Tuesday, May 27, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Jen McClanaghan

Sometimes an interview turns into a glimpse of an entire life. This is one of those rare gems, and it's also full of wisdom, too. It's my pleasure to introduce Jen McClanaghan, whose debut collection, RIVER LEGS, has just been published. 

Here we go... 

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book? 

When I was in grad school working on my PhD, I scraped together enough money to visit a friend living in Hawaii. She took me to all the requisite attractions where I amassed all the requisite souvenirs, including a hibiscus tattoo. But in the middle of this trip—this paradise, I received a phone call from my dad, telling me he had terminal lung cancer. The frivolity and the heat, the laziness of time, the lush coast, were replaced by new images when I visited him in Rhode Island a month later: the pink slippers his wife had me wear in their house, the cigarettes he still smoked, his copy of Moby Dick on the kitchen table, a broken window in the bedroom where I slept, a cold March beach. These experiences and the sense of disjunction, led to a series of poems in River Legs, and brought me as close to that feeling of inspiration—when a poem seems to write itself—as I ever felt over a sustained period of time. These elegies found their own rhythms, line breaks and syntax. I always have that one moment when writing, the inspired moment when a poem strikes out on its own and conjures an image or epiphany seemingly by itself. But the poems about my dad also came without the usual bewilderment preceding the others: How the hell does a person write a poem?

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer? 

Having married a writer, I mostly think it’s great. Especially for me because my husband is such a good editor, and his strengths are my weaknesses. For instance, he’s a fabulous cook, he tracks our finances, he’s always disciplined. He’s the type who takes photos and uploads and shares them immediately following an event. I wear hard contact lenses that are so smudgy I have to squint over the computer like a ninety-year old. I put things off beyond the stages of guilt and shame, though not laundry, which I love wrangling under control. I’m also the one who dreams up new futures for us (homesteader bloggers, bluegrass family band). So they have my blessing, so long as they possess a complementary set of neuroses and bad habits.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, anything about that process from your perspective. 

I’ll share two stories. The first is about a rejection I received from the Paris Review. They returned my poems to me and accidentally included a sticky note between editors that said, “These have some nice moments and lovely concrete images but they are also a bit predictable at times. I might be fonder of them than I usually would because the pickings are so slim today.” At The Southern Review, we always wrote on the envelope the piece came in, so our confidential notes didn’t inadvertently get mailed to the writer. But I loved the chance, as we all would, to eavesdrop on someone else reading my poems. My students get a kick out of the note when we talk about sending out work.

My second story really belongs to my uncle Eddie. He has lived in the same building in Manhattan for twenty years. One Sunday he struck up a conversation with someone in the elevator who introduced himself as Paul. At some point Paul said that he was a poet and my uncle started rattling on about his niece who had recently had a poem in The New Yorker. “Really,” Paul said, “I’m the Poetry Editor of The New Yorker.” The man, of course, was Paul Muldoon. I remember that when he accepted my poem for the magazine he signed his email, “Warmly, Paul.” And for months I’d just walk around repeating the word warmly.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

Until I was about six years old, I had this really glorious middle-class, suburban childhood. I lived with my parents and three uncles, the world’s finest dog, and loads of benign trouble. My uncles—who were living with us because their mother, my grandmother, had died—were teenagers and took great care of me. One had a Good Humor truck from which he sold doobie, a word I remember loving as a kid. I would raid the truck for Charleston Chews and ice cream sandwiches. We lived in a large house in the valley of a steep driveway. My great grandfather would come out from Manhattan on Easter to trim the rhododendrons. Milk was delivered to our backdoor. Elvis was on TV and everyone drove wood-paneled station wagons. It was so middle class and so perfect, but only for a brief time.

And then the bank foreclosed, the drinking became alcoholism, the dog was hit by a car, my parents divorced, my uncles scattered, and Elvis was two years dead.  Until I graduated high school, my mom and I lived in an apartment next to a dentist’s office and upstairs from a psychiatrist’s. Our front yard had a sign that said, “Biofeedback Services,” which haunted me as a kid. My bedroom desk looked into the neighboring dentist’s office. I’d do my homework while watching teeth cleanings. I was an only child and alone quite a lot. I often write from that solitude.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer? 

I had a best friend who worked at a Gulf gas station. One day she left the nozzle in a BMW and when the car drove away, there was a great mess. She quit on the spot, just ran from the station to my house on the other side of town. A few weeks later I was hired in her position. I was in high school, smoking cigarettes and pumping gas. I was naïve and trying to act much older than I was. When I write, I find that sometimes I’ve daydreamed myself right back to that dirty counter and all those Snapple lemonades. There were many stories there, but it’s frozen time as in a diorama. I have other such places that I find myself in when writing or when reading stories—not jobs, per se. I am forever walking through the museum of my life and writing from very specific locations—odd places that have lodged in me—a childhood friend’s living room where her parents drank White Russians, a neighbor’s kitchen with her half-dozen poodles, my grandparents’ lawn, dotted with rabbits.  Sometimes I find myself standing in these images so completely that it takes me a minute to realize I’ve daydreamed them up again. Back to the gas station: After my family’s economic collapse, I was the outsider—a poor kid in a very affluent town. I embraced the role and looked for jobs and minor rebellions to support that image, including the choice to go to Antioch College for a creative writing degree. My mom never pressured me about school or career—she was often absent and by default consenting—but also remembering, I’m sure, how her mother forced her into secretarial school, preparing her for a career she despised.  She swore she’d cut off my fingers if I became a secretary, though I imagine I spend more time typing than she ever did.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process? 

I am not religious, but now I’m teaching at a Catholic University and I was raised Catholic, though we really just attended the high holy days at St. Aloysius. I do have great faith in the writing process—the fact that if I keep at it, a benevolent spirit beyond me will give me my lines. Also in the transformative power of literature—reading it, of course, but also how spiritual it feels to have articulated something exactly right. Now that I’m at Salve Regina, I want to write about the Sisters of Mercy who founded the school (they had loads of faith and patience), and in particular about the freedom offered by obedience. I’ve written about the great acts of disobedience from the women in my family—my great grandmother (her father’s favorite) climbing out her bedroom window and eloping, my grandmother moving to Las Vegas in the late forties to obtain a divorce. Even though I had my minor acts of rebellion, I was sensitive, easily frightened, and flooded with guilt for even small transgressions. I came by my own obedience very differently, and it didn’t give me the same freedom or the same backbone—though it did give me my poetry.

For more of Jen's words and work, click here to buy her book! 

Jen McClanaghan’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Poetry 2013, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, and New England ReviewRiver Legs was selected by Nikky Finney for Kore Press’s First Book Award for Poetry. She is an assistant professor and writer in residence at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, where she lives with her husband and son. For more information, go to her website: www.jenmcclanaghan.com