Art Talk with NEA Literature Fellow Jennifer Givhan
“The arts matter because they represent every moment of our lives, of why we're here, of what we're leaving when we leave this earth. They are us.” -- Jennifer Givhan
In the poem “Mother Bird Ghazal,” poet and NEA Creative Writing Fellow Jennifer Givhan writes: “My son says he’ll become a flying Transformer, and carry me on his back./My girl, she’ll become a ship. Mama, they answer, we’re holding you safe.” Givhan’s work investigates what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a daughter, what it means to be a woman and what it means to be an artist. Even as she’s figuring out these many roles for herself on the page, the poet is also, as she told us in a telephone interview, trying to “enlighten and empower so that I'm showing what happens when women's bodies are broken or different or what have you in the female experience.” In addition to her NEA fellowship, Givhan has also received a Pen/Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellowship, the Frost Place Latin@ Fellowship, and several other poetry prizes. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, and her poetry collection, Landscape with Headless Mama—winner of the 2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize—is forthcoming later this year. In her own words, here is Givhan on why she writes poetry, how she hopes to encourage and inspire young writers of color, and why the writing of poetry requires a type of x-ray vision.
On becoming a writer
I've really been writing since I was little. I used to write in journals and I used to write poems for the school newspaper and that kind of thing. I started writing seriously as an undergrad, and then I really started studying the craft as a graduate student. It was really huge, I think, for my poetry and for my creative development that [for my masters in English] my instructor allowed me to write a poetry manuscript. I was able to write about what I was going through with infertility and women's bodies, and failure to have a child and adopting my son. I was learning at the time about Adrienne Rich’s [view] that the personal is political, and I was able to live that out in my poems.
On her mission statement as an artist
I want to empower young women—especially writers of color, whatever their dreams are, their creative dreams—that's what I'm hoping that my work does. I talk so much about female experiences, the female body and childbirth, the desire for children, things that really have to do with what Sylvia Plath calls “the blood jet,” and so I worry who will my audience be. Am I ever limiting myself by focusing so much on women's issues? But I would say no because that's what I needed, especially when I was a young poet, that's what I needed to hear. Those were the empowering voices that I needed—Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton—and so I think my mission statement is I would like to follow in those strong women's footsteps and continue on that path.
On why she writes poetry
I need poetry really in order to live. I said elsewhere and I'll repeat here that it's kept me alive quite literally in some instances and, of course, metaphorically. I think as a form it allows me to forget about linearity. There's a kind of a social or cultural impetus or kind of a burden, the idea of time working front to back, time moving forward and not being able to go back. I feel like with poetry you can stop time, you can focus intently on one thing for as long as it takes or you can jump. I know that you can do that in other narrative modes, but I'm not always necessarily concerned with telling a story that has to make sense, or that has to have a plot.
I've written a novel but one of the issues that publishers are finding is that in trying to tell my story I’m trying to show the lives of my characters in the same way I write in my poetry, which is not very linear and sometimes difficult to understand. That becomes [labeled] a post-modern type of a novel, while with a poem, it's just a poem and you can enjoy it. You don't have to try to pick it apart. I feel like [a poem] is more readily understandable even though it's doing some wacky things, some crazy things with time, with story.
The other thing is that I'm really drawn to image. I feel like I see, feel, and I experience in a kind of snapshot way and poems allow that because an image can be everything in a poem. It can imply a story and it has emotions necessarily attached to it and it can stand-in as a metaphor. There’s so many things that I can do with a single image. I'm really inspired for instance by Brigit Pegeen Kelly and the way that she uses really deep images. For instance, in [her poem] “The Dragon,” it's this really surreal magical moment and she keeps going deeper and deeper and deeper into what a swarm of bees look like carrying a snake and it takes on this almost spiritual, transcendent significance. Really she's just describing what she's seeing in the back yard and yet it turns into this much larger symbolic thing. I feel that is the power of poems and that's why I'm drawn to write poems—so I can focus and hone in on that image and it can stand in for me. I can write a whole novel in 14 lines or what have you because you're able to focus on the minutiae.
On autobiography, the use of the “I,” and getting to the truth
What I've come to see about my poems is that no matter what perspective I'm writing from, but especially when I'm writing in the first-person, I'm getting at heart truth. I'm getting at what's true for me in my gut, in my emotions, in my life, whether or not it's something that has happened to me. What I'm concerned with then in my poems is empathy. I'm married to a black man and we have a black son and with the political atmosphere and the social atmosphere lately, I've been concerned with the idea of witness. I'm always interested in that place between experience and witness. So then what perspective do you write from? Do you write from the “I” who's experiencing it or do you write in the second- or third-person about the “you” or the “he” or “she” who's experiencing it? I feel like there's something about getting into the “I” that poetry allows for just like with the novel you get into the protagonist’s head. When you get into the “I” of the poem, you're able as a reader and as a writer—and this is a joy that I have—to get into that other perspective and become the other.
