Jenn Givhan, a Mexican-American writer and activist from the Southwestern desert, is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Rosa’s Einstein (Camino Del Sol Poetry Series, 2019), two chapbooks, and two novels, Trinity Sight and Jubilee, both forthcoming from Blackstone Press. Her poems have appeared in The Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Poetry, The New Republic, Crazyhorse, and Kenyon Review. She has received, among other honors, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellowship, and New Ohio Review’s Poetry Prize, chosen by Tyehimba Jess.
Cassandra J. Bruner: Rosa’s Einstein derives much of its inspiration from a massive amount of research—everything from Einstein and his lost daughter Lieserl to time relativity and atomic theory to fairytales and Princess Alice. How did the process of research feed into your poetry? How did it spark or reset your drafting?
Jenn Givhan: So much of it happened organically and almost by happenstance. Magically, in that I didn’t even set out to begin researching for this book the way you would research for a novel or an article or creative nonfiction. I got into this in the first place because I was dealing with some very heavy, emotionally traumatic memories while experiencing postpartum depression and psychological trauma. So, I was writing Rosa’s Einstein simultaneously alongside other books, which were autobiographical in nature including my first, Landscape with Headless Mama. Although they were also surreal and dealt with magical themes, they were more based in reality, and I needed an escape quite honestly. At the same time, I had started writing my forthcoming novel, Trinity Sight, and the research I was doing for that novel and its plot was gestating in my psyche, simmering.
At this time, my husband knew I had become very interested in science, and he happened to be flipping through the channels and came across this show, Through the Wormhole. It explores all these theoretical physicists’ concepts. He recorded this show because he thought I’d like it. So here I am, at 11 at night, exhausted and breastfeeding my baby girl. And it’s like, “Oh my god, I’ve found it.” It not only intrigued me and made me bring home armfuls of library books about all these physicists. There was some magic sparked, as well—this idea of twisting science and Through the Wormhole with poetry and art. The analogies they were making—taking these scientific concepts and putting them in layman’s terms—made me realize, wait, these scientists are poets. What they do with scientific theories, we do with language.
Everything started connecting in my mind and that’s what led to the research. When I’d started working on this idea, which became Rosa’s Einstein, I had originally thought I’d make it a novel. Then I sat down to start writing and realized I had all this research and thought, “How crazy would it be to put them in conversation with my young protagonists of color, who are poets and magicians, who speak of the heart and imagination?” But I didn’t know how I was going to do this. Then out came the first draft of “Rosa Roja.” It was outrageous because it was trying to bring together all these seemingly disparate items—Latina culture, religion and Catholicism, emotional trauma and PTSD, and science—under this circus-in-a-desert-mirage atmosphere. I couldn’t shake it out of my imagination. The first draft was—I don’t want to say nonsensical, but it was surreal, all freedom and letting go and allowing the subconscious to experiment. It was so much fun, but I realized it was coming out in verse and lyric fragments. So I went with it.
This process took a good several years from the time I started drafting the poems until I had a version I felt proud to publish. This one was my heart project, the one that was beating alongside everything else and keeping me going and transforming several times over.
CB: Since Landscape with Headless Mama first appeared, you’ve had at least one book release nearly every year. What was that experience like? How did you balance multiple books that had different tones and styles, and how did they take shape?
JG: I have had a mentor tell me to slow down. And I just can’t. I mean, I am slowing down now because my kids, as they get older, need me more. So I’m writing a little slower now and might not keep up my book every year pace. Part of the reason I have written so prolifically is that I feel I am racing against my own clock because I have dealt with physical and psychological ailments. I wanted to make sure that everything I had to say got out, you know? Every lesson I have had to learn and everything I wanted to tell my children. All this is said to preface that I see these collections—their different shapes and different thematic concerns—as connected. It’s like they’re a single book that is meant to speak to an individual I’ve needed to say these things to, for, or on behalf of.
