Jennifer Firestone is the author of Flashes (Shearsman Books) Holiday (Shearsman Books), Waves (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs), from Flashes and snapshot (Sona Books) and Fanimaly (Dusie Kollektiv). She is the co-editor of Letters To Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics and Community (Saturnalia Books), and an Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College (The New School). She lives with her family in Brooklyn.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It didn’t. My first book, Holiday, began as something I wrote on part of a napkin during a trip. It took several years to fully conceptualize and develop. Then I had twins, and then I had a book. I was happy but it was just another event. Not to sound ungrateful, because I’m not, but I think there might be too much emphasis placed on the “first book.” Holiday was a very specific project in which I was deconstructing tourism, “master” artists/masterpieces, and ideas about the expectations and pressures of a vacation. My recent projects are more expansive; they’re less about specificity and more about layering and nuance. But the tracking of perception and the projections of perception is what’s kept constant. I’m also fascinated by the use of the camera as a way to zoom in and out of perceptions and track how things are staged or constructed. I think the camera has been a tool throughout my work.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
As trite as this may sound depression and sensitivity during my youth brought me to poetry. I wrote fiction also but the open and exploratory quality of poetry lured me in. Poetry helped me filter and mediate what was occurring in the world around me and my relationship to it all.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I work both slowly and quickly. To begin with I usually have a surplus of fragments hovering and then I work fast in a manic kind of way. I begin to fill in with notes and research—this takes time. I revise heavily as at some point I try to let go of aspects of my ego and accept what the poem is or hopes to be. I also periodically archive project ideas and slowly, slowly collect notes on those over several years until I start playing with them and seeing the project that might be evolving.
4 - 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 have a more difficult time coming to the discrete poem but I’m doing it more lately as it is a challenge for me. I think serially and therefore write that way. I like the work to be able to stretch out its legs.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes public readings are crucial. I’m nervous reading my work but I do it often and am appreciative of the community event of a reading. I also “hear” the work in a different way when I’m reading in front of an audience. Usually the parts that are weak or disingenuous ring loud.
6 - 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?
I don’t know how to write without theoretical concerns. I’m more drawn to the questioning aspects of writing than the answering. My concerns are always why a poem versus any other type of writing. I am curious to push at what makes me identify as a poet. I also am always working against the desire to play with language, sound and the page versus the “meaning” or intent (not that these variables are mutually exclusive), but I look at the posturing, the gesturing in a poem and wonder about it…where it comes from, how it arises, is it qualified, does it have to be. And of course the big question of why even bother, why poetry?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Whoa. These large questions scare me. I don’t like the word “role.” It makes me feel I have a job of some sort and I’d rather work less than I do. On a very basic level I think we all have poetry (whether we know this or not) and poetry and poets can encourage people to think discursively, to stay in the place of investigation and questioning.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Definitely essential. I wish our culture had the means (maybe it’s interest too) in really editing each other’s work. I would welcome the insight and I think a lot of books could use some additional editing. And of course the relationship can be difficult between a writer and editor. Any collaboration is, right? You might think you’re a good communicator BUT… I will say though I am also quite interested in alternative publishing routes such as collectives and such.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Myung Mi Kim would speak about how a poem can absorb “invisible research” so that the ideas one might look into don’t always have t be so explicitly tacked on to a poem.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I like the exploratory form of an essay. I just need the prose to be flexible and meandering in its attempt at a trajectory. All my work is critically reflexive and so it excites me to hold on to my aesthetic and grapple with the demands of a particular form.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Oh gosh. I respect those who have a strict routine. My routine is really no routine. I have three small kids and so I write in jumps and fits. I’ve learned to be informed by this as a poetics of some sort—having to create within disjointedness. I presented a paper on this called “The Synergy of Poetics and Motherhood” for the Belladonna: Advancing Feminist Poetics And Activism Conference.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read books, particularly poetry books, just flipping through them to sense the texture, visual layout etc. The look of a book can excite me or just reading words without context helps. I also generally want to write when I see art if the experience itself is not too sterilely institutional. Also geography helps. Going to a different place, different air, colors, hits the refresh button on my brain.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
Art makes me want to write. I just visited a Carrie Mae Weems exhibit at the Guggenheim and told my students to carry their notebooks and take “poetry notes.” I get into a very engaged but calm place around art. But really all materials/disciplines are up for grabs. I think a poet should mediate as many forms as possible.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Emily Dickinson, Kamau Brathwaite, Lyn Hejinian, Lorine Niedecker, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Harryette Mullen, Gertrude Stein, Susan Howe, Charles Olson, Barbara Guest, John Ashbery, Edmond Jabès, Paul Celan and many others.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Maybe perform. Actually I am performing now in a new performance art group that I co-founded called Wonder Machine, and I think in an ideal world I’d even go more in that direction. I took drama when I was very young as it was sort of the place for drifters, weirdos, etc. I’d like to sing and just push the edge of what I can do performatively but that still has artistic value to me.
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?
Well I guess I’d be a shrink. I mean I think I’d be a good one but I’d probably get too wrapped up in people’s stuff. I do it now as is.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I realized writing was a site of investigation, querying and plotting that I didn’t find the space for in other areas. It felt generous and in a way unyielding which perpetually keeps me challenged.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Joseph Harrington’s Things Come on. I haven’t seen a film that’s wowed me in a long time. What jumps in my head is Breaking the Waves. Oh but the documentary Blackfish is really strong and hard to watch.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on the collaboration that I mentioned previously which involves text that I wrote, photographs from urban geographer Laura Y. Liu, sound by composer and musician Daniel Goode and performance by noted feminist and writer Ann Snitow. I’m also writing a long poem entitled Story, which is the telling of a particularly harrowing event that happened at a beach while simultaneously the telling and resisting telling of how that story is constructed. Last, I’m working on a manuscript of poems that investigates the icon Mother Goose and its publishing history.
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