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.
Playwriting is alive and well at the IWC. Here's a blog post from Jeffrey Fites, a member of Andrew Black's advanced playwriting class. Want to write a play? Consider taking the next class Andy offers. He's a great teacher!
Questions? Call our office (317-255-0710) or e-mail (email@example.com)
The week before my first class at the Indiana Writers Center, I heard a remark on NPR that had a foreboding reference to writers’ workshops. The writer being interviewed suggested the experience was akin to being dragged through a cactus patch by wild horses. Having an aversion to cactus needles and overly energetic equine, I was not looking forward to the experience.
The morning I arrived at Andrew Black’s class, there were no wild horses in the parking lot, just a 2003 Mustang, and no cacti, although there was pleasant landscaping on the grounds near the building. Inside, the atmosphere was just as peaceful and congenial.
Since we are discussing playwriting or playwrighting, as some call it since it can be hard work, let me illustrate in play form how Andy always finds ways of reinforcing one’s confidence, even when the plot is rather "thin."
JEFFWell, that’s the end of the first act. I’m not really sure how I am going to begin Scene One in Act Two.
ANDREWWell, I found it fascinating that every character was violently killed by the end of the first act. However, you might consider allowing two or three characters to remain alive, so they have something to do in the second act...Just a thought, unless, of course, the rest of the play is about the ghosts of characters past.
JEFFNo, this is definitely a love story -- without ghosts. Having live characters would make Act Two a bit easier to write. It possibly would be more interesting for the audience than having an empty stage for the second hour.
ANDREWPossibly...I think you are on the right track now Jeff. Hopefully it is a track not well-traveled by freight trains. One other thing, you might consider not making this a children’s play. The bloody rampage in the final scene of Act One might be a tad intense for five-year-olds or at least for their parents. Just a suggestion.....
Every spring, the Indiana Writers Center has a booth at the Broad Ripple Art Fair, which is held on the grounds of the Indianapolis Art Center. I love getting there to set up on the morning of the first day, peppy music on the sound system, volunteers and staff zipping around on golf carts, artists rolling back the front of their tents to reveal their wares.
This year there was the smell of rain from the night before and the smell of lilacs from the huge bushes behind our booth. The smell of steak and onions and mushrooms sizzling on the grill wafted over from the nearby steak tent and coffee, from the Hubbard and Cravens booth next to it.
Closer to opening time, there was the “Hey! Hey! HEY!” of sound checks. Artists roam around, checking out each others’ booths, chatting, sometimes taking notes. Volunteers go booth-to-booth, bringing cold bottled water, checking to see if everything’s okay.
When the gates open, a steady stream of people begins—eventually making its way to our booth in the east parking lot. Most give us a glance and walk on by. Sometimes people hesitate and we call out, “Are you interested in writing?” Some laugh and move on. Some politely say, “No, thank you.” Some instinctively raise their hands, palms out, as if to fend off the specter of their high school English teacher—and can’t get away fast enough. Which always makes us laugh.
The fun part is when people say, “Yes.”
Sometimes they’re young people, beginning life in the “real” world and finding it difficult, if not impossible, to write as they did in high school or college. Some are middle-aged, with a secret dream of writing, but clueless about how to start. Some are older and want to leave a legacy of memories to their families.
Some say, “You can make me a writer?”
And we say, “If you let go of the idea that it’s going to perfect the first time and are willing to rethink and revise as many times as it takes to get a finished, polished piece of writing, yes, we can.
Occasionally, though, a person like this girl, a recent graduate of a prestigious private school, comes by:
Me: Hi, are you interested in writing?
Girl: I am a writer. I’ve been published twice.
I tell her about the Writers Center. Our classes, our very excellent faculty, our Gathering of Writers.
Girl: I don’t believe you can teach creative writing.
Me: Well, I have to disagree with you there. I’ve been doing it for about forty years now,
and I guarantee that a good creative writing teacher can help people become better writers.
Girl: I don’t think anyone should tell a writer there’s something wrong with their writing.
Me: But that’s not what teaching creative writing is about at all. Writing is a craft and you need to learn it, just like painters. Have you heard of the painter, Paul Klee.
Me: Picasso then. The sketchbooks from when he was young are full of beautifully drafted drawings. He learned the “rules,” then broke them. But his understanding of the craft of writing underpinned the great paintings he went on to make.
