A Virtual Interview with Jill Alexander Essbaum

Background

Thursday, October 8, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information.

Feature Jill Alexander Essbaum is the award-winning author of several collections of poetry including Heaven, Harlot, Necropolis, and the single-poem chapbook The Devastation. Her new collection, Would-Land, is just out from Cooper Dillon Books. Her first novel Hausfrau debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List and has been translated into 26 languages. Her work has appeared in dozens of journals including Poetry, The Christian Century, Image, and The Rumpus, as well as multiple Best American Poetry anthologies. A two-time NEA fellow, Jill is a core faculty member in The Low Residency MFA Program at University of California-Palm Desert. She lives in Austin, Texas. Twitter: @JAEssbaum

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry:

JAE: Oh dear.  I wrote two poems in elementary school the first, I believe in second grade about the Easter Bunny.  And later, third grade? I wrote one in honor of my father, who sold data communications equipment. It was a poem about modems. 

CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?

JAE: Sometime in high school. I wrote loads of stories and poems and little plays. Of varying depth and aptitude.  Oof.

CH: You’ve published a novel in addition to several volumes of poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer?

JAE: Where I land anymore is this: I play with words.

CH: I understand you are a two-time NEA fellow. What opportunities did they provide you? How did your writing life change because of them?

JAE: Honestly? The validation that came with them meant as much as the cash award. There’s something about being seen, you know? Recognized. Especially with poetry.

CH: Your first novel, Hausfrau, debuted a as New York Times Bestseller and has been translated into 26 languages. How did your practice as a poet influence the writing of Hausfrau?

JAE: I approached it as I do a poem which is, I wrote one word at a time, vetting all of them against each other. I think the practice of poetry in some real ways prepares you for writing a novel—we’re used to really thinking through what goes on the paper, and that meticulousness can make for some really polished fiction. 

CH: Tell us a little about Would-Land. Did you find that your experience as a novelist changed your approach to a new volume of poetry?

JAE: This book didn’t come as easily as my other poetry books, and I haven’t exactly pinned down why. It covers some of the same ground (literally in terms of setting) as Hausfrau and I had to dig in a bit harder to turn up new soil. I’m not a narrative poet but I did internalize (I think) some narrative structures (climax, denoument)—things that we play with intuitively in poetry, if not overtly. The genres really do feed on each other.

CH: What are some of the challenges for you as writer instructing in an MFA program?

JAE: Because I write in form or rather, versions of form, I sometimes worry that my students think that’s what I want from them.  But I don’t want them to write like me! I write like me! But honestly when I was in school I had that worry too. It’s such a vulnerable moment, sharing what you write either in a workshop or when it’s published. I never want to make anyone in my workshop feel like they don’t have the space to be themselves, for their poems to be their poems.  That said, I am going to press on them, challenge them as poets, challenge their poems as poems.  My goal is to get them to a place where, when they’re out of the program, they can put the pressure on their work without having me around to remind them to.  If I can teach them how to do that, then I’m doing ok. 

CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer?

JAE: I do several daily writing exercises. I’ve done this for a year now, without fail. It’s revolutionized my practice. I do a lot of crossword puzzles too. It’s good to fool with words.  But lest anyone think that’s all I do, I confess it here: I watch a LOT of television. And it’s all terrible. Wonderfully, uselessly terrible.

CH: Who do you view as some of your strongest influences? Please share with us a few of the poetry titles to which you turn and return.

JAE: There are five poems that I constantly return to simply for the glory of the craft that went into them. I learn so much from them every time I read them, which is often. I could LIVE on these five poems alone: Eliot’s Prufrock, Lavinia Greenlaw’s “The End of Marriage”, Ted Hughes’ “February 17”, Simon Armitage’s “To His Lost Lover”, and the utter tour-de-force that is Carol Ann Duffy’s “The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High”. Masterpieces, all.

CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

JAE: Julie Bloemeke’s Slide to Unlock and Gary McDowell’s Aflame. Just this past week. Highly recommended, the both.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s