Obsession and Resistance in Poetry: An Interview with Jehanne DuBrow
Interview conducted by Sebastian Paramo

Jehanne Dubrow is a prolific poet whose work is visceral and rich with the language of the senses. Her sixth book of poems, Dots & Dashes, won the 2016 Crab Orchard Review Series in Poetry Open Competition Award and will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2017. In her work, what lingers in absence becomes something obsessed over. “For weeks, I breathed his body in the sheet. / He was bitter incense paired with something sweet,” she writes in the villanelle titled “The Long Deployment.” These lines are emblematic of her work in their meditation on how one reconciles longing with the physical memory of the beloved.

In the past eight years, Dubrow has published five poetry collections, two anthologies, directed a writing center, and founded the journal Cherry Tree.  Both Stateside, her third book, and The Arranged Marriage, her fifth, meditate on the problem of communication in marriage and relationships. Stateside delves into the mythic history of women longing for their beloveds in war time. The Arranged Marriage examines, instead, the tyranny of a marriage. These threads weave their way into her newest book, Dots and Dashes, a sequel to Stateside. 

Dubrow recently joined the faculty at the University of North Texas. This past fall, I took her poetry workshop and thoroughly enjoyed our discussions on craft, composing a manuscript, and contemporary poetry. In our interview, we discuss the role of the poet in the current political landscape, our obsessions, and what inspires us, as well as how she has managed to stay prolific.

SEBASTIAN PARAMO: Before accepting your new professorship at the University of North Texas, you had a role as an arts administrator, editor, professor, and poet—all roles that participate in the literary community. Did these roles inform your writing process?

JEHANNE DUBROW: Absolutely. Every decision I made in running a literary center—which included a reading series, a press, a journal, and internships in writing, editing, and arts administration— reflected my hopes for what my students might learn as well as my own literary interests.

I think one of my tasks in the classroom is to break the complex into small, simple components. I’ve found if I can explain an element of craft with language that is transparent and accessible, then my students can begin to replicate such techniques in their writing. Inevitably, I’m also explaining these ideas to myself, and the classroom then changes how I engage with my own poems.

A tiny example of what I mean: in the process of explaining how one might draft a villanelle, I have become more attentive to the tension between end-stopped and enjambed lines in this form; teaching students about the relationship between syntax and line, within the constraints of a fixed form, has led me to write (what I hope are) better, more successful villanelles.

SP: I like that you use form and/or play with form often in your work. Do you have a favorite form? A least favorite form?

JD: I always come back to the sonnet. When I first decided that I wanted to be a poet, I spent a year writing a sonnet a day (all of them about characters from Greek mythology—I still remember the one about Daphne, which ended with this couplet: “It’s not that I think of sex immoral. I simply prefer to be a laurel.” Clearly, I had a lot to learn). It’s such a capacious form, infinitely welcoming to reinvention. But, more than that, I love how Petrarchan or Elizabethan sonnets are the perfect marriages of form and content; in each type of sonnet, the rhyme schemes are not merely ornamental but are a map of the poem’s argument, the Petrarchan an exploration of binaries, the Elizabethan suited to exploring something more dialectical.

I am not a fan of sestinas. We can fail in any fixed form. But, in the sestina, our failures go on for so much longer.

SP: In re-reading your collections, I admire how each book seems to celebrate a particular obsession. Stateside and The Arranged Marriage are good examples of this. Do you have any current obsessions?

JD: I’m still deep in my obsession with perfumery. In 2014, I co-edited an anthology dedicated to the subject, The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems about Perfume. And, for the past few years, I’ve been writing a book-length essay, throughsmoke, which tries to make sense of how I came to love fragrant things and of how my love of perfume mirrors my love of poetry.

SP: Reading The Arranged Marriage, I’m reminded of poems such as Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel.” What poets were models for you in this book?

JD: Forché’s “The Colonel” was a very big influence on The Arranged Marriage: her handling of the prose poem as a form, the detached voice of her speaker, how she represents violence and explores acts of witness. And, because so much of The Arranged Marriage is concerned with looking—specifically looking at violence—visual art influenced my writing of the collection. As a result, a number of pieces of ekphrasis found their way into the book, including poems about Antonio Canova’s sculpture of Eros and Psyche, Frida Kahlo’s What the Water Gave Me, the film Wait Until Dark, and a Victorian textile by William Morris.

