Jenifer Browne Lawrence is the author of “Grayling” (Perugia Press, 2015), and “One Hundred Steps from Shore” (Blue Begonia Press, 2006).
Awards include the Perugia Press Prize, the Orlando Poetry Prize, the James Hearst Poetry Prize, the Potomac Review poetry award, and a GAP grant from Artist Trust.
She has been resident at Hedgebrook, Soapstone, Willapa Bay, and the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.
Her work appears in such magazines as Bracken, The Coachella Review, Los Angeles Review, Narrative, North American Review, and many others. Jenifer lives on Puget Sound, and edits the Seattle-based journal Crab Creek Review.
Jordan Hartt: I know you’re really busy, as a writer, a civil engineer, the editor of the Crab Creek Review—thank you for taking the time to talk with Kahini about your work.
Jenifer Browne Lawrence: Thank you for the invitation, Jordan. I’m looking forward to our talk.
JH: I think every writer has a handful of books that are essential to them, which they read year after year after year. Mine are Juan Rulfo’s “Pedro Páramo” and four other books, including your collection of poetry, “One Hundred Steps from Shore.” Would you talk a little bit about the genesis of that work?
JBL: I’m honored that you place my work next to Rulfo’s. “One Hundred Steps From Shore” was written in the Pacific Northwest, at various writing residencies in Washington and Oregon. I didn’t realize at first that I was writing a book. I was just furiously writing, going to writing conferences to learn all I could, while maintaining my day job in civil engineering. I attended Joseph Stroud’s writing workshop at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference in 2003, and—Joe’s an amazing person, generous and wise and brilliant—and he somehow just lifted us up and broke us open at the same time. My writing took off—I couldn’t stop writing.
One of the poets in that class was Dan Peters, who has had similar experiences as me, in terms of family, and in terms of loss. Dan told me about the Yakima poetry pole, installed at Jim Bodeen’s house; Jim was the publisher at that time of Blue Begonia Press. Dan invited me to mail him whatever I wrote, and he would post it for me on the poetry pole. I did this for a few years. I sent drafts of poems, unfinished poems—raw work—and Dan tacked them up on the pole. One winter, I was at work—I’m a stormwater technician for the county I live in–and it had been raining for days, we were trying to deal with flooding, the phone was ringing off the hook with people calling about drainage problems, and in the middle of that, I get a personal call. It’s Dan Peters, telling me that Blue Begonia wants to publish my manuscript.
Jim Bodeen had been collecting the poems from the pole—unbeknownst to me all this time—and had been storing them in a folder, and wanted to publish them as a book. The call and the timing and this incredible offer—it felt surreal. Anyway, almost all the poems that are in “One Hundred Steps from Shore” weathered in the wind on the poetry pole in Yakima. It’s still there, relocated to Dan Peter’s home in Selah, and that pole is still the first public airing of much of my work.
JH: He’d been reading them and collecting them the entire time.
JBL: I had no idea. What a gift that was, to receive that affirmation of my work. My second book arrived differently. With “Grayling,” I also didn’t know I was writing a book. The poems were written over a longer period, and I spent more time with the work. I thought I was done writing about my sister’s death, my father’s death. But I wasn’t finished, and perhaps never will be.
“Grayling” began with a small group of poems that explored facets of my father’s life and death—Jordan, you read some of those, and published a few, thank you—and the work grew from there to include poems about infertility, childbirth, love, loss. The manuscript swelled and grew lean again. I think I sent it out, under various titles, for at least five years; eventually “Grayling” won the Perugia Press Prize. I can’t praise Perugia Press highly enough—the publisher, Susan Kan, and all the staff and my fellow Perugia poets feel like an extended family. They treated me and my work respectfully and intelligently—the whole process felt like the celebration of a birth—and I suppose it was.
JH: I feel like I totally know what you mean about thinking you’re done writing something, but you’re not. I always feel like I’m done writing about landscape, and never seem to be. You also seem completely immersed in the natural world in your own work, as well, not just in your poetry work but in your work as an engineer.
