Jenny Drai is the author of The History Worker, Wine Dark, The New Sorrow Is Less Than The Old Sorrow (all from Black Lawrence Press), [the door] (Trembling Pillow Press), :Body Wolf: (Horse Less Press), and Letters to Quince (winner of the Deerbird Novella Prize from Artistically Declined Press). Her fiction, poetry, and lyric essays have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Banango Street, Colorado Review, OmniVerse, Pleiades, and Versal. She lives in Bonn, Germany. Learn more at jennydrai.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?
When I first had a chapbook accepted for publication, I’d say I finally felt as if I were no longer writing into the void. But in general, I think I have always felt a little bit overwhelmed by actual book publication. I’ve been in the situation where I was producing manuscripts for years without placing them. Since 2014, however, two chapbooks, three full-length collections of poetry, and a novella have appeared. It’s almost too much. At the same time, I’m trying to get better at putting myself out there and saying, hey, look, I made this thing, check it out. With the recent publication of The History Worker, I’ve been simultaneously feeling a sense of accomplishment and fighting a feeling of publishing into a void. Sadly, there’s a lot of imposter syndrome going on here too. Kind of like, oh, I’m not a real poet yet, not enough people read me, I don’t really matter. This is something I’m working on right now, sorting through these feelings.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I didn’t! Although I started out writing mostly fiction as a kid, I’ve written in multiple genres since college, mostly poetry and fiction, but also more recently lyric essay/cross-genre stuff. What links it all together, I think, is that I like to tell stories. I think this explains, in terms of poetry, why I am drawn to composing longer works, series of poems, multiple single poems on the same subject, and book-length projects. It takes me a long time before I feel done with a speaker or subject.
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?
This is a hard one to answer. The simple answer is that I go through phases of writing like a fiend, then revise over time. In general, I tend to start over and rewrite instead of revise. What makes this question a bit hard to answer is that I don’t specifically know how to identify the point of first generation. Some bits of language, some ideas, have been with me for years. But I think there are also times when I’ll hit a sweet spot and produce stuff that doesn’t need a lot of rewriting/revision. In terms of fiction writing, my method is a little more methodical but I also embrace retyping/rewriting as a strategy here. With fiction, there tend to be a lot of changes from initial freewriting to the later planning/rewriting phase. Here, as well, there are stories that have been with me, in one form or another, for years. I do write myself a lot of notes.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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 probably always go in with an idea of an overall sense of having a book, although there have been exceptions.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I feel pretty neutral about this. I don’t think public readings have much effect on my creative process. I’d be lying if I said being a reader and getting a positive response from an audience hasn’t worked as an ego boost. But the act of regularly going to public readings as an audience member, of participating in community in this one particular way, has often cost me too many spoons to be worthwhile. I’ve tried to participate in community in other ways, by writing book reviews and by reading for a press and for a journal.
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 think, in general, I am curious about how we are formed by the things we connect to as we move through our lives. When I write poetry, at least, I try to answer this mostly for myself. I’ve noticed that a theme in some of my fiction is an exploration of the ways imagination can provide refuge from both the small and large indignities of everyday life. I’m not sure about theoretical concerns or about what the current questions are though.
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?
Maybe that it’s important to acknowledge one’s own subjectivity. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in human connection across vast distances, or in empathy. I just don’t think any of us can get there unless we acknowledge our starting points.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve been lucky and have found responsive readers who edit within the worlds I’m creating and so it’s been a pretty positive experience. For fiction, I’ve found an outside editor to be absolutely essential. With every editorial suggestion, I’ve learned something about writing that I’ve taken with me to my desk the next time I generate, by which I mean to say I’m gaining essential skills. Also, I would not be submitting to the places I am if it weren’t for the encouragement of my main editor.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Two things. It’s okay not to write every day. Write what you want to read.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Pretty easy. The appeal is that I can play hooky on one genre by working on another and in turn gain energy and excitement through that work for the genre I’m currently not working on.
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?
I write a lot, though not necessarily every day, and live a pretty structured life, in the sense that I do a lot to create and maintain structure. Structure is what keeps me going, I think. It’s the ultimate self care. The act of writing is part of that scaffold, along with exercise, meds, hygiene rituals, healthy diet, chores, work, reading, morning pages, etc. I’ve trained myself to be able to write at different times of the day, and this has helped me to be more productive. A typical day usually begins with reading, prioritizing tasks for the day to come, and I often exercise quite early in the morning. That’s the foundation of any day for me. Without that solid foundation, I tend not to write as much. (I do allow myself days off from my routine, just so I don’t end up bursting and throwing off the structure in a rebellious fit, shooting myself in the foot in the process.)
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading, reading, and more reading.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I don’t know about home, but my ultimate comfort smell is chlorine. I was a pool rat growing up and have spent a lot of time on swim teams. I can always find myself in a pool.
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?
Definitely from books, but also from looking at art and from places. So, not just reading about history, but from existing within spaces that might in some way be said to be historical. (So, pretty much every place, everywhere, I guess.) The simultaneous smallness and largeness of humanity fascinates me. Humans have existed over vast expanses of time, but always within our own subjectivities. I often wonder about the specific persons, the particular subjectivities that have existed in various spaces long before I’ve set foot there.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Marina Warner, Maria Tatar, Helen Oyeyemi, Quan Barry, Franny Choi, and Angela Carter have all gotten me going recently. Outside of work, there are too many to list. Can I say all of them?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I want to visit the UK. Stonehenge at sunrise, London, York, the Scottish highlands. It would be really cool to go to Skara Brae.
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?
I would be an archaeologist. There’s this real desire I feel to get inside of and feel my way around the things and spaces of the past. I do not understand humanity. I don’t know. Maybe I think mucking around in the past would help me with that.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
By being a writer, I suppose can fully embrace a number of interests without having to choose between them. Otherwise it’s impossible to be a historian, an archaeologist, an art historian, a folklorist, a physicist, an astronomer, a literature professor, a medievalist, and so on. (It’s a long list.)
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just finished Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and loved it. I don’t watch a lot of movies these days, but I do watch TV on Netflix. I’m currently watching series two of The Fall and find that Gillian Anderson’s performance makes for compelling viewing.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m revising a batch of short stories. I’m seeking a literary agent for my novel about the evolving relationship between Beowulf and his estranged foster daughter. For fun, I’m writing poems in German. I’m also planning a novella (that will hopefully ultimately live in the same collection as the short stories), inspired in part by The Juniper Tree. The action takes place in a future world ruled by a conservative political movement that has taken its inspiration from a hack author’s hack novel about patriotism. I write about neurodivergence and various literary and historical oddities on my blog. And I’ve been writing some poems that use the characters and situations in the middle English poem “Sir Orfeo” to discuss the reality of mental illness and healing for all involved.