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So You Wanna Win a Book Prize? with Jennifer Perrine

by Ian Rogers

In the run-up to the Prairie Schooner Book Prize deadline, we’re featuring interviews with past winners. Don’t forget that the prize closes in seven days (March 15—submit now!). Jennifer Perrine won the 2014 Prairie Schooner Book Prize for her poetry collection, No Confession, No Mass.  The two of us spoke about flat female characters, The Scarlet Letter, and the value of slowing down.

PRAIRIE SCHOONER: No Confession, No Mass will be your third collection.  Are there any themes or ideas that keep coming back in your work?

JENNIFER PERRINE: It seems like such a cliché, but I write pretty obsessively about my mother. Writing poems about her is my way of trying to understand her, this mysterious figure in my life. She’s made so many choices that I couldn’t fathom for the longest time and perhaps still can’t. The one choice that has always loomed large: she had seven children and then left almost all of us in the care of our fathers or in foster homes, wandered off without explanation. I wondered how to make sense of that: How does someone raise a child to a certain age, and then just leave, never to be heard from again?

It’s a question that I had to wrestle with in poems for years and years before I found any answers. In those poems, I tried to imagine the world through her perspective—the perspective of a teen mother; of a woman with an abusive husband; of someone who, as a girl, had been abandoned by her own mother for a time, raised in a Catholic orphanage when my grandmother, a single parent and new immigrant to the U.S., was unable to care for her.

PS: And do you ever feel that the work is complete, that you’ve exhausted everything you want to say?

JP: I’ve worked through my curiosity about my mother over and over in my poems, each time thinking I’ve found some empathy that will let me release my longing and loss, but always another poem appears. I’ll realize I’ve reached an age by which my mother had had seven children, and I had none, and I’ll wonder how to reconcile that difference in our experiences. Every time I think I’ve exhausted this particular well, it seems I haven’t. Still, I’m tired of writing those poems. I’d like to be done with them, but I suspect they’ll keep sneaking back into my life.

PS: Can you think of a moment in your creative development that's particularly influenced your work?

JP: When I was a junior in high school, my class was assigned The Scarlet Letter. I read it, understood it, but didn’t find much of a way to connect with the novel—to my 16-year-old self, its style and subject and characters all seemed distant. That disconnection changed, though, when my teacher offered us the option of writing a creative response—a poem or short story. As I began writing, I tried to find a way to enter the book through my poem, and I kept asking, what is it I want to know, to learn, from writing this? When I finally finished the poem, it was in the voice of Pearl, Hester Prynne’s daughter, the evidence of her affair that would outlive any legally imposed mark of shame.

I certainly didn’t know it then—didn’t know it until years later—but that poem revealed to me that my creative curiosity is drawn to the margins, to people whose voices haven’t been at the center of literary, historical, and scientific narratives.

PS: What are some other writers who’ve inspired you?

JP: Sometimes I wonder if there’s a writer who hasn’t inspired me. I learn something from everything I read, even if only what I want to write against.

To be more specific, though: Jeanette Winterson, Mark Doty, Denise Duhamel, Art Spiegelman, Louise Erdrich, Bob Hicok, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Kate Bornstein are some of the writers whose work I’ve turned to again and again. Looking at those names, one thing I admire about all of them is their fearlessness, their ability and willingness to, as Adrienne Rich put it, “dive into the wreck.” These are writers who attend, with care, to personal and systemic traumas and who also know how to revel in beauty and humor. I don’t know that I’ve learned fearlessness from them, but I’ve certainly learned to aspire to that kind of vulnerability to both pain and love.

PS: I think fearlessness is hard for anyone, let alone a writer, to really master.  What else about a piece of writing tends to draw you in?

JP: I love a poem that slows me down. So much of life feels like imposed haste—I want poems that give me no choice but to slow my pace, perhaps because I can’t rush through their lineation or shape on the page, perhaps because I need to reread or look up unfamiliar words or allusions. I often feel overwhelmed by the social pressure to be quicker, do more, multitask, but a good poem reminds me that I don’t really value that way of moving in the world.

PS: How about things that turn you off?

JP: One thing that I come across too often is writing in which female characters have no richness, no depth, as if “woman” were a cardboard cutout hastily inserted into a piece of writing. It’s particularly disconcerting when that flatness is paired with gender violence used as titillation. I’ve read too many books in the last few years—both poetry and prose—where female characters are raped, abused, or killed, often in detailed description. Some writers use this kind of violence to move readers to think about our own responses (or lack of response) to gender violence, but often it seems to reinforce a very old narrative: women must be on guard, be wary, stay scared, despair (and so must be protected, saved, sheltered, tucked away).

PS: What are you working on now?

JP: Mostly, I’m working on reading books beyond the ones I’ve assigned, being patient, being a good teacher and a good partner. (It’s that time of year.) I’m guessing that’s not how you meant the question, though.

PS: In some sense, no, but I like that your mind went there first. It shows where your priorities lie.

JP: Sometimes I have to remind myself those are my priorities! It’s easy for me to fall into taskmaster mode, where all I do is obey the little voice that urges me to write more, more, more. I found that voice useful, though, after finishing No Confession, No Mass, when I returned to a novel I’d begun a few years ago and spent several months writing and rewriting, learning where that story wanted to go. I’m at the stage where I’m awaiting feedback on it and gearing up for what’s likely to be a challenging round of suggested edits.

As I’m waiting, I’ve been writing poems. I’ve lived in Iowa for eight years now, and I keep expecting it to feel like home, but it just doesn’t, and these new poems are trying to make sense of that. Before moving here, I never lived in one place for more than a few years, but I also never experienced the enduring sense of dislocation that I do now. The new poems are exploring why I still feel like an outsider in this place, and also trying to figure out what it would take for any place to feel like home.

PS: I know each writer has unique habits, but can you tell us about yours?

JP: I think my writing habits are positively ordinary, but they are my habits, after all. I keep a journal filled with notes: unfamiliar words I’ve encountered in reading, odd facts that I find interesting or about which I want to research more. I write poems in my journal, longhand first, and convert them into lineated verse when I type them. I almost always have some formal element in mind as I begin that process of transferring a draft from page to screen: this will be a sonnet; this will use syllabics; this will be a ballad. The constraints help me winnow out loose language from the longhand draft. To attend to sound and breath, I read my writing—poems and prose—repeatedly aloud as I revise.

All pretty run of the mill, no?


Jennifer Perrine won the 2014 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry for her manuscript, No Confession, No Mass. Perrine is also the author of In the Human Zoo (University of Utah Press, 2011), recipient of the 2010 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize; and The Body Is No Machine (New Issues, 2007), winner of the 2008 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry. Jennifer teaches courses in creative writing and social justice and directs the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Do you have a poetry manuscript to submit? Prairie Schooner’s annual book prize contest remains open to submissions through March 15. Find out more information about the prize, as well as about more of our past winners, on our website. Or, if you already know you're ready, submit here.

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