SP: What are the difficulties inherent in writing political poems?

JD: It seems to me that political poems aspire to do two things: (1) to call the reader’s attention to some event or idea or figure that the poet believes is urgently important and (2) to persuade the reader that the poem’s concerns matter and are, perhaps, worthy of some action in response. So, how do we speak both urgently and persuasively? If we want a reader to participate, to hear the poem’s call to action, what rhetorical strategies will be most effective? What strategies will push the reader away?

I think of a very effective political poem like Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact,” which uses phrases such as “in all likelihood” and “most likely” and the repetition of the word “perhaps” to carefully, delicately create a portrait of Eric Garner that is human and tender and devastating. I may not be the target reader for “A Small Needful Fact,” because I already believe in Mr. Garner’s humanity and in the wrongness of his death. But, someone who isn’t worried about police violence might read “A Small Needful Fact” and slowly—because the poem moves slowly—be brought toward thinking about what it meant to kill Mr. Garner, what was taken away, how “with his very large hands…/ he put gently into the earth / some plants…making it easier / for us to breathe.” The poem is urgent—although so stealthily—and persuasive, particularly at those moments when it speaks most obliquely.

SP: You have a forthcoming book called Dots and Dashes. Does this book have its own obsessions? I’m also curious to know how you begin a new book. How would it compare to the genesis of your previous books?

JD: Dots & Dashes serves as a kind of “sequel” to my third book, Stateside, which was about my experiences as a military spouse, looking at the before, during, and after of a deployment. Dots & Dashes continues that story, but this time my concern—as someone who has a foot both in the military community and in academia—is communication. How can soldiers and civilians learn to speak about and to one another with greater empathy and nuance?

I usually find that I’ve started writing a thing that will become a book, after I’ve drafted a few poems that seem to talk to one another, poems that point to the same obsession or the same narrative. I’ll look at the new drafts and realize suddenly, “oh, could these belong to a book?” Dots & Dashes came as a surprise to me. After Stateside came out in 2010, I thought I was done with the subject of being “married to the military.” Stateside took me to colleges, universities, and military institutions across the country. Many people responded positively to the poems, especially military spouses who recognized their own experiences in mine. But I also met progressives who wanted my poems to be more explicitly political and conservatives who wanted my poems to remain silent about the difficulties of military life. I found the friction between those two responses provocative. At one point, I gave a radio interview and later saw that someone in an online comments forum had criticized my poetry as “war enabling and shallow.” That stung. In response, I wrote a poem called “Reading Poetry on Maryland Public Radio,” that examined some of the tensions I feel in being a military spouse who is also an academic. Before I married a career military officer, my responses to war were uncomplicated; but, as a military spouse, I am automatically implicated in my husband’s work.

Near the end of “Reading Poetry on Maryland Public Radio,” I write:

And if my poem
hasn’t carried signs or made a peace march
on the Capitol,
it’s because five months from now
my husband’s coming home,
and depending on
the weather or the day,
we’ll talk or not
about the next shipwreck,
how soon we’ll both be overturned by this.
Or as Crane writes,
the problem with the ocean is the waves,
that beyond the first there lies
another, waiting
to do something in the way of swamping boats.

All the other poems in Dots & Dashes emerged from this first one. They’re a little angry at times, but also interested in the messiness of complex responses to war, in trying to find places of intersection where people from opposing sides can learn to communicate with one another.

SP: I love what you say about obsessions and how you returned to the ones from Stateside to write Dots and Dashes. It seems that the next book is interested in the idea of how we communicate and respond to one another. I can’t help but wonder how poetry will function in the next four years when I read those lines in “Reading Poetry on Maryland Public Radio.” Does the weight of the book feel the same since you first started it?

JD: After one of my books has been published, I feel alienated from the text–who wrote this? Or surprised by it–how did I write this? Or worried–should I have written this?

I’m not sure what I’ll feel when Dots & Dashes comes out. It’s clear that we’re a divided country and that it can be uncomfortable to engage with people who have different political beliefs. My book doesn’t offer any suggestions for more effective communication. But it does explore the anxieties of this time and place, perhaps more perceptively than I realized when I was drafting the manuscript.

SP: Given the current political landscape for writing, what advice do you have for young writers who want to be heard?