For instance, Landscape with Headless Mama was a reckoning with myself as a mother and my reckoning with my own mother, who did the best she could and survived and kept us alive but who was also deeply flawed. As we all are. Protection Spell is a song for my son who is a young man of color. It speaks to the experiences I’ve had as a mother raising children of color, especially in this political climate. Girl with Death Mask, dedicated to my daughter, is primarily for young women and the trauma they have gone through. It is a survival, how-to guide for her if anything should happen to me. It’s probably melodramatic, but I’ve had ailments, so I wanted to make sure I got these books out to them because they speak to my heart.
But Rosa’s Einstein was my saving project. It saved me because it was fun and weird. I’d write this emotionally heavy poem about my son observing racism and how people of color are treated, or my daughter recognizing a misogynistic reaction to me and how it mirrors the sexual violence I’ve survived. I’m writing and crying through one of these poems and having dark thoughts as a result of dishing out this difficult material on the page. Then Rosa’s Einstein was there like a net under the trapeze. I could imagine a world where these same things are happening—the misogyny, violence, and racism are still an undercurrent because that’s the reality for all people of color in the United States—but there’s also the world of the imagination, of hope and science and art. That’s the escape, and I would run into it alongside Rosa and Lieserl. I’d see her as my ghosted sister, my Other, and imagine I had a time machine and could go back to a past where there was a sister because I didn’t have sisters growing up. I had brothers with a large age gap in-between, and didn’t have a relationship with my mother where I could explain what was happening to me, the violence being inflicted upon me. With Rosa and Nieve, though, I was able to create a sister then go back in time and revise my own history. I didn’t feel alone in doing so, and it was uplifting and very healing. Even though it’s weird and fun and bridging all these worlds in strange ways, it was doing some deep, necessary work in my own heart. And that’s my hope for readers—that it does the same healing work for them.
CB: Let’s delve deeper into those personas, especially Rosa and Nieve. Toward the close of Rosa’s Einstein, there are several indications of the two characters being one, perhaps most evocatively in Rosa’s statement that “Nieve sister new as snow // returned like the red rash on my neck / may I ask your blessing to stay?” Which is all to say, how would you describe their relationship, and how did you intend it to shape the poems and their arc, if there was intention?
JG: Absolutely, yes. I intended them, sisters, to be almost like Rose-Red and Snow-White, who I preface the book with. What they’re supposed to more deeply indicate is the loss of innocence, the trauma Rosa has gone through. In my own reading and shaping, it is a sexual trauma her own mother is oblivious to because she is dealing with her own demons. That is the guiding arc of the narrative I was following in a loosely autobiographical way.
There’s supposed to be the flip sides of the coin. It’s kind of a cliché now à la Fight Club. How you have Tyler Durden and his badass side, but in the end you find out it’s just him, his multiple personalities, and dissociative disorder. In some ways that’s what’s happening with Rosa and Nieve. I wanted her to have this badass sister, this possibility for her to exist, but I never wanted to nail it down and say this is not actually Nieve, it’s Rosa. That can’t be the only possibility. I wanted to stay true to the theory of bubble universes, that any decision we make could split off into another universe. She imagines for herself a sister, and in this reality she has one. And she’s not alone or dealing with these painful, traumatic things alone or searching for her father who’s abandoned her alone. In another reality, it’s just a part of her. She needed to be her assertive, badass self. And that comes out in a couple of poems; one very clearly shows that Rosa is almost jealous because Nieve can do all these things. It’s the one where she can hold her breath underwater, and Rosa just makes her a sandwich. I wanted readers to become aware over time that Nieve is the part of her that’s always existed, but the one she needed to discover. That’s what this book is—it’s her journey to realizing she’s strong, she’s independent. She contains multitudes. She is everything she’s researched, experienced, imagined, dreamed. She can take all this power into herself and become it. Live it. And it’s her choice—which reality she lives in; she gets to choose which bubble universe she exists in.
There was the Hero’s Journey, too, which was always in my mind, but I tried to make it clearer in my second draft through the ordering, the five different sections. Each represents a different aspect of the Hero’s Journey. If you look up the classic one, you’ll see Rosa’s Einstein follows it to a T, with a caveat for poets. We always have to play and experiment. For example, in my ordinary world, Einstein was raised by a single mama in the barrio. So, I’m playing around with it, but there is still an ordinary world that shows Rosa in her original state before she receives her call to action. It happens when she realizes there’s this little girl named Lieserl that Einstein lost. Which is all to say, this is why the book is the way it is—because I get very, very excited about a whole bunch of shit.
