The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Jennifer Whitaker about her new collection The Blue Hour, persona poems, the violence in fairy tales, and writing about sexual abuse.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Camille D: It’s top of the hour. Who has our first question?
Jennifer Whitaker: Ooo! Maybe I can just ask myself questions! I could start with an echo of family: why don’t you write anything happy? 🙂
Camille D: Can I just say I love the font of your titles? Normally we’d have someone who would ask questions about design, and I want to say I love that detail.
Brian S: Ha! I was just looking at the first poem from section two, “Snow White as Apology from my Youth,” and because I’m teaching persona poems in my classes right now, I wonder if you might talk a little about the difference between writing in the voice of a character versus your personal voice.
Jennifer Whitaker: Oh, Camille! Yes, that title font really sold me, too. I was initially a little worried it’d be a little too fancy, but once I started reading the mock-up with it, it wooed me.
Camille D: It’s an interesting question about the happy thing. It is not a happy book in a sort of laugh out loud sort of way, but it was so welcoming. The language and stories, even when they broke my heart, filled me up. I’d be curious to hear you talk about your ideas about sound and also image, both of which are things you handle deftly. How do you think about constructing the sound wall in your poems? What’s the process by which you come to your rich visual fields?
Jennifer Whitaker: Oh great! Yes, I played around a lot with how many persona poems to include in the book because in some ways I felt like it gave me the chance to speak in ways that I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing otherwise, but I also sometimes feel like dealing with something in a persona poem can make me lazy, if that makes sense, because it can be easier to hide on the page that way (at least for me).
Brian S: No that makes total sense. It’s the same experience I have with it. Freeing in some ways, but worrisome because it’s too easy to hide in them.
Jennifer Whitaker: The Snow White poem ended up making the cut because I felt like I was able to deal with the idea of complicity that comes up elsewhere in the book in a different way because of how that speaker positions herself (and how she was positioned by others).
Brian S: I teach a lot of students who’ve never taken a writing class before and I use them to let the students feel free to write about personal stuff without exposing themselves to the rest of the class.
Can you talk a little about the role complicity plays in this book? Because it is such a recurring theme.
Jennifer Whitaker: Camille, thanks for that—that’s such a generous reading of the book! Sounds are usually what get me started on a poem (in terms of the sounds of the language itself) so a lot of my time drafting and revising is spent on trying to experiment with the best combination (or, the best I can come up with at the time) of the system of imagery in the poem and the system of sound that complements that imagery.
Brian S: It’s interesting that it’s sound that drives you to the visual image, because I agree with Camille, those visual images are just stunning.
Jennifer Whitaker: So in a poem like “Rumpelstiltskin,” for instance (which I feel like is almost shamefully reveling in sounds), starting with that name opened the doors to some images I wouldn’t probably have gotten to otherwise—the peach in winter, the river, the livery all came about, I think, because I got obsessed with the short i sounds in the “stiltskin” part of his name.
Brian S: Like in “The Invitation”
I lift my dress
like it’s something that will save me, an upside-down parachute
with bow and buttons up the back; the shadows are pants at his feet,
The sound play is great, but the visual is what sticks with me even more.
Camille D: For people who haven’t read the book, it’s interesting to note how many fairytale stories you re-tell. What is it that drew you to these stories? Were there poets you read as you were thinking about them? Anne Sexton for instance?
Jennifer Whitaker: Re: complicity in the book: it was something that I kept coming back to as I wrote more and more “dead father” poems, trying to puzzle through not just a sort of easy one-dimensional blame. This is not to say, at all, that victims of any type of violence are complicit, but instead, I wanted to see where a speaker’s silences, or inaction, brought about feelings of complicity, because I think that’s one of the hardest feelings to reconcile.
Camille D: “The Invitation” floored me when I first read it.
Brian S: The thing I love about fairy tales is that the older versions are usually way more violent, to the point of grotesque. And of course my students are usually only familiar with the Disney versions, so when they hear that Cinderella’s stepsisters cut pieces of their feet off to try to fit them into the slipper, their reactions are fun.
