Associate Poetry Editor Jonah Meyer Interviews Issue #57’s poet Jen Ashburn
Find Jen’s work here.
“As much as I love the oblique way poetry can enter your psyche, there’s real value to telling it straight.”
— Jen Ashburn
Your poem “It Was Not Midnight, It Was Not Raining” is, in my opinion, a mighty achievement, containing so many poignant and compelling moving parts. Can you tell us about your process in writing it, and the events that inspired it?
I began this poem in a multi-genre workshop focused on writing about and through trauma. I’d planned to work on a prose piece about growing up with a schizophrenic mother, but I was reeling from my mother-in-law’s death a few months earlier. I also had the cheesy habit of writing an anniversary poem to my husband each year. “Let’s call this our sixth anniversary” thumped around in my head until I just had to write it down. I thought, “Okay, I’ll get this down really quick, then write my piece for workshop.” But I couldn’t break away.
I was able to get the bones down in that first draft, but every revision seemed to make the poem more and more complicated. Somewhere along the way, I decided to weave Beckett and Bashō into the form, and for a while I had Bashō’s famous frog poem (old pond / frog jumps in / sound of water) as part of the title. In my mind, the poem’s sections—six or seven in some drafts—were like ripples of water in Bashō’s pond. No one got it, though, and I also couldn’t find the right stanza or section breaks.
The poem finally started to take off when I ignored the form for a while. That let me find the language I needed. Then I let go of the Bashō concept, aside from the reference in the first section, and eventually the form fell into place.
I am especially struck by the stark – and unexpected – contrast after reading about your “three-minute” wedding ceremony, with the line directly proceeding it: “Then a week later / in our back bedroom, your mother died. We knew / the cancer would render her, knew it like the end / of a movie.” I’m interested in the connection – both spoken and unspoken – between Samuel Beckett’s Malloy and the poem’s title. Can you elaborate on this?
Most of this poem is true to the events that inspired it. My husband and I did talk about Beckett and Bashō on our first date. He really did lend me the Beckett trilogy, which includes Malloy, and I still have not finished reading it. It’s also true that we took care of my mother-in-law for the last few weeks of her life, and that she died about a week after our wedding. I can’t explain why I paired these things together, except to say most writers, I believe, are constantly metabolizing perceptions and experiences that will turn up in their work. Sometimes I think our job isn’t to be creative, but to be observant.
That being said, the starkness of Beckett does seem apt. The title “It Was Not Midnight, It Was Not Raining” comes from near the end of Malloy. I haven’t read the full novel, but I read sections of it while revising the poem. The back and forth, the giving and taking away, seem to speak to the confusion and grief expressed in the poem. The title also helps a sense of affection to develop (I hope) as the poem’s final section riffs off the titular sentence pattern.
Please tell us about your writing practice. How and when and where do you begin the composition of a new piece? Does your work go through much self-revision? Do you have regular readers of your drafts? At what point are you pleased with the results, feeling that the poem is complete?
I keep a commonplace book, which I refer to for inspiration. Sometimes I set myself a task to write six observations a day, a practice I got from Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual. The sounds of words intrigue me, and I’ll pace around reciting different variations until if find one that seems promising. I revise like crazy. I do have some regular readers and I attend workshops. I never think a poem is finished—either it gets published, or I just get tired of working on it.
You’ve taught creative writing classes to adults incarcerated in the Allegheny (PA) County Jail, and facilitated workshops for VoiceCATCH, a community writing program for those released from prison. What were these experiences like for you? What did you learn from the participants?
I learned a lot from those experiences, but the most important lesson was probably to mean something when you write. Many of the participants in those classes didn’t have much writing experience, but when they had something to say, they said it. As much as I love the oblique way poetry can enter your psyche, there’s real value to telling it straight.
What’s next on the horizon for you, Jen, insofar as current or forthcoming poetry projects? We’re curious about your future creative pursuits and poetic endeavors.
I have a poetry manuscript that I’m trying to place now. And I’m also working on writing a memoir.