CB: And then braid it all together.
JG: Exactly, and it’s the Hero’s Journey. I wanted to showcase this heroine, and her experiences, and what brings them together.
CB: Much of what we’ve discussed regarding femininity, education, and possible universes reminds me of the poem “Case Study: The Mexicali Border as Time Machine,” specifically how it situates “Border-crossing women” as being unable to storytell “without//breaking,” as “fenceless” and “without hinges.” In short, it potentially argues for a relativity of space, of person, that is as pronounced as the relativity of time. Was this intentional, or did it spring from the poems as they came into being?
JG: I would like to take full credit, but no, everything in this book grew organically. I don’t think I had any major set themes I wanted to get across from the forefront. I was just intrigued by the idea of everything being relative, that all these realities are existing at once. How if time and space are the same, and matter and energy are the same, then everything is fluid, simultaneous. And nothing ever ends. I loved all these ideas, and they spilled out as the book grew and took on a more solid shape because it began as an epiphany that everything is connected, the arts and the sciences and the imagination and God. Because I’ve been trying to come up with a way of solving for myself one of the great riddles of my existence.
I grew up in a deeply religious household. My father was a scientist and my mom was devout, so at first he went along with but never practiced the faith. Instead, he would talk to me about these scientific concepts growing up, but he eventually made his conversion to Catholicism and left the sciences. So I have these two facets of myself that seem in conflict with each other: faith and science. And I’m coming to realize they’re one and the same, just like everything is relative and Rosa and Nieve are the same. That was the initial conflict for me: God and Science. Then there are, of course, other elements important to the narrative that I hadn’t initially realized would be. For example, when I started talking about Latinas in STEM, it wasn’t what I envisioned when I had my epiphany because identity is so multi-layered that I had to strip a few layers before I realized: “I’m Latina, and this is my experience. And I should explain this to people who don’t know it, or I should make it more recognizable for people who do.” I didn’t set out to write about Latinas in science, but I realized I needed to talk about this more and analyze it more because—if there’s something about my identity or experience—I might not have thought about it on any level beyond my own gut reaction.
That’s where some of those poems, including “Case Study,” came from. I grew up in Mexicali, crossing the border in a culture that was predominantly Mexican or Mexican-American. To be able to take that out is why I say the story comes out broken. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve fully captured that experience yet in Rosa’s Einstein. I feel proud of the book. But if I could go back, I would bring that experience to the forefront, especially with what’s going on at the border. I mean, there’s always been a crisis at the border, but it’s becoming much more prevalent in the public eye and immigrants are being kept in detention centers. Actually, let’s call them what they are: concentration camps. Children being held in cages. I didn’t have a chance to include any of that, and I think that’s all important to my story. I haven’t been back to my hometown in a few years, and if I were able to go back through the book, I would. There might be another collection growing from this, maybe creative nonfiction, because I don’t think I’ve done it justice yet. It breaks my heart. It breaks me. The problem with writing about things breaking down at the border is it’s so difficult to translate what I feel as a storyteller, as a human, because I am bicultural. My dad is white and my mom is Mexican. In many ways I have the privilege of speaking English fluently and having been born on this side of the border even though many of my ancestors come from Mexico, even though many of my ancestors are Indigenous and come from the Southwest. That’s part of where split-consciousness comes from: of being in-between worlds, of not being fully accepted by white people and not being fully accepted by Mexican people. Trying to convey this experience is why Rosa’s Einstein is a song for outsiders.
CB: Let’s dial back to that false binary between faith and science you discussed earlier. Much of Rosa’s Einstein un- and retangles considerations of faith/science, theory/myth, and body/spirit. What the book describes as “that beautiful nothing, that skeletal // emptiness we know must be there—for it holds us.” How do you think poetry negotiates those unseen structures, merges them together?
