NEA Literature Fellowships

Jennifer Givhan

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(2015 - Poetry)

"Eve"

            And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.                         —Robert Frost

Mama was afraid her affairs would disappear
     with all her small places, where the donut shop
at the town's brief edge cliff dived into the Río Grande.

We split her belongings in the end: one of us got the house,
     another the car and all the furniture, and the last
her clothes and jewelry box.   In its carved

cedar,  I kept her ideas about why we need to believe,
     the deeper cistern of her soul, the milk
of her pearls around my neck.

Now I'm turning milkfish, sufficing my way
     around death's belled curve, slipstream & moon slice,
a red-chested bird on the crabapple tree

whose leaves have fallen &
     all that are left appear as holly berries blinking
the rhinestones of Mama's party dresses.

Come Christmas like at All Hallow's Eve, the veil
     thinnest between this world & the next, where snow 
branches pray to sky, & all linearity's gone

cyclical, creating space so white it blurs the threads,  
      I'll be turning presence in the afterhours, the second
coming of twilight, this dress up affair flashing stay,   

     stay with us tonight.

(First published in Southern Humanities Review, under the title "The Inheritance")

Jennifer Givhan was a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellow, as well as the 2013 DASH Literary Journal Poetry Prize winner, an Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize finalist, St. Lawrence Book Award finalist, a Vernice Quebodeaux Pathways finalist, and a Prairie Schooner Book Prize finalist. She earned her MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College, and her Master's in English from California State University Fullerton. Her work has appeared in over seventy literary journals and anthologies, including Best New Poets 2013, Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Rattle, The Collagist, cream city review, and The Columbia Review. She raises her two young children with her family in Albuquerque, and she teaches composition at Western New Mexico University and online workshops with The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Givhan

Art Talk with Jennifer Givhan

Author's Statement

As a Latina poet from the California/Mexico border, I speak for the women I grew up with: the mothers, daughters, childless women, aunties, and nanas who have become my voice, my poetry, concerned with the complex relationships many Latina women have with family—both a liberating and subjugating force, buttressing and repressive, mythical and real. My own family has long supported my poetry. This fellowship means I can now afford childcare and take on fewer classes as an adjunct professor and devote more time to writing without sacrificing time away from home. 

This fellowship will allow me to finish my manuscript Karaoke Night at the Asylum, which illuminates the life of a woman who relives her childhood in the Southwestern desert with a mentally ill mother, an alcoholic scientist father, and a suicidal brother, and who now struggles with mental illness as she raises her own children. In addition, the fellowship will also allow me to continue my next manuscript Aunt Lucy Packs a Suitcase, in which I re-conceive the roles of women of color as assigned by the cultures of their ancestors and their homeland, the United States. Speaking from the liminal societal space inhabited by many African-American, Mexican-American, and Native-American women, my poems deconstruct nursery rhymes, songs and chants, and often focus on repetition as a vehicle to describe the nature of loss.

Receiving the fellowship reminds me to continue sending my art out into the world, to keep writing my distinct interpretation of the lives of so many men and women, and that, yes, there is an audience for my work. I'm so thankful not only for the financial help but for the emotional and psychological encouragement this award gives me.