"Write Your Truths, Hone Your Craft, and Don’t Give Up." A Chat With Jennifer Givhan, Poet & Editor
Jennifer Givhan’s first collection of poetry, Landscape with Headless Mama, won the Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry for 2016. It’s a breathless read that meditates on and mutates the experiences of mothers and daughters, would-be mothers and dislocated children. Givhan is a generous, young poet who gives freely of her experience and who is diligent and untiring in her writing practice--and in her submission practice. The poems in this volume were first published in 49 different literary magazines. Her second collection, Protection Spell, was recently chosen by Billy Collins for the Miller Williams Series at the University of Arkansas Press and will be published in February 2017. Givhan has received an NEA in poetry, a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellowship, and a Latin@ Scholarship to The Frost Place.
Interview by Laura Moretz
Please say more about this, from your interview with Chantal Gordon on the Warren Wilson site: “I grew up in a borderland of identity and it has defined much of how I view myself and the world around me—how I tend to notice and speak up for those caught in the cracks, the unnoticed and unsung, who are my kindred, my familia.” Your literal borderland was in Southern California, yes? In what way were you “caught in the cracks?”
Yes, I grew up in the Imperial Valley, a small farming community on the Mexicali border, southeast of San Diego. As a person of mixed ethnicity, I’ve never completely fit in with any one culture. I don’t speak Spanish fluently, for instance, and have been criticized or teased for that growing up, sometimes called a gringa or pocha (a kind of whitewashed Mexican). Likewise, I couldn’t fully relate with the white culture where I lived and was often not accepted by this group because the white community tended to be divided by class and religion as well (many of the white girls I went to school with were the daughters of the rich farmers who owned the land). The Valley was a microcosm of the divisive political climate we currently live in, so it offered training in resistance and survival. I was also a poet/creative spirit in a place where the arts are scarce. I had no idea there was such a thing as contemporary poetry--there were no coffee shops with readings or slams. And I was often teased for being too sentis (sensitive). Ideologically, I was raised with conflicting goals--encouraged both to get married young and start having babies right away, and to follow my academic and creative dreams. So while I appreciate the many facets of my childhood, I also see that in many ways it was rife with contradiction. As a woman, I struggled with infertility and then became a mother through adoption before finally being able to carry a baby to term, so in some ways I’ve been both non-mother/mother. As such, my work often comes from a place of splitting and coalescing, a constant flux of ripping apart and piecing back together.
I love the way Headless Mama coheres around motherhood and keeping one’s head and soul together. The poems work together beautifully, but there must have been a time when you didn’t know exactly how they would form a whole. Please tell us about how you came to see these particular poems as a collection. Or put another way, were there poems that didn’t fit, and why?
Yes, I’d originally compiled the book very differently, called it Red Sun Mothers, and divided it into sections based on the experiences of different mother-entities in Mexican/American culture, including the infertile woman (or adoptive mother, like Tita in LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE) and the psychologically/socially unstable mother (La Llorona, who is the Mexican Medea figure). As the collection progressed over the years of raising my children (I began it before I adopted my son, and it was published when he was nine-years-old--so it was in flux all those years), I realized that the divisions were not so clearly delineated, that even after becoming a mother, sometimes the grief of miscarriage seeped through, and even in joy, there was also exhaustion and uncertainty, which sometimes gave way to fear and anxiety-induced mental illness, near breaks with reality, so that La Llorona is never as far from the supposedly stable mother as she might at first seem. In my MFA program at Warren Wilson College, I read contemporary collections that struck deep chords and inspired new ways of seeing the shape of my poems as individuals and together--books like Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Julia Alvarez’s Homecoming, Patricia Smith’s Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, and Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife. My poems showed me how many conflicting desires and facets of truth/experience they could hold at once, how they could negotiate these borderland spaces where nothing is as clearly defined as we might wish--motherhood is messy, and the book showed me how to embrace that via the structure--so that Mama’s story bleeds into the speaker’s own, and it’s never entirely clear whether the speaker is the mother or the daughter. That bleeding uncertainty is purposeful and came after many years of trying structure after structure until I found the perfect one that asked each poem to do multiple layers of work.
In a similar vein, was it difficult to order of the poems? For example, the order suggests chronology at times.
