Meet the Writer: Jenni B. Baker

I want to thank Jenni for answer my questions. If you want to learn more about Jenni and her poetry, you can find her on the web!

Could you describe the first poem you remember writing?

Oh, I wish I could tell you about some precocious poem I wrote when I was ten that hinted at the kind of work I’m producing today!

The first poem I remember writing and working on is pretty cringe-worthy. I crafted it in early high school during a period when all I wanted was to be independent and mature (“mature” being a code word for “romantically involved with boys”). Reality didn’t quite keep up with aspirations so, instead, I lived out these aims through poetry.

The poem was titled “Forever Until Morning,” and if that doesn’t tell you all you need to know, the first lines are “The silver moon rises; I close my eyes. You come to me with your warm embrace.” There’s a reason that one’s staying tucked safely in my old composition book.

Do you tend to work with a certain form or forms in your poetry, or you are freestyle?

I arrive at most of my work through constraint. I’m a frequent practitioner of found poetry—the craft of excerpting words and phrases from a source text and combining them in innovative ways to create new poems. I’m currently working on a multi-year project, Erasing Infinite, in which I create erasure poetry (a flavor of found poetry operating) from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Another collection of poems, Comings/Goings, generated through Oulipo writing constraints, will be published by Dancing Girl Press in 2015.

For me, constrained writing gives rise to great freedom of expression. It encourages me to address subjects I might never have otherwise considered, configure meaning in new ways, and finding my consistent voice in a foreign vocabulary. I also feel compelled to challenge our culture’s obsession with “originality” and their narrow definition of that term through my work. Nothing is ever created ex nihilo—all writing is arrived at through influences; constrained poetry just shows its sources more clearly.

Do you feel it’s important that the meaning of the poem be accessible to the reader?

What’s most important is the context around the poem’s creation. Writing doesn’t always imply an audience—if you’re writing to improve your craft, experimenting with new techniques, or working through some personal sentiment or experience, it doesn’t matter if what you put on the page is obtuse and incomprehensible to others.

If you aim to have an audience, you have to create opportunities for readers to enter your poem—meaning is one opportunity, but so is form, process, and wordplay. The question poets should ask themselves isn’t, “Will readers understand everything I’m trying to do here?” It’s “Am I giving readers something to latch on to?”

In what ways did an academic environment shape the way you write poems?

I received my master’s degree in professional writing, and it prepared me to thrive in the environment in which I write poems today—focusing on traditional pay-the-bills writing during the day, and making time for creative writing during the evenings and weekends.

Additionally, although my graduate school curriculum didn’t include classes in poetry, the relationships I formed with my fellow grad students were instrumental in advancing my practice as a poet. One woman, Beth Ayer, became not just a great friend, but also my co-editor at The Found Poetry Review. Editing that journal has been its own instructive experience.

Part of what people value about practicing poetry in an academic environment is that it brings with it its own built-in community of people who love and talk about the exact same things that you love and talk about. But it’s a mistake to think those communities can only be found in the classroom.

In what ways did non-academic environments shape the way you write poems?

My work with The Found Poetry Review and our editorial team there has been instrumental in how I think about and write poetry today. Evaluating other people’s poems for publication forces you to identify what works—and what doesn’t—in a particular piece. The process is reflexive in that understanding what makes other people’s poems succeed better positions you to apply those same practices in your own work. Asking myself “Would I accept my own poem for publication?” is a good test for whether I need to do some more work on (or abandon altogether) a particular piece.

In the past few years, I’ve found my tribe of experimental poets online and connect with them on a near-daily basis via the web. Poetry isn’t just about putting words on the page—it’s about believing in yourself and being connected with the right opportunities. The networks to which I belong function partly as support groups, investing their members with the morale they need to get their poetry out in the world.

How do your friends and family tend to respond to your poetry?

Often bewildered, but usually supportive.

I recognize that many people’s first experience with poetry isn’t a positive one—the subject is usually shoe-horned into an already-packed high school English syllabus, with teachers having time to do little more than shrug their shoulders at the students who don’t immediately “get it.” I count among my friends and family many people who were never given the encouragement and tools to get inside of a poem. Some try harder than others to understand the poetry I produce.

The brilliant thing, though, is that people don’t have to “get it” to be supportive. They just have to support you as a person. Poetry is a great judge of character in that way. There are a handful of people I’ve known for years who have yet to comment on my poetry work or ask me questions about how things are going; I’m convinced I could win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and they’d never bring it up. That reveals more than they realize.

But, by and large, most people are supportive. The ones who really get it will talk to me about process and cite specific poems that caught their interest. Those who don’t will throw a few questions my way in conversation and issue a congratulations when I achieve something particularly noteworthy. Creative writing can be a lonely craft, and public acknowledgement—no matter how small—can help writers feel validated and connected.

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