There are studies that have shown that readers of all kinds of literature are more empathetic people and are more open to experiences, more open to others. They treat each other with more respect and kindness and I think that's at the heart of my poems, that I want to enlighten and empower so that I'm showing what happens when women's bodies are broken or different or what have you in the female experience. And then I'm concerned with showing the biracial experience and what it's like as a person of color in the United States. I feel like I can get into these truths, into these heart truths, these necessary truths, by using this first-person perspective and really inhabiting the perspective of the other. On a deep philosophical level I think that's a major reason I write from the “I,” whether or not it's autobiographical. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it's not, and that's the writer's prerogative. I don't think that we should ever as writers have to apologize for that. We're writing our truths however they come to us.
One of the things that I've learned is that it's okay to lie in poems, too. There's a whole lot of fun in that, and you can get at different kinds of truth. You can get at the magical real and the surreal and I'm really interested now in domestic fabulism where you're incorporating this magical element into it. It’s like the Ansel Elkins poem "A Girl with Antlers," in which she describes her birth as if she had these antlers. Everything else in the poem might be true—whatever that means—but then there's these antlers and how do you deal with that? Sometimes what I'll do now is I'll throw magical elements into my "autobiography." By throwing that sort of magical or surreal or strange wrench into the picture of memory and then mixing it all up, I can see what other things I missed through my limited perspective at the time of living through it. I love using the “I” and the eye, as in the seeing eye of others that enables me then to look back deeply and honestly and hard into myself and my experiences and reevaluate them.
On the importance of the NEA Creative Writing Fellowship
I'm so grateful for the fellowship. It allowed me to start and nearly complete two poetry manuscripts that I now have out at different contests. I really thought I would be grateful and lucky if I got half of something done. It was huge to get that news that I was awarded [the fellowship], or that I'd earned it, I'm not sure how to phrase that but I feel like it's both—that I earned it and that was a gift. That meant so much more than money because it meant that I could really put away some of those fears that I have about what am I doing. Especially as a mother, I always wonder that the time that I'm sacrificing away from my children, what is it worth? Not just in terms of the monetary value, but what am I doing with my time and my energy here that I'm away from my children, I'm away from my family, and focusing on these poems? I feel like the NEA showed me I'm an artist and I have a creative life. When you first asked me my origin story, I say that's something that I've overcome but really it's something that I have to overcome every single day. The NEA helped me through that.
On the meaning of failure and the meaning of success
I sometimes daily have to reevaluate what it means to fail or succeed. I feel like to succeed is to be able to continue believing in yourself and continue writing. For myself that used to be accolades, that used to be winning awards, I thought that was success. But then as soon as I began to succeed in those terms I had to reevaluate because it doesn't always feel like success. I had to turn inward and it turns into one of those things about external versus internal motivations, and I know that's clichéd but there's really something to it. I have a lot of respect, huge respect, for people who continue even in the face of so-called external failure. I've won quite a few things, and I'm very very proud of those things, but the truth is also that I'm rejected all the time, too. I submit hundreds of submissions a year. I apply to dozens of fellowships.
So much of what happens out there in the world is luck or chance or your work reaching the right audience at the right time, and you can cannot control all of those variables. What you can control as an artist is that you're creating, because if you don't create the work it's never going to reach its audience, it's going to stay trapped inside of you. You have to speak your truth, you have to write your truth, and send it out… I light my Virgen de Guadalupe candle and I say a prayer that my work reaches the person it needs to reach or the people that it needs to reach and I'm very thankful that that's happened quite a few times now. I have to reach into the deep places of myself where the light and the dark reside and I have to struggle, and they have to fight on a daily basis. Whenever I'm able to bring some of that onto the page in a meaningful way, in a way that either changes me or keeps me going, and then I'm able to send that out into the world in the hopes that it can save somebody else or keep somebody else going, that's the true success.
On her superpower as an artist
It’s a kind of x-ray vision, a kind of searing vision that I'm seeing as a superpower. I think it goes back to that idea of image and being able to transform reality via image. I feel like it's not just being able to see through, but somehow seeing through and then changing what I'm seeing based on that deep ability to see. I think a lot of that as an artist really just has to do with my fortitude when I'm seeing really dark things and really sad things and really ugly things about myself, about others, about the world, and being able to really get into that dark place but then not just linger there because then that becomes overwhelming. I'm tempted to just curl up and just give up down there. It's hard. The true superpower then, maybe, is not just being able to see but being able to come back up out of that and try to transform, even if that's just transforming at this point words on a page. Words are powerful. I know that from my own experiences and from others' experiences. We change the way we see; we change the way we think and we change the way we feel. I really do hope that I'm making some kind of positive change in the world and that was my dream as a kid. I always wanted to be an artist but I really wanted to change the world. Sometimes I wonder am I doing that as a poet? My hope is that I am. I hope that what I'm doing is on some sort of literal level kind of a superpower. I really do hope that.
On what she wants to be better at as an artist
I want to be better at conveying my truths. I want to be better at really crystallizing and making clear whatever it is that I'm trying to show. All of the elements of writing, all of the metaphor and imagery and white space and diction, I think all of that is really in the service, for me anyway, of what I can learn, what I can see, what I can understand about the world or about human nature.
The arts matter because…
They are everything. They are humanity, they are breathing, they are surviving. They are why we painted on cave walls. They are why living matters. I mean even people who don't necessarily believe that have conversations with one another, and if someone were to sit down and record those conversations, that's the arts. If someone were to paint them talking, that's the arts. The arts matter because they represent every moment of our lives, of why we're here, of what we're leaving when we leave this earth. They are us.
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