Monday, December 18, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jane Huffman

Jane Huffman’s debut collection, Public Abstract, won the 2023 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, selected by Dana Levin. Jane is a doctoral student in poetry at the University of Denver and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is editor-in-chief of Guesthouse, an online literary journal. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, The Nation, and elsewhere. She was a 2019 recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Online at

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

The first book didn’t change my life, but I’m happy for the new opportunities and connections it has brought me. I’m working on something very different now. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I studied it seriously for the first time as an undergraduate, taking classes at Kalamazoo College with Diane Seuss. Before that, via e.e. cummings: Complete Poems, edited by George J. Firmage, which my dad bought me when I was a kid.

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 tend to work on a draft to completion in one or two sittings. I revise as I write. I tend to decide quickly and intuitively whether a poem is going to amount to something. 

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?

Poems usually begin with language rather than ideas. I never thought of the poems in Public Abstract as a book until it suddenly was one, and then it took on various manifestations, forms, shapes, titles, before it was ready to be published. The project I’m working on now feels more like a project, more congealed.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I enjoy reading a lot, but since COVID-19, I have become extremely wary of large groups. I love Zoom readings and would like to do more of them.

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?

Lately, the idea of “firstness,” “secondness,” and “thirdness” from Charles Sanders Peirce, which proposes how an “idea” emerges. I am also interested in theories of illness and recently began writing about the “cough” as a semiotic unit, a driver of repetition

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

To keep record. To add to the human archive. To be humane. And if they teach, to teach energetically and ethically.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I welcome editorial feedback whenever it is available. I have a few trusted friends who read new work and can tell me if something is getting warmer or colder.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

From the al-anon community: Easy does it.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

I find it extremely difficult, and so by necessity, one register bleeds into the other. I think that is also the appeal.

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 don’t have a writing routine. I write when I can, as much as I can. A typical day begins stallingly, mid-morning, with coffee and a dog walk. 

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I return to reading. Or listen to talk radio. In each, I’m trying to pick up on a mode or register in an outside voice. 

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Can I say a sound instead? Snow-blowers blowing before sunrise.

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?

I have been learning ceramics, and I love how, unlike a poem, you work from the bottom to the top. This concept has informed my current writing project.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

So many. I’ll narrow to a few who sat with me as I wrote Public Abstract: Emily Dickinson, Kay Ryan, Kimiko Hahn, Jean Valentine, John Keats, Dionne Brand, Rosmarie Waldrop

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Answer the unanswered emails. 

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 training horses in rural Michigan.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I don’t know. Despite many tortured efforts, I was a terrible singer, dancer, and musician.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Currently reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Recently loved Brian Teare’s Poem Bitten by a Man. The film that comes to mind is Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2019). 

20 - What are you currently working on?

A second manuscript of poems that incorporate parentheses. Also a PhD in English and literary arts. 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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