First Books: A Conversation with Jen Denrow

A number of THERMOS contributors have recently published first books. Stay tuned for conversations with them here. First up is Jennifer Denrow, who appeared in our second issue and whose book California was published by Four Way Books in 2010.

TH: How has having a first book out changed how you think about your writing?

JD: I’m trying to decide if it has. Has it? I don’t think it has.

TH: How do you see your work in what’s happening now in poetry? Are there other first books out there that you feel like yours is friends with?

JD: I’m always trying to think about that: what’s happening now. Sometimes I will write down the first or last sentences in a book of poems and then do that to other books of poems and compare them. There’s something in the syntax of some of the poetry now—a directness that the language, filled with indefinite references, counteracts with.  Maybe it’s an intelligible indefiniteness—I feel like the poems are disclosing everything through the syntax, while at the same time creating, through diction, an environment where nothing can be known.

I remember in college—on the blackboard was drawn a tree and the word tree was drawn next to it to indicate the relationship between the signified and signifier. There was something in that equation that was important to how the world was operational. The way information was traded and what depended upon the clearest trade route possible. It feels different now, for me. Now that poetry’s direction/location/external material to which its pronouns (indefinite and demonstrative, with which I have a nice obsessive relationship) refer to is less clear, it doesn’t feel as vital—is it because some of the necessity of this system of referents is disappearing (perhaps due to living in a world that is largely comprised of virtual material—where the referent system is based on a binary model and yet, at the same time, is also over-meaninged)? Does this make sense?

I will give you some examples—here are a few of the books I have near me right now. Heather Christle opens her new book, The Trees The Trees, with a poem that has as its first phrase:

here is the hand      here is the hand

She goes on to give more information regarding the word here, but the initial understanding of this phrase is that the here is dangling in space, on paper, I guess, with no external referent. Within this construction, there is a sense of completion. For me, there is—there’s something unifying in presenting a word that necessitates additional information and, at least momentarily, withholding that information. This is the kind of thing that feels prevalent—what does it mean for us, for how we’re experiencing the world right now? Language, being used in this way, seems to indicate some kind of philosophical position, or for me it does. Is it that what is being said doesn’t need something physical, in the world, to which it corresponds? Have we moved beyond a system where that’s necessary? Maybe it’s the idea of indefiniteness itself. The way this takes shape in pronoun form is through words such as everyone, everything, none, etc, which feel like important words right now. Or maybe they’re just important to me—I can’t tell. I keep making the world to be this and maybe it’s just not.

Another book that’s here is Chris Martin’s Becoming Weather. The first line is:

Not that what
is is

which is given more context soon after, but the initial moment of the text resides in this same kind of indefiniteness, this uncertainty that feels like part of a collective experience. It’s not that what is is, but is something else entirely. Again, nothing feels like itself. It’s so hard to go through the world where something is so many things—it is at once nothing and everything (a collection of the experiences we’ve had up until the moment we arrive in front of it). There is something desperately associative about the way we come into contact with the world and what’s in it.

I have the new of issue of Skein here. Seth Landman has two incredible poems inside. One of them, “The Woods,” begins:

This one is about a soul.

The first word, this, refers to what? The poem would be my estimate, but perhaps not. There isn’t additional information given to ensure that, not immediately, anyway. So we have our this. It’s here again. It means so much because the way it has historically operated is not how it operates here. There isn’t a man standing in front of you saying This Way, and directing you toward an exit. It’s a referenceless this, one that seems to come out of some common understanding of the world. Space and time are occupied in different ways, what is close, isn’t; what is, isn’t.

In terms of how this obsesses me in my own work, I guess the first poem in California can be considered. Or, it may be easier with something smaller: “Things Reappear”:

Because the chair in front of you isn’t a base you don’t touch it when you pass by. The other players foul you for this.

See. What is, isn’t, but it also still is. It’s so hard to tell anything now. Everything means. And it means a lot. Also it is empty. The chair is the base that needs to be tagged because the players are there and they say it is, but also it’s not because it’s just a person standing in her living room. Basically this is what keeps happening through the book. Over and over again. Really in everything I write. I’m always trying to get inside the center of what something is, but I also need it to always have the possibility of being everything, or at least something else. It would be claustrophobic if I did understand something as itself. So I keep doing this thing where I need to arrive at a certainty through my correspondence with what is external to me, but I also need it to never be one thing. Is this about God, I wonder?

TH: How does what you’re writing now differ from what’s in California?

JD: Shoot. I don’t know if it does. It does. But it still keeps doing the same thing. Everything I write feels very overwhelmed, so I’ve been trying to settle that down in between thinking it and writing it—which for me is difficult because those two things don’t have a lot of time between them. I’m trying to make short lines. I don’t think I’m doing a good job. I want to. Short lines seem to, even if the content is overwhelmed, control some of the emotion that long lines can’t.

TH: What poems or lines from your book feel the “youngest” to you, like they most show your development (though you remain fond of them)? Why/how?

JD: The entire thing feels young to me. Most of the stuff inside of it is six years old, so I was a different me when I made it.  One time I got a letter from an old me. It was in February and that me was advising the February me to take a nap and then go for a walk, which is exactly what I was trying to decide between at the time. And I didn’t remember sending it, so it really was like a whole different person.  I guess the letters between Edgar and Charlie feel young. I was taking a class with Kerri Webster on the epic and our job was to write something long, and I loved Edgar and Charlie so much and wanted them to still be around, so I made that. I’m not sure I went into them enough—maybe now I would attempt their relationship in a more serious way. Oh, you know what—I saw Charlie. It was in February, too. He lives in this glass case at the Smithsonian now.

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