Camille D: It seems to me that the fairy-tale stories played into what you’re saying about complicity. Like we/you need to rethink y/our way into our old narratives.
Jennifer Whitaker: In terms of fairy tales, I think I was initially drawn to them because they sort of fit my worldview in lots of way. (Probably too many ways.)
Dana: I completely agree, the visual in “The Invitation” was very powerful and prompted me to reread.
Brian S: Are you drawn to those older versions of fairy tales as opposed to the kid-friendly ones more prevalent today?
Jennifer Whitaker: I’m really superstitious as a person in the world, and I think in fairy tales in some ways use a similar logic to superstition—the sort of general logic of if/then that governs our normal thinking goes out the window in fairy tales. So if superstitions are ultimately a way to try to control the uncontrollable, then fairytales feel like a totally understandable lens to me. And I was interested in the connection between the sorts of assertions that are made in fairy tales and the sorts of assertions that come along with abuse, if that makes sense.
Camille D: There is, of course, also a lot of abuse in the original fairy tales, too. So there’s that alignment as well.
Jennifer Whitaker: Yes, those older versions are particularly cool, I think. I got super interested in this weird collection of stories by Giambattista Basile called The Pentamerone, which has a lot of precursor stories to the more familiar versions of Grimm/etc. They make the Grimm’s tales look positively cheery.
Camille D: Can you talk a bit about “Last Poem about My Father”?
Jennifer Whitaker: Camille: “Last Poem about My Father” was the last poem in the book that I wrote, and it sort of started out as a joke with myself: okay, you get to write ONE MORE POEM about the dead father, and then you’re cut off. So I tried to figure out, okay, what hasn’t been said yet that needs to be? The fact of it being a sort of address of sorts to the husband came as a surprise as I wrote it. I didn’t realize until writing that poem that it was a sort of unsettling silence in the manuscript, the fact of effect on a victim’s loved ones.
Brian S: It makes total sense. I look at those older fairy tales as warning stories to kids that the world is a dangerous place filled with things that want to kill you. The happily ever after is a completely modern invention.
Jennifer Whitaker: YES. All the things want to kill you in those stories, and that seems about right in a lot of ways. They speak truth in a way that the later versions don’t. And I think the play between the fact that parents are the ones often telling children these stories was interesting for me to explore for this speaker in which parents are sort of Janus-like—creator and predator, touchstone and absence.
Dana: Would you mind sharing any poets or books in particular that inspire your work? Did you find yourself reading classic fairy tales while you were working on this collection?
Jennifer Whitaker: Dana: I fell in love with Brian Teare’s work (all of it, but particularly his first book, The Room Where I Was Born). I didn’t find his work until after most of these poems were already written, but his use of voice and image and risk on the page helped me see possibilities for some of the poems in revision. I also feel pretty influenced by C. D. Wright’s work, and Christy Garren, Claudia Emerson, and, if I may, Camille’s work. 🙂
Camille D: It seems so brave to write about the sorts of things you touch on in this book. What was it like to publish these poems and to know they would be in the world?
You may. I’m happy to be included in that company!
Jennifer Whitaker: Um, pretty terrifying, actually, to think about people who actually know me maybe reading it, you know? (I guess it’s a little late to be worried about it now, but you know what I mean.) Some very smart teachers told me early on not to worry about it when writing because that could shut down everything writing-wise, but when it became clear that the strongest poems I had were a ms. about incest and abuse, I put it away for about a year, and then eventually came back to it and was able to look at it with (a tiny bit of) perspective. It still spooks me, though, to be honest.
Brian S: Did you think of it as a poem that helped make the other poems cohere into a collection? An explanation for your book of sorts?
Jennifer Whitaker: Brian: yes, I think I do think of it that way to some degree. My fear with it was that it would be too much like the book’s thesis, or front-loaded conclusion: that it would tip my hand too early, and that the rest of the book would feel like a recapitulation of that first poem. It was pages long to start, and I hope I pared it back enough to where it suggests and draws connections without explaining it too much.
