Jennifer Givhan, still in her twenties, has had an active writing career. She was a 2010 PEN Emerging Voices Fellow, a St. Lawrence Book Award finalist, and a Vernice Quebodeaux Pathways Prize finalist for her poetry collection Red Sun Mother. Nominated for the 2012 Best of the Net, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in over fifty journals, including Prairie Schooner, Contrary, Rattle, The Los Angeles Review, decomP, Pedestal, Fickle Muses, Up the Staircase, Acentos Review, and Crab Creek Review. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College and teaches composition at Western New Mexico University. She is a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts fellow and her new poetry collection, Landscape with Headless Mama (forthcoming in 2016), recently won the 2015 Pleiades Poetry Prize.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing since I could write. I wrote poems and stories as a little girl, and kept a diary and poetry journal all through grade school and high school. I’ve thought of myself as a poet since I was young, but I first began writing in earnest (crafting, revising, seeking out feedback on my writing) after the falling apart of my relationship with an ex-boyfriend. We were together from the time we were fourteen until we were twenty-one, which meant my entire “adult” life up to that point. I needed poetry to help me sort through it and express how I was feeling. I returned to this idea in my novel, seven years later, and realized through the writing that I still had unresolved emotions/ideas that I needed to work through. Now that I’ve written scores of poems and a storyline of a novel about my ex-boyfriend, I’m wondering if I’m finally done writing about him and us. Probably not. Falling out of love is harder than falling in love!
I began thinking about craft and writing seriously (which means revising and revising and revising) when I was in college. During my Master’s program, the next time I felt pulled to writing, as if I couldn’t breathe or live or make sense of anything without it, is when I was going through infertility, which culminated in the adoption of my beautiful boy. And then came another whole series of poems, which I crafted into my Master’s project, then called "From the Ashes of My Cervix, I Rise" (and the second storyline for my first novel). I eventually adapted some of the poems and themes into my poetry collection Blood in the Yolk.
What I find is that writing, more than anything, saves me, over and over and over. It pulls me out of the water and keeps me safe. Of course, sometimes it plunges me back in (I must revisit those experiences to write about them), but when I’m with poetry, I don’t feel so alone.
Much of your work is centered on mothering or is laced with maternal themes. I assume that this was not always the case. How would you describe your work pre-motherhood/maternal instinct?
The truth is, there never was a pre-maternal instinct for me. When I was sixteen, my then-boyfriend got another girl pregnant…and through a tumultuous on again off again time with him, even as I went to college and pursued my own dreams, I often felt the tug of motherhood, and his daughter was a continual reminder of what at least a part of me so deeply desired. So, as an example, here’s an early poem, which I wrote the first drafts of when I was in college:
Mother-woman, other woman, in my bed, She’s the woman, fertile woman, hollowing my head.
Caroline has a baby girl. She’s beautiful, intelligent, stacks Thomas the Train building blocks in perfect rows.
Our pieces wedge together and converge in that brown haired baby with seashell eyes,
she’s yours, not mine.
You can read the poem in its entirety (Lovesong of the Barren Woman) online at The Fertile Source, where I delve into more detail in an interview there about my literary theorization behind my desire for motherhood and perhaps compulsory motherhood that’s steeped in my (Latina, rural, border) culture.
Now, twelve years later, I’ve begun exploring other themes besides motherhood and child loss, though my work is still infused and inspired by those issues. I think perhaps my Muse is a mother—and she keeps giving me mama-songs to sing
Now, you're a wife and mother. How do you manage to write so prolifically with so many demands on your time?
Ha! Well…I rarely sleep. I have no social life to speak of. My husband and my dad do most of the housework, and we eat leftovers or takeout almost every night!
I have big dreams, and I work as hard as I can as often as I’m physically and emotionally able to make those dreams real. In the past five years that I’ve been sending poems (and, in the past year, short stories and my novel) out into the world, I’ve published over seventy pieces in over fifty journals, I’ve earned my Master’s in English, a low-residency MFA at Warren Wilson College.