JG: Poetry, for me, holds all those bubble universes so beautifully, allows them to be. Because poetry, even narrative poetry, is concerned with moments. It’s like the analogy that “time is a cake.” You have each slice of the cake as a specific moment of time, but all time exists as the whole cake. The past never stops existing; the future already exists; the present is what we experience as that slice. But it’s all happening at once. They’re not different; one is the past of the other.
Which is why I’d encourage all readers to read more poetry because the more you allow yourself to exist in the possibilities of possibility, the more comfortable you become with the idea of bubble universes—that there might not be a definitive answer, and that’s okay. I’ve come to love living in that tension of “what if” in poetry. We are as poets encouraged to juxtapose what the world might perceive as opposing forces, but we see that they’re not. Right? They’re just two sides of the same coin, or they’re sisters. We were taught in school, in structures, in the patriarchy to see them as polar opposites, but as poets we’re like, “Wait, wait,” and we just change the verb tense or use the noun as the verb. We use image and metaphor to show this other world that’s always existed, just as time always exists, as all of these things exist as the universe continues expanding.
So how does poetry do this? It’s freeing. Even when you have a form like a sestina, you might follow the basic guidelines, but within that form, that structure, that equation there’s still so much more you can do. There’s no rules for content, for play, for imagination. Other than, “Let’s see what we can make here, and see the connections that form.”
CB: Since we’re talking more about form, we should explore a particular poetic device. Throughout your writing, personas such as Headless Mama have been a constant. What keeps you returning to them, and what would you recommend to writers who are starting to experiment with persona as a form?
JG: I don’t think I’ve asked myself that before.
When I started out, I had this idea that I wanted to write for the women that I grew up with, speaking to and learning through their stories. The grandmothers and the aunties and the young women. My thoughts on that have shifted a bit. There’s the idea now of passing the mic so that others may speak for themselves. And that’s absolutely valid, but I’ve also come to see that for a lot of the women in my life—even though I have encouraged them to write over the past ten years—they still haven’t written one book. It’s not that I want to speak for them, but I also understand that I have been called to write and have answered that call.
I want to answer this about persona, but I also want to make clear there’s a political dynamic to this that needs to be taken into consideration. We need to be thoughtful and careful and make sure people are having deep conversations with themselves when they’re taking on another voice. For instance, Einstein’s lost daughter, Lieserl, never had that voice. She’s literally lost to time. The research I’ve done on her didn’t yield much in that I don’t see her voice anywhere, at least in English. So, find voices that speak to your own, that resonate with you and your story and keep examining yourself along the way. None of us need to come in as a hero and say, “Let me show you this other person’s life.”
With persona, with poetry, we should allow ourselves the creative space to talk about anyone or anything, but make sure we are coming to the page responsibly and asking ourselves why. For instance, I write about my son and my husband, who are both men of color. I wouldn’t take on a poem speaking from their voice. I’ll speak as a mother, as a wife, as an eyewitness, but that’s not a persona I would feel ethical taking on.
CB: I think, oftentimes, what can feel difficult for writers using persona is the ability to enter that other voice. To at once be the poet and the speaker. In your work, I’m almost always astounded by your poems and their ability to take on those perspectives, those places they’re in, and what they’ve survived. Do you feel like you have a sense of when you’ve entered that space, walked in those shoes?
JG: I want to go back to what’s called me to poetry. In terms of how I’m able to inhabit other voices, I’m deeply empathetic, and most poets are. That’s what calls us and opens us to the Muse, to pouring our hearts onto the page and sharing it with other people. Allowing yourself to tap into that empathy as a writer is key. For instance, if I see someone being mistreated, I have to step in or I get angry. And if I don’t feel I can do anything, I go to the page. It’s tapping into what we share, and that’s why and when persona works.
Sometimes, I see writers keeping up that distance, that veil, and pointing out the things they don’t have in common. When I’m doing manuscript critiques or mentoring poets, I’ll have white poets who are very conscious and conscientious, but they’ll write about situations people of color are going through, and the poem doesn’t work because they’ve kept the veil up. They’ve been guarded, saying, “Let me make sure I am pointing out that I, in no way, mean disrespect.” And it’s like, “Okay, I get it. And I understand why you’re being cautious and I appreciate that.” But at the heart of it, we’re human. That’s where I try to enter.
