Salt Memory, How to Live on Bread and Music, which received the James Laughlin Award, the Perugia Press Prize and was later nominated for the Poets’ Prize, and Little Spells, forthcoming from New Issues Press. Sweeney’s poems have appeared in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Poetry Daily, American Poetry Review, New American Writing, Pleiades, Verse Daily, and the Academy of American Poets “Poem-a-Day” series. She teaches workshops and offers manuscript consultation in California where she lives with her husband, poet Chad Sweeney, and their sons, Liam and Forest. Visit her at www.jenniferksweeney.com.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book felt like I had received a certain legitimacy as a poet. I know it should not be this way, but holding the immortal object in my hands, I understood that all this quiet effort had come to something whole that would live beyond me. People can be somewhat belittling about one’s effort as a poet, as if it’s a hobby or journal flourish which is frustrating as a young poet who is trying to take the art seriously and for whom the work is life-saving. Having an actual book with a Library of Congress # in it did help to transcend some of these attitudes. That’s the outer realm. The inner world of my art had a wonderful momentum after the first book came out. I could approach poetry in larger sweeps, think forward in long-poems and bodies of work. The shape and scope of the art opened up for me. My most recent work is more diverse in range of style and approach, more music and sound-conscious, less determined in arc and theme.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I don’t think this was a conscious choice. My poetic voice was simply the most compelling. When I sat down to write, I heard poetry, I wrote poetry. Poetry is the room with all the doors and windows. It propels me forward. It is a way of thinking and integrating and deepening and drawing myself closer to “the family of things.” I do love to write both fiction and non-fiction, but poetry is my home base, how I feel my way through the world.
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?
All of the above. When it comes to process, I stay pretty open about how writing projects develop. Sometimes they are mined from the deep and sometimes they are the result of notes, journaling, and laboriously culling a tangle of thoughts into shape. Every so often a poem comes out gloriously whole, but usually it’s more 90% there at first, then that last 10% to call something “finished” can take a very long time and involve some dramatic revision. I have one long poem I worked on and off for seven years. So this is a happy paradox for me. I am always simultaneously writing both quickly and slowly depending on the work. I’m writing from an “if-not-now-then-when” place and yet also resigned to let the whole process be glacial if need be.
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?
A poem begins with a couple of words. I benefit from some sort of focal point on a white page, plant a few odd and compelling words at the top and begin. I don’t necessarily use them or write anything to do with them, but they act like little keys. Listening to the sounds of the words themselves or contemplating the relationship between them seems to order my mind just enough while still staying receptive and loose, and I start thinking into language and listening my way forward. A poem about this way of entrance: http://constructionlitmag.com/the-arts/poetry/jennifer-sweeney/ As for building a body of work into a “book,” it’s also a very organic process. I write poems for a long time not thinking too much about the shape of a book until I have maybe 25 solid poems, then I start listening to what they are saying to each other, and the shape of a book begins to clarify.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy readings. They often feel like the completion gesture of the creative process and are gratifying and generous occasions, but to be honest, I have become a bit more reclusive as a writer in recent years, and don’t do as many readings as I used to. They have become more and more emotional and vulnerable experiences for me. Preserving the kind of inner listening required for the writing life is my first and most important focus.
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?
My poems often derive from direct experience, the aesthetic dimensions of music, image, meaning and spirituality—my angle is to stay close to rendering language that is true to the layers of consciousness that manifest during an experience, that is to trace the full dimensions of questions rather that answer them, to follow the questions rather than arrive at a conclusion. That said, I also love the work of the lyric poem that transcends meaning and experience and dwells at the edge of the known and the unknowable. As far as what questions are most pressing to me, this is always changing, but my third book, Little Spells (forthcoming in spring 2015), explores the scope of what slim margins all life leans on, fertility and the lack of, what rough spark we depend on every day to keep going. Much has been written on the ‘gates of death’ but perhaps less on what guards the ‘gates of life,’ and this collection seeks to perpetually meditate on threshold, potential, conjuring, from many different entry points to speak more universally about how we become, and how we endure a stalled narrative. It is the poetry of waiting, being suspended at the crossing, the work of everyday magic, loss, and bounty.
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?