Perhaps I don’t feel like I have a lot of time. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. What I know now is that I love to write. I’m compelled to write. And I have the deeply rooted desire to write something lasting and important. I’m not sure exactly what that means in terms of where and how it lasts or for whom it’s important (perhaps in the end it’ll only matter to me or my children), but I do know that I’ll never find out if I don’t write and send my writing into the world. When I was in high school, my dad would tell me that I would write the Great American Novel. I believed him. I still do. Again, I have no idea what it means, but I know I have to keep trying.
Realistically, I’m able to do it because I have a family that supports me and my desire to advance my career while raising my children. We bought a house with my parents in true Mexican-American style, and I really do not know that I could write as prolifically as I do without such strong support from my parents and my husband. I feel so blessed. My mom reads everything I write—even when she disagrees with my “themes.” She often asks why I can’t write anything “happy.”
How does your identity as a Latina inform your writing?
It reminds me continually that I want to work that much harder to have our stories heard. As a Latina poet from a small desert community on the California/Mexico border, I strive to speak for and with the women with whom I grew up: the mothers, daughters, childless women, tías, and nanas. My writing is concerned with the complex relationships many women of color have with family and tradition, which are so rife with ambiguities. They’re often liberating and subjugating forces, both strengthening and repressive, with mythical dimensions and at the same time utterly real. Thus, mythical and Biblical revisions offer my poems a framework for reimagining power, the body politic, memory & history, familial traditions, rebellion, and desire for social and environmental justice.
For example, here’s an excerpt of a poem I recently wrote, entitled “Miracle of the River Pig,” after the Biblical story of Jesus casting demons out of two men and into a herd of swine, who then drowned in the river:
Maquiladoras y panaderias (how sweet my belly, my pan dulce)
pay tribute to my glove & aprons, discarded tires, trash, dead animal channels,
sweet little piggy, swim—
blow foam into Calexico streets & downtown, mosquito my open windows,
boil my wounds
(I’m a disease)
—in my potbelly
to summer heat
singe me to my pen—
You submit work regularly and have accumulated many publishing credits. Why is submitting so work important?
My answer to this question is at least twofold. On the one hand, publishing credits are important if a writer is looking to advance her career. Many writers want or need to teach creative writing, and publications can help bolster the CV (this is also the reason I decided on the MFA program). Whether or not a publishing history helps a writer get accepted to the more prestigious journals, I can’t say. Some editors remain adamant that this doesn’t matter, that it’s the work alone that decides. Then there are others who claim the bio is a huge deal. So who knows? But I do see writing as my career (I’ve taken Frost’s advice and am trying to unite my avocation with my vocation), and who wouldn’t want tangible, concrete evidence of advancement in one’s career? I know I certainly do. Of course, there’s the other hand. The writing I craft and polish, that I slave over and pour my time and energy into, is not for my own journal. I’m writing for an audience. I’m speaking to someone. If I never sent the work out, it would never find the readers it’s meant for. So, I publish work because I’m not writing to a blank white page. I’m writing to and for people.
I once published a poetic essay that describes exactly why I write. Here’s an excerpt, and a link to the essay in its entirety ("Jennifer Givhan Writes Because…"):
I write to invite strangers to my most private rooms: the kitchen, the doctor’s office, my heart. (I tell you, my heart is a room, with sofas and wall hangings). Why would I open so impiously, so attentive to detail, so theatrically? Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. I am something. Vaginal walls—poetic walls. I say, unhinge the doors and come in. Stay awhile and I’ll tell you something not even my own mother knows.
I write to breathe. After great pain—a poem comes.
I write to ask where I am the poet, am I Mexican? Caucasian? American? Obese, infertile, can you read my body? Do I bear the onus of a cultural inadequacy? I write myself on the page, and if you see any of yourself in me, we are sisters—lovers—mother and daughter, perhaps. Yes, world—you and I connect at the level of deep, deep as the desert emotion. We float beneath sea level in a bed of white sand and eat nopales together.”
Is the compulsion to write both poetry and prose a blessing or a curse?
A blessing, definitely. Poetry is my first love, and I’ll always come back to it—for me, poetry is urgent. And the time spent paying attention at the word level, to tell stories (even if just lyric moments) in concise spaces, with the constraints that poems offer (a sonnet, for example, or a sestina), forces me to pay attention to how I’m putting sentences together at the level of syntax, which means a huge payoff for my prose, stylistically. When I began writing fiction, I had to learn about issues of pacing, scene, conflict, and plot, but I already knew how to write. How to render emotion on the page, how to craft beautiful sentences—poetry taught me that. And now, my poems are learning from the work I’ve done in fiction. There’s such a sense of freedom in crossing genres.