I’m not preaching this by any means, but I try to tap into what strikes my own heart, what has hurt me. In terms of voice, again, I try to listen. I’m sorry, I keep having trouble because I want to be clear I don’t advocate for white people writing in African-American vernacular or anything like that. Cultural appropriation is a problem. But, for myself, I enter stories that parallel my own and trust that if the Muse is calling me to write something, then I’m going to fill myself into it. I’m going to write my heart into it. There have been poems I have had to step back from and say, “Okay, this has been an exercise, and it has taught me how to approach voice.” But I have to put them away because they’re not poems I’d publish. And the poems I publish, if they’re successful, it’s because they do speak my heart. If I’ve gotten the voice right, it’s because it’s part of my lived experience. These are my mama, my grandma, my abuela; these are my people. So I would absolutely encourage people to write persona and throw yourself into it, but then step back once you’ve gone through that heartwork and ask yourself about your intentions, about whether or not these voices are already being expressed and communicated. We should always feel free to write our truths, but just make sure it really is your truth.
CB: As a counter to that mode of persona writing that can feed into white supremacist and racist thought and cultural appropriation, I think a good question to always ask is, “is this me intruding on another space?” In Rosa’s Einstein, part of what makes these personas so dynamic is how you’ve lifted them from the context of the Grimms’s fairytales and remade the characters and their lived contexts as your own. And this feels like a way of finding that balance, taking these stories then re-approaching them from your own slant.
JG: Exactly. I always ask myself about the power dynamics because they’re always at play. Similarly, I ask myself if I’m speaking from a place of privilege. Not in terms of what I can and can’t write about, but in terms of respecting other people, other cultures, other writers. What I found for myself in Rosa’s Einstein is that I wanted to write a Latina fairytale, a Latina myth. And I don’t see a lot of that. I mean, we have La Llorona, who I write about in my other books, but’s she’s of the horror genre in a lot of ways, and I wanted to explore a fairytale. So, this book was taking these different spaces and illuminating them from my perspective of growing up on the Mexican border. And that was why I took such liberties. The attempt to dismantle the white patriarchy in the book is from a position of color. I’m coming from a position of not having much of a voice. You don’t hear about Latina myths or Latina scientists; you don’t get that in mainstream culture. This is something my heart is aligned with in this project, and it’s worthwhile. I’m not disrespecting. What I’m doing is illuminating, bringing light into somewhere where I’ve experienced that darkness. I think that’s what guided me. At least, that’s the hope.
CB: At the same time the release of Rosa’s Einstein is taking place, you also have an upcoming novel, Trinity Sight. And even though Rosa’s Einstein isn’t purely narrative poetry, it does follow a narrative arc and contains several storytelling elements and moments. How would you speak to this experience of writing cross-genre, of “cheating on” poetry? How do the forms speak to each other and/or subvert?
JG: On a marketing side, I don’t have control over when things are being published, but it’s a beautiful happenstance these two were published in the same year because they came from the same research. As for why I wrote one as a novel-in-verse—I did have a narrative arc in mind, but it came out in poetry. There just was no other way. Nuts-and-bolts-wise, I’m trying to think what would be helpful because the way it happens is I have all these ideas. I have this jumble and I’ve got to get it out. I don’t feel like I have much control over it because that’s, dare I say it, the “creative genius” part. And I say that both tongue-in-cheek and as a democratic way of thinking that we all have genius in us.
It’s hard to articulate why I cheated on poetry and wrote a novel. I’ve been described as a poetic novelist and I write in lyric verbiage, so in my mind they’re the same, y’know? I’m able to see Rosa’s and Trinity Sight protagonist Calliope’s stories as following similar narrative arcs at their cores, but the publishing industry has to put labels on everything.
It didn’t feel like cheating. I sat down to write a story, and this is how it came out. I could’ve written Rosa’s Einstein as prose-based, but that would’ve lost so much of the imaginative play. My hope is I’ve infused the novel with the same amount of lyricism. There are a whole bunch of dream sequences, which is how the poets get away with it. We throw a poem in there and call it a dream, and the prose readers are okay with it.