Again, that chronology came after discovering that Mama and the speaker’s stories were interwoven. Then I could tell multiple stories at once. A clear chronology felt too facile; I’d tried that at one point and it didn’t feel honest in the way that the imagination can sometimes get at deeper truths than nonfiction. The chronology in the structure comes from the narrative underpinning. I love story--the power of story. And it was important to me that in telling my own story, I was speaking the truths of my own mother(s)--the women I grew up with in the Imperial Valley and in my own Mexican-American familia.
You have called your work a “surreal survival guide.” I’m wondering if you keep a dream journal or does poetry transmute imagery into a persona’s dream?
While I was writing the collection, I did, yes, keep a journal. I haven’t had time lately, but I would chronicle imagery that came to me, everywhere I went--and as a busy working mother in school, it was important that I utilized every spare moment of time I could find. I try not to censor myself, the strange associations my mind makes, the dream logic that finds/makes connections we might not in waking life. I think mostly I was so tired that I was often between a dream/waking state anyway! I’ve long loved the Mexican surrealists (my trinity: Frida, Leonora, and Remedios)--and their imagery is a deep well within my subconscious.
You are the poetry editor of Tinderbox Poetry Journal. Please tell us about beginnings of that journal and how it has grown. What is the journal’s mission?
I’ve been a reader and now the Poetry Editor for a year and a half--it began as a two-person project of love and has grown tremendously since then. My fellow editor Molly Sutton Kiefer started it as a place for experimentation and truth-telling/experience-sharing outside of the regulated norms or standardized aesthetics that can sometimes dominate the literary world. For instance, women’s and/or mother’s poems have traditionally been seen as confessional and/or sentimental, and at Tinderbox we push back against that falsehood. I actually hate the term confessional because it implies a sense of guilt or crime--one is ashamed of one’s experiences and must confess for some kind of absolution. This feels too facile, disallows the liminal spaces, that blurring between genres, voices, experiences, tone, that often creates the most hauntingly compelling work. We’re also especially conscious of how this blurring comes into play with all aspects of identity--and we seek out a wide range of voices, encouraging poets from marginalized and underrepresented communities to send us work. If the poem doesn’t quite fit in but it punches the gut with its strange and defiant truths, its transformational ways of seeing the world around it--then we want to read it!
As you know, The Review Review is a website that offers resources to writers seeking publication in lit mags. When you began submitting your work, how did you learn about places to submit poetry and how did you choose among the venues?
I’d scour my favorite contemporary poetry collections and find out where those poets I adored had published their poems--Acknowledgments pages became my submission guides, offering inspiration and light (I’d dream of the day I could write my own Acknowledgments page). I figured if the journals were publishing poems I adored and that resonated with me, then those were likely places where my poetry would fit in as well. It took many years of trying and growing as a poet, but I have finally built Acknowledgments pages that resemble poets I most admire and respect. (When I couldn’t get into some of the more prestigious journals, I’d also go to sites like Entropy’s Where to Submit or Duotrope that showed places with higher acceptance rates. I also asked poetry mentors and got plugged into the poetry community so that I could see who was publishing what kind of work to find out if mine fit with their aesthetic/guidelines).
Do you keep a log of submissions, and do you automatically send a poem back out when it is declined?
Yes, and yes. I use an adaptation of a spreadsheet Matt Bell posted on his website (you can find it here). I’ll try many different venues for a poem, and if it comes back twenty or thirty times, I will often put it away for a couple of months and come back to it later anew, ready to revise. And send out anew.
Some people wait a long time to submit and some give up after a few declines. What would you say to that writer about the realities of the literary submission process today? When is it important to submit, and when is it important to wait a while?
I’ve had poems accepted into major journals on the thirtieth try, so submitting work is as much of a lottery as anything in life. It only takes one editor to fall in love with your work and fight for it for the work to stick--so keep trying. Lightning does strike!
You’re a teacher. When you come across a young writer eager to write, what advice do you give him or her?
Write your truths, hone your craft, and don’t give up. Truly, the combination of these will carry you through your writing life: 1) Urgency/Necessity (if you have something you need to say, you can’t go through this life without saying it); 2) Practice (write your story a hundred times, a hundred different ways, until you’ve said it the way it absolutely must be said); Resilience (never, ever, ever give up, no matter what anyone tells you). If you are a writer, then write. There will be no other way.
Laura Moretz is the Interviews Editor for The Review Review. She has published short fiction in Stoneboat, r.k.v.ry quarterly literary journal, and Cutthroat, a Journal of the Arts. She likes to hear from editors who want to be interviewed about their literary magazines. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.