JBL: Yes—immersion is a good word for how I feel about landscape. I often have a yearning, an almost physical need to drive away into the deepest woods that I can find, and I’m perfectly happy there, in the company of trees and bark and leaves, insect and bird and squirrel, feeling like I am almost part of the forest. It’s the same thing on the coast—talking here not some Malibu beach but the wild coast.
JH: The Pacific Northwest coast.
JBL: Yes. My sense of well-being when I’m at the coast or in the woods probably comes from being raised in southeast Alaska. We were not wealthy, and almost everything we did for fun took place outdoors. I think that spending time in the natural world helps you find your place, and it becomes part of you. Those years in Alaska shaped my entire life. I know you’ve had similar experiences; there are other Northwest poets who feel that connection to the wilderness. Maya Jewell Zeller is one that comes to mind, and you are another.
JH: I read “One Hundred Steps” front to back once a year and read selected poems from it throughout each year, like “Abandon” or “A Cottonwood Leaf Can Be Taken Apart.” One of the things I love the most about your work is how the narrative self seems to dissolve into the rhythms of the natural world, yet as an artist you’re also able to keep the tension of the human condition foregrounded in a cohesive way. How does the natural world find its way so strongly into your work?
JBL: Thank you for reading 100 Steps so closely. “A Cottonwood Leaf Can Be Taken Apart” is a poem I feel particularly attached to. In response to your question—I can’t keep the wilderness out of my work. Tree or salmon, river or snow. It’s where I feel most connected. What has most influenced me. And this sense of belonging in the natural world provides a space to share human experience, the human condition—in this place where I am most at home—it opens something in me that allows the story to be told. I know that the Pacific NW influences everything I write. Even when I deliberately try to keep it out, that background seeps in. I’ve learned to embrace it.
JH: The language and the images seem to fuse into one whole. Do you start with language, or with images…?
JBL: I almost always begin with an image. Not ideas or characters, but images, and senses (No ideas but in things, right?). I carry a notebook everywhere, jot down things I see, or hear, snippets of conversations (Something you might not know about me is I’m always eavesdropping on strangers) objects, colors, noises, what people are doing, and I collect these little life-bits everywhere I go. Yesterday, I was driving to work, and at a four-way stop noticed two construction workers getting ready with their “stop” and “slow” signs. One of them set a hard hat onto the other one’s head, so tenderly it almost made me cry. And I jotted it down. That image might come out later in a piece of writing. I start from an image, sometimes with a list of random words for prompts, and everything else—narrative, landscape, the line breaks—develops from there.
JH: All following from the images.
JBL: Yes. Although, I’m really open to just about anything if it gets me writing. I have a couple of books on writing that I return to—one is “The Practice of Poetry,” edited by Chase Twichell and Robin Behn; another is John Dufresne’s “The Lie that Tells A Truth.” I use all kinds of tricks to get those first lines on the page, to make myself write. Because sometimes I want desperately to write, and other times I don’t want to at all. So, when necessary, I give myself writing assignments.
My partner is a musician, a singer-songwriter and fiction writer; we sometimes write together and that keeps us both writing. We might start with a sentence from a novel or a line of poetry, or choose a dozen random words, or use sound—anything to jumpstart the process. Sometimes, I’ll put on instrumental music—Miles Davis, or Bach—and try to incorporate the rhythm as I write, to feel my way into a rhythm.
JH: In what ways?
JBL: When I write a first draft, and I always do this by hand—I’m not consciously looking for rhythm or line breaks—I write margin to margin. The line breaks come in much later. I’m just trying to put words on the page, to get the initial sense of whatever it is that I’m writing about down. And sometimes I find there’s no rhythm, and I need to work harder to find it. Music sometimes helps with that. And hearing the words aloud helps, too. After that first draft, I read what I’ve written aloud.
Maybe this is a bad thing for a poet to confess, but in the early drafts of a poem I seldom know what it is I’ve said or why I’ve said it, although I can sense when there’s something important going on. When I read the draft aloud I can hear if there’s sound or music that’s worth a deeper look. I sometimes write syllabic poems, but mostly, I find the rhythm by reading aloud. I read everything out loud. Even the work that ends up on the scrap pile.