I explain my nifty idea about how what you know in your head, feel in your heart and see in your mind’s eye are not words, that you literally have to translate these things into words—which is hard enough, but then you can’t read what you’ve written and get a fix on what’s actually there because you can’t separate the words on the page from the ideas in your head. Thus, the creative writing teacher (or any good reader) is necessary to help you see what’s on the page and what’s still in your head.
Girl: Hostile stare.
Me: So. Where are you going to college in the fall?
Me: Wow! Lucky you. They have a fabulous creative program there.
Girl: (Sets down the brochure and schedule of classes I’d given her, steam practically coming out of her ears.) I said, I don’t believe in telling people how to write.
And walks away.
All right, then, I thought. Good luck with that writing career.
And remembered, as I often do, this sustaining quote from Richard Bausch:
“Every book written anywhere is written a little at a time, over time, in a lot of confusion and doubt. The doubt is your talent. People with no talent usually don't have any doubt.”
The aspiring writers for whom this rings true are the ones we love to work with, the ones who benefit from what the IWC has to offer. If you’re one of them, check out what we have to offer!
Many thanks to those of you who donated to this project. We're thrilled to say that we reached our goal and will be able to pay $500 stipends to five our our fabulous interns.
One of the coolest things in the world is to stand in the middle of a classroom surrounded by children with their heads bent, writing furiously, no sound but the scratch of pencils on the page. A very cool thing is to listen to them read their stories aloud. It’s wonderful to see how proud—and often surprised—they are at having written so well. But the coolest thing of all is to put a book in the hands of a young writer and watch her face light up when she opens it to find her own story inside
Every summer, The Indiana Writers Center makes this happen every summer with "Building a Rainbow," a six-week creative writing program that takes a difficult academic skill—writing—and makes it fun, personal, and empowering. Working one-on-one, IWC instructors, college interns, and volunteers guide a diverse group of 130 at-risk young people, aged 6-14 through series of steps in which they remember moments in their own lives, write them down, and shape them into finished pieces of writing. Over the summer, they become better, more confident writers. They also learn that they have stories worth telling and voices that deserve to be heard. At the end of the program, students receive a paperback anthology of all of the stories written that summer—and they can hardly wait to look inside and find their own.
Gifted, committed college interns are crucial to the success of our program. In addition to giving young writers quality attention, they also produce the anthology of student stories and create a short video that is shown to students and their parents at the final celebration. And they learn, too!
"I’m blown away by the power of children,” a 2013 intern said. “I had no idea they had so much to say with such unique voices.
Most of our interns work several jobs to make ends meet. We'd like to be able to offer them a modest stipend for their significant contributions to our summer program.
The Poetry Salon started approximately thirty five years ago under a different name and with a different format. From the beginning The Writers’ Center of Indianapolis, (now The Indiana Writers Center), had a core of people interested in writing poetry and so founded various workshops in poetry, both reading and writing. All of these were of the classic variety where people sat around a table while manuscripts were passed in a circle to everyone in the class. There was usually a teacher or moderator,
(the teacher sometimes knew just a little more than his students) and he/she ran the class by making sure everyone got a chance to read his or her poem(s) along with encouraging commentary and criticism from others in the group. These criticisms were aimed at improving the style and quality of the writing. Of course the quality of the criticism itself depended largely on the sophistication and experience of the group as a whole. There was no attempt to make moral judgments about the content of a poem or to make pronouncements regarding form, rhyme, or lack thereof. What was encouraged was the making of an effective metaphor and the right word choice and also the reading of poetry, both classical and modern so that William Blake or A. E. Housman might be read in one breathe and W. S. Merwin or Wallace Stevens, or Sylvia Plath might be read in the next. If a person had nothing new of their own to contribute at some particular meeting one might read one of his or her favorite poems by someone else and the group could comment upon that.
