Jenne' R. Andrews is a poet, essayist, memoirist, and blogger. She and I have gotten to know each other only through our writing, which we discovered through the networking site She Writes. After reading a bit of her backstory, I was hooked, wanting to know more about this poet and her writing life.
A fourth-generation New Mexican now living in Colorado, Andrews has been mentored by poets Robert Bly, Tom Wayman, and Mary Crow; received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in literature; published a chapbook, In Pursuit of the Family (Minnesota Writers Publishing House, 1974), the still-available collection Reunion (Lynx House Press, 1982), and The Dark Animal of Liberty (Leaping Mountain Press, 1987); taught at the University of Colorado; published poems in Colorado Review, Dacotah Territory, New Mexico Humanities Review, Ontario Review, Seneca Review, and other literary magazines and journals; lived on a ranch where she raised Arabian horses; suffered a life-changing injury; founded a bloodline of Golden Retrievers; and, most recently, has "given birth" to a memoir about falling in love in Verona, Italy. Andrews' life is the stuff of poetry and novels. It is a life lived passionately and sometimes stormily and always with deep awareness and ferocious honesty.
* * * * *
Maureen Doallas: Jenne, what led you to writing and, more specifically, to poetry writing as a vocation?
Jenne' R. Andrews: I began writing as soon as I could print. The Oz books and other children's books fired up my imagination and I began to spin stories and to "hear" poems. I loved words and language and had a very vivid, imaginative life. I'm certain that I escaped into my imagination often to [be able] to endure life in a dysfunctional family—to give myself place to go within, where I was safe and involved in secret adventures with a secret identity. I was a little cowgirl and called myself The Rios River-River Rider. This persona had a horse and mediated disputes between the "Indians" and the "settlers". I wrote of her adventures.
I was influenced hugely by [Robert Louis Stevenson's] A Child's Garden of Verses; in the beginning, of course, I wrote rhyming poetry. I had an assignment in junior high to rewrite [Longfellow's] Hiawatha as a modern poem—quite the hefty assignment, and I took to it like a duck to water, catching my teacher's eye. I kept going and had a number of encouragers in high school (our school district was big on the arts). As a senior, I ran the school paper but my passion was writing poetry. I was a romantic and found D.H. Lawrence early, and for years I harbored the idea that I would find some transfiguring grand passion that would take me away into another world. I wrote romantically, with great longing, and I'm sure with many cliches and trite turns of phrase.
I'm also sure that things happening in our family—my mother's mental illness, my father's deterioration from emphysema, my own loneliness—drove me to write, to give voice to my experience. It was a way of making sense of it and creating something of it that made something new out of all of the disaster: a poem, a little work of art.
MD: Your biography indicates you've earned both M.A. and M.F.A. degrees in creative writing at Colorado State University. What was behind your decision to pursue post-graduate study?
JRA: I should explain, a bill holds up having the degree [M.F.A.] in hand. . . But I've done everything, all coursework and exams, oral and written.
Originally, I felt I was destined to be a teaching writer, and I wanted the credential. I loved the life of teaching and writing and [especially] liked to teach at the college level.
MD: What's your most memorable experience as a M.F.A. student?
JRA: Before I even finished a bachelor's degree, I had became a poet "in my own right". I had received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, been published in quarterlies, had a chapbook published, and been appointed Poet-in-Residence at St. Paul Schools [in Minnesota]. I brought these achievements into a fledgling M.F.A. program after completing the M.A. in Creative Writing and working to complete one additional year of thesis hours and various internships to apply the M.A. to the M.F.A.
Given that I had already begun a literary and teaching career, I think one of my most memorable experiences was my oral exams during which I was permitted to expound on my work, on my thesis, a volume of poetry, The Garden of Insomnia. My committee members were there, and it was a real rite of passage. Mary Crow asked me how I justified writing poetry after the Holocaust—a trick question: How do you answer that? I mumbled something about needing to continue to impart hope to humanity. I was asked about the "trajectory" of my work. I said I saw a movement from writing tight, emotionally safe poems that might appeal to male editors for their terseness and brevity, to opening up and "writing down the bones", if you will. I began to write in an expansive and open line in graduate school—to see poetry more and more as a kind of singing. I also was asked if I saw myself as a regional poet, and whether I saw myself as narrative or lyrical, or both. Yes, I felt that I was a regional poet in the sense that my work has been grounded in the West for many years, and some of my work tells a story but within the lyrical and poetic line.
