Tag Archives: Iowa Writers’ Workshop

10 Questions for Jane Lewty


An interview with g emil reutter


Jane Lewty is s professor of English Literature and creative writing at the University of Amsterdam and holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her poems have have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Volt, The Boston Review, The Literary Review, La Petite Zine, Word/for Word, Versal, and others. Her first poetry collection, Bravura Cool, will be published by 1913 Press in 2012


The Interview:

GER: Your poems are extremely well crafted blending the abstract with a core of realism. An example would be, (A Piece from We Mills, We Miles) 1, published in the June 2012 edition of The Fox Chase Review. How would you describe your poetry and your method for crafting your poems?

JL:  I think my poems change all the time and I don’t really have a concrete term to describe them. What seemed cerebral at first becomes less indefinite when I read it back, or a poem that began lyrically can evolve into something more opaque and condensed. I’m one of those people who think that a poem isn’t ever completed. You can say that you’ve ‘finished’ a poem, but for me it’s a case of setting them aside—they still contain potentialities. I think it’s important to observe the immediate world, I mean the momentary and recognizable things, such as a tree or the act of crossing the road because that’s what generates the longer, surreal and more contemplative moments. Like Literary Impressionism–how life seems to be a series of logical happenings but, mentally you’re always in an entirely different place to the one you stand in. Someone once told me that I construct a poem from the outside-in, that I write ‘ideas-based’ poetry. I used to always theorize a bit before starting out and would consider the overall impact of the poem and its purpose. Usually manifested through vagaries and hints. Now I’m more instinctive and don’t focus so much on topic. I’m doing what I can to explore the possibilities of the lyric self, and trying to make that evident through the permutations of language—its circuitous nature, elisions, abstractions, and of course silence. I’ve included other languages in my book: semaphore, code, data. It’s likely that some readers might find the poems disturbing or menacing, who knows. I can’t confess to having a method as such. Often, lines come at me out of blankness, or they’re adapted from a line I wrote ages ago. Or they’re galvanized by the work of another poet. I don’t do anything new or revolutionary!

GER: Why are you a poet and what poets are major influences on your work?

JL: Such a difficult question! I can’t answer why. All I know is that when I solely wrote critical work I felt a bit gagged. I’m influenced by many, many writers: sound poets and avant-garde poets of the modernist era, plus Pound, Beckett, Inger Christensen. More recently Caroline Bergvall, Gillian Conoley, Joseph Ceravolo. A variety of (very different) prose writers such as Jean Rhys and Gary Lutz. Many essayists. I could exchange each name here with another who has inspired me just as much.

GER: Your book reviews have been published widely. How does a literary critique differ from crafting your own poetry and is there any cross pollination?

JL: It’s a similar level of concentration insofar that I have to absorb myself in someone’s poetry and be willing to respond to its subconscious workings. As a reviewer, I feel as though you’re temporarily entrusted with the task of becoming the writer’s ideal reader. They’re trying to get you in the loop of their thoughts. I occupy a position that is quite alarming because I realize how often I don’t read with such intensity and that makes me ask, why don’t I? Reviewing a poem makes me slow down and reflect on not just what is being said but how is the what being said. Also, does the poem fulfill its implicit, original, purpose and meaning—not in its manifestation as a printed poem, but in the act of its being crafted. In terms of writing, reviewing allows me to see the intricacies of poetry that sometimes doesn’t resemble mine. That really prevents me from becoming too interiorized.

GER: You have read your poetry at venues in Europe from local venues to The Prague Poetry Festival. Most recently you shared your work at AWP in the United States. How important is it to you as a poet to share your work with a live audience?

JL: I’m glad to speak the poems and hear how they sound in a larger auditory space rather than mumbled in front of the computer screen, but I’m always nervous. Some of my poems have visual quirks that can’t be relayed.

GER: You received your MFA from The Iowa Writers Workshop and Ph.D from the University of Glasgow. Your academic career has included a stint as an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Iowa, a Postdoctoral Fellowship at University College London and you are currently on the faculty of the University of Amsterdam. How has your academic career influenced your writing and view of the world?

JL: It’s the bureaucracy of academia that makes a university teaching job feel like the polar opposite of writing poetry, but scholarship is largely about fact-finding, truth-finding, trying to relay what someone else thought/felt/heard/said. There’s a lot of supposition and therefore so much scope for creativity. Anne Carson said in an interview that in pursuing scholarship she “never found it possible to think without thinking about myself thinking” which is a beautifully apt phrase. However, she then pointed out that such over-analysis is a characteristic of being human in general, not just an individual locked in academic questioning. She opted to “just go ahead with the project of thinking of me as if it were a legitimate human enterprise and would be enlightening to other humans”. I’m really glad she said that. I’m becoming involved in practice-based criticism at the moment; that which first and foremost establishes itself as a creative act. In terms of writing poetry, I find I’m utilizing—both deliberately and by accident—many of the areas I dealt with before. Warping the ideas and discoveries into something less ordered.

GER: You served as an editor on two collections, Broadcasting Modernism , and Pornotopias: Image, Apocalypse, Desire. Please tell us about the collections and what it was like to interact with the other editors on the projects?

