A Conversation with Jennifer Jean

Jennifer Jean’s poetry collections include VOZ, Object Lesson, and The Fool. Her resource book is Object Lesson: a Guide to Writing Poetry. Her poems and co-translations appear in POETRY, Rattle, The Common, Waxwing, Salamander, Terrain, and On the Seawall. She’s received honors, residencies, and fellowships from The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, the Academy of American Poets, the Mass Cultural Council, DISQUIET, and the Women’s Federation for World Peace. She organizes and co-translates Arabic poetry for the Her Story Is collective, edits translations for Consequence Forum, and is senior program manager of 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center’s online writing program.


I have so many Jennifers in my life, you could say, I’m saturated with them. Jennifer Jean and I met about 15 years ago when she held a poetry workshop at a small bookstore in Salem, Massachusetts. Since then, we’ve shared poems, talked incessantly about line breaks, music, movies, and “The Californians” from Saturday Night Live. In this interview, we discuss her forthcoming chapbook, VOZ, due out in March from Lily Poetry Review Press. Jennifer Jean sees the joy in the world that I tend to miss.


Jennifer Martelli: Congratulations on your latest book, VOZ. Before I even began to read the poems in this collection, I was enthralled by the title, as well as the epigraph, “Com qu voz chorarei meu triste fado / with what voice will I cry my sad fate.” Would you talk about the title and the epigraph, and how they are central to the book?  

Jennifer Jean: Thank you! The epigraph is from an iconic poem by Portuguese poet Luis Camoes, which was famously sung by fadista Amelia Rodrigues who was known in her lifetime as “The Queen of Fado.” Amelia answers this question about voice in the way that she sings “Com Que Voz”—with a minor key melodrama that is so piercing it’s almost ecstatic. My collection seeks to answer this question too—in the way that I choose to “cry my sad fate” (that is to say, write my poems). My voice (or voz, in Portuguese) is a tool and a treasure that, unlike my initial fate, I can control. What this means is I can control my response to the things that happen to me and around me. 

The title and epigraph have additional meaning in that many of the poems are a kind of ekphrastic I call a “saturation.” I created this form after an obsessive engagement with sound, especially with songs and their voices. For me, this engagement shaped a landscape where certain stories in my life could reside.

JM: I loved that the epigraph acknowledges the sadness in these poems, but also gives the speaker a choice as to how they tell it. I’m thinking of a conversation we had while you were writing your previous book, Object Lesson. You insisted that you didn’t want “to stay in the sadness (of sex trafficking/slavery).” The poem, “Desperado,” embodies this choice when the speaker states,

Unloved. I love my dad but he can’t love me, no matter
how much I let him. I love
to sing in the shower, like all who are lucky
to have one & no voice.

How do you see this insistence on positivity? You never seem Pollyanna-ish, but the danger is there. Talk about how you walk that edge of joy.

JJ: When I was a kid, the story of Pandora’s Box hit me hard: you’re warned away from the content of a structure, and yet you look into it and find a pile of horror—at the bottom is a gem of hope. I aim for that gem when I rummage through pains in my past. This aiming helps me complete the act of writing. Like “Desperado,” my poem “Inspiration Point” illustrates this aim—underneath all the (maybe justified) negativity in the first sonnet is the creative, inherently hopeful realm of the second sonnet. “Com Que Voz” also showcases this aim. 

Interviewing and researching survivors of sex trafficking for my book Object Lesson, as well as co-translating for other projects with Iraqi and other Arab women in war-ravaged nations, has put my life into perspective. Meu triste fado (my sad fate) is terrible, yes, but that isn’t the whole story. Or all I want to talk about. Actually, I wish I could more regularly and naturally talk about, or convey, joy in my poems. When I try to, it comes out wonky, schmaltzy. So, I’ve decided to not force the matter. To just open the door to joy as much as possible. When joy is ready to enter my writing in a non-wonky, non-schmaltzy way, I’m ready! 

JM: This brings me to family, which is what this book is about. The speaker’s family is beset by poverty, illness, and separation, yet there is love. You link this with a sense of place—California and the Pacific. My heart broke a little bit when I read “The Happiest Place on Earth,” 

like a good girl (home at last
from the long care of foster-care)
I threw myself on mom’s loveseat
where I slept with Joe for eons.

And again in “Streets are uneven when you’re down/When you’re strange,” when the speaker tells us, 

No peace. No peace
like the Pacific I imagined when mom said, “Let’s go
to the beach!” & all was forgiven—
her seven-year absence forgiven.

How did you make choices when writing about foster care?

JJ: For a long time, I didn’t know how to write about anything regarding foster care, though I’ve spent a huge chunk of my life working to forgive all the circumstances that led to it and all the circumstances that stemmed from it. Once I reached a certain threshold of forgiveness (not complete forgiveness—I’m not there yet), I found I could write well-crafted, even beautiful poems that touch on the topic. 

I still don’t get into it too much—but I know that I need to, at least, mention it when covering certain experiences. Otherwise, there’s an incomplete understanding of those experiences. For instance, the intensity of the Disneyland story wouldn’t make sense if it were just a random visit, or a first-time visit, or even a visit by a poor kid. The additional resonance of being recently discharged from foster care, and the newly met mom, had to be in there so that the frenetic tone, and the rush of images and pronouncements, wouldn’t seem like melodrama. And, I knew I should only mention foster care in no more than one or two lines since the experience of the aftermath of foster care is the focus of the poem. 

