Thursday, July 8, 2010

Interview with Poet Jenne' R. Andrews (Part 2)

Reading her poems, listening to her read, I began to 
 understand something about the importance of 
 silence in and around poems. Her poems carry
  great patience, allowing whatever the poem is bringing
 to have the time it needs to arrive. I continue to be struck
—even after many readings, after more than 30 years—
by the delicate touch of the imagery in her poems, 
how two or three or four lines will linger 
and glimmer after reading them. . . .
~ Poet Lyle Daggett 

I published Part 1 of my in-depth interview with writer Jenne' R. Andrews on Monday, July 5. Today, in Part 2, I talk with Andrews specifically about her poetry and the act and art of writing.

* * * * *

Maureen Doallas: Jenne, how would you characterize your poetry?

Jenne' R. Andrews: Well. . . lyrical, emotional, unrestrained, powerful, sad, and celebratory.

This poem, I think, contains all of the qualities of which Andrews speaks:

On the blackest day
of June
Betsy let me in,
sat me down,
and made a pie.

Clouds were swollen over
 the Never Summer Range
and before rain
Betsy went outside and bent down,
her strawberry hair swinging
over the wide green hands
of rhubarb leaves.
She looked for gleams
of deep scarlet.
She broke the long stalks off
in a crack of kindling.
She stayed past the first
slow drops, then came into
the house
to slice it, hands gold
over its luster.
Then she threw it in a pan with honey
and boiled it up
into a soursweet mist
of flying flamingo hair.

At the table she pressed glistening
dough into the plate,
and heaped the furry pink syrup in,
flavoring all the afternoon.

Through the rain and thunder
she sat, waiting for the gift
to bake
that would bring me back,
part way, for an hour
which was all we could expect
Now I remember how
when it was done, rain sang
on the windows,
salt rose to my tongue
and cream turned over
the brown pitcher's edge.
~ "A Sweet Fear of June" in In Pursuit of the Family
© Jenne' R. Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

MD: Jenne', do you write with a particular audience or reader in mind?

JRA: I generally have a sense of an omnipresent listener, a presence. It seems that lately when I write, I have a more powerful sense that several of us are communing with each other when we write poems; we are making love to each other's sensibilities—an effusive statement but I don't know how else to put it.

I feel that poets writing cryptically, probably the so-called Language Poets, are anti-communion. They shut out the world by being so hermetic and unto themselves, dissing a reading public that needs healing words and to lay hold of the power of language.

MD: Do you employ any particular writing principles or techniques or formal methods in writing poetry?

JRA: I seem to be big on "show, don't tell", although I love the beauty of some abstract words and the power of their connotations; I try to ground abstraction in concretion. An example: I did a derivation of a Linda Gregg poem. She had written a line — "splinters in the mind's confusion" — and I immediately thought of "bone-shards in the heart's profusion". I think that says to me that I favor writing from the heart, and not the mind. You might say, perhaps, that Gregg and Jorie Graham and several other poets whose work glitters with unexpected juxtapositions and clever enjambments are hard to read, because it takes acts of mind and will rather than being able to take the poems into the heart.

MD: What theme or subjects do you most like to write about?

JRA: At this point, the richness of life and beauties of the moment, the gifts of the moment. In memoir, I seem focused on the past and antiquity, but the poems seem to well out of the present.

MD: How much in your poems could be called "fact" or "personal" information?

JRA: A great deal. [My poem] "We Hear the Whisper of the Perfect" in Reunion is about our family madness; when I wrote that poem, it came as a kind of incantation of witness. A sense of witness or giving testimony seems to inform the language.

At the daylight's edge
there is a river of sound in us,
some voice
scribbling itself on bone,
in cuneiform singing.

You are scimitar, scimitar,
my mother,
the cryptic, the ghostly.

And in the night restlessness of women
where the unicorn gallops in the inner tree
it is the thin, spiny radiance you are,
one foot on tin, one on earth, one hand in the water
of your womb,
now sleeping toward death
in the plant-thick property
of illness.

When I walk out of the old hotel in evening
there is a music in me like Gaelic,
an excited cluster of birds
among the tendons, the roots supporting my head.
There are faces that rise
in the trudge back after dark,
following the show's tracery.

But a blocked ardor accumulates
at the base of the mind, like honey;
a rain-torn garden
in the memory.

