Interview with Graduate Fellowship and Lisel Mueller Scholarship recipient Jennifer Givhan

Posted on Sep 12, 2016

Jenn purple crabapple (resized)

Jennifer Givhan (poetry 2015) is the recipient of a Graduate Fellowship and Lisel Mueller Scholarship. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, TriQuarterly, The Kenyon Review, Rattle (where she was a 2015 Poetry Prize finalist), Prairie Schooner, and Columbia Poetry Journal, among many others. Jennifer is a recipient of NEA and PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellowships. Her poetry collection Landscape with Headless Mama, was published in September by LSU Press, and her second collection, Protection Spell, will be published by University of Arkansas Press in February of 2017. Jennifer lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her family.


Your poetry collection, Landscape with Headless Mama, won the 2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize and is out from LSU Press. Congratulations! The collection’s central speaker is a woman reliving her childhood with her mentally ill mother, and the book is, as you put it, “a surreal survival guide.” In what ways? And what is it about surrealism and magical realism that creates a compelling coping mechanism?  


For a long while I didn’t even realize my poems were surreal. My favorite painters have long been Mexican surrealists (Frida, Remedios, and Leonora) and I knew their work inspired me as I daily live, breathe, write…But I didn’t know my metaphors and leaps and associations were all that strange…until I was told so. I sense that this is the survival part, somehow. And the power of surrealism. Our minds make wonderfully strange leaps when they’re protecting us. The survival part of the book is both saying the unsayable and renaming/reclaiming what’s been said (and done). Sometimes it takes seeing the (fractured) world and our place in it one or two steps to the side of reality, just that far askance, to be able to bare (and bear) reality.


How did growing up in a border community in the Southern California desert influence your work? Are there traits you’ll find in a border community you won’t find anyplace else? (Also, can you define borderland for us?)


It was hot and humid, smelled of manure and sugar beets, we choked on white flies. There was mariachi every weekend and we’d go into Calexico for the swap meet or Mexicali for clubbing because the drinking age is lower. We’d go to the rodeo, the one time a year our town was famous and cowboys from across the Southwest would come to compete. Our farming community was split—the rich white farmers who’d founded it when the Salton Sea was accidentally created from a break in dam of the Colorado River—and the Mexicans who worked the farms. We were in-between, in-flux, in a liminal space—without the resources of metropolitan America.

Borderland for me is a way of defining these liminal spaces, the unofficial, the pocho (white-washed Mexican) and Spanglish way of life that so many mixed-culture Latin@ Americans feel. The strange in-between-ness—how some phrases and ideas only come in Spanish in my mind though I don’t personally speak Spanish fluently (because my grandparents wanted their children to “fit it,” to survive—they didn’t grow up on the border but a more conventionally “American” 1950s suburb, and it was only later my family moved down to the border). So I grew up in a borderland of identity and it has defined much of how I view myself and the world around me—how I tend to notice and speak up for those caught in the cracks, the unnoticed and unsung, who are my kindred, my familia.

I now live in New Mexico, which parallels where I grew up in the Southern California desert, the mix of cultures here: the Nuevo Mexicans whose ancestors lived here when this was Mexico, and whose ancestors I come from (my great grandmother’s family is from Las Cruces); the Puebloan peoples and tribal nations whose ancestors have been here for thousands of years; and mainstream America.

All of this affects my work. Just as I didn’t know I was writing surreally, I don’t consciously need to evoke the borderland in my work—the borderland speaks through me.


In your poem, “Curanderisma,” there is a border of white space the reader has to cross to get from one stanza to the next....until the poem merges, breaks apart, and splinters again. The effect is spellbinding. In your work, you examine a range of borderlands, between motherhood and non-motherhood, the real and the surreal, and fullness and absence, for example. (And in your teaching, the borderland between fiction and poetry!) After you’ve found an interesting divide, what’s your process for bringing it to the page?


The divides for me are places of connection. The contrapuntal poem (such as “Curanderisma”—where the lines can be read both horizontally across the page and vertically down the page) allows for simultaneity, for two or more realities to exist at once (similar to surrealism/magical realism). It’s about how you’re looking, how you’re reading the spaces between. So when I find a divide, more than anything, I search for blurring—for the places the edges and boundaries are not clearly delineated. When I was not a mother, I still related with mothers. Then I adopted my baby boy and still related with birthmothers though I’d never given birth. Finally, in the infinite mystery of this Universe, I was able to carry my daughter to term, and still I relate to non-mothers. So perhaps the borderlands for me, more than anything, are about empathy.


You also write fiction! Does your prose writing happen in a phase separate from your poetry writing? Or would you work on both the lyric and the narrative in one sitting? How might they help each other?


I write whatever the Muse brings me, in whatever form it comes. Poetry is definitely the more natural operative mode for me, but some stories have come to me in prose (though my idea of prose is probably more lyrical and more closely related to poetry than most fiction writers since I tend to think in terms of snapshots, gaps, and fragments rather than the panoramic view).


I don’t often write poetry and fiction in one sitting because I find myself in a different frame of mind for each. Both require tremendous amount of feeling, of letting the unconscious take control, getting out of my own way and allowing the story or moment or memory to come through. I love Frost’s idea of the writing as ice on a hot stove riding its own melting. Both poetry and fiction come from that place of surprise, of writing to find out what I think and feel and remember—what my psyche knows and will reveal to me through my speaker(s) and characters.