In terms of going back-and-forth, I think we’re all poets at heart. When I talk with my kids and listen to their stories and the way they shift plot lines all of a sudden, it’s like they’re playing a game. A fiction reader would be like, “What? You can’t do that.” But in poetry you can. Poetry is so freeing in that it doesn’t expect the linear thinking we’re taught in the school systems. We’re taught “how to,” to think in those straight lines.
I wish we didn’t have to break ourselves into boxes. In my time at Warren Wilson, I remember one of the first questions was, “Fiction or poetry?” And I was loathe to say poet because, while I was studying poetry, I was also working on a novel. I don’t see them as separate, distinct.
CB: Could you speak more about the way we’re taught, this linear mode of thinking which props up binaries and categories? And what ways would you encourage writers to break out of those boxes we’re set up in, especially after so many years in those systems, workplaces, schools?
JG: I’m fond of encouraging everyone to “always write your strengths” in order to break through the windows of the publishing world. Even if they don’t come in the preordained realms or pre-approved boxes that we’ve been taught to be acceptable, write them anyway and keep asserting them, and you’re going to find your readers. I know you’re asking me about the crafting, but so much of allowing ourselves to craft comes from believing in ourselves. Because if you truly believe in yourself and your stories, you’re going to trust yourself and find readers that resonate with you and that you get excited about. For example, I found really witchy, badass poets who are supporting the magic that I’m trying to create as a mama and as a Latina and as a writer. I know not everyone is my reader, and it’s okay. I’m not writing for them. I’m writing for my daughter, for the little girl I was myself.
Believe in yourself, in your heart. The craft question at the heart of this is how do we free ourselves? And we free ourselves by believing in ourselves. I try to continually experiment with myself and play games on the page. If I’m trying to write a poem that I’d feel proud of and feel proud of sharing, I want to ensure that I’m investing it with heart and with heart-truth and that it’s not just a worksheet. I don’t have time for formal play for formal play’s sake, but if I take out all of the punctuation, for instance, it’s because I’m experimenting with the silencing done to people of color, to victims of sexual and physical abuse, to the times I didn’t feel I could speak. I’m experimenting with myself on the page while it also has a deeper emotional resonance.
I’d also advise poets to unlearn the structure and relearn themselves—I used to be a stickler for grammar: it’s what I learned during my Masters of English program, to teach composition. Now I see people who are professors on social media making fun of students or posting memes about grammar so much that I’ve come to see grammar and English punctuation as tools of oppression. Like this time a poet sent work to me when I was Editor-in-Chief at Tinderbox. I came back to her, told her I loved this poem, and pointed out the so-called “mistakes” to her to ask if they were intentional or not. She wrote back to me, sobbing, because in all her experience in the academic world and in sending out her work, she never had an editor or teacher ask her if that was intentional. She is a black, queer poet, and I just found that so devastating and enlightening, in so many ways, that she is assumed to be making mistakes.
Those are the kind of questions I want us to be asking ourselves about the lessons we’ve learned. Who are they serving? I’ve been doing a lot of meditation and “letting go of what doesn’t serve us” is the mantra. Let it go, let the craft lessons go. We learn so much in our MFA programs and so, so much of it is BS. There are useful things, but I always tell poets take what serves you. From whatever I’m teaching you, whatever I’m telling you, whatever advice I’m giving you, take what resonates with you and leave the rest. And that’s how I see Rosa in navigating the hell world, and that’s what I want my kids to learn, and that’s what I try to do—go through absorbing only that which makes us more powerful. I think that’s my final word of encouragement: soak in from each other, from yourself, from your lived experience, from your dreams and your imagination only that which makes you more powerful, that which makes you more healed and more whole. And let the rest go. You don’t need whatever craft tool you think you need to fit into this category. Like, as a “Latina poet,” what does that even mean? I’m not going to let anyone else impose that upon me. That’s my decision to make. I get to play. I’m the maker of my own worlds when I sit down to write.