JD: I don’t know. I don’t know. Be brave? Write as if your next poem could send you to prison? Write as if the First Amendment might be erased tomorrow? I don’t know.

I’ve been rereading Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind—a cautionary tale of the many ways an artist can betray his own art in a politically oppressive state. I spent seven years of my childhood in Poland. I was in Warsaw when Martial Law was declared. I was there for the birth of Solidarność. I turned fourteen a few days after the Wall came down in Berlin. And what I learned from those years is that art matters. It’s not, to use a Polish word, dekoracja. It’s hope. It’s resistance. Maybe it’s a reason to keep getting out of bed every morning.

Recently, I heard Rep. John Lewis say, “We must not be silent.” Could there be better advice for any writer?

SP: Since you say Dots and Dashes is a sequel, I’m interested in how we, as poets, can learn to return to certain obsessions without sounding too familiar. When do we know when to stop?

JD: It’s a good idea to pay attention to one’s internal boredom meter. If I’m bored with what I’m writing, it may be that my draft is, well, boring. Or, it could be that I’m writing a poem I’ve already written before!

SP: Starting out, what essays on form or craft were most influential to you? What role does teaching craft play in your classroom?

JD: I read a lot of the essays that students are often assigned in graduate school, pieces by Richard Hugo, William Stafford, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Mark Doty, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Rich. But the texts to which I most often returned were Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms, Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason, and An Exaltation of Forms, edited by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes.

How is the poem made (how is the house built)? That’s the question I’m always want us to answer in class. It seems to me another way of asking about craft. As you know, I start workshop by asking that we summarize a poem’s narrative–what’s the plot?–and then we move to the shape of the poem, the length of the lines, the size of the stanzas, the literary devices, the sonic effects, the voice, the movements of the mind thinking itself onto the page, and finally the meaning of the thing, the so what of it all. Brick by brick, we unbuild the house to understand its structure. I love that we call our work “craft,” because the word implies we are apprentices and later journeymen; the learning doesn’t end.

SP: I read that you like to work on more than one project at a time. What are you working on now?

JD: In addition to throughsmoke, I’ve been writing a series of what I’m calling “meditative close readings” about Philip Larkin. For several years, I’ve been working on Dinner with Kathleen Battle, a collection of poems about my father’s love of opera. And, I’m currently working on a manuscript titled Wild Kingdom, which contains long, narrative poems and more lyrical “field notes” about the toxic, birdlike ferocity of academia.

SP: How do you get into your writing zone? Do you have a writing space or any writing rituals?

JD: My favorite place to write is on my couch, with a cup of tea on the table to my left, and my Bedlington Terrier, Lola, curled up beside me on my right. Lola lets me know when it’s time to take a break by putting a paw on my laptop.

SP: How can poets who consider themselves introverts still contribute to literary citizenship?

JD: One of the most important ways we can engage in literary citizenship is by serving as an editor or a screener for a literary journal, identifying worthy work, helping our peers to find a larger readership for their words. Now that so much of the editorial process can happen online, through electronic submissions portals and by email, it’s not difficult for introverts—and I see myself as a member of this quiet tribe—to contribute to our community while protecting their need for space and introspection.

SP: To end on a lighter note, what’s your guilty reading pleasure? Do you believe in guilty pleasures? Why or why not?

JD: I came to my love of fragrances through words—by reading blogs like Bois de Jasmin, Perfume Posse, The Candy Perfume Boy, and Kafkaesque. The writing was so evocative, so determined to give language to the ephemeral, that I had to search out the scents these bloggers were trying to evoke. I still visit these sites, sometimes daily. Given that perfumes and perfumed words have been a source not only of pleasure but also of creativity for me, it’s hard to feel to guilty. Maybe the literature of perfume is frivolous, but I’ve learned so much about myself from discovering my favorite smells. When I realized that I loved the scent of roses more than any other aroma (after decades of believing I hated the flower), I understood that I barely knew myself at all. Without the beautiful writing of the perfume blogs, I never would have wondered, should I go try that fragrance?

Sebastian Hasani Paramo’s work has appeared in Pleiades, Front Porch Journal, Prelude, Huizache, upstreet, North American Review, & elsewhere. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Boiler. He holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Denton, Texas, where he is a teaching fellow in the doctoral program at the University of North Texas. Learn more at sebastianparamo.com.