Jennifer Jean is a poet, activist, volunteer, and teacher. You can read more about her work on her website, friend her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter @fishwifetales. I want to thank Jennifer for taking the time to answer my questions!
Fishwife is a multimedia work. Is it difficult to get publishers and readers to step outside of traditional words on a page and try something new?
More and more publishers have a podcast option or an audio-only series (like The Drum and The Missouri Review) so that poetry lovers can access work using all their various devices and in different situations (for instance, I listen to poetry podcasts on my phone during my morning run). I don’t think it’s difficult at all these days, for either publishers or readers, to try new things—this is an exciting, burgeoning time for literature! Fishwife was produced (a more accurate word than “published”) by Whale Sound’s own Nic Sebastian, who is fanatical (in the best way) about providing the widest access to poetry in multiple forms. She’s linked to a thriving community that produces “motion-poems” at (the sadly defunct) Poetry Storehouse and other sites.
What inspired you to write and teach about human trafficking over other causes?
One Sunday, I heard a sermon from a pastor who felt powerless to help a trafficking victim during an encounter in Las Vegas—listening to this, I started crying and realizing that I had a way to affect change in this arena, that I had a forum in writing and teaching. I began researching the issue and writing poetry about trafficking and objectification in contemporary America. Soon, I volunteered to blog for the Amirah Safe House website; it wasn’t long before I began interviewing survivors and their advocates; as well, I started teaching poetry workshops at Amirah and at another nearby recovery home called Promise House.
But it wasn’t just this one catalyst that drove me to this work. This was just the conscious wake-up call. It makes sense that I would write about this issue given my history—my mom was in a half-way house when I was in foster care from ages 7 months to 7 years old. She was in a similar position as many of women I work with and write about. Given this and other portions of my history, I could have easily turned to “the life” or been coerced into it.
Can you describe your relationship with other writing genres?
First and always: I’m a poet. However, I dabble—from necessity—in essays. I volunteer my prose to Mass Poetry and Amirah in order to serve as “literary citizen” and “modern abolitionist,” respectively. I’ve experimented with libretti, which is quite close to poetry (according to Auden, and Pinsky, and other poets). Also, I’ve more than a few short stories stashed away on my hard-drive which I won’t delete because I’m a bit of a hoarder. Still, those works need not be introduced to readers—ever! I like to keep in “learner-mode” in life, in general, so I suppose I’m the same as regards other genres. I think it’s important that as a writer I express myself in various ways—doing so helps my verse craft get better, helps something new express itself through me.
Do you attend retreats and/or workshops to make your poems happen?
I’ve two kids in grade school so I can’t easily attend established retreats. This may change as they get older, though only if our income increases because great retreats cost big, unless one is a fortunate Yaddo (or similar) attendee. As such, in my writing life I’ve had use my creativity to open up swathes of writing time. Usually I write in the nooks of my life while waiting for music lessons to finish or at stop lights. I’ve also participated in PAD (poem-a-day) marathons with writer friends where we send our daily dross before midnight and encourage each other to keep going going going. A few years ago my friend January and I decided to create our own week-end retreat and I sought out some friends who were caretakers of an estate in picturesque, nearby Gloucester. After going a few times and posting about on social media other friends wanted in—so my husband and I decided to open up Morning Garden Artist Retreats, which run twice a year at that estate in Gloucester. We hosted 15 people at the last retreat but are growing fast and hope to host 30 people at the next outing.
I read a couple of your poems and have to say I really enjoy how the imagery is intertwined with a scenario. I don’t get that “lost” feeling that happens when I read a lot of poetry. Can you talk about the role of audience in your poems?
Thank you! I read my poem drafts aloud and show them to poet friends so that I can revise them into understandability. I really care that an audience has a solid “entrance” into my poems so that understanding comes at least on one level during a first reading. I also like to make sure I’ve a few performative poems that I can present at readings—I know that many of my eye-worthy poems do not translate very well when they’re spoken. Many of the layers I’ve laboriously added with intricate line breaks, and the juxtaposition of words on the page, get lost in a performance. But I’m hoping this poem variety means I’ve something for everyone and every occasion!
My brother Joe, who is an independent filmmaker, made the trailer so long ago that he now wants to tinker with it—to, especially, use footage in the public domain so that there are no “source stamps” on the clips. I’m sure it’d get better with some tinkering but I’m rather attached to the original’s raw imagery and stark silences. The sound of the helicopter is significant because it’s one of the iconic sounds of the Vietnam War, where our father served two tours—and, where he acquired his severe PTSD. The copter chop was also a reoccurring sound in our childhood. We lived in a crappy neighborhood, in Section 8 housing in LA County, and police helicopters spot-lit and hovered over our home constantly. Even the taut, scratchy voiceover I recorded fits the book’s themes—it sounds like a grunt on a combat field phone.
As for being involved with creating the trailer—funnily enough, I remember giving my brother free reign with the project but he tells me that I certainly did not! I think he did a fabulous job. I’d love it if he made trailers for all my books because it’d be great for readers to encounter the poems in as many ways as possible. And, film is such a powerful medium—one that is well matched to the layered emotionality of poetry.