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Interview with 2015 Poetry Prize Runner-Up Jennifer Givhan

Indiana Review‘s 2016 Poetry Prize is now underway, with submissions open February 15th through April 1st. In celebration, we’ve tapped 2015 Poetry Prize Runner-Up Jennifer Givhan to tell us more about her writing process, sources of inspiration, how she deals with writers block, and advice to future submitters.


Jennifer Givhan is the author of the poetry collectionLandscape with Headless Mama, which won the 2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2013, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, Rattle, Columbia Poetry Journal, Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, and Southern Humanities Review, among over one hundred other publications.

She currently works as Poetry Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal and teaches poetry workshops at The Poetry Barn.

Your piece, “My God, Nieve” includes a series of choices that the main character must make between “blank or blank.” Could you explain where your inspiration for this came from?

This poem comes from my experience after my husband lost his job; I was pregnant and teaching as an adjunct, but that unsteady salary was not enough to make ends meet, and I’m so grateful WIC (a program for women, infants, and children) helped us continue feeding our children during that difficult period. This poem is for my mother and the other hardworking mothers who have to make decisions that might seem outrageous to anyone who doesn’t know what it means to go without, to have to choose between peanut butter or beans. We’d get coupons that specified the amount of protein (I think canned tuna was an option as well, but one my son would never eat) and the veggie coupons were new—WIC didn’t always offer them, and we were very excited when we could again buy fresh fruits and veggies.

What was your writing method for this piece? Was it a poem that you wrote in one sitting or came back to over time?

I nearly always draft in one sitting, often in long lines or thick blocks of text down the page, somewhere between a prose poem and blank verse, which is the most natural way for me to write—it reflects the way I think, in the borderlands between narrative and lyric. This poem is no exception, and like everything else I write, I revised relentlessly. Writing is a balance between trusting my strange instincts towards surreal, visceral image twined with snippets of narrative & memory and ironing out the kinks for clarity. The work of writing is allowing this to flow without judgment, getting it onto the page as quickly as my imagination can conjure it. The work of revising is finding out how much I can get away with that first draft, how much makes any sense to a reader (that bread-mouth, that Sally-dress). This poem comes from that same place, where my proclivity toward shoplifting the things my mom couldn’t afford to get me as a preteen becomes something I’m no longer ashamed of but a means of survival, depending on how one views it. Ice cream is not a necessity. Or is it?—stolen joy.

What was your process like in preparing your submission for the 2015 Poetry Prize? Any tips for future submitters?

I round up my spit shiniest poems, the ones I feel proudest of and most excited about—the ones that I can’t stop reading and feel in my gut are ready for the world. I used to raise pigs for 4-H & FFA, and every year I’d raise that barking, funny lovely (did you know that pigs bark like dogs?) for auctioning at the county fair, crossing my fingers a farmer would buy her for a breeder. No one can know for certain how their pig will be prized or loved or not. But this was a poem that surprised me each time I read it—a good sign that perhaps others would find something in it to love as well.

Is there something that you’ll never tire of writing about? Why?

Mother/child relationships & that kind of sticky love that keeps us hanging on when we’ve no other reason but love. They pave the way for everything else—all future memories and dreams hinged on what happens or doesn’t when we’re forming our personalities, our versions of the selves we can become. There’s tremendous guilt and sadness surrounding this for me, but also a sense of freedom, of revising and reimagining the possibilities. I read Beloved as a young teenager and every day before and every day since has been marked by the idea that you your own best thing. The call to love, for me, is ever about the marginal spaces that separate & bind us—that inky place that asks us to continue tying ourselves to this life, to each other, despite or perhaps because of the pain.

Do you remember which pieces initially sparked your interest in poetry and made you want to write your own? What did you like about those poems? Are there elements of these that you have incorporated into your own writing?

I’ve loved poetry since I could love anything. My dad used to recite Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses to me—I particularly loved “The Swing”: “How do you like to go up in a swing, / Up in the air so blue? / Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing / Ever a child can do!” Poetry mentors and teachers have told me that I have a natural ear for sound, and that’s all nursery rhymes and songs, that’s all loving music and feeling the rhythms within. In high school, I loved Jewel. I know she gets a bad rap from poets. In a college class when I finally began “studying” creative writing, a professor said that Jewel is not a poet and that her book is not poetry. I had no idea. Where I grew up, I had absolutely no conception that contemporary poetry was a thing. I thought all the writers in books were dead. I mean, I never thought about it. I knew I wanted to be a poet, knew I wrote pages and pages in my journals and showed them to my mom and my ex. But I didn’t know there was this whole thriving, beautiful community of crazy talented poets living and breathing and sharing their work with each other and anyone else who’ll listen. My brother had given me a copy of Jewel’s A Knight Without Armor and Destiny’s Child “Survivor,” because, he’d said, I was one. And that was my first poetry school. My first year of college I found Sandra Cisneros and she became a light in darkness—I too wanted to be a loose woman, Ping! Ping!—to break things, with my poems. To put them back together.

How do you deal with writers block? Any unusual suggestions?

Music, loudly and freely and unthinkingly. I close my eyes sometimes and allow myself to fill with nothing but rhythm and sound, letting the images dance; variably, I’ll begin with a list of words I’ve collected over several weeks or months in journals, news articles, field guides, textbooks and let the disjointed narratives come as they may. When I’m blocked, I try to think of writing as experimenting—as in a scientific process, but perhaps testing some unknown or unconscious hypothesis, knowing I might fail and not fearing it—embracing the journey rather than focusing on some supposedly set destination I may never reach or that may never have existed and then lamenting the loss. In the sciences, what doesn’t work is often just as useful if not more so than what succeeds. Even if the experiments yield nothing in the current moment, I try to view my failures as instructive and positive rather than as losses; in this way, the writing itself emotionally and psychologically bolsters me, helping me get through times when the external world is not necessarily encouraging my art, i.e., those insidious rejections. Sometimes the stars align and what comes out takes off the top of my head (thank you, Dickinson!)—and sometimes it becomes a runner-up for a prize in a journal I adore.