Getting to Know Jayne Benjulian and her new book Five Sextillion Atoms

Available now by Saddle Road Press

Jayne Benjulian is the author of Five Sextillion Atoms. She has always been a writer. She grew up in suburban backyards near New York City and spent summers swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Drawn to coastlines, she also lived on the West Coast—on an island, in a cabin in the hills, and a house under the redwoods. She began writing as a young girl, leaving letters under the mattress to read years later and see who she had been. Her work appears in numerous literary and performance journals, including Agni, Barrow Street, The Cortland Review, Poet Lore, Nimrod, HowlRound, Women’s Review of Books and Poetry Daily. Jayne’s careers have been as varied and many as places she has lived: she served as chief speechwriter at Apple, investigator for the public defender in King County, Washington, and director of new play development at Magic Theater. She was an Ossabaw Island Project Fellow; a teaching fellow at Emory University; a lecturer in the Graduate Program in Theater at San Francisco State University; and a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Lyon, France. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Jayne lives in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, where she teaches the writing and performance of poetry and monologue. For the January 21st, 2017 Gathering at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, she curated Rock the Constitution.

Jayne Benjulian is the author of Five Sextillion Atoms. She has always been a writer. She grew up in suburban backyards near New York City and spent summers swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Drawn to coastlines, she also lived on the West Coast—on an island, in a cabin in the hills, and a house under the redwoods. She began writing as a young girl, leaving letters under the mattress to read years later and see who she had been. Her work appears in numerous literary and performance journals, including AgniBarrow StreetThe Cortland ReviewPoet LoreNimrodHowlRoundWomen’s Review of Books and Poetry Daily.

Jayne’s careers have been as varied and many as places she has lived: she served as chief speechwriter at Apple, investigator for the public defender in King County, Washington, and director of new play development at Magic Theater. She was an Ossabaw Island Project Fellow; a teaching fellow at Emory University; a lecturer in the Graduate Program in Theater at San Francisco State University; and a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Lyon, France. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers.

Jayne lives in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, where she teaches the writing and performance of poetry and monologue. For the January 21st, 2017 Gathering at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, she curated Rock the Constitution.

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?

Poetry emerged in my life as an expression of the inexpressible. Among the inexpressible was grief after my mother’s death when I was very young. I was an observant child, and the details I remembered were springboards for poems. Many of those details were aural. I imitated the way people spoke: my grandparents, who were from a tiny village near Kiev, my French teacher. I grew up in New York and spent time in the south, where I listened for the differences in dialect from region to region. Dialect remains to this day a hobby. Sit next to me on an airplane, and I’ll tell you were you grew up. Someone fascinated and compelled by the inexpressible and captured by the sound of language—how could I not become a poet?

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know what poetry was. I wrote from a young age, and the first genre in which I remember writing was the letter. I wrote letters to myself and hid them under the mattress to read later and see who I had been. Later, probably in middle school, I wrote what we might recognize as poems. 

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?

Early morning is my favorite time to receive the world. When I sit outside early mornings with no expectations of what I will see, I always learn something, and some of that something filters into my work. I am not, by inclination, a nature writer; however, since moving to the Berkshires, the natural world has offered me new paths into observing and thinking—or not thinking: crows, mice, snow, the places deer sleep in the orchard. But when my dog needs walking and playing, and errands need to be run, I move into another mode for the morning and write in the afternoon.

Where do your poems most often come from?

A visual memory—of the previous moment or the previous decade or the decade before that. Often an aural memory: the hoot an owl makes, a wave against the sand, a phrase overheard and remembered. I see or hear these moments, and they won’t let go.

 

What writers have influenced you the most? 

Impossible to say! Many playwrights, from whom I learned silence and subtext: Shakespeare, Pinter, Beckett, Caryl Churchill, Martin McDonagh. I’m intensely interested in the behavior of human beings: what they say and don’t say; how gesture reveals character. I learned this from theater.

The poet Heather McHugh influenced my focus on opening, closing, the order of detail and the shape the poem makes. The shape of the poem is its destiny, she said. Of course, the poems I’m reading settle into my bones—right now poems by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Louise Glück, Tomas Tranströmer, Yehuda Amichai.

What else can you tell us about your new collection?

Dan Tobin wrote a stunning précis about the title, which is the last line of “The Drop.” I couldn’t have answered your question better than he has: “In a single drop of water, there are five sextillion atoms, yet Earth in relation to the rest of the universe is infinitely smaller still by comparison. Jayne Benjulian takes this astonishing fact for the title of her first collection of poetry and aptly so, for these poems hold vast reaches of perception, loss, personal and family history, all with admirable compression….”

One way to read the collection is as a kind of “making of the poet.” The poems concern memory, especially the moments that make a child the adult she becomes. The book is not chronological or linear; it has a multi-level, layered perspective. As in many of Larry Levis’ poems, a multiple consciousness is at work. Reading Levis helped me see that what I was writing was not childhood from a child’s point of view but a world layered with voices: child, young woman, mother, poet and the characters those voices encounter.

It is most definitely not a “project book,” which to me, means a book written by a poet who, early on in the process, has a concept that all of the poems in that collection will circle around or address. I wrote and revised the poems between 2010 and 2015, and they reflect my obsessions during that time. Assembling the collection was a hugely challenging and rewarding effort. For months, I felt as if I were assembling a three-dimensional puzzle. I learned a great deal about my own work, what I accomplished, and what kind of leap I wanted to make next.

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Read 'Kaddish' from Five Sextillion Atoms here: 

KADDISH

In the attic deep enough for twenty
childhoods, an autograph book,
Oak School No. 3, resplendent in gold,
zipper teeth around the pastel sheets,

her signature in shaky cursive.
Bundled in blankets, smaller than
a ten-year-old, fingers cold,
she must have found it awkward
to hold a pen.

A hurricane blew tiles off the roof,
the room froze, a mouth open drinking rain.
You will always be, she inscribed—
the rest washed away.