Interview with Jehanne Dubrow
Editor-in-chief Sarah Lao interviews Jehanne Dubrow on persona poems, her works in progress, and her favorite scents.
JEHANNE DUBROW is the author of nine poetry collections, including most recently Wild
Kingdom (Louisiana State University Press, 2021), and a book of creative nonfiction,
throughsmoke: an essay in notes (New River Press, 2019). Her poems, essays, and
reviews have appeared in Poetry, New England Review, Colorado Review, and The
Southern Review. She is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North
Texas. You can visit her at www.jehannedubrow.com.
SL: I saw online that you were born in Italy and grew up in Yugoslavia, Zaire, Poland, Belgium, Austria, and the United States—have your experiences living abroad impacted your writing today?
JD: My experiences of growing up, largely, overseas have defined who I am as a writer. My poems and essays tend to have a global perspective and are frequently concerned with history, nation states, and the intersections of countries/borders/language. I was what's called a "Third Culture Kid," and my writing reflects the ambiguity and ambivalence (perhaps also the displacement) of having spent my formative years between cultures. Although the experience was often uncomfortable--all that moving, all that uncertainty about what home means--I'm so grateful for my childhood. It made me who I am.
SL: You’re so incredibly prolific, but what stuns me even more is how you balance so many projects—both long-term and short-term—at once. How do you stay organized and structure your time? Do you plan out your projects ahead of time? And when writing a series like your military spouse trilogy, do you plan ahead serially?
JD: I am really organized when it comes to my work! Obviously, I always prioritize my most pressing deadlines. For instance, my nonfiction book about taste is due to the publisher at the end of the summer; so that project is my most urgent task right now. But, at the same time, I try to be organic in how I move between manuscripts. I'm easily bored with my own voice. Whenever I start to feel tired of one manuscript, I'll shift my attention to another one. In this way, I seldom experience writer's block, because I'm always movingmovingmoving.
I do try to look ahead to my next project, mostly by staying attentive to the ideas, subjects, or texts that feed my obsessions, always asking myself, is there something here I want to pursue more fully? The military spouse trilogy was totally unplanned. After Stateside was published 2010, I thought I was done with the subject. But then, gradually, I had more to say about my experiences as a military wife, which led to the publication of Dots & Dashes in 2017. Then, nearly two years ago, when my husband retired from the Navy, I realized that I had something new to say about what it means to be "married to the military," which is how I've come to work on the final book, Civilians, a manuscript that explores what shapes a military marriage once the service member retires and becomes a civilian.
SL: Your recent essay in On the Seawall, “The Tiny Thread of Milk,” mentions Donald Hall’s essay “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird,” and you write that “the second of those, Milktongue, is the ‘mouth-pleasure’ of poetry, that poems are delicious to speak, the vowels and consonants delectable in their utterance.” I’m interested, then, in how you find yourself approaching sound both when you write and when you read. Do you find yourself prioritizing sound over taste or touch—the two other “essential delights of poetry?”
JD: For me, the feeling, the taste, and the sound of language all blur together when I'm working on a poem; I think of those three elements as the music of a piece. Often, when I start writing a new draft of a poem, I'm driven by a phrase or a line that I suddenly can't stop saying to myself. Usually, it's because that line is delicious: to say, to feel in my mouth, and to hear. I started out writing mostly in meter. And although I now work in free verse and prose poetry too, I'm very drawn to the rhythmic patterns of language. Whenever I'm drafting--poetry or prose--I'm always reading out loud, looking for the places where the music catches or fails. Those moments of failure usually correlate to places where my thinking isn't as rigorous as it could be, places where I need to be more precise or nuanced in what I'm saying.
SL: You write fantastic persona poems from a wide array of speakers (eg. from birds in Wild Kingdom and from scents in your tentatively titled manuscript, Skinscent). How do you navigate and immerse yourself in these different voices? What does the persona poem allow you to uncover?
