Jenny George is the author of The Dream of Reason, published by Copper Canyon Press. She is also a winner of the “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize and a recipient of fellowships from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Lannan Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. Her poems have appeared in The New York Times, Ploughshares, Narrative, Granta, Iowa Review, FIELD, and elsewhere. Jenny lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she works in social justice philanthropy.
Jenny George and I met at the MacDowell Colony nearly four years ago, and we began to talk about writing over snowed-in meals in the dining room. The following conversation took place via email after the publication of her first book, which Publishers Weekly called a “jewel of a collection” in its starred review.
Laura Marris: I love the title of your book, The Dream of Reason, especially because it comes with a kind of shadow title. The most common translation of Goya’s El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” contains the more straightforward idea that a lapse of reason leads to monstrosity. But to me, the alternate translation, “The dream of reason produces monsters,” with its emphasis on longing and fear, is truer to human experience. Could you say a little more about what drew you to the title of Goya’s etching, and how you feel its double meaning works within the book?
Jenny George: As I was working on these poems, I became very interested in the simultaneous truths captured by the two translations of Goya’s title. Both statements are true, even though they have nearly opposite meanings. On the one hand, when reason is absent or “asleep” and we operate out of ignorance or superstition, monstrous things can happen. On the other hand, an over-investment in reason—the delusion that reason can be applied to all experience, the “dream” of it—also allows for great monstrosity, for exceedingly chilling acts. I think the ambivalence implied in the title phrase edges toward a profound truth. And ambivalence is fertile ground for poems.
But all of that is an inquiry on a fairly large scale. Another, more personal entry point for me was simply the question: What are we awake to when we’re dreaming, that we don’t know in our conscious minds?
LM: As I read your work, I keep thinking back to your lines from “Threshold Gods” and the image of bats flying at evening: “Think of it—to navigate by adjustment, by the beauty / of adjustment.” Do you find the poetic process is also a kind of navigating by adjustment?
JG: I think that’s fair to say, yes. I do put a lot of value on a gesture we could call adjustment. Often I write a poem by turning and turning an object or a scene in my mind, many micro-turns, in order to try to see all the possible facets—a process of continuous adjustment of vision. Or you could say, a kind of revisioning within the writing itself. And the quality my poems navigate towards is the achievement of stillness, an arrest of attention in the midst of whatever is unfolding.
LM: You earned your undergraduate degree in human ecology. Does that body of knowledge influence you at all as you write?
JG: Human Ecology is the study of the relations between humans and their environment, both natural and human-made. It has a scientific aspect; but as a philosophy, it’s suspicious of the kind of objectivity that keeps the world at arm’s length. More than any particular content, it is that orientation that still influences me. When I’m writing, I’m asking myself: Can I surrender my authority while maintaining alert to the world? Can I welcome what is not-me into the poem? Can I keep uncertainty alive?
LM: You describe animal intelligence so well, and there’s both joy and humor in the portraits of all kinds of creatures in your book, as well as a darkness, an awareness of random and non-random forms of cruelty. I once heard Carl Phillips say that poems are like premonitions. Do you find that poems have particular access to a kind of instinct or animal knowledge?
JG: I suppose if there is any language that does have access to animal instinct, it would be poetry. Because poetry is musical, and embodied, and it operates right up against all that cannot be said. I don’t know what it is like to be a non-human animal. But I do remember, like a deep imprint somewhere way back inside my body, what it was like to exist outside of language—the wondrous fluency of that realm and also the blank terror of it. When my imagination gets going, I think that might be what it’s like to be an animal, especially an animal who is subject to human choices—a cow grazing in a pasture, say. Or a pig stumbling up a chute towards slaughter.
LM: The world of your book has such a generous reverence for life, and it makes familiar images strange as well as beautiful. I’m thinking of the belt like chewed bread or the open windows of trees. Were there particular places, real or imagined, that you returned to as you were writing? Or is the natural world of these poems more like a dream landscape, that shifts all the time, as you move through it?
JG: I grew up in New England. When I’m writing, I often return in my mind to the remembered landscape of my childhood: the stone walls and small farms, the starkly quiet drama of the seasons. The properties of that place are inextricable from my early memories of being alive. And of course memory is a way of talking about whatever is at hand.
But also, during the years of this book’s development I spent regular time at a remote ranch in Texas Hill Country on annual silent writing retreats. The ranch is at the end of an eleven-mile dirt road, along a green river. Herds of deer move over the grassy hillsides. Live oaks dip their branches into the river. In the summer there can be intense heat and sudden storms. Being in sustained silence in that landscape was like being immersed in a dream—with no language to intervene on the vividness of the place. I’m thinking of how a dream is utterly concurrent with itself… it has a quality of immediacy, because there’s no interposing ego between the dreamer and the dream. My time on the ranch had that kind of extreme intimacy with the landscape. Even when I was back home, or writing in other locations, I would feel that my poems were taking place in those blazing yellow fields, with vultures circling high overhead.
LM: What are your favorite things to read at the moment, either inside or outside of the poetry section? What was your favorite thing to read when you were writing your book?
JG: I read a lot within the worlds of psychoanalysis and depth psychology. I am fascinated by all the ways there are to be a person, and how we come to experience our selves. And I find the questions that drive psychoanalysis to be particularly haunting. Sometimes I can only understand a poem I’ve written by taking it to be the answer to some question I can’t yet hear. And so I go looking for those questions.