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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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?
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.