How can I learn to be wild, to be bewildered,
to be wilderness?
Jennifer Perrine’s first collection of poems, The Body Is No Machine (New Issues, 2007), won the 2008 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry. Her second book, In the Human Zoo (University of Utah Press, 2011), received the 2010 Agha Shahid Ali Prize. Perrine lives in Des Moines, Iowa, where she is an associate professor of English at Drake University.
Visit Jennifer’s web page: http://www.jenniferperrine.org/
Book: In the Human Zoo
Book: The Body Is No Machine
Poem: If Life Gives You Lemons, Make
Poem: When the Dazzle Isn’t Gradual
Poem: Gender Question #2: Butch, Femme, Androgynous, or All Over the Map? – .
How Jennifer Perrine 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 (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jennifer for saying yes!
Book Giveaway: Enter here for a chance to win both of Jennifer’s books!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
This is a trickier question than it seems because of that word want. I wanted to become many things—as a young child, I wanted to become a teacher; as a teenager, I wanted to become a peacemaker; by college, I wanted to become a visual artist and an activist for social justice. In some ways, I might say the desire to become a writer wasn’t an overt choice, but arose out of my attempts to become these other things. When I left college at 21, two courses shy of finishing my degree, I had grown disillusioned with the possibility of ever finding a way to do any of this work that I so longed to do. Instead, I worked two or three minimum wage jobs at a time, doing work that made me feel like I contributed nothing to the world—I sold people donuts and sold them CDs and made institutional meals and scrubbed toilets.
During those years, though, I read rabidly and filled notebooks with writing. I had always been an avid reader and enjoyed writing, but this was when I began to send my writing out into the world, not because I wanted to “be a poet,” but because I ached for connection, both to other people and to a wonderstruck, bold self that seemed to be rapidly disappearing in the rigor and monotony of earning my daily bread. Looking back on my writing from that time, I feel a certain fondness for how earnest it was—I love those poems, even at their most didactic and sloppy, because I see now how they began carving out a space in the world for me to be unabashedly feminist and anti-racist, for me to experiment with the visual aspects of language, for me to assert that I had something worth saying, something worth teaching. I became a writer as a way of finding peace with work that felt soul-crushing and inescapable, and then I wanted to become a writer because writing reminded me I had a soul and that I could escape.
I see now how much, for me, the process of becoming a writer was and is tied to the reasons why I wanted to become a writer. I went about becoming a writer, at least initially, by writing enough to discover that writing could change my world and so, in some small way, change the world.
But there’s more to it than hope and hard work, no? Inspiration and perspiration do account for quite a lot of the process, but there’s something to be said for serendipity, too, as well as for the kindness of relative strangers. For me, that kindness came from Cynthia Hogue and Saundra Morris, both of whom taught at Bucknell University during my slog through those lean years I mentioned above. I don’t know precisely why they decided to reach out to me—one of their former students was a close friend of mine, and I’d often attended poetry readings at Bucknell, but beyond that, I don’t know quite what they saw in me. In any case, they invited me to apply to the graduate English program in which they taught, were patient while I finished my undergraduate degree, and helped me through the process of acclimating to becoming a writer in academia. Perhaps because of when and where I began becoming a writer, doing so in the context of academia has always been both exciting and perplexing—academia continues to both foster and challenge the ways in which I become a writer, even now that I’m a tenured professor. Perhaps I’ve stayed in academia so long because it does perplex me, and being a bit lost and confused helps me to keep searching for the clarity that writing can bring.
As you might expect, between that initial kindness and my current place in the world, I engaged in many of the predictable ways one might become a writer—I participated in many classes that introduced me to literature and theory with which I’d been unfamiliar; I continued writing and shared my poems in workshops, in journals, in books; I placed many poems in the mail and received many form-letter rejections. I also became many other things while I was becoming a writer, though, and I wouldn’t want to divorce those processes. I became—or more aptly, rediscovered—a person who loved to explore the world, who wanted to try things that were difficult or uncomfortable or even downright frightening, who aspired to understand people and situations that seemed incomprehensible, who found empathy when finding apathy would have been so much easier. I learned about anatomy and religion and history, and I also learned how to tend a garden, how to care for animals, how to love well. I learned to speak, to be assertive, but also to remain patient, to listen. I’m still learning all these things, but each has helped me become a writer, by leading me to discover what writing might also have to teach me about the world of which I’m a part and how to care for that world, about the importance of the right word and of silences.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
Who hasn’t helped me? I’ve been tempted, with both books, to write an acknowledgments page that reads like liner notes, shouting out to every person who’s helped me become a writer, but the list grows and reaches its tendrils into every bit of my life, until it could become a book of its own. So, I’ll offer here a Cliff’s Notes version of that book.
