Deanna Morris Interviews Poet Jenny Browne
Jenny Browne speaks of stolen trees, trees that were planted as a memorial to her brother-in-law, as we sit at dinner recently one October evening in Indianapolis. She has just taught a class at the Indiana Writers Center and the topic at dinner was initially her poetry, but as the conversation turned to life experience, I realized that like uprooted trees, Jenny has been yanked from home and planted in places across the globe. Not because of an unkind wind (or person like the tree robber in her poem), but by an overwhelming yearning which she describes as the need to “notice,” to “pay attention,” to “seek out mystery and beauty,” to be “surprised.” Much of the universal flavor of her poems comes from such purposeful wandering.
The questions and answers below are from a transcript of the email interview. Had time permitted, we’d have conducted the interview in person, but Jenny was heading back to San Antonio. The generosity of spirit in Jenny, as both poet and person, certainly overcame any geographical distance to the interview. Her biography is rich and includes references to her fellowship from the James Michener Center for Writers, the Texas Writers League and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her latest book, Dear Stranger is now available. She has published two previous collections, At Once and The Second Reason. So, sit back, enjoy the interview below and get to know Jenny. With her candid answers, she will be no stranger to you. Her books may well become some of your closet friends.
Deanna Morris (DM): Someone once said that writers are on the outside looking in, another said writers are observers. It seems with your travels you have been a little bit of both. Where have you traveled?
Jenny Browne (JB): My favorite saying about writers, and of course I can't remember who said it, is that a writer is someone who notices what they notice. A lot of writing, and especially writing that comes out of travel begins with that premise, that hope that travel, like poetry, reminds me to not be so oblivious, to pay better attention. There is line in one of the poems in my new book about a one blue parakeet in a cage of three green. I carried that weird little details for years. From El Salvador I think. And yes, I've had the immense opportunity to travel a good bit. My first big trip (out of the Midwest) when I was 19 was to Sierra Leone, West Africa. It might has well have been the moon. I was hooked.
DM: What was the most intriguing place?
JB: I accidentally went to Tibet once. Seriously. I was in Western China in the mid-90s and at the time you had to join a "tour group" to fly into Tibet, and I ran into a group of people who needed another person on their group ticket. So I went. And the air! The temples! The steady ticking of prayer wheels. It remains a place of such mystery and beauty in my imagination that I'm almost afraid to ever go back.
DM: How has traveling affected your writing?
JB: I sort of trust that everything affects my writing in some way, just the practice of paying attention to how complex and beautiful and hard and weird it can feel to be a human. But I do think travel, at least the kind I've most often sought, gives us a great opportunity to surprise ourselves, to be embarrassed and awestruck, to be snapped out of familiar patterns and perceptions. Anything that does that seems good for writing.
DM: What is the most important message(s) you want to convey in your writing?
JB: I guess I shy away from the word "message" a little, but maybe I shouldn't. There is a line in one of the poems in the new book, a poem about marriage that says. "Nothing is what we thought." Maybe that is my "message." I want to write poems that do more than think, maybe because thinking is so slippery. want poems that feel like they live in the physical world, that move around in their imperfect, broken, temporary bodies, and do so with kindness and bravely.
DM: What poem have you written in your newest book that means the most to you and why?
JB: The first poem "The Multiple States of Matter" is in part about a friend who died a hard death, and it was a hard poem to write. I guess it is also about my resistance my death itself, which is of course the human condition. f one of my goals is to write poems that are both very particular and also somehow universal, and I think it is, then I'm proud of the way this poem does that, at least I hope it does that.
DM: Where do you get your energy? :) (Jenny was enthusiastic, untiring, beyond energetic as she taught the class at The Indiana Writers Center. Students were mesmerized.)
JB: To quote Lady Gaga, "I was born this way." That, and good coffee.
DM: Who is your favorite poet?
JB: I'm going to rephrase this to read: Who is your favorite poet today? (Too much pressure the other way.) These days I am re-reading all of Pablo Neruda, which is a lot, and I remain wholly stunned by his range and registers, both in content and craft. A giant. Chile's Whitman. The short list of poets I return to often include: Hopkins, Williams, Rich, Levertov, Berryman, Clifton, Hass, Merwin, Komunyakaa…and so many more. They are on the shelf I can reach from the desk where I'm typing this. I am also really in love with Brenda Hillman's new book.
DM: What is your favorite poem?
JB: That's even less fair of a question. I recently wrote about Gerald Stern's amazing poem "I Remember Galileo" and it remains one of many favorites for some of the reasons I've talked about here. And it has a brave and terrified squirrel in it. http://voltagepoetry.com/2013/02/19/jenny-browne-on-gerald-sterns-i-remember-galileo/
Note to reader by DM: Jenny is right. Asking what the favorite poem is … not fair. It’s impossible to answer.
DM: You've been quoted as saying that poetry "gives voice to human experience in a way that no other kind of writing does.” Will you please elaborate on that?
JB: Did I really say that? :) Maybe what I meant is that poetry is a kind of singing. And there is something about breaking into song, about being moved to not just speak to an experience but to make the experience itself out of words.
DM: For your class at the Indiana Writers Center you quoted Russian writer Viktor Scklovsky, "Art makes the familiar strange so that it can be freshly perceived." Will you please explain how you use that approach in your own writing?
JB: Scklovsky, and others, are good reminders to stay open in art and life, I think. I know I always take this road home, but what would happen if I went this way? What if I decided that the person I wake up to every day could surprise me at any moment, that I didn't know him, or myself at all. It's really comfortable (for me anyways) to know what I think and what I'm going to say next. It takes practice (again, for me anyways) to stay open to not knowing, to trying the opposite of what I expect etc.
DM: You travel widely geographically. Do you "travel" widely in your reading? (Reading authors from a variety of cultures and countries?)
JB: I sure try to. I was obsessed with a recent feature in poetry magazine about Afghani women poets. I'm reading Ellen Dore Watson's new translation of Brazilian poet Adelia Prado, which is stunning. I love Transtromer. When I used to work as a poet in the schools, I often used Naomi Shihab Nye's amazing international anthology This Same Sky. Great for kids and grownups both.
DM: When will you return to Indianapolis and teach another class? This interviewer/student looks forward to that!
JB: Texas is home now, but I always like to return to Indiana. Anytime, but especially in the summer, when the tomatoes are ripe. I want to write a poem that tastes like an Indiana tomato.
To readers of this interview:
As autumn is stepping aside for winter, summer seems a long time away. May summer come quickly, the tomatoes ripen on time, and Jenny Browne visit us once again. In the meantime, I will keep company with her poetry.