A Conversation with Jennifer Givhan
BY RACHEL RICHARDSON
Jennifer Givhan is a Mexican-American and indigenous poet, novelist, and transformational coach from the Southwestern desert and the recipient of poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices. Jenn is the author of five full-length poetry collections, most recently Belly to the Brutal (Wesleyan University Press), and the novels Trinity Sight, Jubilee, and River Woman, River Demon (Blackstone Press). Her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, Adroit, POETRY, and many others. Follow her at jennifergivhan.com.
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Rachel Richardson: I’ve just read your new poetry book, Belly to the Brutal (Wesleyan University Press, July 2022), and I feel like it’s been inhabiting me in the days since. In some ways I identify deeply with your subjects: you write about parenting, adjunct teaching, and the precarious feeling of being a woman and mother in our time. You and I had a hard time just finding an hour when we were both free to talk, which might be the perfect metaphor for how immersive this life is! So first I want to say thank you for giving voice to the complexity of this stage of life.
Jenn Givhan: Thank you so much for this beautiful introduction to my newest poetry collection. Your insights warm my heart. I’ve been working on a poetics of vulnerability as a counterpoint or alternative to so-called “confessional mode,” and in many ways this is my most vulnerable collection yet.
RR: There are also many ways in which I feel a searing empathy for the speaker of these words in the ways that she is not in my position, and that’s where I really see your craft. There’s a warmth and openness that brings us in. Have people told you this before?
JG: These poems for me are like the notes my friends and I used to pass to each other in high school, a kind of epistolary diary and love letter to the strength and power of girls’ friendships; only now, I am a woman and mother, passing these survival notes to mostly fellow poets and empaths, but really to anyone who sees and feels the world lyrically. So, yes, I’ve been told that my style is warm and open, and that’s because I’m genuinely opening my heart on the page with vulnerability, empathy, and compassion. Even where I’m noting injustice and rage and pain, even where I’m wry and wary, my heart is open in these poems.
RR: I love the idea of a book of poems as passed notes to friends. It resonates with the fact that you address us (readers) as “dearhearts” more than once here too. And in this intimacy you share a lot of difficult things, like the repo man coming to take the car, and how it feels to live in a body that “doesn’t fit.” In the poem “I Awoke Considering What Labor Would Feed My Children,” you present a moment like this that is at once bleak and magical:
plotting lotteries & the cyclical yellow heads
in the seeded places, in the soiled beds, still
dying in the grunge of wastewater outside my backdoor
picked & picked over till the smell of mildew forces
my hand. I awoke wondering when the bank
would repossess what I cannot afford, not just reedy slivers
of cheese & cheap pancakes in the bellies
of what I’ve carried as far as I can before lighting
the home altar. Burning the book.
Scrubbing my knees to the prayer floor.
I awoke envisioning a girlchild dancing for herself.
Can you talk about the role of magic, and vision, in your poems? There’s often a kind of alchemy that happens out of the wastewater and despair. And you call yourself “La Bruja” at times too, so I’d love to hear about this sense of self and power: where does it come from? And what does it do in your poems?
JG: When I was a little girl, I made potions from my mother’s perfumes and lotions, much to her chagrin, although now that I think back on it, wasn’t there a touch of pride to her voice when she remembered it—pride at a daughter rebellious enough to make a mess of her mother’s things? Our mother/daughter relationship was strong enough that I didn’t hide it from her. The rose scent of those first potions still infuses my magical and spiritual sensibilities; their olfactory memories intertwined inexplicably with a duality of healing and that which still needs mending. My mother and I were both sexually abused as girls. We grew up and stayed in toxic relationships with boys and men. My mother’s Catholicism and deeply rooted faith in its spiritual tenets saved her, quite literally, when Jesus appeared to her in a closet where she was hiding from her abuser and told her that he would keep her safe, and her faith has done so in many ways. My brujería is an amalgamation of the nascent inklings of the witchy, surreal world that appeared to me in my earliest memories, commingled with the deep-seated faith of my mother. Her faith manifests itself through Catholicism; and ritual, sacredness, and familia are entwined in the practice of this faith in many Latinx families.
I’m often asked why I call myself La Bruja since, for some Latinx folks, calling myself a bruja and invoking brujería in my writing carries a negative connotation. These negative undertones likely stem from the Spanish colonizers’ interpretation of ancient spiritual practices and the practitioners within the Western conception of sorcerers with malevolent intent; when Catholicism gained its foothold, those who practiced what we might call folk magic were considered witches (in Spanish, brujas) and feared as such. Patriarchal leaders feared women’s power and matriarchal knowledge. They feared our Ancestors’ innate spiritual wisdom, rooted in self, family, nature, and spirit—a wisdom that sought answers within rather than through any state-sanctioned religion. Over time, that fear spread, and we grew to fear ourselves. In Latin American culture, a tacit divide grew between brujas and curanderas (healers), although much crossover in their practices may exist, much in the same way Latinx patriarchal misogyny perpetuates the mother/whore dichotomy.
My practice of brujería is a cobbling together of traditions from my Catholic upbringing, my wild spirit, my rebellious nature, my natural inclination toward science and herbology, and the symbolism of my indigenous ancestors in Mexico. I have also recently reconnected with my indigenous roots in New Mexico, southern Arizona, and Texas, where my maternal grandparents have roots. At my home altar, I light candles for my antepasados (ancestors), La Virgen (Mother Mary), and her indigenous counterpart, Tonatzin.
