So my romantic theory is this: The religious doctrine I was learning (in many ways irreconcilable with my gender), the mass’ obvious theatricality, and transubstantiation’s inherent metaphor, all helped to make me the poet I am—these things and An American in Paris, of course.
Lesley Jenike is currently an assistant professor of English at the Columbus College of Art and Design where she teaches courses in poetry writing, screenwriting, American literature, and film studies. She received her MFA in poetry from The Ohio State University in 2003 and a Ph.D. in twentieth century American poetry and drama from the University of Cincinnati in 2008. Her first book of poems is Ghost of Fashion (CW Books, 2009) and her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, The Southern Review, Sou’wester, Blackbird, Verse, Rattle, The Birmingham Poetry Review, and other journals. She has received an Academy of American Poets Prize, and fellowships and scholarships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her second book of poems has been a finalist twice for the Anthony Hecht Prize and excerpts will be published soon in an anthology by Waywiser Press.
Visit Lesley’s online home base and blog: https://ccad.digication.com/ljenike/Welcome/published
How Lesley Jenike Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Lesley for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
When I was a little girl I enjoyed reading stories and having stories read to me. I honestly think it was as simple as that. I was a verbal kid from the start, and I just really liked the plasticity of words. I’m also lucky enough to have a mother who knows a bunch of old songs and who loved to read to me before bedtime, who sang a lot around the house, and who has a wonderful vocabulary. But my childhood wasn’t all Nabokov, Proust and lollipops at a preternaturally early age. I spent a lot of time alone watching TV, lots of older movies—big 1950’s and early ‘60’s Technicolor musical extravaganzas. Those were my foundational “texts.”
Of course once I hit middle school and life was suddenly complicated—for a variety of reasons—I turned to language again as a way of controlling my own story when I felt so absolutely out of control. This was also the time I started Catholic school. I was at most vulnerable and malleable in those years, spending more rainy afternoons with the Gospels than I ever imagined I would. I loved to sing during mass too, and I found myself looking forward to those songs that happened to have strange and evocative lyrics about blood and ghosts, etc. So my romantic theory is this: The religious doctrine I was learning (in many ways irreconcilable with my gender), the mass’ obvious theatricality, and transubstantiation’s inherent metaphor, all helped to make me the poet I am—these things and An American in Paris, of course. At least this is the story I’m telling myself these days.
At any rate, I must have first encountered Gerard Manley Hopkins during my Catholic school years. Oh Hopkins! He’s always been, for me, the quintessential definition of what poetry is: humanity’s melodious struggle with the Eternal. Or is that a working definition for the American musical? I think it was around then that I really started to write.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
I began sharing my writing with other people once I was in high school—The School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood. Even from the first, the place smacked of some kind of hurried professionalism. We were all training to be somebody. If you weren’t in commercials, in touring companies of The Sound of Music, or in Jodi Foster’s movie Little Man Tate, then you knew somebody who was. But despite all the premature jockeying for position, I had trouble differentiating between the arts. I wrote plays for my actor friends and I enjoyed being on stage myself. I drew a little bit and sang a lot. I think I preferred the words I was reciting or singing to the performance itself, but performing was a way to get attention and a way to further engage with language—a means to an end.
I was first in college at the Boston Conservatory of Music, thinking—oh I don’t know—that I would spend a few years singing and dancing, but that writing would be my real future. Writing as a future? At the time I had no real understanding of “academic poetry” or how poets made a living, or even if they made a living. I just knew that I wanted to write and study literature, and that I couldn’t do that at the Boston Conservatory. So after one too many makeup and movement classes, I transferred to Emerson where I started writing in earnest. I took critique seriously and I read a lot. I met some of my life-long writer friends there, and from there I went on to graduate school—simply because I wasn’t sure what else to do. I became a writer because I wasn’t really anything else.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
My first creative writing teacher, Nancy Bailey (now Nancy White), was an absolute godsend. She took the time to see me. In college, Bill Knott wrote me a letter for my graduate school applications. I wasn’t really sure whether he liked me (or my work) or not, but he just assumed I was going to graduate school. So I went. At Ohio State I was lucky enough to take classes from so many wonderful professors, but I’m most especially grateful to Andrew Hudgins. Either he saw my potential, thought I was moderately funny, or took pity on me, but in any case, he’s one of the finest teachers anyone could ever hope to have and an immense poet. When I can’t speak to him directly (and I still often ask him for help), I just go to the poems themselves. Jeredith Merrin taught me the value of the “scholar-poet” model (as did Randall Jarrell) and thanks to her, I take very seriously my responsibility as a writer to discuss other writers’ (dead or alive) work, to stay engaged intellectually, and to contribute as much as I can to the ongoing “conversation.”
My professors at the University of Cincinnati were, of course, tremendous. I’m grateful for all the time and energy Don Bogen dedicated to my dissertation, and I’m grateful to John Drury for helping me fall in love with poetry all over again. But the study of writing is really a matter of reading. Shakespeare helped me more than I’ll ever understand (though I imagine Harold Bloom has a theory). Robert Lowell, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Emily Dickinson, Jean Rhys, Henry James, John Ashbery, Virginia Woolf, Jean Genet, Jean Toomer, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Conner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edward Albee, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Coleridge—all these people (and many, many more) help me. And not least of all, my peers, colleagues, and students, who are eternally writing the stuff that wows me.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
Most of the writers I love suffered some (if not innumerable) setbacks. I say this with the luxury of historical distance; I can look at the trajectory of their lives as if they were plays with succinct beginnings, middles, and ends. Of course, as they were living their lives, they no doubt experienced both hardship and happiness, as we all do. I wish I could cherry-pick certain moments. For example, I would love to be a bohemian Edna St. Vincent Millay in Greenwich Village, circa 1920. I’m sure Elizabeth Bishop had moments of pleasure in 1950’s Brazil. And out of curiosity, I’d like to make the pilgrimage to Rapallo with Robert Lowell—but we all know how that journey ended.
If I had to choose a living author whose life (from the outside) seems exceptionally beautiful, I’d choose Cole Swensen’s—a poet and scholar whom I admire tremendously. She spends part of the year teaching at Iowa, part of the year in Washington D.C., and part of the year in Paris. Her elegance, intelligence, worldliness, and the sheer drama of her poetic line, are a revelation. The Paris thing isn’t half bad either. I would someday like to live at least a year abroad.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Stay modest. Maintain a student’s state-of-mind as long as you can, preferably forever. Certainly form your opinions and tastes, your allegiances and preferences, but never stop learning. The literary tradition is rich and diverse and it’s your responsibility. It should haunt you. It should wake you up at night. It should follow you on your run and cheer you when you’re out at the bar. It should spot you at the gym and hold your hand in the dark of the movie theatre. The minute you stop seeing yourself as a neophyte, you’re dead.