Lesley Jenike: An Interview With Serena M. Agusto-Cox

January 26, 2011

Poet Lesley Jenike

1. How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word? Are you just a poet, what else should people know about you?

I think my first approach would be self-deprecation; in fact, I’d probably make a joke about having spent quite a few years in costumes and wigs singing and dancing. I find that once one admits to an improbable love for musical theatre, any crowd immediately relaxes.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

Well, I love theatre (see above). When I was younger, there seemed to me to be very little difference between theatre and poetry, and I still feel that way. If you listen to a Beckett or Mamet script, for example, you’re hearing language shaped to emphasize repeated rhythms and patterns, right? So naturally I love poetry “for performance” in all its guises. But theatre is a collaborative art, while writing shorter lyrics meant primarily for the page seems to me to be a solitary activity. Both satisfy competing desires for introspection and extroversion, as I imagine they do for a lot of writers, and writers are a part of humanity—or at least they’d like to think they are.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

Yes! Lately I’ve been obsessed with John Singer Sargent, Thomas Jefferson’s one-time girlfriend Maria Cosway, all things Italian, Marianne Moore, finding decent white oxford shirts at the Goodwill, red wine (of various varieties), Bravo (the cable station), Joni Mitchell, and stuff my cat does.

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

I’ve taken writing workshops of various kinds since I was in high school (so you’d think I’d have more to show for my time, right?). Workshops are mixed bags, as are most things. Some have been life changing, some just blah, some frankly troubling. But I’ve found that meeting and connecting with other writers is really (beyond the reading) the best thing about workshops. And yes, it’s the conversations we have after workshop (at the bar), that are the most rewarding. I was never really into manuals and how-to’s, probably because I don’t like to use them to put an Ikea desk together, so why should I use them to put a poem together? I do like John Drury’s The Poetry Dictionary and Creating Poetry. Drury’s a terrific writer and a sensitive teacher.

5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

As someone who’s drawn very few lines in the poetic sand, so to speak, I find “academic” or theoretically-driven writing as well as more “popular” writing equally rewarding, and I’m sticking to that assessment. I respect and admire all kinds of writers and all kinds of poetry, but I made a conscious decision recently to rethink my relationship with those “wonderful people out there in the dark” (to quote Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard). Sometimes too many years spent in the classroom as a graduate student can stifle a writer’s drive to reach out to different kinds of readers, and I do believe there is an audience for poetry beyond other writers of poetry. I believe there are people hungry for language that’s used with dignity, integrity, and beauty, who don’t necessarily need poetry to make “sense” in a facile way. People are hungry for the kind of good mystery poetry can provide.

6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I love listening to music as I write! I used to listen to music with lyrics, but, much in the same way that I can’t stay up too late anymore, I can’t focus on my own songs these days while someone else is singing to me. So lately I’ve been listening to, and trying to teach myself something about, traditional Indian music and orchestral music. I like what it does to my brain and what it does for a budding poem’s potential tone or atmosphere. At the moment I’m especially into Arvo Pärt, John Adams, and Erik Satie.

7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

This is a tough question and one that I think about quite a bit. In the past I tended to romanticize writers who made “sacrifices” for their art, and I was especially drawn to stories about people who are compelled to turn away from conventional relationships in order to dedicate themselves more fully to their art. But as a 33 year-old woman, I finally understand my own shortcomings in respect to family and friendships. I know that my desperate need for solitude and that my prickliness and impatience can make me hard to be around. I realize I’m sometimes disappointing as a daughter, a sister, and an aunt. But that’s the everyday reality of being writer while trying to maintain relationships; it’s not particularly romantic. It can actually be pretty painful.

Of course I have quite a few writer-friends because I’ve spent twelve (plus) years in writing and literature departments, but I’m especially grateful to my even older friends who still put up with me, and to my family for their patience. I’m lucky to have a wonderful husband (also a writer), who knows me better than anybody in the world, and who still seems to love me.

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

I run quite a bit, but I don’t have any desire to run in races or anything like that. For some reason (and this may sound unreasonably kinky and/or ascetic), pounding my body into submission gives my mind more clarity. Plus my regular running route takes me through the park so I can check out the birds. Hawks! Herons!

9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

Well, I love seafood but I hardly ever get to eat it because I live in Ohio. The very thought of clams is inspiring. And in order to keep myself writing, I read lots and lots, watch movies, look at art and listen to music. Something’s bound to come up. The Red Shoes, for example, gets me going without fail.

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

I write in my office on the second floor of our apartment in Columbus, Ohio’s Olde Towne East neighborhood. It’s ideal because I can look out my window and down into the garden. We had some beautiful cockscombs and bleeding hearts along with the usual vegetables and herbs this year. There’s a peach tree in one neighbor’s yard, and whatever kind of plant that attracts loads of butterflies and bees in the other neighbor’s yard, plus I get a lovely view of some of the historic homes in the neighborhood (some of the oldest in Columbus). It’s not ideal, however, because the floor’s sort-of pitched and because it’s not in Florence, Italy.

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I’ve got two new poetry manuscripts in the works, though one’s farther along than the other. I’m slowly working on a “verse” play (yikes!) about the aforementioned Maria Cosway. I’ve also got one paragraph of a novel written, and that might be all it needs.

Check out a sample of Lesley Jenike’s work:

A Rauschenberg Conversation

“The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.”
-Robert Rauschenberg

He asked me about the painting that’s black. Just black.

And wondered if its blackness is somehow representative

of the twenty-first century dead, dead because we had

every opportunity and blew every opportunity and I sd,

No. This was painted during the twentieth and so reflects

an apocalyptic return to what’s original and what’s more

original? No. I see possibility in futures that will contain

the hum of a breathing machine carried in an easy breeze

through a window just to catch in the arms of a potted tree.

This is the twenty-first century. Encoded in the DNA

of every living thing is a sketch of the man or woman

that will bear witness to your demise, my demise,

the demise of a pet that in sleep twitches in an incalculable

pet dream world and all the while Florida will grow more

Florida with its sun, prehistoric mid-section sprouting

embarrassingly thick, dark hair where hair should never

grow. And I reminded him: Below the black is a strip

of news and the news, I guess, never ends even after

history has etched its loss and its gain into recusant

material, I mean recyclable. In the middle of the gallery

he just looked at me, at the painting, back at me

and sd, Where is the human figure? What happened

to the figure who in terrible gesture remakes the air

around him? Isn’t he both the blackness and the news

and isn’t he, asleep in amnion, even then, before birth

and after stellar reconnaissance, the textbook definition,

the end and the all that is and was—no god , no fall?

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