Capable Monsters: An Interview with Marlin M. Jenkins

Capable Monsters, a new chapbook from the Durham-based Bull City Press, is a highly stylized and portable collection of poetry using language and characters from the canon story of the Pokemon world lore. The collection situates the poetry between scenes from current events to historical gestures and further across the fandom. There is a cool attention to detail showcased by Marlin M. Jenkins in his poetry writing which constructs eloquent connections beyond these popular cartridges of yesteryear. In Capable Monsters, Jenkins manipulates time and reckons with childhood formative experiences and identity like no one else can.

Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit. He is the author of the poetry chapbook, Capable Monsters, now available from Bull City Press. His poetry has been given homes by  Indiana Review, Iowa Review, Waxwing, TriQuarterly, New Poetry from the Midwest, and Volume 2 of Oxidant Engine‘s BoxSet Series. His fiction has been given homes by The Rumpus and the anthology Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction. He has worked as a teaching artist with Inside Out Literary Arts teaching poetry to middle schoolers in Detroit Public Schools, and with the Neutral Zone, Ann Arbor’s teen center. He earned his MFA in poetry at the University of Michigan.

Jason Teal: Can you tell us your favorite Pokémon without using its name?  

Marlin M. Jenkins: The one who’s black, though it could have been anything.

JT: What led you to stray from the rigor of the first 150 Pokémon and adapt Pokédex entries for later gen monsters: “Pokédex Entry #260: Swampert,” “Pokédex Entry #425: Drifloon → #426 Drifblim,” etc.? Did this influence how you ordered the manuscript for the publication, i.e., were there monsters left on the cutting room floor? Finally, what prompted you to explore the vast, cultural lexicon of Pokémon within which to situate your poetry (a certain allegiance to the game, characters)?

MJ: I started the series as an experiment, as a way to generate prompts that I knew would be personally interesting, unsure if they’d be worth sharing with the world or not. I wanted to pick Pokédex entries that felt resonant, and in most cases, pokémon that I had an emotional attachment to. I didn’t have any criteria that bound me to the first generation—if anything, I wanted to resist the part of the fandom that idealizes the early games/show and dismisses what’s come after. That vastness you mention is what I wanted to tap into, how expansive the catalogue of Pokémon is, how much material there is to find thematic beauty in and through. As I wrote more and eventually arrived at needing to sequence the poems into the chapbook, I wanted the early entries—1, 4, 7—to be at the front of the manuscript, but from there, the entry #s weren’t a factor in ordering. And through that process, lots of poems were cut: there were drafts of poems for drowzee, kadabra, snorlax, koffing, diglett, and Arceus, and lots of notes and starts for others.

JT: I appreciate the way the collection approaches writing about the Other. Take, for example, the last lines of “evolution,” a poem curiously positioned at the beginning of the book: “I am a monster / and now // I am a monster / still // but with different teeth.” These stanzas do a lot to position the reader in the vantage of the speaker and frame our reading of the rest of the poems, borne out of trauma and escape of the Other. Here, the advantage for the speaker in these poems is being/becoming the monster, with their specific adaptions and skillsets, not the trainer of the monsters emboldened by battle. In fact, the Pokémon in this collection are hardly ever engaged in combat like in the games. Is a monster ever limited by its ability to evolve, to adapt to circumstances possibly beyond their control?

MJ: The second poem I wrote was based on the entry for kadabra, which explains an urban legend of a boy being transformed, in Kafka-esque fashion, into a kadabra in his sleep. Even though the poem didn’t make it into the manuscript, that idea that we can collapse the distance between the categories of human and monster was an important thread throughout the process—in addition to how entries like lapras and jigglypuff presented easy thematic connections to the self/particular human struggles. The poems’ speakers feel much more closely aligned to trapped, subjugated beings than ones who own, who control. But of course, the other side of that—of what the collection wrestles with, though maybe less directly—is that I’m not exempt from my own being monstrous. The poem “canon” came very late in the process, and that holding of multiple things as true at once that the poem is invested in, of identifying as both monster: human who causes harm and monster: subjugated being, is part of what led to that poem being written and included.

JT: What influenced the choice to lowercase species names of Pokémon? This is a feature which struck me originally negotiating the text for review. I also resonated with the thoughts on the monsters’ language acquisition—the ability from the anime to only say their name—and the mirroring of the speaker’s development through trainer metaphors from the canon story.

MJ: It was mostly a stylistic choice to distinguish between species and actual names—like Ash’s Pikachu or Mewtwo: it’s a nebulous space between proper noun and generic category. It’s the same reason I don’t capitalize “pokémon” when I’m referring to the creatures but do when I’m referring to the world/franchise. But yeah, the collection is definitely invested in coming of age and socialization, and so it felt natural to investigate language acquisition and character development as parts of that.

JT: How involved was your research for Capable Monsters? I imagine the writing included playing through the lore multiple times. Which version did you use? The speaker says Blue Version, but I’m intrigued in the moves beyond that first installment. And: do you still play Pokémon today (meaning Sword and Shield versions on the Nintendo Switch)? If so, what are your thoughts about Gigantamax forms? I’m also curious, what Pokémon are in your ideal Pokémon party and why?

