Jen Currin has published two book of poems, The Sleep of Four Cities (Anvil Press) and Hagiography (Coach House Books). She lives in Vancouver, B.C., where she teaches creative writing at Langara College and Vancouver Film School. When she’s not riding her bike, she’s walking.
1- How did your first book change your life?
I started to think of myself as a bird-headed woman. Just kidding! I’m not sure it did change my life all that much, honestly. I mean, publishing a small-time poetry book…? But it is nice to have the poems in print, bound, in a nice little package you can give to a friend or stranger…
2 - How long have you lived in Vancouver, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
Race, gender, and geography all in one question! Yikes! Not sure I can do any one of them justice but will try to say a bit about each one.
I’ve lived in Vancouver for six years. Its streets, trees, cafes, people, etc. definitely inform my writing. The weather too--I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which has similar weather patterns, and so am very comfortable in the rain and gloom. When writing, I also pull from other landscapes/cityscapes, some imaginary, some imagined, and some that I’ve actually lived in.
I’m still figuring out how to write about race. I don’t think I approach it very often in my work, at least, not in an obvious way, although I think about it quite a bit. I’ve just been reading Juliana’s Spahr’s Transformations [see her 12 or 20 questions here], and appreciating the complexity with which she writes about race as a white woman who is living on a colonized island (Hawaii).
Gender I do write about quite a bit, especially in my newer poems. I think gender is a construct and am interested in writing about it as such.
3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I fall into the earlier category—a single poem poet first, a book-writer second. I’ve jotted down ideas for book-length projects, and have written a few poems that seemed part of a larger work, but usually I write from poem to poem. When I have a group of poems, I start to think about how they could work together as a book. This is what happened with Hagiography—after I wrote the title poem, I knew I would name the book this, and so started to think about how I could structure it, and how the poems fit together thematically, which ones to include, etc.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
When I was younger, I was pretty shy about reading, but these days I like it. It’s nice to give a voice to the poems. It’s always an honor to read to even one other person, let alone a crowd. I’m not sure whether readings assist the “creative process”—but they are important to the life of a poem/book after it is completed. I also read lines/poems out loud as I am drafting. I like to get a sense of how the words chime against one another, and the breath of each line.
5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Hard question! I would say my questions are more spiritual than theoretical. Right now—for some time, actually—I’ve been very preoccupied with the question of how we humans are going to survive, and if we are going to.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My first editors are usually readers—the vertigo west poets, my partner Christine Leclerc (a writer herself), and other poet-friends whose opinions I trust. So before a poem or manuscript is even looked at by an editor, it has undergone an editorial process. I definitely appreciate and use the feedback I receive from readers/editors. It is difficult at times—disagreements!—but also essential in that, it’s necessary to hear what readers have to say about one’s work.
7 - After having published a couple of titles over the past few years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
I’m not making a book right now, so I can’t say, really. Like writing a poem, book-making is always a new project, even if you’ve done it before.
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
Months, sadly. Maybe in February? It was delicious, golden. I think I ate it on a green salad with walnuts.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Most recently, reading Max Jacob’s Advice to a Young Poet: “Love a word. Repeat it. Gargle with it.”
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin? Where is your favourite place to write?
I don’t have—have never really had—a writing routine. It seems like a luxury. Recently, I was on a residency, and it was the first time in my life I was able to write every day. I go through long “dry” spells and then have bursts of creative energy where I’ll write several poems in a few days or weeks. I like to write at home on my couch or at the kitchen table, or at a café with good coffee and lots of windows.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I look around me. I find the world to be a pretty inspiring place. I read a lot—poetry, short stories, novels, plays, some journalism and essays. Reading is another world, as busy as this “real one,” and also quite inspiring.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
Hagiography and The Sleep of Four Cities are similar in terms of the movement of the poems, the packed stanzas. In both books, the poems are less fragmented than my current work. The older poems use space differently, and use conventional punctuation. Thematically, I can’t tell yet how different the older work is from my current work. Like most writers, I’m obsessed by just a few themes. These themes could change as I age, but I’m not sure that they have yet.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Yes, I’m influenced by all of these things—the natural world, visual art and film, music, dance. It’s all poetry to me.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There are so many writers who are important to me. The New York Poets continue to influence—early on, Ashbery and O’Hara were big influences, more recently Alice Notley. In my late teens and early 20s I read a lot of Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Elizabeth Bishop, W.S. Merwin and W.H. Auden. I love the work of Lisa Robertson, Anne Carson, Jane Miller, Olga Broumas, Max Jacob, Russell Edson, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Rilke, Lorca, Rumi, Hafiz, Robin Blaser…
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer? What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m also a teacher, and I love teaching. It’s my other calling. If I wasn’t a writer/teacher, I’d try to be a musician.
I’ve always had a love of language. Writing is more of a joy than an effort, although of course it is both. I know I have a choice whether or not to write—but it feels more like a necessity than a choice. I can’t imagine not writing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I just started writing again after a four month dry spell. I did some beginnings of collage poems a class I was teaching, and then I was reading Rita Wong’s [see her 12 or 20 questions here] latest book, Forage, and was inspired to start re-working the collages to make them into poems. I have a stack of poems from the last year or two that haven’t yet been organized as a manuscript. I can’t see yet how this new work needs to be put together, or if I even do have a book on my hands. I’m just thankful to be writing again!
12 or 20 questions archive