Last year I was honored to receive a fellowship for poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Since then my gratitude has only increased, to see the publicity support that the MCC gives its fellows and finalists. In conjunction with our reading last week at Forbes Library in Northampton, the MCC’s Dan Blask interviewed me on their ArtSake blog. Here’s a sample:
ArtSake: Along with your poetry, you also write fiction and nonfiction. Do you approach writing prose differently from the way you approach poems?
Jendi: Yes, definitely! Poetry and fiction must be written by hand with a mechanical pencil in a 6×9 Mead Five Star notebook. Nonfiction, by which I mean my blog posts about gay rights and Christianity, is written on the computer. I don’t know how to shape a narrative in creative nonfiction. There are too many facts, and most of them were hard enough to live through once.
When I write poetry, I’m not thinking about an audience. What wants to be written, gets written. It’s like a computer’s self-diagnostic. I write to find out what I think. Naturally, my values and preoccupations are reflected in the poetry, so in that sense, it often contains a critique of society, but it’s driven by my own need to express my authentic inner experience, rather than to have a particular impact on others. (Though I wonder whether the two are really so separable – doesn’t every self-disclosure cherish a tiny hope of being recognized and responded to in kind, however much one tries to cultivate self-protective detachment?)
My novel-in-progress is about a young fashion photographer in 1990s NYC who struggles to reconcile his faith and his sexual orientation. With this project, I have more of a conscious intention to bring about social change, along with telling an entertaining story.
Writing a novel is harder than poetry because it’s impossible to be in the “flow” for that length of time. With a poem, by the time I figure out where my subconscious is taking me, the trip’s over. I don’t have much opportunity to get in my own way. Far more planning has to go into the novel, which means that there are many chances for self-consciousness and ideological agendas to seize control, instead of letting the work tell me, itself, what it needs to be. I counteract this problem by conceiving of the novel as a collaborative effort between myself and my characters. They’ve got to retain the freedom to surprise me. My job is to see enough of the big picture so that they don’t get lost and despondent, but not be so directive that they lose their independent life force. It is a constant, elaborate, frustrating, fascinating dance that calls on all my relationship skills, and maybe even improves them in the so-called real world.
I do my creative writing by hand because this slower, temporally linear method allows intuition to take the lead. Writing on the computer, it’s too easy to pull back and see the big picture, to let the analytical mind start rearranging and criticizing, and skip past that quiet inwardness where the soul of the poem or story gestates.