Jehanne Dubrow Interviewed by Serena Agusto-Cox

March 13, 2009

Hardship Post by Jehanne DubrowJehanne Dubrow’s work has appeared in Shenandoah, Poetry Northwest, Gulf Coast, and Prairie Schooner. She is the author of the poetry collection, The Hardship Post (see photo), winner of the Three Candles Press First Book Prize (2009), and a chapbook, The Promised Bride (Finishing Line 2007). A second collection, From the Fever-World, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Award and will be published in 2009. Her third poetry collection, Stateside, will be released by Northwestern University Press in 2010.

A poem of hers appears at the end of this interview.

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 suppose one of the most interesting things about me is my nomadic childhood. I was born in a little town in Northern Italy and grew up in Yugoslavia, Zaire, Poland, Belgium, Austria, and the United States. Oh, and when I twenty years old, I played a gangrenous valley girl in the movie An American Werewolf in Paris (sadly, I ended up on the cutting room floor). I still remember my line: “Claude’s parties are wack!!!”
Jehanne Dubrow

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?

For me, written poetry has the emotional force expected of spoken word and performance poetry, while also having a life on the page. I haven’t seen evidence that writing makes us more tolerant or collaborative. Writers tend to be a critical bunch—our craft depends on having a sharp eye and a small sliver of ice in the heart.

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

I have an odd mix of obsessions, half scholarly and half not so much: Holocaust studies, American Jewish literature, my dog Argos, midcentury modern design, and Hermes scarves.

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).

When I need inspiration, I read the poems that I love. If my language or imagination feels stuck, I like to reread Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” or Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas.” Sometimes, if I’m struggling with my iambs, I’ll recite the closing moment of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: “to find, to seek, to strive, and not to yield.” That usually does the trick.

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?

Nowhere else in the world do people worry or complain about the elitism of poetry. When Americans complain that poetry is elitist, what they’re really addressing is the strong strain of anti-intellectualism in this country. Americans don’t like to feel stupid, and poetry often makes them feel stupid. I don’t think poetry needs to become less elitist; I think we need to do a better job teaching students how to read poems or, for that matter, how to look at paintings, how to listen to operas, how to watch ballets.

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?

When I’m writing, the room needs to be silent, or I can’t think. To have a productive writing day, I need a cup of black tea, my favorite blanket on my lap, and perhaps an occasional cookie or two.

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?

Many of my friends are poets. Writing is such an odd bird of a profession that it’s just a relief to talk with other people who speak the same language.

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

I have a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier who starts chewing the apartment to shreds if he doesn’t have four walks a day.

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?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. I also don’t believe in inspiration. I follow the poet William Stafford’s example and write every day. Inspiration is simply another way of speaking about those times when the long hours at the computer seem a little shorter; inspiration is muscle memory, not the Muse descending.

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

A. I don’t have a desk yet, because I really want to buy the George Nelson swag leg desk, which was first produced in 1958; it’s made of walnut and chrome has cubbyholes in red, orange, blue, and yellow laminate. Since I can’t afford this piece of furniture, I sit in the living room with my laptop and put my feet up on my coffee table (which also happens to have been designed by George Nelson). I’ve done some pretty good writing in this spot. So, maybe I don’t need the desk after all.

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

I always try to divide my time between two projects, so that I won’t become bored with my own ideas. I’m working on a new poetry collection, Red Army Red, which uses received forms to explore the fascist rhetoric of my Eastern Bloc childhood. I’m also writing a book of lyrical essays about the experience of being a military wife. A Thousand Penelopes is the prose counterpart to my poetry collection, Stateside, which will be published by Northwestern University Press in the spring of 2010.

This poem by Jehanne Dubrow will appear in the spring 2009 issue of 32 Poems. Order a subscription and get a free issue!

Ida Lewin (1906-1938)
AlwaysWinter, Poland


Each year, the chill creeps in
By June, our eaves sharp 
with iron icicles, our windows 
rattling like teeth against the cold
AlwaysWinter we call this town 
because the ground won’t thaw,
no matter how we press skin 
to skin, 	make a fire from 
this friction we call love.  
Thistles remain needles, each blade 
of grass a blade that slices 
to our soles 	    AlwaysWinter 
we say to justify the frozen places 	
everywhere—the constant 
the wind, the tundra buried 
deep inside our bones

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