Brian S: For what it’s worth, I know about how tough it is to write about abuse—for me it was a babysitter and member of our church, not a family member—and I thought the poems were really impressive.
Camille D: It makes me think of a great essay Alan Shapiro has about how writing isn’t a cathartic experience for him. It’s not like you write these poems and them, boom, the pain and pains’ residuals disappear.
Brian S: I’ve been lucky in that it’s been over forty years since I was abused—I don’t even know if she’s alive anymore—so I don’t have to think about what she might think if she reads the poems I’ve written about it, but it’s still tough to write about.
Jennifer Whitaker: Brian, that’s worth a TON. Thank you for that.
Brian S: Exactly Camille. In some cases, they trigger emotions that I haven’t dealt with for decades.
Dana: Thank you for writing this book and bringing it into the world, Jennifer!
Camille D: When Lucille Clifton read her poems about her father, she would make a point to warn people in the room, in case they needed to leave. But she said she always made a point of reading them. Because of that “for what it’s worth” sort of connection you two just made. How important it is for people to know they aren’t alone.
Jennifer Whitaker: Yes—yes, that’s the thing. If only, right? If it were only a matter of getting the right words in the right order and then we’d all be healed, I’d be a lot more productive I think!
Camille D: It’s important, in this light, to think again about the sounds and images that make this book so delicious and inviting, even as the subject matter is so haunting. The care in this collection, Jennifer, is really wonderful. Hard subjects told gently.
Brian S: It’s remarkable when I think about how much more open our society is in dealing with this. Long way to go, obviously, but I remember the shame, the fear my abuser put into me. And it’s easy to laugh or poke fun at the “very special episodes” of tv shows when I was a kid, but seeing those made me at least willing to think about telling someone what happened to me.
Jennifer Whitaker: I think it can be such a transformative moment of being seen as well—because abuse is so often predicated on hiding and secrets and non-seeing/not being seen, that I have been moved to tears in reading others’ poems in which I feel seen—understood—even when the circumstances are entirely different.
Brian S: Amazing how the particular can spark the universal.
Camille D: Can you talk about that cover? It’s haunting.
Jennifer Whitaker: That means so much to me, Camille, and Brian, and Dana! Because I love sound and image so much, I often feel like I need to walk a fine line because trying to render abuse in a way that’s see-able without sort of aestheticizing violence. Oh my gosh, that fox! Martin Wittfooth is such a dream. Isn’t that fox spectacular? I am so very lucky to be able to have him on the cover. The painting has long been a favorite of mine in the world, so it was unreasonably good fortune that he could be on the book.
Camille D: And Dana wanted to know about the title. I’m curious about the temporality of the title, the way it makes me think about time being frozen. But also of course about sadness.
Jennifer Whitaker: Oh yes—sorry, Dana! The title was really difficult for me to go with, partly because it’s so close to Carolyn Forche’s book title, and because a ms. including many of these poems had been called Render for so many drafts. But once I started working on the “Blue Hour” poem, it seemed to fit with a lot of other stuff going on in the book. I was drawn to it, as you say Camille, as a temporality—it’s a sort of ephemeral moment of each day and a time of day in which the ordinary rules seem to change: it seems to me to be both day and night at once, and it’s a time of day in which it’s easy for our eyes to play tricks on us—hedges become menacing creatures, things seem to be always moving on the periphery.
Brian S: Real quick—who are you reading right now?
Camille D: I hate that it’s already the end of our hour. It felt like some other color hour than a blue one. Thanks for sharing the poems with us and some of your thoughts about the book. Congratulations on having it in the world!
Jennifer Whitaker: Oh! So much goodness!: currently on my desk I have Richie Hofmann’s Second Empire, Rachel Richardson’s Hundred-Year Wave, and Kim Thuy’s novel Ru.
Y’all are the kindest. I’m so grateful to you all for choosing the book, and treating it with such care. Thank you so much. This has been so marvelous.