JH: I don’t think it’s a bad thing to confess at all. I never know where I’m going and try really hard not to or I feel like it becomes artificial. Total aside here, but I read dozens of submissions a day for Kahini magazine and so many of the pieces would be great if the writer would just trust the material and stop manipulating it. Thanks for coming to my TED talk. But my overbearing opinions aside…the idea of knowing when one has arrived…How do you know when a poem has arrived?
JBL: That sounds like an easy question, but I’m not sure how to answer it. I guess I get to a point where I feel like I can’t make the work any better, and that the poem is saying what needs to be said. This doesn’t always work—I have plenty of failed poems, work that seems finished but that isn’t effective. Even when I’m certain, time changes my perception. “One Hundred Steps From Shore” has been published now for over a decade, and still when I look through it there are lines I’d like to cut, or change. I was a younger poet at that time, and I might do certain things differently now. But what hasn’t changed, what I wouldn’t rewrite, is that relationship between the speaker and the wilderness.
JH: Alice Munro makes changes at her readings. She’ll be reading something from even the eighties, or nineties, or whatever, and be editing lightly with a pencil as she reads. Maybe it does never end.
JBL: I’m glad to hear that about Alice Munro. There’s probably a dozen poems in my reading copies of Grayling and 100 Steps where I have penciled edits.
JH: Thinking about your work, and Munro’s work from that era, I wouldn’t change a word. Maybe as authors we’re harder on ourselves than readers are, or maybe only the writer is the one who sees the true north of what they’re trying to create. Or maybe only the reader.
JBL: Thank you. I’m interested in this idea of the writer seeing “true north”–the vision of their creation as a destination they are determined to reach. It makes sense that only the author would know whether they’ve arrived. But that seems lonely, doesn’t it? What if the reader has their own compass, and starts this journey as soon as the author has completed theirs, and also reaches the destination? In a way, they are traveling companions. In a way, we are all traveling companions, writers and readers.
JH: Totally. Readers have told me things about my own work, and I’m like, whoa. You’re right. Or like Sting said, whatever the meaning is to the listener, that’s what the meaning is to them…but for the artist maybe it’s something else. Thinking about the creation of something vs. the putting it out into the world…Gabriel García Márquez said he never re-read his own work. David Eigenberg, who played Steve Brady on Sex and the City—whatever, I think it was a great show and he played a well-rounded character—would refuse to watch himself in any aired episodes. Maybe it’s to protect against that. I don’t know.
JBL: To protect against second-guessing one’s completed work? I can see that. While putting together a manuscript the writer is going to read the work repeatedly. I don’t know how everyone’s process works, of course, but when I am trying to ready a manuscript there’s both chaos and order, mostly chaos, at first—the pages printed out, and flung in the air, arranged in different ways. I read the poems aloud, I read them in sequence, listen for what words and poems sound good next to one another. By the time a manuscript is truly complete, the reading of it has been pretty intense.
JH: Speaking of the process, at what point do you move from writing margin to margin to incorporating line breaks?
JBL: The line breaks come late in the process, for me. There are exceptions, but usually I sort out the line breaks after the main work of the poem is complete. I work by intuition as often as not. I don’t have a formal education in creative writing, and although I’ve taken several poetry and fiction courses and workshops, I am mostly self-taught. So I often edit by ear and by instinct as opposed to prescribed rules. I also revise by how work physically looks on the page, and of course by whether the work is heading for that true north you mentioned earlier.
In reading aloud for line breaks, I’m doing a couple of things: one is to listen for the natural pause, and the other is to listen and look for the sounds that need to separated, or thoughts that need to be separated. Listening for these things, I’m also trying to pay attention to what type of pauses might be most effective—white space, comma, stanza break—each of which has a slightly different effect. Figuring out the line breaks has a lot to do with listening.
JH: What a cool way to think about the line break.
JBL: I also break lines sometimes as a way to emphasize meaning. The emotional content and the intellectual content—sometimes one resists the other, but I want both to be present in my work. There is a short poem in “One Hundred Steps” set at Mendenhall Lake, where I broke the lines not only to make each line independent but also to overlap the next one, to create new sentences depending on how the lines are read in relationship to those around them.
