A Virtual Interview with Jenuine Poetess

Jenuine Poetess will share the feature stage with Sarah Frances Moran for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, February 11, 2016  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.


Jenuine Poetess has poemed her way through California and Texas since 2009.  She is the founder of ITWOW International and Waco Poets Society. Jenuine’s work has been included in such publications as di-verse-city, the Austin International Poetry Festival Anthology 2013, Yellow Chair Review, and The Feminist Wire; her poem, “Colors I have Been” will be published in the forthcoming anthology Coiled Serpent set to be released at the Associated Writers & Writing Programs conference (AWP) 2016 by Tia Chucha Press. Rooted in the conviction that creative health is a matter of justice, Jenuine creates weird things and ponders artful ways to continue disrupting the homeostasis.

The Interview

CH: What first drew you writing? What is your first memory of writing for yourself?

JP: When I was little I wrote all kinds of poems and stories, looking back and reading them now is kind of amazing to peek into my childhood mind and imagination. My vocabulary was pretty awesome back then for a kid!

I don’t have a clear defining moment when I was first drawn to writing, I just always seemed to gravitate toward language as my primary outlet of expression.

When did you first begin to identify as writer? as a poet?

JP: In 2009 I was living and working in Los Angeles. I had read several books by Luis J. Rodriguez—his memoir Always Running and a collection of insight, resources, and wisdom: Hearts and Hands: creating community in violent times.  In Hearts and Hands I learned about a community centro cultural that Luis, his wife Trini, and another had founded and to my delight, the centro was just down the highway from me.  In May 2009 I first attended an open mic at Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural.  Something in me sparked that night igniting such a fire in me.  But I didn’t call myself a poet, not yet.

As I continued attending open mic I noticed an imbalance in who was performing each week—there were hardly any female participants, though many women in the community would attend.  Over the months I engaged in conversation and learned that many women who came to open mic were also writers (though they didn’t call themselves writers either…yet).  Out of those dialogues an idea sparked among us: what if the centro had a women’s writing circle where we could gather, share, practice, and empower each other to get up and perform at open mic.  I offered the idea to Trini and hoped someone else would take the lead in making that happen.  Trini told me, “We have a belief here that when someone comes to us with an idea for a program, then it was intended that they should be the one to bring it to fruition.”  And so, after a month of wrestling with that idea, In the Words of Womyn (ITWOW International) was born.  But I didn’t call myself a writer, not quite yet.

ITWOW’s weekly writing circles began on January 15, 2010.  Women throughout the community–writing in every style and genre, elders and youth, mothers, students, aunts, teachers, counselors, accountants, social workers, artists, activists, all kinds of women—gathered together to begin writing, sharing, exploring, and discussing our practice and identities as women…and writers.  It was somewhere in those circles and conversations in the spring of 2010 that I finally gave myself permission to call myself a writer, to stretch my roots down deep and own that part of myself.

CH: Writing is a process of naming our own truth. What informed your self-naming? How has naming yourself influenced your writing?

JP: When I was little, my Gram gave me the nickname, “Jenuine” a play on my given name, “Jennifer.” I forgot about that nickname for decades, until September 2010 when I visited my Gram for her 90th birthday, she called me “Jenuine.”  As a flood of memories came surging back, I thought about how I was newly inhabiting my poet self.  “Jenuine” seemed like a pretty badass poet/stage name so I adopted it as my pen and performance name.  Immediately I was intimidated by the enormity of possessing such a name.  If I intended to go around calling myself “Jenuine” I ought be prepared to live, and to write, and to BE genuine.  My second thought though, was that maybe it would be a good thing to have a name to live up to in all the aspects of my life.

And so, I am becoming Jenuine.

My name has certainly lived up to itself in keeping me accountable to be real and true.  It challenges me beyond the bounds of ordinary life and language.  It invites me into the deepest parts of myself and others.  It whispers, “Go there,” when I am tempted to skirt around the difficult, painful, seemingly impossible places writing takes me.  My name connects me to my roots, to who I am and who I’m becoming.  My name, has become my vocation: to be, genuine.

