Q&A with Poet Jennifer Militello
by Kristin Rose, Poetry Editor
Every six months I have the enviable assignment of escaping to Enders Island in Mystic, CT to devote ten days to poetry workshops as part of the curriculum for my MFA program at Fairfield University. This picturesque island with scented rose gardens and waves crashing onto the seawall is the perfect environment to inspire writers and the workshops help us to cultivate our craft. This past summer I had the privilege of having Jennifer Militello as a visiting professor for a day of poetry workshop. Jennifer’s love of poetry is inspiring and infectious. I was grateful to be introduced to this new poet whose insights into our workshop poems were powerful. I felt my own poetry being transformed by reading her books Flinch of Song and Body Thesarus. It was a natural choice and wonderful experience to interview Jennifer Militello for the Transformation issue of Mason’s Road Literary Magazine.
Your book Flinch of Song is threaded through with themes of loss and change – is transformation a theme you were thinking of when you wrote this book?
Yes! The book outlines a life span, framed by a metaphoric birth and a metaphoric death. Passing through fascinations with family, love, and identity, Flinch of Song grapples with the ways we find ourselves transformed simply by being alive, by all we experience and encounter, and how we are accumulating loss after loss as we move toward the ultimate loss, the final good-bye of death.
In many ways, I believe it is a poet’s job to transform language, which you do beautifully and surprisingly in your poems. Can you speak to this idea a bit?
I believe language needs to bridge a great distance. It has to say what cannot be said. It has to recreate. So I’m glad you mentioned surprise. I very much believe in surprise, as the brain responds to an effective poem in the same way it responds to effective humor: with a little jolt of what?! and then a pleasant repositioning of perspective.
I want to recreate the world by renaming it. I want to allow surprises of context to challenge what we think we know.
Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images—that famous moment when he painted a portrait of a pipe and scrawled beneath it “This is not a pipe,” calls attention to the fact that the painting itself exists, that the image is a representation. We deal with this gap in poetry. The poem is not an actual happening or emotion itself; the poem is a collection of words. Though if it does its job right, a poem is, as Archibald MacLeish says, “wordless as the flight of birds.” If a poem is executed well, the reader won’t see the individual piece or shape; he or she will see the movement, the whole. Only through the transformation of language can we work to close this gap, and come closer to saying what cannot be said.
In your book, Body Thesaurus, you use a range of scientific language and diagnostic tests to describe the transformation of the physical body during illness. Can you talk about the difficulty of writing poems that deal with transformations on the physical as well as spiritual plane?
One of the most difficult aspects of writing Body Thesaurus was wanting the poems to be physically grounded, but psychological and metaphorical as well. I wanted to talk about literal physical and psychological tests and situations, but use them to convey the struggle of the spiritual self within a physical shell. So I had to twist the reality a bit. Symptoms that involved phantom selves. Antidotes that weren’t antidotes. A careful balance, and one that I hope I pulled off.
How do you feel your own work as a poet has grown and transformed from your first book to your second?
I now write books as books, for one. I write toward a few poems that solidify a concept in my mind, that stumble onto that concept, and then continue to explore the particular obsession that will frame the book.
I also focused on metaphor and language in Flinch of Song, and focused instead on voice and the power of energy built down the page with Body Thesaurus. Body Thesaurus is less sparse, less suggestive, and more concretely tied to what it wants to do. Louise Gluck says in one of her essays that she tries to incorporate some stylistic shift in each new book she writes. I think that’s a worthwhile aim.
Who are some of your favorite poets that deal with the theme of transformation?
What poet doesn’t deal with this theme in some way? What committed poet doesn’t know the poem as a vehicle for transformation? Dickinson and Lorca do, and they are my most substantial influences when I think of the poems that have shaped mine. I’m working on a book about the challenges of motherhood right now and the ways in which the experience of motherhood forcibly transforms the female identity, so am reading incredible books by poets like Danielle Pafunda, Joy Katz, and Rachel Zucker. Tim Liardet and Carrie Etter are two British poets who have recent books of transformation, one about being transformed by a brother’s death, the other by giving up a son for adoption. Any serious writer of poetry understands that a reader should be changed for good by the end of a poem. Not just a shiver and a quickening of the heart, but a response that mimics a shift in the physicality of the body and the structure of the brain. A shift in perception and so in the reality itself. As happens when an emotion is sealed inside the corpuscles of the frontal lobe or a memory is made.