We have booked passage as plum-sullen women
of waiting;
Japanese madonnas in an ivory-cut plate
leaning into their embossed lives.

I took disclosure of personal information to new lows in publishing "Exultations in Late Summer", also in Reunion [and] in The Seneca Review, but they [the editors] wrote back and said that I write "like an angel".

MD: You live in Colorado now but have lived elsewhere, including Minnesota. Does "place" occupy a particular or special place in your work?

JRA: Absolutely. Geographies are so rich with history and their particular physical flavor—lakes, seas, mountains, forests, horizons, red bluffs. A red bluff is so stark and beautiful. A cluster of maple trees in Vermont laden with snow evokes a kind of tenderness and cold but exhilarating privacy.

Minnesota gave me so very much. It is a vast and diverse place, having spawned [Patricia] Hampl, [Garrison] Keillor—quite a range there—Tom McGrath, although he was mostly up in the north and in the Dakotas—same region. Given places have a pulse, their own heartbeat and circulatory system that keeps offering up imagery, referents.

I also seem focused on the familiarity of place; certain places here [in Fort Collins, Colorado], such as the feed mill, the 19th Century facades of Old Town, the river that runs through town, are comforting; they remain unchanged and anchor the spirit in certain ways.

MD: How much rewriting or revising do you do? Do you abandon your poems for a while and then return to them?

JRA: I think of revision as doing what it takes to make a poem better and then very good. So I tend to write several versions and move stanzas around. I think it's absolutely essential to put a draft away. We fall in love with a line that seems clever or interesting at the time and hours or days later we see that it doesn't work at all.

I used to write things and pop them in an envelope and hit or miss. Some poems worked in the long run and some didn't but I regretted that—as I look back at Reunion, I wish I'd put the whole manuscript away for about 10 years!

MD: Do you "workshop" your writing and, if you do, how do you make use, if at all, of others' opinions of your work? 

JRA: We workshop on She Writes a little. I miss regular feedback. I read things out loud to my companion, who is also a writer, and then give him hard copy. I would return the favor if he were motivated. There is a reciprocity in helping each other, a good kind. I believe another's eye and ear can do wonders but also, at times, a given reader may want the poem to sound too much like his or her own poems. I had quite a bit of "love-struggle" with Robert Bly [one of Andrews' mentors]. If I hadn't held my ground, In Pursuit of the Family would have turned into Silence in the Snowy Fields [Bly's first poetry collection, published in 1962].

MD: How would you describe the "voice" of your poems?

JRA: The universal first person seems to be the best way to characterize the function of the "I" in contemporary poetry, and it seems apt in my work.

MD: What do your poems or other writings reveal to you about yourself?

JRA: So very much: an epiphany a day. Example: The memoir I wrote recently [during which I] uncovered that in all of these years I haven't been able to believe that I have been loved. I discovered it as I brought this rich and amazing experience back to life, and when my lover asks me why I'm leaving, the real answers come. But it took 37 years to get honest or to see, perhaps.

MD: What do you hope that people will take away when they read a poem of yours? 

JRA: A sense that their lives have been enriched and that their inner lives have been given voice. I don't know who wrote that "a poem should stop time with its beauty" but I hope that my work, at its best, does that.

MD: Do you believe in inspiration and, if yes, what are your sources of inspiration?

JRA: Yes. Things I see and hear trigger a line or an image, a way into a poem or an essay. I've written a lot on my blog about the foals being born on a road I travel every day; they are emblematic of new life and life's continuance to me. Each one is an epiphany and ever astounds me as the perfect little genetic package it is. I often don't like what I see or hear: a drunk, at dawn in the snow, collecting cans. The pelicans slathered in oil. But a poet is driven, compelled to articulate what he or she sees.

The West is so vast and rich and mythic, it inspires me. Recently, I've been reawakening to Italy, especially southern Italy, where centuries of civilization and strife have brought so much character to an already staggeringly beautiful place. In my novella, my two characters take a room in Scylla, a fishing village. I find myself writing a great deal about the sea, the tide.

MD: What surprises you about the poems you wrote years ago and the poems you write now? How has your work changed?

JRA: I  think of my serious work as beginning in '70 or so, and then I had seven years in Minnesota. I was extremely lonely and had difficulty feeling safe. I am distressed by the pain in my poems—the loneliness and the longing. They tell me how much trouble I was in. But I didn't think I was very good, despite the early affirmation and kudos. I looked at my work the way I looked at myself: quite negatively. I am seeing them differently, more charitably. I hesitate to admit—but I will—that I  think that I am very good and, one hopes, getting better.