MJ: When I first started writing these poems I was in the thick of playing Pokémon Go, and, not long into writing, Pokémon: Moon dropped and I played through that. But even more than the games I spent so much time reading on Bulbapedia! I still play Pokémon Go casually, but I don’t have Sword/Shield yet. Hoping to jump back into gen 6 or 7 soon to play with poet and friend Leila Chatti (whose work everyone should read because she’s brilliant!). So hard to choose an ideal party but some of my favs to have in my party have been: Venusaur, Delphox, Umbreon, Absol, Gallade, Shuckle, Blastoise, Decidueye.

JT: What do you think is under Mimikyu’s disguise? If nothing else, its origin and entry from the Pokédex is probably one of the most tragic spaces the lore of the games occupies, while also being a personal favorite accessed handily in fan art online. In the games, Mimikyu has to adopt a disguise in order to be around other species of Pokémon, or make friends, or else it will drive passing trainers into a sort of madness, much like the cosmic horror of Weird fiction tales. What draws you to this Pokémon particularly?

MJ: Earlier version’s of the mimikyu poem had more physical descriptions, but I decided to cut those for two reasons: they were needlessly grizzly, and I realized I don’t actually want to do too much positing about what’s under the sheet. I think that’s a knowledge one would have to gain through trust—if mimikyu doesn’t reveal it, then maybe it’s not for us to know, in a way. Part of what draws me to mimikyu is the tragedy, how the pokémon has to package itself in a way that’s palatable, but also it’s how it is a reckoning with both the world of Pokémon and ours. Pikachu is much more popular in our world than in the actual world of the games or anime, so mimikyu’s choice of emulating pikachu through a disguise has more to do with our love of pikachu than anything—it’s a bizarre kind of subtle fourth wall breaking that’s fascinating to me. So, all of that, and in the context of that persona poem, I was really drawn to how both disguise and persona are forms of artifice.

JT: I like the poems that accent the shape of Pokémon, such as “Pokédex Entry #91: Cloyster.” This visual concrete aesthetic appears to emphasize the likeness of the monsters, creating a purposeful dynamic for storytelling and roleplaying as we move through the poems. How did you decide which poems corresponded to these unique formats? Were there any failed attempts to create this effect for other poems, or ones that evolved later in editing?

MJ: One of my goals when I started to write this series was that no two poems would look the same (though I loosened up on this as I got further into the series). This meant a handful of poems in traditional forms: the jigglypuff sonnet, for example, or the umbreon poem being a series of haiku, or the diglett poem, which didn’t make it into the manuscript, which was a pantoum. The shape of the shells of squirtle and cloyster easily lent themselves to forms that emulated the shape, especially because those poems are inherently invested in the physicality of the shells. The cloyster poem probably went through more formal revision that any other poem I’ve ever written. Early versions looked perhaps a bit too … genital (though honestly that would have made it more closely resemble the actual pokémon). After a while I tried to make it work smoothly as a contrapuntal, though eventually, after many attempts, that idea was scrapped.

JT: How did you arrive at combining Pokédex entries for two or more species of Pokémon gotten through evolution? Did these poems begin as separate texts first, or were they written with this effect in mind? Why?

MJ: This project took its first shape as a manuscript as my MFA thesis, and that early version was much more centrally invested in the idea of evolution and change than the chapbook is—though of course that idea is still present. An idea I was playing with there was how change may or may not mean growth, which was one factor in including poems based on a pokémon and its evolution. Another factor is that elements of the un-evolved pokémon are often still applicable to the evolved versions, and I felt like including information from the Pokédex entries of both forms helped inform those poems.

JT: In your collection, sometimes Pokémon transcend their genre and become signifiers for greater nuanced subjects such as politics and race and protest. These poems seem to be written with attention to the divided rhetoric of our own country right now. Can monsters/Pokémon be as complicated as humans always seem to be? Or do they live in more harmonious circles, like we imagine animals do, free of human interference?

MJ: My hope is that the pokémon in the collection always transcend their genre! I don’t want to generalize pokémon behavior though; I think one thing that’s really cool about the world of pokémon is that the creatures have a much greater range of complexity and intelligence compared to animals: rattata, for example, is, well, a rat, while Dialga can literally bend time. In regards to living harmoniously, that’s the gesture the final poem in the collection reaches toward: that pokémon can and should be able to exist in their own harmonious ecosystems, just as all people should be able to live harmoniously apart from oppressive structures and harm at the hands of other humans.

JT: How do fan made games such as Pokémon Uranium, a much darker meditation on catastrophes in the vain of Godzilla and Chernobyl, fit into your engagement with the medium? What are your favorite features about the RPG and anime, or does one take priority over the other in your experience?

MJ: I know very little about the fan made games, so I don’t have much to say there. When putting together the collection, it did feel a little bit like putting together a team like in the games, and that’s one of my favorite elements of the games: the decision-making and adapting and strategizing. There’s so much I love about the anime—mostly how it’s unabashedly corny—but there’s no substitute for the level of active participation of playing the games.

JT: What’s next for this regional Pokémon master?

MJ: I’m ongoingly making revisions to my first full-length collection and continuing to send that out, though I’m planning to switch gears soon to generating new material and thinking more about the second collection. Also, I’m hoping to do more reading! I’m really behind on lots of poetry collections I really want to read, so hoping to make some progress there!