But I find that I tend to think primarily in snapshots and associative logic with poetry, and that fragmentation is the dominant mode for me there, finding connections between gaps—whereas with the fiction, I need to inhabit character and think more sequentially, though I find this difficult. With fiction, the writing needs to be more fluid to make any sense (otherwise, I end up writing a passage that is truly more closely tied to prose poem than fiction). Still, either way, I need to put myself into the place, the scene—that remains important no matter what I’m writing, and sometimes I’ll return to the fiction or poetry I’ve already written as starting point, to remind myself where I’m located spatially and temporally so that I can launch into the depth of feeling and the kind of thinking (associative or sequentially) I need for the specific project I’m working on (poetry or a scene in a novel).


I’ve borrowed from myself across genres in order to begin a new day’s work—as a kind of prompt—and I recommend trying this. If you’re stuck in a scene of fiction, try writing it as poetry just for fun and see what happens, and vice versa. You can take what you’ve started and adapt it to your project, but even if it goes “nowhere” you’ll save on the page, the work you’ve done across genres will likely open new pathways for your writing.
In Landscape with Headless Mama, “dark fairy tales” are an influence. What was it like using fairy tales as a lens for poetry? Do they play well together?


I often turn to folktale and myth as a form of inspiration. I’m not certain what the technical distinctions are between folktale, fairytale, and myth—but there’s a sense for me that whatever you call this, I’m tapping into the collective unconscious, into the mystical power of story we’ve all inherited, in one sense or another. I tend to look to Latin@ folktale, such as La Llorona, and there’s a sense also of religious story as an important factor. I grew up devoutly religious, and I tend now to see what I learned as “reality” has connections to the supernatural of fairytale and myth. I’m not denying or discounting my family’s religion, and faith has served me throughout my life. But this means there’s a part of me that believes, deeply, and craves, even stronger, truth from the stories we inherit, from our culture, our mothers, the books we read, the songs we memorize, our chants and prayers. All of this to say I see poetry as a form of prayer. The folklore and ritual and stories passed orally combine for many border cultures (such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, who blurs and blends the traditional biblical Mary with indigenous folk belief). As prayer connects us, as story connects us, I believe so too does poetry.


Your second book, Protection Spell, was chosen by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins to be included in the Miller Williams Series by University of Arkansas Press—to be published in February of 2017! Double congratulations! The collection explores, in your words, “racial inequalities in our current landscape,” and a cornerstone of the book is your poem “The Glance.” A finalist for Rattle’s 2015 Poetry Prize, this poem explores a racially motivated trauma that shook your biracial household. Repetition is deeply effective as it speaks to the shock and disbelief. Were there approaches to language and craft that you found particularly effective for this collection?


The collection comes from empathy and witness, from standing up and proclaiming boldly and without fear what I see and feel. Repetition and rhythm are built into the energy of the book because it comes from a place of righteous, incredulous anger. Of being tired enough to say enough. Repetition is a major structural element in the book because the poems take on the oral tradition of speaking out grievances, of praying and chanting, of two or more gathered, of calling out—I read my poems aloud, often when I write, and sway back and forth rhythmically as I type the poems on the keyboard, the same as when I read the poems aloud (to audiences). These poems move through my body and come from the body and are about the body—those bodies of color, gendered bodies, sexualized and degraded bodies that need protection, that have always needed protection. This is a book of righting wrongs for myself, my family, my people. The poems bear witness again and again—because it’s been necessary to tell our stories again and again.


Do you have any guidance for writers who are trying to explore the political in their own works?


The personal is political. OK—I stole this from Adrienne Rich, but I’ve held tenet deep in my heart since I learned the words from Rich in grad school (when I was reading Of Woman Born) and this is what I’ve known deep down even before I had the words to describe what it meant—when I felt the political of my body as it was used against me, and when I saw the stories of those I loved repeated and played out on larger social and political scales. So connect with the deep heart of the issues. Not the ideology or the commentary, but the people. The land. The living, breathing aspect of whatever you’re exploring. If I were to set out to write a poem about single motherhood and poverty, it might become a treatise, a rhetorical essay, a journalistic piece, not necessarily a poem or story. But when I focus on the mama in line next to me at the WIC counter, there’s the heart. She’s the heart. So my advice: find the heart. And whenever women and people of color, the LGBTQ community and the disenfranchised in our society, whenever we speak out and write our hearts—we are tapping into the political. Our writing is an act of resistance and survival. Once I learned that and stopped worrying about whether I could or should say I in my poems, once I gave myself permission to explore the lives of those I love and those whose stories are important to me through my own unique I/eye—the deeper social themes I had hoped to explore came into focus, the political released powerfully in my work, for which I am so thankful. Now I don’t worry about being confessional or any of that nonsense of labeling. I speak my truths and embrace the dissonance, those borderlands again that blur and shift. Find the shadowy borders in your life and become fearless in pointing out the disparities, the struggles, and the deeply personal connections you have to them.


Chantal Aida Gordon received her MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College in 2016. She lives in Los Angeles, California.