CH: You’ve been active in the poetry scenes of both California and Texas. How has your move to Texas influenced your writing?

JP: Texas and I have an interesting, often complicated relationship. But inside the complexity such an extraordinary artwork is being forged between us.  Some of it is poetry, some of it is prose, some of it is rugged rough drafts.

I’ve had some deeply challenging years in Texas, personally.  I believe that is reflected in some of my writing.  I’m ready for a season of writing love poems to Texas.  There is so much natural beauty and wonder here.  Spaces and places which nourish my joy and do my soul good when I walk and wander inside them.  I can feel myself, as an artist and poet, changing.  It is a fascinating thing to observe from the inside.  I am curious to see what becomes of all of this metamorphosing!

CH: Tell us about your continuing relationship with ITWOW. 

JP: That original circle continues in California under the steadfast direction of Alex Hohmann.  When I moved to Waco in 2012, I almost immediately went through withdrawal from the rich and lavish artist/writing community I had in LA.  Motivated by a powerful desire to build community here, to make new friends, and find other women who write, I started the Heart of Texas chapter of ITWOW in January 2013 which continues meeting and thriving presently.  A second chapter, Las Lunas Locas, was started by yet another ITWOW member, Karineh Mahdessian and continues to bloom.

In 2014 one of the members of the CA circle, Nagham Wehbe approached me about beginning to lay the foundation for a circle overseas in her home community in Lebanon.  I loved the idea and of course gave my blessing and full support.  She networked with organizations and community centers during an extended stay there and planned an inaugural event.  She hoped for maybe 10-15 people, though 20-25 women had expressed interest.  The first ITWOW Lebanon event saw over 70 women of all ages gathering together to share their stories and learn more about ITWOW.  We were blown away, excited and humbled all at once.  Clearly, there was a need beyond our community in LA, to gather women together, empowering one another to give sound to our story and volume to our voice.

Originally, my intention with ITWOW was to restore balance to the weekly open mic events at Tia Chucha’s.  We accomplished that goal during the first year of ITWOW, seeing more and more women get up on the mic sharing—many of them for the first time ever.  I’ve witnessed as those same women have gone on to be published, to be featured poets, to host their own readings and circles, and even travel to the other side of the world to continue the work of ITWOW.  What I am learning, is that when women are empowered to speak their truths, we become an unstoppable force for transformation, healing, and community development.

CH: You’ve also founded the Waco Poets Society. What motivated you to found it? What has Waco’s response been?

JP: Similar to my motivation to begin Heart of Texas ITWOW circle, I longed to connect with a community of poets, musicians, and artists in Waco. When I arrived, there were no regular open mic venues except for one handful of events during an afternoon at the Waco Cultural Arts Festival.  There had been a history of open mic venues in Waco, but businesses closed, locations changed, and ultimately the programs didn’t survive.

I started Waco Poets Society as “The Word Gallery” in January 2013.  We met weekly for open mic at the Croft Art Gallery which was a gorgeous space in downtown Waco on Austin Avenue.  The response of the community was positive, supportive, and strong…for about 9 months.  And then people just stopped coming.  I’m not sure if the novelty of a new face and new event wore off.  But I paused programming at that point to step back, reflect, and brainstorm.

We started up again in January 2014 this time at a new location: Enchanted Cedar, in Lorena, TX.  We had a magical year hosting open mic once a month in that location.  We brought features from all over Texas and even Wisconsin when we featured Marcie Eanes who was debuting her second collection, Cameo.  In the spring of 2014 we added a second venue at the Art Forum of Waco in Sanger Heights.  Somewhere along the way I started Waco Poets Society as a Facebook page—mainly in the hopes of building a community among us—beyond just the open mic gatherings.  I was coming to understand that this work went so much deeper than merely hosting events, it was about cultivating a culture of poetry, spoken-word, and community arts.