My work has changed a great deal. I believe, as much as anything, it is richer and more powerful by virtue of having survived all this time. Some of my themes are the same, often impossibility, often the tenuous nature of life, the cost of intimacy, the cost of solitude—but I think time has made me a better writer. [See, for example, "An Amphibian Speaks of Morning. . ."] I believe that I have enough mastery of craft and language to have written of the experience of finding myself changed and needing to adapt and transcend despair.

MD: How would you describe your typical day for writing?

JRA: Four hours gangbusters in the morning, on the blog, a manuscript, an essay, a poem—then I rest. Sometimes I write for a little while in the evening.

MD: Do you need particular conditions (a particular time of day, solitude, a room of your own, music playing, etc.) to write?

JRA: I've written my memoir while listening to opera, to help me feel elsewhere and connect me to the richness of falling in love in the moment; in a sense, to replicate the feeling of being in a cafe surrounded by people coming and going and things happening. I've begun to feel nourished by opera in particular; the great operas abjure their principals to soak up life, to live fully in the now and to live in the eternal present that is art. I seem to need to hear that message and to write about it.

I used to write in coffee shops, on buses, in bars, everywhere. I would be happiest living as an expat writing in the cafes.

MD: Does your faith in any way inform your poetry and, if yes, how?

JRA: I have to admit that I have gone far afield of what I  thought of as my faith. In recent months, I have called everything into question. I currently feel strongly that there are mysteries to be honored about existence, but that organized and institutionalized religion is humankind's invention: a political tool par excellence, particularly in terms of assigning women the role of helpmate and an extension of a husband. I would say that the position of "not knowing" has rendered me agnostic in a sense. I miss the belief that I had.

Perhaps I have become a cynic, and it will all change again. A metaphor that will become something else perhaps: I cherished and kept with me a brass crucifix I bought at Good Will. I strove to connect to the presence it intimates. It comforted and sustained me to do this. The crucifix fell and broke and I wired it back together many times and rehung it, never to my satisfaction. Meanwhile, I began to comprehend that what I had thought of as spiritual experiences around the Church may have been projections, wishful thinking. This was very distressing to me. Shortly after that epiphany, as it were, I could not rewire the crucifix. It is emblematic for me that I have stopped trying to fix it. It lies in a drawer and it is a challenge for me to leave it there.

I am trying to sustain myself by "living into" the universe, opening to it, feeling one with it, paying attention to the moment. My intellectual position is that we cannot know certain things and that the certainties of faith have left me.

Here is Andrew's poem "Wife" from In Pursuit of the Family:

After the cracked screams
of our argument
we sit waiting.
The day goes on without harder noise
than the soft rush through the walls
of cars passing;
of the dogs turning over in their sleep.
You have asked me about silence;
how to make decisions, muzzle creditors.
I can think only of things to eat
and speak to you of supper.
But silent in your chair
you are dim with shadows
wanting me to die, leave
or hold you.
© Jenne' R. Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Andrews' collection Reunion is available from Lynx House Press via Christopher Howell (e-mail to order a copy).

Next Monday, July 12, I will publish Part 3 of my interview with Andrews, in which we talk about publication of her poetry, her advice to poets just beginning their vocation, what makes a poem "work", the influence of poetry in life, and the writing of  Nightfall in Verona, Andrews' memoir.

Andrews blogs at Loquaciously Yours.


jenne said...

Maureen-- a fabulous job. Thank you!~xxxJenne'

P-A-McGoldrick said...

Part 2 just as interesting as Part 1. Love the comments about the places and foals.


Patti said...

Yes, thank you, Maureen, and Jenne as well for being so real. I look forward to receiving a copy of "In Pursuit of the Family" soon and reading more of your work.

Lyle Daggett said...

Just dropping by to leave my footprint and say I've been here reading. Continuing to enjoy this.

M.L. Gallagher said...

Love her comments on 'religion' and the story of the crucifix is transformative.


jenne' andrews said...

much hesitation over including the story of the crucifix. Somehow leaving it "broken" creates a window of opportunity of some kind. thanks for weighing in, everyone! xxxJenne' and many thanks again, beautiful M!