She authored a chapbook, The Tao of Loathliness, published by fooliar press in 2005 and re-issued in 2008. Jaclyn is the recipient of a New York Times Fellowship for Creative Writing and the Sellers Award from the Academy of American Poets. She is presently working on a Ph.D. in medieval studies.
BCP: Why did you start writing poetry?
JP: I am not really sure why, to be honest. I feel as though it chose me more than the other way around. I wrote quite a bit as a child…it was a fun way to go inside and to dream and imagine….and I have always loved to write and have always liked learning languages. There were periods in my life when my energy was channeled into other creative (and sometimes not-so-creative) pursuits. In the mid-90’s I spent some time a friend’s artist retreat – a gorgeous 12th century convent in southern France. I was there on a barter and it was a magical place, where I started to write again. On the plane back to New York, I was seated next to the then-director of the Writer’s Voice, and it was too synchronistic to ignore. Before I knew it, writing and poetry became the centre of my life – and I knew that that was what I was meant to be doing.
BCP: What is your writing process?
JP: I don’t have a writing process per se. I always keep a notebook with me and write down lines or bits of language that come to me. I have a very busy head, and often something will trigger a stream of thoughts or snippets that end up turning into a poem. I am inspired when I hear and read poetry and literature or look at at art. And then I sit down and start to piece together what I have or will use a line or a word as a starting point and see where it goes. I can – and do – sometimes just sit and write a poem with a specific purpose in mind, or if an event, experience or emotion moves me to do so. I have been doing some “transtranslation,” a term used by a friend, fellow poet, and teacher, Mark Goldstein. Mine is based, in part, on homophonic translation…. In fact, I am working on a series now that I hope will become a chapbook.
BCP: Who are your influences?
JP: Who isn’t, really? I adore literature in all its forms and I know that every word I have read or heard, every great work, even everyday speech and conversation, things overheard, influence my work. I love Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare, of course. Some of the Spanish language poets are among my favorites, particularly Lorca and Octavio Paz. I love Rilke as well. And I must say that Marguerite Duras, originally part of the French New Wave, who is so fluid in her movement between genres, is my favorite modern novelist. She has not, as far as I know, written poetry – at least not what we expect poetry to look like – but every word that she placed on the page is deliberate and so evocative….so deeply sensual…so poetic. I admire her tremendously – even in translation. But really, there are too many to name, and many whose influence I am probably not even aware of.
BCP: Much of your writing is serious and sad. Do you also write about the fun stuff of life? Why or why not?
JP: Well, I suppose it depends what you consider fun. I have written humorous poems…poems that make people laugh…although sometimes the humor is subtle and takes time to sink in. I have a rather sardonic sense of humor, which does come out in my writing, depending upon the subject. My first journal publication in The Columbia Poetry Review is a poem called “Selections from a Dream Dictionary,” and has some fun material. It is mostly when I laugh at myself and my circumstances that the playfulness pokes through. And of course, I have written many poems about love and travel, some of which are quite joyful.
BCP: Non-accessible academic writing, long and boring speeches, and yelling slogans on a megaphone are given precedence over poetry in the activist world.
What role do you see poetry having in activism? How can poetry get more than a quarter of a page in a magazine (if at all) and be used as more than an opener at events?
JP: When I was younger, I was very active in political movements that fought oppression…and that was a time when I wasn’t writing poetry, interestingly enough. I spent a great deal of time and energy being angry and speaking out, which I think is so important in our world. And it was certainly important for me. However, I have come to realize, for myself, that activism does not need to be extroverted. In fact, for some, when all of our attention is focused outside, we can actually be less effective. To be an activist, in my definition, means that we also have to look inward at ourselves…at who we are, at how we are in the world, at how this affects everyone and everything around us. From my experience, I can say more in a few words of poetry than I could if I were chanting at a rally. I don’t mean to suggest that one necessarily precludes the other. But I do feel that we have to become more conscious of small things that could make a tremendous difference in the world…. Being sensitive and looking into our own mind and heart will invariably make us stronger individuals and as a society…it will help us to realize who we really are.
So for me, writing poetry, and living my life with depth and awareness go hand in hand. If I touch someone with a poem or incite a person to think about something they might otherwise never have, then I have made a difference. Sometimes the most subtle things are the most profound.
Having said all of this, I do think that poetry is, always has been, and in all likelihood always will be a medium used for political and social change. If we look back in history we can certainly find that. If we look around us today, it is surely present. You are right that poetry isn’t at the forefront. I find that there is something about calling poetry “poetry” that can be intimidating to people. But it is reaching many…and thanks to the internet and to websites like yours, it can reach even more.