JL: Broadcasting Modernism was a great project and I learned a lot from the other editors, how to make a book cohere and flow even though it has distinct components. We covered the social history of radio broadcasting in the US and the UK, which was a necessary foundation for what came later: essays on how radio affected textual and generic form of modernist literature; work that was meant to be heard as well as read. Pornotopias was a slightly different experience insofar that the contributors weren’t just literature scholars but visual and performance artists, photographers, media theorists. It’s such a diverse volume; on the back cover we stated that “the body is the site [of] technicity and catatonia, the sublime and the grotesque” and the essays certainly prove it. My own piece was on telephone sex. That was fun to write.

GER: Your next release Bravura Cool is slated for release this year from 1913 Press. Tell us about the collection and when it will be available for purchase.

JL: I tried to write, or sense, the various dimensions of shock—from extreme heat or cold, from disappointment, loss, violence, obsession, empty spaces in every sense, spirituality or the lack of it. It began as a different project but the more I worked into it, I realized it was/is a strange cross-section of my first years in America, or not mine specifically, but other voices/ideas I derived from being there. Imagined scenes and reinterpretations of events. It’s a mind dismantling itself; a variety of plots from different scopes, angles and trajectories and some of them are not nice. Above all, I suppose, the book is about communication breakdown (transmissions, misunderstood events) that naturally extends to the poem itself. The syntax occasionally fragments; there’s at least one poem where the subject and speaker don’t correlate which engenders a kind of uneasiness. There’s a séance in the form of a radio broadcast; the scientist Kurt Godel turns up, as do the Furies in the embodiment of a weather front. There’s a mass-murderer, the history of glass and a lot of American dream. I suppose the collection is quite varied. In terms of narrative, I wanted certain voices to feature in a poem and then return later. Repetition and echoing is really important to me. As is a wrapping-up of things–a coda (which might be part of an academic tendency to conclude, not sure if that’s a good thing or not). There’s a lot of journeying in the book, and it does end in a place of quietude. The overall effect I wanted was the slow burn of ice, if that’s possible to imagine, which I imply in the title. I believe it’ll be out in the next couple of months.

GER: You have been successful in placing your poetry and book reviews in publications. What advice do you have for aspiring critics and poets who struggle to get their work published?

JL: There are so many outlets to publish in—new magazines start up all the time. It can be daunting but also quite energizing when you see how many people are invested in contemporary poetry. For me, it became easier when I streamlined submissions. What I generally do is send poems to journals I highly regard, usually for their aesthetic and back catalogue that often corresponds with my own ideas. It’s an entirely personal thing. Established journals or new ones, it doesn’t matter. Reading an online magazine that contains six or seven poets I admire is one way to get me submitting. That being said, you never know who’s going to like or dislike your work. Editors aren’t faceless entities, and they’re as unpredictable as everyone else. I’d say just try to focus on what you like reading and not what you think other people will like about you—never try to ‘fit’ your writing to a journal. Also, decide where you want to be. Many journals revolve around a certain community, writers who interact and collaborate with one another for the simple reason they share the same ideas about poetry. I’m uncertain about factionalizing, or a territorial/’micro-positioning’ stance in anything but the poetry world isn’t completely like that. It can be so encouraging to get an acceptance letter from an editor who wants to take you into the fold. What I do know is that many journals are short on reviewers, and editors are pleased when you approach them with a book you’d like to write about or simply offer your services.

GER: Are you currently working on any new projects?

JL: I just finished a chapbook of very short poems, ‘We Mills, We Miles,’ currently in circulation. You’ve kindly published one of the pieces. On reflection, I think I’m going to make it a longer project. The poems turned out to be snapshots or snap-sounds of where I grew up, which was quite startling as the collection took shape. It made me consider how my accent has evolved, how it contains a mixture of inflections and hybrid emphasis, inconsistent vowel sounds—it’s like that in my head as well. I don’t speak or think in the register I used to. And by way of connection, I always say I’m anAmerican poet; I’m immersed in American poetry but I’m actually from the north of England which was quite a grim place in the ‘80s under Margaret Thatcher—a lot of unemployment and discontent. We got bits of America through television programs like Charles in Charge or The Cosby Show, and Dynasty for a real treat. What I remember so vividly is Saturday afternoon soccer (football I should say) games interspersed with the A-Team during half time. I definitely wasn’t reading Melville or William Carlos Williams. There’s some associative process going on, though, and I’m curious to investigate why I ended up writing like I do—the clash of speech, cultures, memory, acoustics, the visual. Living in Amsterdam I always say I miss home but I’m not sure which one. I’ve also got an idea for a book on numerology and that works across media, but it’s definitely on the back burner.

GER: When you are not writing poetry, editing and teaching what does Jane Lewty do for fun?

JL: Watch a lot of animal shows.

You can read the poetry of Jane Lewty in The Fox Chase Review at these links: http://www.foxchasereview.org/10SU/JaneLewty.html  and http://www.foxchasereview.org/12SU/JaneLewty.html#2