The Poetry Workshop from which the Poetry Salon derived was run by Kevin Corn and Richard Pflum from a previous program which was started by Thomas Hastings. Under the Korn-Pflum régime it was decided there would be no term limit and that the workshop should continue as long as there was life left in it. Later Korn decided to go back to school to earn his PhD in religious studies. This left Pflum running the show on his own until Rohanna McCormack agreed to join him and help. Over the years Pflum began to feel that a workshop in the old fashioned sense lacked a certain kind of freedom. He thought of the kind of salon that Gertrude Stein had run in Paris after the first World War. This salon was a kind of space where artists of every variety met and enriched each others’ art by conversation and by the exhibiting of their work. He thought that maybe the salon would still have to be primarily about poetry but he might be able to encourage artists in other fields to show up and talk about their work. Alas, this was not to be the case for Pflum soon discovered, that like birds, American artists like to hang out with their own kind. Pflum should have known better for most poets behave in exactly the same way: street poets hang out with street poets, slam poets hang out with slam poets, ethnics with ethnics, academics with academics, and so it goes. What he was able to do with his original idea was to encourage participants to speak more freely about their other interests. To talk tangentially about such diverse subjects as baiting a hook for walleye or chaos theory and Mandelbrot figures, to atonal music of the New Vienna School in the 1930’s, to “Delbert” or “Peanuts”, or even about the detritus in their own everyday lives, when a lone strident voice might pipe up from the table, “ when are we going to start talking about our own poetry?” There is a continuing pressure to run the Salon more like a University Workshop where we must stick to the subject and we all must have equal time to discuss our work. Pflum would like to think that the Salon experience might be more of an aesthetic adventure rather than a place where one merely seeks tools so that one writes better. Writing well might be the bottom line but gaining an outlook so that language becomes one of our principal passions along with those metaphoric procedures that might be used by an author to make up both a singular and imaginative world; worlds in which many questions might be asked. We must understand that complete answers are timeless and unattainable and might only be answered in a provisional way or in the production of more questions, depending on: where we are, when we are, and who we are when we ask. It is the questions which are important and profound. Off the top of his head Pflum has made a list of some example questions which might serve as meager stepping stones an artist might use in trying to make something of real value:
How should we live so that our life maintains the best of what
it means to be human?
How may we walk in a fallow field and see the green?
How shall we look in the night sky and see a living day??
What shall we listen for, on a windy day?
How many times must we repeat our mistakes before we know?
How may we let silence enrich our conversation or our writing?
How shall we live in our favorite season and make all seasons
How shall we know if we should make a garden or a poem?
How may we attain the joy and sadness of pure empathy?
How can we compete and win without any desire for winning?
How shall we know when something within ourselves or our writing is broken?
How may we take the broken parts of ourselves or of our writing
and fuse them back into a whole thing?
How can the ambiguity of language itself enable us to discover
some kind of truth.
How shall we make our life into metaphor and metaphor into our life?
How may we distill the profound out of the merely adequate?
How can we become rich in insight, if not within our own experience?
How may we retain our own singularity and yet be part of the whole?
The Poetry Salon meets the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of the month at 8PM somewhere at the The Indiana Writers Center in the Cultural Complex Bldg. behind (North of) the Indianapolis Arts Center. (Listen for raucous laughter and stressed voices in order to find the room.) All are welcome.
This is the first of a series of blog posts by IWC members on their writing lives.
I was long and lanky. Such a cruel trick my body played on my mother; I was no longer her doll to dress and display. I was growing up and growing away from my 1950s upbringing. That is where my writing began.
I was born under a tower of men, that is, I had a strong father and two strong older brothers. Although I was a “girlie” girl, I thought their lives more fulfilling than my mother’s and mine. Not only were they being raised to make history (while I was being raised to make beds) they played sports every afternoon while I strolled my baby sister like a “little mother.”
My father did recognize the reader in me and took me to the library once a week on Saturdays. I turned to books to live out my real life, a life where I was still a girl, but moreover, I was a person, with dreams and abilities. When I ran out of children’s books, I found a book that was going to change the direction of my life. I didn’t know it then, but I was going to be a writer. The book was To Kill a Mockingbird.” Although it was to be years later that I began to seriously write, Scout and Jem and Atticus were always with me. Even at the age of ten, I seemed to realize the enormous impact wielded by a writer.
I had written stories as a child, but back then, no one in my family understood (including me) that writing is a craft that must be taught. As I entered the vestibule between childhood and adulthood, I found myself reading more and more, but not writing. There were no creative writing classes or writing units in school in the 1960s.