My philosophy in terms of accessibility is not black and white. Understanding is not only intellectual or rational. One can understand a poem without necessarily knowing the dictionary definition of every word or being able to identify every allusion. Poetry speaks with images and music, with emotion as well as intellect. There are so many ways of understanding…. I have been told that some of the language I use is archaic, or abstract, sometimes difficult to penetrate. A teacher of mine once said that part of the job of a poet is to “re-invigorate” language, and I agree with that. I want my audience to engage with my poetry, enter into it, take an active – another form of activism, perhaps? – role in the reading or hearing. If it sends someone to the dictionary, what harm is there in learning the meaning of a word or its history? Yet, I don’t think that the enjoyment of a poem or an “understanding” of it requires that.
BCP: Some your poems deal with loneliness. Can you explain why you write about loneliness?
JP: That’s a big question…. I don’t know if I write “about” loneliness as much as it is evoked in the poetry. I think we all struggle with loneliness in our lives on some level or another. I have always felt somewhat misunderstood. I have always longed to be part of a community where I am accepted for who I am and where I can be with like-minded people, but maintain my individuality – with my quirks and differences. Family comes in so many shapes and sizes….and I have always been fortunate in finding family in all its guises…all over the world. But there is another level of loneliness that is rather more difficult to put into words. It is something that cannot be quelled no matter how many people are around…a desire to be part of something greater. And ironically enough, I know that the only way I can achieve that is through my own solitude. As you have probably fathomed by now, my life has been and continues to be a spiritual journey. I fear that some of what I say sounds clichéd, but I say it only because I have lived it. Seeking – whether knowledge, spirit, or experience – has always been essential to who I am. It is a process of opening the heart and opening the mind. And of course, friendship, companionship and intimacy – are all a part of that. Not to mention some romance and excitement here and there.
BCP: You are currently doing a PhD in Medieval Studies. Have your studies influenced your poetry?
JP: Absolutely. I’ve always loved mythology and been nostalgic for times past. I have a particular fondness for Arthurian romance and the Provençal troubadour poetry (the courtly love tradition), and much of my work is infused with subjects, styles, language from that period. At the same time, I live in the modern world and love modern literature as well. I am steeped in two worlds at once – as a result of my academic work, but for other reasons as well. I find that my poetry is a marriage of ancient with modern. Anne Carson – a Canadian writer – is someone who I esteem for having achieved a seamless blend of the classical and modern world with exquisite originality in her poetry, novels and essays. In the end, so many of the themes in poetry are timeless, which is why it is so alluring.
My chapbook is based upon a character from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval grail romance, Parzival. Cundrie is a fascinating character, although we don’t see much of her in the story. She is what would be termed a “loathly damsel,” but she is rich and complex, both a product of the medieval imagination, and an expression of a universal type. I was so drawn to both aspects of her persona that this chapbook came to be.
BCP: You take part in poetry writing workshops a few times a year. What do you get out of them? Do you recommend them?
JP: I love poetry workshops and do recommend them for several reasons. We can’t write in a vacuum, and I find the exchanges that take place in workshops so stimulating and exciting. It is a great forum for trying new techniques, to get a jumpstart when you are feeling dry….it is an environment for learning and teaching, for expanding and improving your craft, for getting feedback and reactions. There are times when a colleague will see something that would never have occurred to you … and suddenly the poem works. There can be so much creativity and innovation…and inspiration in this setting. I have encountered some very talented artists in workshops. Of course, it also depends upon the dynamics of any given group and the facilitator, if there is one. There are workshops that are strictly for critiquing, others in which work is generated and discussed. There is a variety of workshops out there…some very good ones in Toronto… and if you go into it with openness, it is hard to go wrong.
BCP: Have any New York writers influenced your writing?
JP: Well, so many of my teachers have been New York writers, even if that isn’t where they were originally from. People like Ginsburg have definitely had an impact on my writing. The whole New York School, with poets like John Ashbery, who turned poetry on its head and taught me about new approaches to language: versatility and play with the raw material, and the beauty that can result. And of course Whitman, who was himself a New Yorker.
BCP: Is there a book that you have read and re-read several times over?
JP: There are many. Definitely Parzival. And Paradise Lost. Duras’ North China Lover. With poetry, it seems that I always return to particular collections and anthologies. I don’t think that literature – especially poetry – is something that you read once and then put away on the shelf. It is alive, no matter how old or new. And as we change, so does what we read. As we learn, we bring something new to what we read. The best works are the ones that feel new when I re-read them, when I discover a new twist in the language, a new subtlety, or am affected all over again.
BCP: Writers/poets identify in so many different ways. How do you identify as a writer?
JP: I don’t identify myself with any particular school, if that is what you mean. I don’t want to tie myself down to writing in a given style. My poetic voice changes invariably, and I love to experiment. I have been lucky enough to have had opportunities to do and see things in my life, to travel and learn. Life isn’t static, nor is art.
BCP: What advice do you have for young writers?
JP: The best advice I can offer, is be true to who you are. Don’t try to be “cool” at the expense of wisdom, experimentation and growth. All you need to be a writer is a pen, a piece of paper, and yourself.
Tune into BlackCoffeePoet.com Friday August 31, 2011 for a video of Jaclyn Piudik reading some of her poems.