JH: I know that poem—“Keeping Our Heads Underwater.”
JBL: Right, so the lines—hang on, let me look at it—here: “milkgreen floes” break, “deaden our limbs,” break, “we are motionless,” break, “as the river we swim,” can be read as “milkgreen floes deaden our limbs, we are motionless” or as “we are motionless as the river we swim” The emotional and the explicit meaning intertwine—the characters in this poem can’t feel anything, but they’re trying. The river isn’t going anywhere, it’s motionless, too. The meaning shifts, but coheres. At least that’s what I was aiming for.
JH: I should show you my copy of that poem. I think almost every word is underlined, or with notes off to the side. I remember images of burning and how many images of coldness were in it, and also feeling at the end like I could smell the spruce.
JBL: I would love to see the marginalia in your copy of 100 steps! Where I was when I was writing it, well the entire book was really an exploration of coming to terms with the trauma and grief and joy and just the visceral experience of growing up in a rural, cold place. The writing is an attempt to figure out how I felt about that, and myself, and then to relay it in a way that other people could relate to, and bring their own experiences to the poems and understand them. I feel that same sense of home here in Washington, now. Just lately, I spent a month on Long Beach peninsula, and have been working on extracting poems from the notebooks I filled while there. And all these new poems definitely involve both the Alaska and Washington landscapes, but also what’s happening politically, which is pretty awful, right now.
JH: Current U.S. politics are informing your work?
JBL: Yes, very much. Here’s a story: Presidential election, November, 2016. I was scheduled to fly out to Boston to join the Perugia Press twentieth anniversary celebration in Northampton. I went to bed hopeful, really thinking I didn’t need to pay attention to the election results, and woke up to disaster. In Northampton, all the writers were sitting and writing together—everyone was writing—and you could feel the grief, the deep grief, the anger and confusion and fear. It was the best place for me to be, with a group of writers that I consider family. The turmoil hasn’t left me yet, and my writing reflects that anger and loss, but also, the slow rise of hope and resistance.
JH: I feel like I can hear how important community was, at that time. It feels like we as writers have to be solitary, so much of the time, yet so much of what we need to keep us going we find in community.
JBL: I agree—I’m definitely an introvert, but do need community as well. I’ve been in some sort of writing community since about 2000, when I was invited to join a new writing group on Bainbridge Island. I was excited about participating, because I was just getting back to writing seriously after years of not writing. For each meeting, we were expected to have a poem to be critiqued in the workshop. I left each session feeling inspired.
JH: In what ways?
JBL: I loved listening to each poet’s work, and it was encouraging to watch us grow as writers. What I needed back then was to learn the craft, and these writers nudged me in the right direction. The feedback was genuine and constructive. We met for over ten years. All of us were poets, of course, but we were also teachers, stormwater engineers, naturopaths, scientists, fishermen, mothers. Even as we learned each other’s aesthetic and voice, we maintained our individuality; it was a terrific experience.
And then of course there’s the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, which is so full of life and literary energy that it puts me in an altered state, one that defies explanation, but I know you know what I mean. It’s just transcendent.
And out of the PTWC came a winter writing community that I’m part of. There’s roughly a dozen of us, and we don’t critique at all. Instead we generate new work, up at Fort Worden, living in a rustic old building, eating together, writing daily—that’s been going on every January for the last twelve years. This is perhaps my most important writing community. We have gotten to know each other deeply through our writing; it’s a very warm and supportive group. I always go home inspired and with a handful of new poems drafted, and with the voices of my literary family echoing in my head.
Really, other people’s work always inspires me. Just knowing other poets and writers are out there doing the work gives me courage to keep writing. And we must keep writing. Joe Stroud expresses this beautifully, in the closing of “Auvergne”:
“In the next Millennium/among the nightmares and machines, among time’s/indifferent slaughter of our body, there must be poems/to make room of silence, to praise birdsong in winter light, to sing of Auvergne, the Friend, and the old promises of love.”