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 wh