Getting to Know Jennifer Jean and her new book The Fool

Available now from Big Table Publishing Company

Jennifer Jean's most recent poetry collection is The Fool; other collections include: The Archivist, Fishwife, and In the War. Her work has appeared in: Drunken Boat, Caketrain, Denver Quarterly, Tidal Basin Review, Poets/Artists, The Mom Egg, Naugatuck River Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Talking/Writing, and more. She's Co-director of the Morning Garden Artist Retreats, Poetry Editor for The Compassion Project, and she teaches Free2Write poetry workshops at Amirah—a safe house for sex-trafficking survivors. Jennifer teaches writing at Pine Manor College. For more about Jennifer, visit: www.fishwifetales.com or follow her on Twitter: @fishwifetales

Jennifer Jean's most recent poetry collection is The Fool; other collections include: The Archivist, Fishwife, and In the War. Her work has appeared in: Drunken Boat, Caketrain, Denver Quarterly, Tidal Basin Review, Poets/Artists, The Mom Egg, Naugatuck River Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Talking/Writing, and more. She's Co-director of the Morning Garden Artist Retreats, Poetry Editor for The Compassion Project, and she teaches Free2Write poetry workshops at Amirah—a safe house for sex-trafficking survivors. Jennifer teaches writing at Pine Manor College. For more about Jennifer, visit: www.fishwifetales.com or follow her on Twitter: @fishwifetales

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems? 
The first poem I wrote, that meant something to me personally, was one I wrote in second grade, in Catholic School. It was about God and rain. It was just a bunch of brief images strung together but I thought it satisfactorily expressed what I wanted to express. That satisfaction is what hooked me. (Satisfaction and joy are closely related, no?) From there I wrote a lot of collaborative poetry with my grade-school bestie, and then angered friends and fren-emies alike by composing and gifting cheery, passive-aggressive limericks in middle-school. My verse reached an angsty stage in high school (of course) which led to an over-long downward slide in the quality of my compositions. I’m glad to say I emerged unscathed from this episode and (hopefully!) now my poetry comes closer the level of language play, emotional depth, beauty, and dare I say fun, that I enjoy reading in work by my favorite poets.

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I’m an adjunct writing lecturer and a mom of two grade-schoolers so I organize my life around the axis of the holy Semester. And, each season—I mean, Semester—requires a different (crazy) schedule. Therefore, my routine is to constantly constantly constantly “fill the well,” as Julia Cameron says, and to write write write during every nook and pocket of time that I can eek out in my week (this includes writing during long, pre-dawn drives to work; yeah, I’m not picky about the when or where). I end up with plenty of time to create, in my opinion. Though. I do hope for at least one longer, deeper pocket (haha) of time sometime in my week—one which lends itself to an extended period of focus for careful crafting and layering during revision.

Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I’m never short on ideas for poems. Whether I can satisfactorily express these ideas (or emotions or notions) in a poem is another shebang. So, for my particular kind of person, I’ve found that more and better work arrives if I’ve a project to focus on. With a project I write fewer “kitchen-sink” poems (as in: “it has everything in it AND the kitchen sink”). The Fool was not originally a project-collection. It contains poems that were written long, long ago during grad school (though they’re heavily revised). But, like many poets, I noticed that my stack of finished poems, finished over the course of a decade, had a theme. And then I wrote only a handful of poems to fit the theme and fill out the collection. This is a wildly different process than the one I’m encountering in writing my second full-length manuscript—this new ms. is a project indeed:  it’s about human-trafficking and objectification in America. With this current project the topic is my only source for ideas—not happenstance and musing (and I’m not knocking happenstance and musing but I wonder if, right now, those things can efficiently kick my butt enough to write my best and better).

Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Emily Dickinson, Lucille Clifton, Denise Levertov, Yusef Komunyakaa Brenda Hillman, Sylvia Plath, Rainer Maria Rilke, Martha Collins, Afaa Weaver, Li-Young Lee, Wislawa Szymborska. 

Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? Are there over-arching themes? What was the process of assembling it? Was is a project book? etc.
The Fool is a character in the Tarot deck. She is a youth embarking bravely and dumbly on an adventure (which is to say: she’s living the life dealt to her and making of it what she can). The Fool isn’t foolish, just green and ready to grow. A Tarot Deck is composed of archetypal images and symbols open to interpretation—just like poetry; and because of this natural connection (and because I’d been a Tarot reader in California for a Psychic-Friends-like company), I’ve written several Tarot themed poems over the years. After a while I noticed the issues and themes in those poems could also be found in the rest of my finished work. So, I started consciously writing about The Fool. The result is a lot of esoteric language and themes in the book; however, those types of poems are interspersed with very different work depicting my childhood in California which was anything but esoteric—it was just poor and empty and dangerous. Though we are all Fools, really, what I personally share with this character is my hunger for spiritual fulfillment and forward momentum. I think I could have borne the lack of money, family, and material things much better, and would have made better choices, if I’d had a healthy dose of spiritual satisfaction. You’ll see what I mean when you read the book!

Jennifer reading "There Was This Egg," a poem from The Fool:

There Was This Egg.

Thin skinned, heavy set, brown, not enough
for a meal. Like me it lingered
a foot to the left of the muddle—whole
somehow, abiding
when others, strewn about the wreckage, suffered cracked
ribs, spines, noses. My mother—
turvy, and hemmed upside down by the safety belt—
my mother in forced surrender—amped up
her usual banshee babbling. I remember
my annoyance kicking in.
I remember too her long labor
to save, to have us

here—just past Needles, just shy of Yucca
and that grand auburn canyon brimming with lichens,
yarrow and fishhook cacti. We never saw that cacti.
I saw my big brother dumped
atop the dislodged back windshield.
Around his palsied form, dollops of scarlet
condiments had sprung without ceremony
from the maw of our flung cooler.
His vertebrae rattled, his right arm bone showed.
A spilt wine sunrise stained the ample blue above us—
and that lone egg cast a shade.

Had it been third in the back row of the carton?
Was that it?
And, when chucked from slumber
by the flipped truck, did it roll out onto a loaf of bread,
roll along the length of our plush torn tent,
then over amber ground? What grace knew
it would not wobble? And, with the rising desert blaze,
did it soon hard boil? My own form, cast

a long shade too. Was it a permanent stain, rippling
across the rocks? Is that how I am, where I am?

I want to be where
my nerve’s up, be west again,
driving up alongside that bone-whole, stunned girl.
Say, It’s me—I mean us. Hop in. And she’d come,
with the shade of the egg in her hand.
She’d sidle away from the wailing vista
of her brother pale and prone—
and we’d talk about eighth grade, about how hard it was
to stop playing “let’s pretend.”

We’d zoom forward, and find ourselves
at that canyon of crimson monkey flowers,
at that rocky wide of skyrocket and toadflax.
We’d swipe at our sweat at the precipice—and together
fling that egg in air, watch it hatch
and fly. A phoenix? A dove?
The canyon’s own peregrine falcon? It doesn’t matter—
each time I think of the egg I insert a new bird.
 

Originally published in Zymbol Magazine.