I’ve been lucky to have a few close friends who are also writers—Stacey Waite, Susanna Childress, Sara Pennington—who have supported and inspired me, both as a writer and as a human being. They’ve read my poems, shared their work with me, given me ideas about what to read next, but more importantly, they’ve been good friends and good people, consistently willing to speak the truths and ask the questions that I most need to hear.
My teachers have helped me, too—every one of them. I’ll mention some that I didn’t have the presence of mind to thank at the time, though, in the hopes that they’ll read this and know how grateful I am. I’ve had a number of literature teachers who have shown me the power of writing and then have given me gentle nudges, suggesting that I, too, might be capable of becoming a writer. Jeanne Zeck, Susan Bowers, Larry Roth, Harold Schweizer—they each helped guide me on the path to becoming a writer, partly by expecting more of me than I expected of myself, and partly by knowing how to handle with compassion the rough, raw person I was a decade or more ago.
I also want to acknowledge one teacher who gave me a not-so-gentle nudge: Sonia Sanchez, who led a poetry workshop in which I participated, once began a meeting in her office by telling me that, though my poems were carefully crafted, I had no wilderness in me. I broke into tears, and then made up a ridiculous excuse for my crying because at the time, I prided myself on being tough and did not want anybody, let alone Sonia Sanchez, to know that they could so easily reduce me to rubble. Later, I raged—How dare she say I have no wilderness? She doesn’t know me! Later still, I puzzled over her statement—how does one go about finding wilderness? I’ve spent the last ten years trying to answer that question, and that question has shaped not only my process of becoming a writer, but also my life as a whole. How can I learn to be wild, to be bewildered, to be wilderness?
I’ve been fortunate to have people who help me practice seeking wilderness on a daily basis. I try to encourage this wilderness in my students, and this helps keep me vulnerable to being wild myself. After all, when I speak to them of risk-taking, of discovery through failure, how can they trust me unless I show them that I’m engaged in that process, too? My students challenge me, ask me to think and feel more deeply and broadly, and continually remind me, as I work with them, why I wanted to become a writer. I’m delighted to have work that helps me become more compassionate and creative, more exuberant and empathetic, but I’m gobsmacked that I’ve been lucky enough to have a partner who understands that the process of becoming a writer is an ongoing one and who encourages me to walk that path even when it’s confusing or frightening. I know how cheesy it might sound, but to live in the world with someone who is also becoming is a pretty wondrous thing.
I’ve always tended to be inspired by writers’ work, rather than their life stories. Perhaps because I have heard so many artists’ biographies cast as one long tale of trauma, suffering, and madness, punctuated by drugs, alcohol, and suicide, I’ve shunned learning too much about the lives of artists I love. I made a recent exception, however, for Jeanette Winterson, whose fiction I have read eagerly and repeatedly. When I discovered she had published a memoir, I knew it would be beautiful and difficult, but I really had no idea how much it would inspire me. Because I had read her semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, I expected certain parts of her memoir to resonate with me—and indeed, her relationship with her mother, with religion, with her body and sexuality all fulfilled those expectations. What surprised and affected me most, though, were the parts of her life where she found language. In a household in which only religious books were allowed, she saved every cent to buy novels, which she read and stored in piles under her mattress until her mother discovered them and promptly burned them all. Winterson writes in her memoir about how this was an empowering moment for her—the spark that led her to memorize passages of books and to write her own because, while books could be so easily destroyed, her memory and her creativity couldn’t.
Winterson also writes quite frankly about what she describes as “going mad,” as well as the process of allowing herself time to become healthy and sane. While I appreciated her courage in showing that vulnerable part of her life to the world, what inspired me wasn’t so much her recovery as her acknowledgment that after becoming one sort of writer for 25 years—one who believed that the measure of love is loss—she would now have to find a new way to become a writer—one who is learning to love and be loved well. Though my personal struggles haven’t been so dramatic, nor my writing so prolific or widely read, I find myself in a similar place in my life—one in which my way of being in the world has changed quite significantly recently and in which I know my writing must change, too. Winterson inspires me with her willingness to embrace that change—I aspire to be so intrepid.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Whatever your means, have broad, deep, varied experiences with the world. Discover what makes you uncomfortable, and then be in that place, spend time with that person, do that thing—the discomfort might remain, but you’ll find that the edge where you reach that discomfort gets further and further away. Cultivate a desire to learn—not just literature or the craft of writing, although those will certainly serve you well, but also anything that could end the sentence, “I’ve always wanted to…” Take risks with your writing—experiment with every possibility you can imagine, and love your “failures” for all they’ve taught you. Get lost in your writing, find some mystery and wilderness there, and let your craft be a vessel that sets you adrift into unexplored territories that your words will map along the way. Practice being in your body, with all its sensations and emotions—this may entail watching less TV. Be kind to other writers—encourage them, inspire them, seek out community and fellowship with them, and don’t let competition and ego undo your good work or theirs. Examine your reasons for writing, your ethics of writing—answer these questions as a way to start that examination. Enjoy your life.