An Interview with Jen Karetnick
What was the first poem you wrote that you were really proud of, that made you happy and so fully satisfied to have written it? Why?
I wrote my first “real” poem—or so I was told—as a junior in college. I was in a poetry workshop for the first time and was writing really awful garbage. One night, I pulled an all-nighter to study for an exam and finish other assignments, and at about 5 a.m. started the poem that was due that day for workshop. I must have been so tired at that point that I allowed my subconscious to take over, because what emerged was unlike anything I’d written before—imagistic, deeply detailed, with emotional content that somehow wasn’t sappy. I still remember the reaction of my professor. Her mouth practically dropped open. And the comments of some of my classmates. One of them said, “This poem could stand up and walk out of the room.” That was it. I was hooked.
What is the most difficult part about putting a collection together (or the most challenging aspect at any stage in creating a collection, making it whole, and seeing it through to publication)?
I think most poets agree that ordering poems is probably the trickiest part of putting together a collection. Sometimes, when it’s a narrative or project book, that part comes naturally. But when you have a big pile of poems with a handful of similar themes, where to begin? What comes next? You can read tons of advice on the subject, feel like you’ve done a good job, then read the whole thing the next day and think you’ve made huge errors in places. It’s a frustrating process.
Is there a single image that lingers in your poetry (or in your mind as you write), one that perhaps you keep returning to in however many variations?
Perhaps because I live in Miami, where water is a constant in my surroundings—as natural beauty, as endangered commodity, and as threat—water and weather that involves water seem to be a recurrent theme no matter what I’m actually writing about. On the complete opposite side of things, a reviewer who critiqued one of my books pointed out that I use a lot of metaphors about tight spaces, such as coffins, and that reading my work made her feel claustrophobic. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that comment, but I guess it’s somewhat true. I mean, I actually have a poem called “To a Jewish Casket” in my next full-length collection, The Burning Where Breath Used to Be, forthcoming from David Robert Books in 2020. But it’s actually about my brother’s untimely death, so I’m not sure it’ll trigger any claustrophobia.
Do you have any necessities of place/setting when it comes to your writing process? For instance, do you require music, silence, the bustle of a busy coffee shop? Windows open or windows closed? Favorite beverage?
A secret benefit of having taught creative writing to grades 6-12 for nine years was learning to write through constant background noise and distractions. I’d give the kids an assignment and do it with them, but often it seemed I was the only one actually working! And wow, could they chatter. So now I can work wherever, whenever. But I do prefer silence over music, and parking my butt in the chair in my office all day long, accompanied by my cats and my coffee, followed, I admit, by copious amounts of Diet Coke. (One day, I will give it up.)
Share with us a few lines from a "poem darling" that you "killed" but waited probably too long to kill (although it needed to be dead)? Do you secretly still love this piece of writing? Did it evolve into another poem (or written work)?
Like everybody else, I’m guilty of occasionally not knowing when a piece is riding that line of brilliance or failure. I finally just pulled a poem—a rant, really—from a full-length manuscript I have circulating because I couldn’t stop thinking about whether it pulled the reader out of the rhythm of the work. It combined details of my chronic illness, which can be unpleasant and has made me underweight, with descriptions of certain luxury goods, and brought in the Everglades and the animals that reside therein, and as I try to describe this I realize that it’s actually a horrendous poem and I waited far too long to kill it.
Where is your favorite "outside" place?
I adore the Everglades. I don’t get there as much as I like or should, but the unique nature of the place is fascinating to me. There’s nowhere else like it in the world. Second to that, I love my home. We live on the remaining acre of a historic mango grove. It was also the homestead of the first postmaster of Miami. The yard has 14 mango trees, about the same amount (if not more) of live oaks, and avocado, guava, banana, longan, sea grape, and sapodilla trees. It’s filled with native plants and butterflies and it’s a wild, untamed place. I feel creatively recharged every time I walk outside—except during mango season, when I get hit on the head by falling fruit a lot.
What small wonder makes your heart leap with joy?
The poems that are being sent to SWWIM Every Day, the daily literary magazine I co-founded and co-edit with my good friend, the poet and writer Catherine Esposito Prescott, make my heart swell with gladness. We started this project to raise the profile of women’s voices everywhere; that people are reading it and contributing is a small but welcome wonder to us.
What words of wisdom or writerly advice would you like to share with our readers?
I have three pieces of hard-won advice that I live by:
1. Never give up. Don’t believe other people when they say if a poem has been rejected a certain number of times, scrap it. I’ve had poems that I believe in declined more than 50 or 60 times, then accepted by very prestigious journals. Sometimes it really is just a matter of finding the right editor on the right day in the right mood. (On the other hand, it does have to be a good poem, so don’t be afraid to revise, either.)
2. Don’t listen to those voices, real or imagined, that say things like “you’re too old” or “you’ll never be a [poet/writer].” You have to trust yourself, to know that what you’re doing is ultimately for your own satisfaction, and that you have a voice. Other success follows.
3. Don’t follow trends. That doesn’t mean ignore what’s out there. Read widely, and try your hand at new things. Continue to educate yourself about every aspect of your craft. But write what you feel is worth writing. Everything circles back around, and what‘s out of fashion one day comes back in the next. You might look up and realize no one is writing villanelles anymore, and instead of feeling out of touch, realize that you’re suddenly unique, and every editor is fascinated by your facility with villanelles.
This next question is from our last Photic Zone participant, Cindy King. She asks, “In what ways does personal experience figure into your work? Has it become more or less autobiographical with age?”
Actually, neither. I seem to alternate. My first few collections depended heavily on personal experience—there were a lot of mango and Florida-in-general poems as I learned about the nature of my home. But my immediately previous full-length collection, The Treasures That Prevail, is a sort-of project book—an imagined, what-if Miami drowns look at climate change. And the chapbook that won the Split Rock Review prize, The Crossing Over, is a complete persona project, narrating the experiences of refugees in the Mediterranean from the point of view of the boat. Meanwhile, The Burning Where Breath Used to Be is all personal experience again, as is the manuscript that’s circulating now. And finally, the book I’m working on now, which I’m about one-third of the way through, is all poems about Judge Judy. But I’ve found that even the project books are informed by and grounded in personal experience in some ways.
Jen Karetnick is the author of five poetry chapbooks and four poetry collections, including The Treasures That Prevail and The Burning Where Breath Used to Be. She is also the author/co-author of four cookbooks, including Ice Cube Tray Recipes: 75 Easy and Creative Kitchen Hacks for Freezing, Cooking, and Baking with Ice Cube Trays. Her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, JAMA, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, Ovenbird, Salamander, and Tampa Review. Jen is co-founder/co-editor of the daily online literary journal, SWWIM Every Day. She works as the dining critic for MIAMI Magazine and as a freelance lifestyle journalist.