Jennifer Whitaker Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Jennifer Whitaker Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Hi, Jennifer! Let’s start with the congratulations! Your first book, The Blue Hour, is the winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry and will be published with the University of Wisconsin Press in 2016. Who selected it? How long have you been working on the manuscript and how many contests did you enter before it got taken?
Thanks so much! I can’t believe what fantastic company I’m in. I’ve been working on this manuscript in one version or another for about 7 years, and I’ve been submitting it to contests since about 2010, entering about 50 contests (many of the same contests) over the last five years. Denise Duhamel chose the manuscript, which made winning this year’s prize all the more exciting for me, since she’s long been one of my favorite poets. I’m thrilled to be working with Ron Wallace (another dream of mine!) and the folks at University of Wisconsin Press. Overwhelmed is an understatement.
In the poems represented here, and in your poems I’ve read elsewhere, I’m struck by what I guess I might call a particularly tactile quality to the language and imagery that I very much admire. It reminds me a lot of Li-Young Lee’s poetry. Is this a quality you intentionally work toward, or is it just part and parcel of your writing voice?
That’s so generous—thank you! I’d say it’s not necessarily something I work toward intentionally, but an outgrowth of the way I see the world. Some poets—some people—are wonderfully abstract thinkers, a quality that I absolutely admire, but one that I don’t possess, I’m afraid. This is not to say of course that it’s an either/or scenario—but I can best make sense of the world through the local, and that is often, for me, bound to sensory description. This is what resonates with me most in other poets’ work, too, so I find myself returning to poets such as Christine Garren, Brian Teare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Beth Bachmann, and Steve Gehrke (to name a few) to study how they use tactile, immediate imagery in service of larger ideas in their poems. There’s an acuteness and charge to their language that I hugely admire. It’s what brings poems alive for me as a reader, and how I make sense of things in my own poems.
There’s also a sense in your poems of the speaker always being on the cusp of remorse, which provides the tension holding the pieces together.
I’ve never thought about it in exactly that way, but remorse is such a complicated emotion, and I am drawn to trying to manage complication in my work. Who was it who said we all really write one poem over and over again? I don’t know that I necessarily think that’s true, but many of the poems in The Blue Hour wrestle with the feelings of guilt, shame, and regret that surface as the result of abuse, complicated when that abuse happens within a family. I feel like remorse is an emotion that tends toward the silent, and silence—self-imposed or otherwise—is something I return to often in my work—both to see what it teaches us and what it reveals.
I took a peek at your UNCG bio page and was struck by the information that you research interests include online writing center theory and Welsh Arthurian texts. Since you are Director of the University Writing Center at UNCG, the former makes sense, but it seems a big leap to the latter! From where did your interest in such texts arise? How do these two research interests influence, if they do, your poetry writing?
My interest in Welsh Arthurian texts came about from a combination of loving Arthurian literature as a whole, and a somewhat unsettling obsession I have with all things Welsh. So you can imagine how my brain broke when I learned in college that there were (a few) Welsh Arthurian texts! My interests are mainly with the Welsh Triads—a collection of triadic sayings that probably worked as mnemonic devices or outlines for storytellers. They’re beautiful and strange, in the ways that much of Arthurian literature (and more generally, fairytale) is; the triads have titles like “Three Golden Corpses of the Island of Britain” or “Three Prominent Cows of the Island of Britain.” Such rich stuff! But all that is left in most cases is the title and list of names of the people (or cows) in question, and so the Triads in some ways now function as catalogue of what’s lost. They appeal to me in much the same way that Sappho’s fragments do—I am drawn to what’s left out or unsaid or suggested in or by silence. I’ve never thought about it in this way before your question, but I guess I see in all of these interests—writing center work and Welsh Arthurian texts—the drive to make a connection across what seems to be the unconnectable, which is something that I return to in poetry as well.
Aside from being a mom and wife, directing a writing center, and writing poems, you also manage to find time to serve as a contributing editor at Cave Wall and an assistant poetry editor at storySouth. Yikes! Can you tell us a bit about these pursuits? Does the editing somehow intersect with your own poetry writing? What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your experiences in editing?