What piece of work are you most proud and why?
I was super proud of the first draft of my novel because I wrote the entire thing in less than one month for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The story has been in my mind for years. The original idea came when I was writing my first poetry manuscript in my Master’s program, as I mentioned above. At the time, I knew I wanted to write a novel eventually, but was intimidated. I had about twenty false starts, where I’d write an opening, usually a paragraph or two, but never move on from there. Then, in 2011, I started thinking more and more about the idea. On a road trip back to Cali from New Mexico where I now live, I was talking the idea through with my husband and began to get excited about it. Then, I heard about this thing called NaNoWriMo in November. It’s a challenge to write an entire novel (at least 60k words) in ONE MONTH! I thought, oh man, can I do that??? On October 31st, I still wasn’t sure if I could, but I’d made a commitment to myself that I would. November 1st came, and I took off. At the end of the month, I had written 75k words—a complete first draft of the novel. Much of it came from the ideas laid out in the poetry manuscript. I always knew I wanted to write a novel, but I never knew for sure that I could do it. And then I did it. There was such a sense of accomplishment in that.
Then, I revised and revised and revised , sent it out, and landed an agent in less than a year! So…that was huge!
Now though, I’m not sure if I’m any more proud of the novel than I am of the hundred poems (I’m not being hyperbolic) that I’ve written since then or than the novel I’m working on now. I have various relationships with various pieces of writing at different stages in the process and in my own life. When I was writing the first and second drafts of that first novel, I was in love with it. It absorbed me—and I thought about it all the time. Now, I need to go back into it for another round of revisions after feedback from editors and agents, and I’m feeling less excited about it, probably because I’d thought it was “finished,” and now I need to reopen myself to it (it’s like falling in love again, and sometimes that takes time). Often, I love a piece I’ve just finished, and then I go back a few days or weeks or months later and realize it wasn’t as “good” as I first thought—i.e., it needs some polishing to communicate the emotions/ideas I’d thought were coming through clearly when I was first blinded my own emotions for it.
I wrote a little poem a few months back about the process of creating something (and loving it the way I first fall in love with a guy, or the way I first fell in love with my babies) and crafting it (coming to terms with its flaws and disciplining it—schooling it!):
Between Creation and Craft
the moment you finish,
for that moment.
in a few more moments, it will need work.
days and weeks later,
it will need much more work.
you'll break it open again and again.
but for that moment alone,
it seems complete--unbreakable.
Isn’t that how love seems at first? In a long-term relationship or marriage, you realize, of course, love is damn hard work. But that first falling in love is so easy and seems so perfect.
What advice do you have for busy women who want to write?
That sounds trite perhaps. But it’s true. I know so many writers who just don’t write all that often. They ask me how I do it. How I get so many things published or write so much in such short amounts of time. It’s not anything more than this: I write. If you’re called to write, if it’s your passion, if you’re compelled, you’ll do it. And the more you do it, the better you’ll get, the more natural your processes will become, and, in turn, the more you’ll write.
If you don’t feel compelled to write…well, perhaps you should be following whatever bliss you are called to then. Writing will wait for you.
In other words, you have to write because you love to write. There’s not much more satisfaction than that in the business. Writing is rarely going to pay as much as a 40+ hour office job, and it’ll rarely (if ever!) have benefits. But if you love writing, you’ll write. You’ll have to.
I also LOVE the advice that über successful writer Julianna Baggott gives in an interview with Balancing the Tide. She says:
So, to echo Julianna, as I mentioned above, I couldn’t do this without support, and lots of it. Not only financially and in regard to childcare and housework, but emotionally. I have friends and family who I cry and complain to every time I face a major rejection or setback or writer’s block, and who also celebrate with me when I accomplish something. And, ultimately, I believe my work is important. I’m so thankful that I have a family that agrees.
You have to surround yourself with people who believe in you.
You can visit Givhan online at www.jennifergivhan.com.