JD: Oh, thank you! I love writing persona poems, perhaps because I always dreamed of being a fiction writer (and also because as a child I wanted to be an actor). The first series of persona poems I ever wrote were those in my second book, From the Fever-World, which is written in the voice of an imaginary Yiddish poet named Ida Lewin. After I wrote that collection, I felt like I had been visited by Ida's voice for a while. When working in persona poetry, I like to do a lot of research so that I can start to imagine the world of that speaker. I love how persona poems can help me to access a different aesthetic, even a new rhythm of speech. I imagined Ida's poems were fragments dug up from the ground and then "translated" into English; they sounded really separate from poems more closely connected to my own, autobiographical voice. In my book, American Samizdat, I wrote in the voice of an anonymous poet speaking from an America where the First Amendment no longer exists. For that project, I returned to a lot of the Polish poets of the 1950s through the late 1980s, looking at how they composed these very coded, guarde texts to circumvent the Communist censors. The research allowed me to think about what autocracy in America might sound like and to put myself in that world.
SL: I’m so excited for all of your works-in-progress, and I couldn’t help but notice that Skinscent, Exhibitions, and Taste: A Book of Small Bites seem to be divided into the three senses smell, sight, and taste through their respective focuses on perfumery, visual art, and the different tastes. What inspired you to write these three books, and has anything surprised you in the process of deconstructing the ways in which we experience the world?
JD: A friend recently referred to me as an "aesthete." At first, the label surprised me a little. But I guess it's true that I'm obsessed with the beautiful, particularly when it's problematic. I love beautiful perfumes, beautiful works of visual art, and beautiful/delicious meals. I think writing about these topics has a lot to do with my anxieties about beauty: that the beautiful can be seen as frivolous, that the beautiful is not always the same as the good, and that we can long for the beautiful even during horrible, dark times. The biggest surprise of writing these books?--I guess it would be how different these senses are from one another yet how much they all inevitably lead back to the same ethical questions about the relationship between the beautiful and our power to hurt one another.
SL: Having written so many books, do you now have a refined, personalized method of writing, editing, and structuring a book? Or, do you consider every new project its own experience and find an approach that works best for each?
JD: I've learned that every project has its own unique challenges, its own distinct way of unfolding. But I seem to go through the same drafting process, with all of my books. Usually, there's that initial burst in which I write a large number of poems or prose pages, which then become the ground on which the rest of the manuscript is built.
After that, the ideas come less easily, and this is when the really interesting work starts to emerge. Once I've accessed the most obvious ideas, I then have to start exploring angles that might be more intellectually or aesthetically challenging. This is always the stage at which I surprise myself.
Then, once I have a full draft, I begin adding and subtracting. The manuscript shrinks and grows, shrinks and grows, until it finally reaches its polished form. After a book is accepted for publication and I've received additional feedback from an editor, I do a final round of revising, which often includes writing brand new pieces.
In addition to all of these stages, I swing back and forth between hating the manuscript and feeling that maybe, perhaps it isn't the worst thing ever written!
SL: Lastly, what is your favorite scent?
JD: Since I'm a perfume collector, I'll answer with a fragrance (although it's really hard to pick a favorite). I love the parfum version of Joy by Jean Patou. It's definitely an old school kind of scent, rich and heavy with flowers. The first time I ever smelled it, I gasped (I'm pretty sure my pupils dilated with astonishment). Last year, I learned that Joy had been discontinued--I know that sounds like a metaphor for 2020!--and I almost cried, knowing that I only had half a tiny bottle left of the stuff. I've since purchased two vintage bottles of Joy extrait from the 1980s that I'm keeping as back-ups. As perfumes age, they lose their top notes, the fragile volatile oils that evaporate most quickly on our skins. But, vintage perfumes can still offer us the heart of a fragrance, even if the notes are no longer as effervescent as they were fresh from the bottle decades before.