
JP: I find the workings of memory and our human senses endlessly inspiring, and often I try to mine memory for small moments or details that, when we allow ourselves to linger and meditate on them, can serve as portals to something larger or offer an unexpected foray into meaning. The essay “Origins” is in many way an homage to the senses and the ways in which the sensory quality of language can unearth experience. We often talk about the “occasion” of an essay—the reason for the writer writing at the present moment. I think that can occur on both a large and small scale within an essay as well. News of the fruit stand being gone served as one of many “occasions” in the essay to think back on certain moments (in this case, sharing fruit with a friend). But inclusion of those small memories are less about the experience itself (however sweet it may have been) and more about how it allows me to linger in the sense of nostalgia and indulgence that each sensory detail can convey.
EB: Another part of your memories that stuck with me were the parts about your childhood, before your parents’ divorce, when you talked about the relationship you had with your father when he introduced the world of music to you. One example in the book was where you would practice My Fair Lady together. What’s your fondest music memory with your father?
JP: The essay “The B Side” is written in three parts, and explores my relationship to my father in various stages from childhood to early adulthood through the lens of music—both reflections on the moments we shared when I was young, and the role music came to play in my life as I grew older. The recording sessions I describe in the essay definitely represent some of the fondest memories I have. However, as I alluded to in the piece, I am deeply grateful that those moments were recorded. At various moments I have found myself returning to them and this carries its own satisfaction and wonder, like rereading a book you’ve always loved after time has passed and extracting new details and meaning from its passages.
EB: “Immortal Wound” is the last essay in the book and it’s my favorite. The piece involves the dead luna moth you noticed as you were walking past a bar. You bring up a beautiful point about humans’ similarity to insects: how we feed on our findings, spin strangeness, glide through, behave nocturnally and are drawn to things the way moths are drawn to light. Was that moment inspirational to you, for more travel and exploration, or the opposite?
JP: “Immortal Wound” is an essay I hold dear because it preserves an experience that, while seemingly simple, felt laced with potential metaphor and meaning at the time and therefore conjured a sense of responsibility to describe, to record, to take notice, to pay tribute … to assay something greater. For me, a moment like finding the dead luna moth was both one of “travel and exploration,” as you note, not just for the ways that it moved my mind into a childlike space of inquiry, curiosity, meditation on the thing itself, but because the moment also had a humble and grounding effect on me as a writer—a writer keenly aware of influences such as Virginia Woolf and Annie Dillard who felt as present in my experience of discovering a moth, as I remember feeling present in their descriptions of the moths they witnessed.
Again, as far as an “occasion” for writing an essay goes, this was a big one. An opportunity to step into conversation with two women writers I admire, to explore a similar premise—albeit in a wholly different space, circumstance, and time, and to pay homage to a tradition, through observation and detail, of speaking to our preoccupation with life and death.
EB: The essay “Still Life with Chair” was published in 2015 in a slightly different form in The Normal School. One passage reads: “The simple presence of a chair, like the unbridled promise of life when we are young, is a common assumption: we trust that the structure will hold us. But what if a chair is pulled aside, what if it breaks suddenly beneath you?” How does this idea help you with writing?
JP: I’ve never thought of this idea in direct relation to writing before, but it’s an interesting question. “Still Life with Chair” is an essay that weaves in reflections on chairs, both as an object and their various depictions throughout art history. The piece centers around an accident and focuses on the notion of unexplained loss as well as the promise and excitement of youth, among other things. In the essay, the idea of a chair being pulled away, much like suddenly breaking, serves as a way of reflecting on the sense of uncertainty that can result from unexpected, seemingly random, experiences.
Accidents tend to erode one’s sense of trust in the world, to undermine the things we hold dear, and underscore the ways in which we may often take those things for granted—much like the way we tend to overlook everyday objects and artifacts. If I were to apply this idea to writing, it would likely present a call to greater awareness, a refusal to take for granted even the smallest moments or details that compose our experiences. Or, to go a step further, a refusal to take for granted how many moments can slip by without satisfying a need to write, without fulfilling a commitment to keep going, before losing those moments to days-gone-by and essays-not-written, to a stubborn misfit silence.
I’ve come to believe that sometimes we need a dose of the hard lessons in order to see clearly all of the things there are to be grateful for; we need a slap in the face to get our minds right; sometimes we need to know that although the structures that hold us might break and send us spiraling, at some point we’ll get up again.
EB: When reading your book, I kept feeling like I was escaping into a series of galleries where each essay was a room showcasing little pieces of you. You mention in numerous sections of how you observed different sculptures in galleries. How did those gallery visits inform your writing process?
JP: Art has had a great influence on my writing process. I have a deep appreciation for museums and galleries and the role they play in providing space for art to be widely viewed, studied, and revisited again and again, which is something I’ve grown accustomed to doing—particularly when I’m writing. For me, viewing art is an exercise of attention, a process of giving myself over to observation and allowing new ideas and meditations to surface as a result of the simple act of looking.
Many of the essays that became Lost Wax were written or at least partially drafted during a time when I worked in an art museum. Greek and Roman Sculpture, Egyptian Art, European Painting, Modern and Contemporary Painting, American Decorative Arts, Musical Instruments—the vast collections found in an encyclopedic museum contain, for me, a remarkable capacity to egg me on in the writing process. As an essayist, I tend to feed off of other surfaces—ogle and wonder and scrutinize things that, when given the chance to truly observe, often lead to the gleaning of a new idea, a line of language or description, a memory or association that often becomes where my writing begins. Museum galleries are one of the few places I have found that afford such time and space to stare without shame, to look unabashedly close at something—anything, really—until you find what you have are trying to say.
EB: To close, what projects, writing or otherwise, are you working on now?
JP: I have been working on a new series of essays that explore the concept of inheritance through an extended meditation on a range of objects.
Jericho Parms is the Author of Lost Wax (University of Georgia Press). Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, Brevity, and elswhere. She is the Associate Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches.
Elizabeth Bolanos was born and raised in Fresno. She is a first-year MFA graduate student at Fresno State pursuing Creative Writing with an Emphasis in Publishing & Editing. Her focus is fiction. She enjoys reading and gaining inspiration from all genres and forms of art.
Photo by Josh Larkin