From this context, I reclaim the term bruja and the ritual of writing, the magical possibility I invoke for healing, manifesting, empowering, and overcoming in the works I create as brujería.
RR: How about La Llorona? She’s another figure of folklore—a ghost woman who drowned her children. But in your poems, she seems more complex, maybe misrepresented, and deserving of empathy. How do you see her? What are you reclaiming in her story?
JG: Yes, La Llorona weaves her way into everything I write in one way or another. She’s haunted me since girlhood, but in the way of a fierce protector as well as chilling warning. My feelings for her (and hers for me) are complex and somewhat intangible, which is why I go to poetry and fiction to untangle them and better understand them, and why they’re difficult to parse in straight-up prose.
In my undergrad and grad years, I became passionate about reclaiming her story as my Chicana and Mexicana heroes such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, and Laura Esquivel were doing with many of our cultural feminine figures, such as La Malinche, who also makes an appearance in my poem “La Llorona Sings Below Sea Level.” I wrote a version of this poem in my grad program back in 2008 or so; it’s one of the poems that earned me a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellowship! I never included it in any of my previous four poetry collections for one reason or another, yet I knew that it needed to be in this fifth one. This poem and my conception of La Llorona have changed shapes throughout the years, but the core remains staunch and necessary and sustaining. Again, she’s haunted me.
La Llorona does something unimaginable in society, as maternal filicide is probably the worst crime a Western, patriarchal society can think of; women are meant to be mothers and to do all the motherly things that go with that. What does it mean for a mother to kill her children? We shudder to think of it.
And I shudder. I do.
But at a deeper structural level, and at the literary, metaphorical level, in the chora, in the underbelly—the mental, emotional, sociopolitical, and political struggles that might lead a mother to this act are the kinds of taboos that have kept women and mothers in particular marginalized, disenfranchised, and unrealized as whole, complex people and characters.
La Llorona defies and blurs lines, like Medea before her—and there are socio-political considerations contextualizing her story that we must pay attention to.
She cries for us to pay attention, like Las Madres of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the mothers of the disappeared who would not give up on their children and stolen beloveds, who insisted that people pay attention.
We lloronas become gritonas—screaming for society to pay attention.
In both my poetry and fiction, my goal is to figure out how the rage inside of me covering years of grief and trauma, how that rage can come through as operatic, crafted to its sharpest point. That’s my lifelong goal, I think, as a writer.
RR: Wow. I love the way you use her figure as a guide and catalyst. And since you brought up your fiction, I’d like to bring that into the conversation too. You’ve written multiple novels at this point, interspersed with your books of poetry, and your new one, River Woman, River Demon was published around the same time as Belly to the Brutal. I’ve been so curious about the relationship between these forms. Do you find yourself writing fiction and poetry at the same time? Is one a reprieve from the other? How does your material sort itself into these genres, or do you see it as all one continuous kind of work?
JG: I’m a poet at heart, and I have often discussed elsewhere how taken I am with Julia Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic, prelinguistic chora space of humming and crying and guttural noises and communicating beyond “meaning making” as a child/mother through the womb or in the newborn stages—how I tap into this realm in my poetics. The same is true for the process of creating my poems, and as a woman with chronic illness, I often find myself in a state of exhaustion or brain fog (fibro fog). Perhaps because I’m a poet at heart and partly because I’ve dedicated my life to studying the craft of poetry, creating the poems never feels like work—but freedom. Release, play, heartwork in its purest form. This is not to suggest I don’t craft and sculpt and revise a hundred times in a hundred iterations. I do. But it’s the kind of soul work that revitalizes and strengthens and buoys me so that I can return to the other work—the novels and the rest of my life. And when I’m not writing poetry, I don’t beat myself up, because I know that, like any true love, poetry will never leave me nor I it.
The heart of my novels is likewise poetry. The deeper themes and resonances, the humanity buzzing and humming in the characters and their relationships and desires and fears and resulting choices for better or worse, the beating heart at the center. But puzzling it all together, creating believable dialogue that moves the story forward and keeps the pacing clipped and the reader turning pages—all of this I’ve had to teach myself again and again. It does not always come naturally to me, and I’ve found I’ve had to forgive myself and be patient with myself. An analogy that’s helped me lately is that the writing process can be akin to a child happily at play building with blocks, stacking one atop the other, contentedly. One block at a time.
I could go on and on about this topic, but suffice it to say that my work in one genre feeds the other. The skills I learn and intuit and develop as a storyteller translate directly to my lyric play. My fascination with compressed narrative, emotional resonance, and the unsayable expresses itself on the page, for instance through caesura—that which we must leave out of a story. This is how Belly to the Brutal came to me, and my great goal now is to translate this poetics—of the chora, of hauntings, of omission, of compression, of the beating heart at the center and everything else in service to that—into my novels. We shall see. I must keep playing and keep writing to find out, as all writers must! The writing is wiser than we are, perhaps, and if I could write my way completely away from the po-biz/publishing world’s gatekeepers, boxes, pedagogy, and marketing tactics, I think I would find the truest version of my poeta/cuentista self there. I suspect she’s been humming in the chora, waiting for me all along. Frida to Frida. Paloma to paloma. Beckoning.