I greatly enjoyed answering those questions, although I found it daunting to be in the room with those whose minds and work I venerated, particularly my outside-the-department committee member Dr. Patsy Boyer. Patsy taught Spanish and she and Mary did a number of translation projects. She died in Madrid several years later, of traveler's thrombosis, and I've missed her ever since. She was from New Mexico, and we had a real rapport.
The exam itself was a way of formulating my own ideas about my work.
Other memorable experiences had to do with the nature of the community of serious writers: we hung out together and read each other; I had the sense that I wasn't writing in isolation. We were in this collective embrace. Sometimes the criticism in workshop was brutal but it gave me a tougher skin and skill in getting along even with people I wasn't crazy about. For a time, I was very close to my mentors. It all helped me gain a sense of craft and become a better writer.
MD: Your principal mentor was poet Robert Bly. Tell us something about him we wouldn't know from reading his poetry or biography.
JRA: Funny you should ask. I posted months ago at Red Room [a networking site for writers] an essay that I think conveys some idea of how Bly was, and probably still is: larger than life, opinionated, a testosterone-loaded human being.
MD: Patricia Hampl, author most recently of The Florist's Daughter, also was a mentor. What did she show you about your writing that most influenced it?
JRA: Patricia worked most closely on a manuscript I began after finishing In Pursuit of the Family. She gave it a very close read and showed me where I was too wordy and abstract and syntactically confounding. I remember her as direct yet nurturing. She and James Moore, who ran The Lamp in the Spine, which they brought with them from Iowa City, published the title poem from In Pursuit of the Family, as well as the poem "After Reading Mother Goose to a Friend's Children", which subsequently was published in Reunion.
I have, overall, been influenced by how she gives herself permission to write richly, at the whole grand organ of language; she is not afraid to sing.
What follows is from Andrews' Mother Goose poem:
Mother Goose did not teach us what to expect;
her songs did not make us powerful
against rituals that could say who we were.
But these books bled our raging
against the conspiracy of the West, sent us dreaming
to the dark side of the world
so that cardinals flew through our sleep
and the household morning sound of tortillas being made
became the endless rhythm
of a dream horse trotting around a flagstone dais.
Here the later days
of my mother's absence are reopened;
how she was kept in a place called Nazareth
in southern New Mexico,
given volts every day by nuns in white linen,
made to love the male doctors
who came punishing and rewarding,
caressing her name with their voices. . . .
MD: What's the most satisfying thing about being a poet?
JRA: Singing. Losing oneself in language, surrendering to song, imagery, the line, the heart, the line informed by the heart and tempered by the mind. . . spilling your guts and making it pretty, but not too pretty.
MD: What wold you most like your readers to know about you?
JRA: That when I write, I am committed to what [Virginia] Woolf calls the unburdening of one's meaning—that I give myself completely to a given piece of writing and never write with diffidence or as an exercise.
Andrews' mentor Robert Bly wrote of Andrews' poetry, "... the achievement of the poems lies in their ability to see pain as a fact... Pain is a breaking of the flow... [Andrews has] the ability to embody pain and grief without liking it or finding it dramatic, or wanting credit for feeling it...." Here's one example:
The 't' of the pole is someone
with folded arms, turning away,
rotated slowly into dark.
The 't' of the pole
is the family,
standing on end in its coffins,
tilting into nightfall,
casting shadows like ridges,
set into rock.
These lives pass beyond reach
while the fetal human sleeps
on its delicate stem.
Out of sleep
the infant pursues the family.
First the grandmother
recedes, across the stretch
of midwestern darkness;
a farm tool corroded by wind,
bent over like a wagon wheel
At dusk she stands
on the road
with her braid of cinnamon hair.
The wedding gown
is like a sail, a winding sheet,
a cloud moving
with the long poles
over the prairie.
~ "In Pursuit of the Family" in In Pursuit of the Family
© Jenne' R. Andrews. All Rights Reserved.
Join us on Thursday, July 8, for Part 2 of my interview with Jenne' Andrews, in which she and I talk about her poetry.