June 2, 2011KR Conversations

Jennifer Militello

Jennifer Militello is the author of Flinch of Song, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Paris Review, New Republic, North American Review, and Best New Poets 2008. Her second book, Body Thesaurus, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press. Her poetry appears in the Summer 2011 issue of The Kenyon Review, available here.

KR: Is there a story behind your KR piece?

JM: If I were Icarus during the writing of this poem, I would have been building an apparatus of feathers and wax and in the end held it up and realized I could use it to fly. I did not study the birds first. In other words, in the making of the poem I knew I was structuring an almost literal wing as an object plumed and barbed with representations of multiple things: the ability to obtain flight, a security we could be tucked under, a traveling tool, all with a layered series of feathers that made angles and facets like the water of an ocean. Only once that wing began to take shape did I realize that the poem was about Icarus; the new manuscript I’m working on includes another Icarus poem that was written first and that is a bit more direct in its treatment of the water and the maze, so this was a kind of sneaky contraption. The poem said, “Surprise! Here’s what’s being done by you.”

KR: Talk about how the books you are reading influence your writing.

JM: I was driving west on my way to give a reading at Keene State College last week, and all along the way I saw the creeks and rivers just rushing crazy, flowing, overflowing, whitewatering their way down the mountains–a push of water, a tense urgent volume of water seeming like it had someplace to be. It was the spring thaw. The snow had just become this rush of surplus water to the rivers. Good reading in some ways feels like this: as if it is turning the snow of my mind into tricklings and floods. Like there’s a permafrost that makes up the way I think and if I can just get it into liquid, that thinking can flow onto the page. It can move. Maybe it can even stream into the minds of others.

Also, I think of the felling wedge that’s used to get into the core of a tree, to have it come down. It seems like it should be impossible to get to this place that hasn’t seen sunlight or air in tens or hundreds of years, and holds a record of the past, this direct record of the years and their occasions: drought, disease, insects, fire. And yet that tiny wedge can inch its way in. I want the writing I read to get at that core that has been formed by slow year after slow year layering itself and to expose the story there and let it be made into something else, let it be logged into lumber and curved into a Swiss clock. From all that raw heartwood or sapwood, I want those words to carve the arm of a chair or build the frame of a house.

KR: How do you anticipate what your reader’s imagination will bring to your work?

JM: I love thinking of the imagination of another as ‘bringing’ something–it sounds so much like carrying wine to a picnic.

When I think of a reader and the ways in which they will respond to the poems, I generally think of what I myself bring to a poem: a desire to be transformed, a desire to see anew, a willingness to open myself to any possible combination of images or comparisons, and of course a hope for that moment that is so exactly true and right that it leaves me breathless. So I think I anticipate an openness, a willingness to follow the images where they go and let them explode in the mind the way some tight-skinned fruits explode on the tongue, to let them trail after one another but also molt into one another but also layer after one another but also change the face of each thing as it sits next to another. I work to imagine what naturally melds or can be connected, and work from those. I suppose I expect the reader to do quite a bit of work while reading my poems, but by work I mean the kind of thing that comes fairly naturally, that comes of the experience of the poem, not of the active breaking down and asking ‘what does this mean’. So maybe I am expecting the reader to do less work, to hold their desire for an intellectual explanation back. And yet to allow the imagination to do its thing–I’m asking my reader to leap with me when I place two less congruous things side by side. I am advertising a workout for the imagination–it had better be ready to sweat!

KR: What internal or external factors have the biggest influence on your creative process?

JM: The seasons are the greatest external influence. One of the main reasons I live in New Hampshire has to do with its dramatic transitions. The light opens up or closes down day by day in spring and fall. One day it snows for the first time. Another day it rains all morning and then the clouds clear by afternoon. Each of the seasons is hugely important for me, and as they shift into one another, I feel a renewal of energy, a dynamic recharging or rebirth, that is very connected to my ability to write.

Internally, I go through what I see now is a cycle of mood closely connected to working. I go through periods of wanting always to write and feeling like I am writing well, like everything I read and see is sparking something in me, and then I sort of begin to do a lazy vulture circling that spirals down until I struggle against myself and everything is disjointed and chaotic and the world looks ajar. I just have to wait it out. So those well-traveled roads really shape what I can do and how I can do it and feel less like something I can control and more like, well, like seasons in their coming on and fading off.

KR: What exactly is (poetry/fiction/nonfiction) good for?

JM: Where would we be without the paper selves these forums create for us to go into and find what our real selves are and mean? This is ???dress up’ for adults. This is where we go to examine ourselves and to be exposed to the intellectual and emotional innards of others. We can see tragedy up close and respond to it without gaping at a traffic accident. We can learn all the realities of joy without having to cultivate any joy of our own. We can practice being what we are, we can hold ourselves up to the model of an alternate, fictional other, we can see truths we already feel in our skins and our bones put into words in a way that makes us shiver.

In my opinion, all of this is certainly ‘good for’ more than so many things that are valued by our culture today. I’m not sure why we set up this dynamic of the practical versus the abstract since our brains are built with a need for both. We are animals that both do and learn, and both are essential for our survival and development.

And why doesn’t anyone ever ask what television is good for? That’s an answer I would love to hear.

KR: In the spectrum of entertainment and media (music, movies, television, Internet, art, etc.) where does the literary pursuit fit?

JM: I always point out to my students when they talk about the beauty of certain movies or the ease of the Internet that literature is the one place that can narrate the mind. In this way, it has its own niche that cannot be filled by anything else. So when I want to eavesdrop on the thoughts of another, unravel the web of ways to feel, or just hear my own mind voice out into the space that is the quiet behind the page, I’m going to pick up a book. Literature is an atlas; we cannot explore toward a sense of meaning without its many maps.

KR: What advice would you give yourself five years ago?

JM: Think twice before you kiss him. He’s about to change your life.