Now, Waco Poets Society hosts 2 monthly open mics at Rufi’s Cocina and Tea2Go.  We love collaborating with local business partners—the symbiosis of supporting one another is beautiful. We’ve also started hosting special events, in response to things happening in our city and beyond.  In December we hosted a People for Peace open mic & vigil in response to some of the bombings and religious and racial violence that was taking place.  Over 65 people were in attendance and on the mic we heard poetry, Hopi prayers, a passage from the Q’ran, an Atheist holiday carol, Gospel hymns, spoken-word, and heartfelt reflections.  That event touched me in big ways and I am so proud of how we came together as a community to show loving kindness to one another in solidarity for truth, justice, and peace.

More and more people are coming out and sharing.  Our circle of “regulars” is growing and more people are stepping up to volunteer.  My hope is to pass the mic to others to take the lead in organizing open mic events

CH: In addition to founding both ITWOW and the Waco Poets Society, you’ve been active in organizing the Waco Word Fest as part of the Waco Cultural Arts Fest. How does your involvement in the wider world of poetry and event organizing nurture you as a poet?

JP: I’m finding it can be challenging to be an organizer and also have time and energy to invest in my own practice. I’m working on finding other people to hand off pieces of this work.  I stepped down from my role as Festival Chair for WordFest 2016 and I am so excited to see what the new chair will do with the festival.  I believe it is healthy for leadership to evolve and provide a variety of people the chance to realize visions and bring their own dynamic energy and creativity to the process.

My work in Waco has given me a more profound gratitude for those who came before me and did all this work in Los Angeles and Austin and other cities in which I’ve enjoyed the harvest of all that labor.  It is a fantastic effort to create this kind of programming, I really had no idea what I was getting into!  It’s so much more than creating events and getting people to show up, we are building a whole culture, an identity, a way of being and expressing in our city.  It goes far beyond event planning and publicity.

I have the utmost respect and admiration for all who plan, organize, host, and facilitate programming.  It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.  And yet, what an exquisite joy to witness people coming together, sharing creative expression, and being empowered to be who they are, out loud.

CH: How would you describe yourself as a poet? How has that description changed over time? What are your greatest sources of inspiration and encouragement? Your most daunting obstacle?

JP: I’m never very good at describing myself as a poet. I collect words on the page and piece them together, quilt-like.  In my writing, and most of what I do in life, I am less interested in keeping anyone comfortable, and most motivated by telling truths.

The world and people in it constantly inspire me. Much of my writing responds to issues of social justice and reflects on my own process of growing, learning, and healing.  My writing rarely follows a traditional form, but is more of the free-verse style.  I occasionally like to dabble in playing with structure and form; I believe it is a good exercise for the writing practice.

My biggest obstacle is not making/having the time to invest priority time and energy in my writing craft in terms of seriously reading others’ work, composing, polishing, editing, and reviewing my own work. I’ve also been challenged by a feeling of being burned out on writing—because I’ve been moving through some incredibly difficult personal healing process in my poetry over the last year.  I’ve been feeling a need to take a break from being immersed in such heaviness.  Lately I’ve taken to the visual arts facet of myself more…finding a soothing respite in painting and making art things with my hands.  I am a poet.  I will always write.

CH: Where do you see your writing taking you in the next five years?

JP: I’m thrilled to have my chapbook, BloodStories be published by Yellow Chair Review Press set to release in May 2016. I have a full-length collection I hope to release in 2017.  I just began a new venture professionally so the bulk of my time and attention will be focused there in building a thriving practice.  But ultimately my goal is to establish a professional rhythm that allows for much more creative practice—both financially and schedule-wise.

CH: Please name three influences on your poetry. What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

JP: For my three influences, I would have to name Luis J. Rodriguez, Kristy Lovich, and all the women of ITWOW. The most recent book of poetry I’ve read is I Love Myself Golden by Jesse Bliss.

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