Entering my teenage years, I must admit I read every issue of Seventeen Magazine, but I also read all the classics we were assigned in English class, read all the Shakespeare plays the summer before my senior year (my summer of Shakespeare as I like to call it) and when I entered university, prepared to be an English major, I found myself in love and married two years later.
Somewhere along the way, I lost the writer whispering inside of me. It wasn’t until three children later, that the whispering writer, hollered. “Go back to school.” I did. I completed my remaining two years of undergrad in 2010 and I am currently a Masters of Fine Arts candidate at Butler University here in Indianapolis.
Along the way, I enrolled in Writers Center classes and continue to do so. One of the reasons, I was motivated to apply for acceptance into Butler’s MFA program was because of the tutoring of the Writers Center here in Indianapolis. The teachers, classes and workshops gave me opportunities to be part of a writing community and to hone my writing. It prepared me to write in undergrad and graduate school. I continue to take classes at the Writers Center, even though I am in graduate school, because of the quality of the programs. I am a member of the Writers Center. I always will be. I am now a professional writer. I always was a writer, I just needed a place like the Writers Center to bring me back to Scout and Jem and Atticus.
If you're a member of the IWC, please consider submitting a short essay (up to 1,000) words about your writing life. Submissions should be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit www.marianallen.com to read a guest blog post by IWC faculty member S.M. Harding. She is the author of twenty-four published short stories, photographer, and editor of Writing Murder, a collection of essays by Midwest crime and mystery authors. The handy primer on the art of crime fiction is based on a successful lecture program held at Jim Huang’s The Mystery Company.
Last fall, I received an e-mail from Andrew Black, a playwright, to let me know that he’d just moved to town and was interested in teaching for the Writers Center. We met. We talked. I figured out pretty quickly how lucky we were to be able to add him to our faculty.
So lucky, in fact, that three students in the very first class he taught—Tina Nehrling, Jan White, and Gari Williams—had plays accepted for this year’s DivaFest.
Here's what Andy Black had to say about the experience.
DivaFest 2013: Or Three Indianapolis Playwrights Get Their First Production…Who Knew?
I had never taught playwriting for an organization like The Writers Center before last fall, so I was unsure what to expect. What materialized was a five-session course called “The Fundamentals of Playwriting” and three women who were interested in writing plays. The focus of “Fundamentals” is learning seven basic structural components of effective narrative structure, then utilizing all of them in the creation of a ten-minute play. Yes, telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end in ten minutes.
The three female playwrights were game for the task, and I assigned a “theme” for the short plays to inspire their creativity. There are many ten-minute playwriting contests around the country, so I selected one which had a theme: “The Package, the Parcel or the Present” that I thought would be fairly easy to write to. I also realized that if the women in my class wrote to this theme, then they would have a product they could submit to a playwriting contest. So the “exercise” of writing a short play would turn into the “exercise” of submitting it as well, and then maybe even having it produced.
I did not realize that every spring in Indianapolis, there is a playwright’s festival for female playwrights called DivaFest, sponsored by Indy Fringe. Over the course of the five weeks, I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the writing of my students. All three of their plays turned out to be production worthy. By the fifth week of the class, I had learned about DivaFest—a short festival of plays (no longer than an hour each) celebrating female playwrights. I suggested to the group that we submit their plays as a “package”—three ten minute plays written around a common theme. The protagonist of one was a teenager, the second was man at mid-life, and the third featured a senior. The three plays would look at concerns of different life stages, and be held together by the arrival of a “package.” Since the plays were themselves short, we could call the combined piece “Good Things Come in Small Packages”.
DivaFest accepted our submission (I learned that the judges scored the three short plays quite highly, which was very gratifying). The women are now going through the throes of a first production which have included finding and losing actors and a director, scrambling for a production concept, negotiating for rehearsal space….all the things that real life playwrights deal with all the time.
I am in the unique position of being able to say (as a first-time playwriting instructor) that 100% of my students have gone on to have their first production within six months of having completed my class—a statistic that I don’t think I will be able to use for the rest of my career!
We have had fun with our process, and look forward to Divafest. Come join us if you like…good things really do come in small packages.
Performances at Indy Fringe, Friday, March 8 @ 7:30pm, Sunday, March 10 @ 6:00pm, Friday, March 15 at 7:30pm.
© Indiana Writers Center 2012