This is a big question, and I think every writer would have a slightly different answer at any certain stage of her/his process. In direct and indirect ways, each writer is making an individual effort toward the collective expansion of the knowledge of ourselves by witnessing our lives and the time that we live. We chart a history of consciousness, and how we approach that is each writer’s contribution. No writer has to fulfill some duty call, but if the effort is honest, then the work will be useful and have value. Range of style, form, and topic is crucial in creating our full conversation about language and meaning, as is work that challenges and changes our perceptions.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have had editorial dialogues with two of my book publishers, and they were both very positive and clarifying conversations, not extensive or generative of new work, but more the tightening and completion of the ready-to-be-immortal. Seeing a body of work clearly at the end is a delicate thing; there is sometimes this impulse to make a lot of changes. Both editors helped tremendously in respecting my vision and talking about the poems intimately with me. Susan Kan, publisher of my second book, was open to adding in a long poem that had not previously been in the collection, but felt vital for me. This inclusion really made the book complete, and it was a big change; I was so grateful. Overall though, working with editors has not been an essential part of my work-in-process.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Art undoes the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t. –Theodore Roethke
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?
Right now, I spend most of my time with my nine month old and four year old sons. I tend to write fast in unexpected corners of the day. Everything feels a bit stolen. Poetry steeps for a long time, then comes quickly. It’s not the ideal way to sustain a writing practice, but it is equal parts thrilling and frustrating, and the end result is much the same as when I languished for hours in a quiet room. Part of that steeping is writing fragments, headlines, math equations, travel phrases, whatever mess of things is tossing around in my head in a notebook. I take this ongoing collection of notes anywhere I might find a corner of space, and as a result, I have written the majority of recent poems in parking lots and waiting rooms. Whatever rules I previously had about what conditions were necessary for writing to happen have been tossed out. This is a good thing, I think. I wrote the last poem for my next book in a crowded basement room waiting for a blood draw. I just try to keep showing up at any hour or place; something is usually there. If not, that instance is clearcutting for the next time. There are so many terrible ways to kill an hour. Trying to write but not succeeding is one of the best.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don’t panic if I’m not writing, but it usually means that something is out of balance. Maybe I’m on the computer too much or not reading enough or I’m not in my body and the circle has grown too tight. When writers feel this way, the mistake might be in pushing the need to write to satisfy fear. Returning to a more present and embodied life is what’s essential for me. I wander the orange groves, drive up to the San Bernardino Mountains, read generously and without much thought of writing. I get excited about my life again in an authentic and curious way. When writing is stalled, it is time to listen more.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
13 - 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?
All of these are meaningful influences for me. Nature and science have been sources of inspiration for all of my books. The ocean was spirit guide in my first book, but for all my writing, communion with the natural world is a place to keep returning to for nourishment, understanding, mystery, awe, terror. Music, both intrinsically and thematically, led me through the second book, notably in a long poem called “The Listeners,” where I explored my relationship with my father via our love for music, weaving in lyrics, memory, the obsolescence of the record album, meditations on time, and circular patterns.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Essayists are really important in helping me stay in my writer’s mind amidst an otherwise very full life. Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Eula Biss, Lia Purpura, Joan Didion, Rachel Carson are all writers whose poetic prose continues to slow and sustain me. As for poetry, I read very widely. I love range in poetry and read and enjoy all styles of poetry. I don’t understand why people are so divisive about poetry styles.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Swim with dolphins. Doesn’t everyone want to do that? I would like to swim with some dolphins and spend a lot of time writing some lyric essays. I would also like to try my hand at writing a children’s book. Hike a significant part of the Appalachian Trail with my husband and boys when they are older. Learn to play the mandolin. There is no end to this question.
16 - 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?
Choreographer. Botanist. Park Ranger.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I had previously been a dancer, and though I met my limits with this art, I see now how being in the body and expressing that through a temporal art was co-creating my writing life. I try to bring what sound and body-wisdom I know from dance into poetry. As the other temporal art, poetry asks me to be ever sensitive to music, rhythm, and the sensory realm, and these very much guide my writing process. Breath, wind, pace, texture, form, compression all deliver an intensity of experience that feels true for me. Writing is the best way I know to live.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m reading Lila by Marilynne Robinson right now. I’m not done yet, but it’s brilliant. As for film, I am really behind on watching great films. We moved three years ago to a house with a lot of windows, and there was only one logical place to put a t.v., but we’d already hung a beloved painting there and decided we’d rather look at that so we left the t.v. in the box. Sometimes I watch something on the laptop, but not often. Got any recommendations?
19 - What are you currently working on?
I am writing a fourth manuscript of poems, especially working with a long poem that weaves losing and finding myself in Prague, memories of my Polish grandmother, and the internment camps at Terezin among other things. I’m reading some interesting pieces on the colors of noises, and the “timbre of the universe,” preliminary reading for an essay I would like to write on white noise, development of the ear, Tuvan throat singing and our perception of sound in the womb.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;