JM: The term “saturations” is evocative and luscious. Explain how you invented or landed upon this form? How do you see it working as part of the collection? The songs are iconic—of a time and a place (as is your cover image). They provide a soundtrack to a childhood that was not always kind—or not always easy to live in under certain conditions. 

JJ: My favorite part of the biblical Genesis story is when Adam names the contents of Eden. Naming is useful because it creates boundaries around a thing, transforming it into something communal (though, personally, I’m careful not to get attached to the names of things or to the stories I create about them—but we can get into that another time…). When I was writing the larger manuscript from which VOZ is excerpted, I recognized I was obsessively listening to songs in order to create poems. I felt these experiences were ekphrastic in nature because I was engaging with art. But the process—and, in many cases, the resultant poem—didn’t seem to be like any ekphrastic I’d written or heard about. For one, they shaped—as I said earlier—a landscape for certain stories. So, I decided to be Adam and name a thing. I knew this meant I was better able to talk about this particular writing experience and even recommend it to others. This naming action also makes an appearance in the final poem “Inspiration Point,” where the speaker recognizes that the ability to create (the ability to be the author of one’s own fate…) is present even in times of negativity and awfulness. 

JM: Your saturations evoke/invoke amazing line breaks. I read “Hermosa Beach” on the page and out loud, and the emotional resonance seems to come from this lineation:

how did I know           the joy of giving
joy when I’m hungry? When I’m fresh out of foster care?           I mean,
we shared our shoulder knob, butt cheek, distended tummy
burn lines on the Buccaneer Camp bus pulling out of Hermosa.
My lunchless stomach grumbling under a weird strip of red.
But Marlene was burnt worse. &,
she’d welt overnight. So— 

Some of the lineation is syntactical and some so broken, which works! Tell me your secret!

JJ: “Hermosa Beach” engages with the song “We Will Rock You,” the second half of which is “We Are the Champions.” If you know the song, the two halves sound completely different. This bifurcation fits the double sonnet form I’d been using for many VOZ poems. It also inspired me to have two very different modes in the poem: the commentary frame and the vignette at the center.

As for the lineation, I try to make sure each of my free verse poems has either a core, or an entire, unique music or rhythm. I want this sound to match the sense of the poem (even if it’s via juxtaposition) so there’s an extra layer of meaning that lives underneath the poem’s content. Line breaks help create this music because the eye and the voice pause slightly at the end of a line. But this only works if each line stands as a unit of meaning that adds to the totality of what the poem is meant to convey. 

I don’t have any lineation secrets, I’m sorry to say. Writers just need to laboriously work with each free verse poem as if it is its own, unique musical composition with multiple instruments and movements. (And even then the poem might not play!)

JM: Your use of the haibun—which is a prose poem ending with a haiku—utilizes the “traveling” structure of the form. Here, you avoid line breaks. I’m thinking of “Com Que Voz,” where the speaker experiences coastal and emotional travel. I felt, too, that I had traveled from the very beginning of the book. Did I get that right?

JJ: Some content resists the line break as a unit of attention and/or as a means to music. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not, but the VOZ poems resisting line breaks the most had a travel component (including the haibun “Human Nature,” which travels from banal ignorance to fervent insight in a manner similar to Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room”). So, the travel-centric haibun form was useful! 

And, yes, I hoped to take the reader on a ruminative journey. Collections have a shape—spiral up, spiral down, black hole sucking light inward, a big blast outward, a figure moving toward a horizon line, etc. I’d say the shape of VOZ is a cosmic wormhole (aka, an Einstein-Rosen bridge meant for travel). 

JM: You embrace language throughout this collection. What meaning does Portuguese hold for you? Could saturation be a form of translation?

JJ: Yes, a saturation is a translation! (I know you know I’ve worked on co-translation teams, so this definition has extra timbre for me.) I’m translating songs or sounds into an entirely different language, which is the medium of poetry.

My paternal ancestors, as far as I know, are from the Cape Verde Islands, where people speak Portuguese as well as Kriolu. I remember my grandparents and great-grandparents speaking to me in a hard and aggressive tongue—though now I think the language is languorous and beautiful. I brought it into VOZ as another kind of music in the background of my life. But I have a tenuous connection to this heritage—in that way I’m like many multi-heritaged Americans. Perhaps my background can best be summed up as: I am from God and I am from Los Angeles, California. (This kind of person, apparently, speaks in poems.)

JM: Are you working on any new work?

JJ: So many projects! As part of my involvement with the Her Story Is collective, I’ve been co-translating, editing, and developing a bilingual anthology, tentatively titled Other Paths for Shahrazad: Contemporary Poetry by Arab Women. I also have a separate but related co-translation “poem response” project with Iraqi poet Dr. Hanaa Ahmed. I love the challenge and illumination of working in co-translation teams! But I’d also love to translate work on my own. To that end, I’ve been learning Korean for about two years. I’ve also been sending out the longer manuscript that VOZ is excerpted from, which is called The Pacific. As for new poems—I’ve hit a stride with some pieces exploring themes related to forgiveness. It’s a tough topic but I’m jazzed about it.


Jennifer Martelli

Jennifer Martelli is the author of The Queen of Queens and My Tarantella, named a “Must Read” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book and awarded Finalist for the Housatonic Book Award. Martelli’s chapbooks include All Things are Born to Change Their Shapes, After Bird, and In the Year of Ferraro. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, The Tahoma Literary Review, Thrush, Cream City Review, Jet Fuel Review, River Mouth Review, and elsewhere. Jennifer Martelli has twice received grants for poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She is co-poetry editor for Mom Egg Review.

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