I’m so fortunate to get to read for two carefully editing and gorgeous magazines, very different from one another in their aesthetic (although each is eclectic in its own way). In addition to collaborating with the other editors, it gives me a chance to become a great fan of poets whose work I maybe didn’t know before but who we’ve published, which is exciting—to be able to routinely find poets whose work I admire. I guess it’s not something I’ve learned from editing per se, but editing always reminds me to trust the reader. Particularly when sending individual poems out to journals, I think it can be tempting to overwrite, to make sure a reader unfamiliar with the work “gets” it. But I believe ultimately that the emotional resonance will come across if the poem is carefully managed, so trusting the reader is something I’m constantly reminding myself to do.
So, what’s next? Are you working on a second collection? Other plans?
Honestly, I’ve been obsessing over the poems in The Blue Hour for so long that I can barely imagine being “done” with it! Although I have enormous affection for many of the poems in this collection, there’s something freeing about being able to put them down, once and for all. (Is this even possible?) I’ll be pleased to get these poems out there and then continue the work of a second collection—which, so far, is much less interior than the first collection and, therefore, energizing in its own way.
The Gown,On the Occasion of the Daughter's Tenth Birthday
Start with the anxious declension of the evening,
with his pleasure at seeing my fingertips
touch the fabric, start with the gown’s soft folds
as it unfurled like a surrender in his hands.
Start with black silk and lace,
start with the camisole straps thin as picture wire.
Or I could start abstractly—
the improbability of remorse in a room like that,
the air filter’s constant hum,
a locked door promising him
the susurration of sheets,
streetlamp sliced to blades, fanning
unnatural light across the floor.
Or start with how
he brushed my hair over my shoulder,
straight-pinning the straps to fit,
how later one of the pins slipped just under the skin
and when I closed my eyes I could see it there,
a tiny light burrowed in my back,
how like the spindle in the book it seemed
as I fell into a fabled sleep,the whorling out of hours—
How did it start? It’s too late for beginnings,
unfolding time: the gown was a bouquet of grown-up women,
the smell of my mother sleeping in another room.
It crumpled and stained and later smelled strong of sweat,
was never washed—just boxed back up
to be put back on, bodice hanging concave at my chest.
Wait, begin again: with the woman at the store
creasing pale pink tissue just so,
his imagined wife floating before her
like perfume on the air,
with her question, a special occasion?
and with his answer: yes.
It arrives complete with castle, horse and rider, papercut-thin,
crackling upright at a touch. It arrives but does not tell
how the cupcakes will be perfect and how I’ll cover mine with sprinkles,
slur the icing on my fingers and lick them clean; how I’ll watch
the birthday girl’s father watch me do this; how there will be an animal
strung from a tree, crepe-paper body flustering at the glancing hits
until her father—one aim—splits the horse’s back,
and the evening collapses; that I’ll be the last one to go in,
sidetracked petting the dog, when he comes out;
that he’ll stand silhouetted by porch light and ask
Don’t you wanna play a game?; that every other person in the world
is already inside, and so I lift up my dress. I lift my dress
like it’s something that will save me, an upside-down parachute
with bow and buttons up the back; the shadows are pants at his feet,
sloughed like a shed skin as the belt’s snaked out,
so I lift my dress because in the lifting it won’t tear,
lift the dress because that must be the price of all this fun,
the charge exacted; I lift my dress around me like a prayer,
and he recoils—a slap—spitting nasty girl, you nasty girl over and over,
an incantation, a protection against me, pulling me inside
where the good children already hide, and the birthday girl,
stumbling in the dark, grasps for something familiar.
Daffodils smashed under my bare feet
as I ran to catch you
tearing from the house
and as you turned to me
the ornate golds and reds of your necktie, a bird’s wing-glint in evening’s low sun
I saw I’d twinned us with this choice—
the blossoms and the fading light bathing them like flames
the smell of sulfur and the curtains quickening to ash
the match and the hand that strikes it
equally would burn