Jennifer Willoughby Q&A

August 31, 2020
Jennifer Willoughby writes arresting and irreverent poems.

“The poet Mary Ruefle talks about how post-Apollo-moon-landing, academics argued that poets shouldn’t write about the moon anymore, because its mystery and power had been somehow diminished by science, which I find 100 percent idiotic.”

I love this line of yours: “Normal is a monogram you wear when everyone stares.” The concept of other is embedded in your work. Has that always been a theme that has appealed to you?

Yes, otherness, the sense of not belonging—to a family, to a demographic, to an era, is fascinating to me. There is strength and permission in it—for me it drives me deeper into my imagination to see what the poem is trying to say.

You write about eating corn muffins and ravishing our verdant home while writing our own folk songs to carry the hurt with you. Is environmentalism a strong influence in your writing?

Environmentalism and history and deep geographical connections to place. How the wild, natural and sprawl-y myth of America and Americans keeps smashing into nature with devastating consequences.  Poetry powers-that-be like to slot people into camps—nature poet, urban poet, confessional poet, surreal poet—but I’m drawn to poets—Dana Levin, Dorothea Lasky, who don’t fit neat in one box.

How important is humor to your writing? 

I think humor is possibly one of the best characteristics of evolved human consciousness and I am suspicious of anything—people, books, ideologies—that lack it. It is so good at breaking down barriers, at finding ways into a subject, at catching people off guard. Satire and wordplay work as hard as rhythm and sound in poetry to bring the reader along with you. The ancient Romans cracked jokes in their poems. Some of Shakespeare’s tragedies were funnier than his comedies. Billy Wilder said if you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you. I’m a believer.

Charles Manson shows up in a poem. Has California in that time period always held an allure for you?

California in every time period. California as a crucible for people like Manson. There’s just something about that big bright sunny state, its flip side of complex creeping darkness, that’s like a car accident you can’t stop looking at.

You often explode your poem with the first section, such as “If this were a movie we’d be in love already or planning the overthrow of Florida. But I am not an ingénue and you never learned to float.” It’s like the start of a great screenplay. Do you strive to write cinematically? 

I don’t consciously try to write cinematically, but I love movies, especially noir and screwball comedies. Movies, and advertising, too, have taught me a lot about how language and imagery work together to create or reveal an emotional effect. I don’t write straight-up linear narrative poems, but I want there to be something to ground the reader in a place, time, mood or moment.

I was wondering if you would reference “Beautiful Zero” and sure enough, there it was: the moon. Have you long referred to the moon as a beautiful zero, if just to yourself? Do your lines live in your brain for years until they come out on the page?

Some do, but that one just popped up as I was writing the poem. I am very pro-moon poems. The poet Mary Ruefle talks about how post-Apollo-moon-landing, academics argued that poets shouldn’t write about the moon anymore, because its mystery and power had been somehow diminished by science, which I find 100 percent idiotic.

I really loved your section “The Kaiser Variations.” How do you decide whether to sub-categorize poems like that?

That series is probably the most cinematic I ever wrote—vivid characters, scenes and dialogue. Once I had written a couple, I knew they were a series that had to live together in the book.

Your titles are so original and memorable. I’m thinking of “Your Problem is Forest Fires” and “On Track at Appomattox”—so grabby. How important are they to you? 

Titles are a big deal to me. I almost never read books of poems cover to cover, I read the table of contents and start with the title that grabs me. Copywriting has honed my skills in that vein—space limitations and character counts demand punchy lines.

How do the satisfactions of copywriting, which you also do, compare to writing a poem? Or do they? Do they seem to access the same part of your creative brain?

The satisfactions are different, but the process is sometimes similar. With copy and poems, language can feel like a puzzle you’re trying to solve, and the things you need to pay attention to are the same: what are you trying to say? Whom are you speaking to? Is it unexpected, to the point, and not boring? What can be cut out to strengthen the idea? Elements of playfulness, elasticity, and the ability to self-edit exist in both disciplines.

What’s next for your poetry?

I’m halfway through my new book but COVID times are warping everything. I am one of those people who figures out what they think about things after they happen, and this mess is far from over. So I muddle along. More reading. More writing. Less doom-scrolling.