Professor Jeanne Larsen of the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins University has published a new collection of poems, What Penelope Chooses (Cider Press Review, 2019).
The work was, itself, chosen—winning the Cider Press Review Book Award. The San Diego press uses an independent judge to select one manuscript for publication each year and a little more than a year ago Larsen learned that the poet Lauren K. Alleyne, who helps run the Furious Flower Poetry Center at JMU, had decided she was the one. This third volume of poetry joins two books of translations and four novels under her name.
Larsen has lived in Taiwan, Japan, and Germany. A playful love of language shines through in Larsens’s work, as does a sense of urgency and appeal. In this volume, “no man” is at again at peril in the poems’ interrogation of the story and its teller. That kind of sentence may make more sense after paddling the raft with Larsen for a spell. So roll up your sleeves and grab an oar.
What Penelope Chooses revisits the world of the Odyssey, but now the silent are given voice…well, commanded it. It’s exciting, head-spinning stuff, and these poems can quickly renew your interest in the Greeks. They’re fun, and to celebrate the publication, we settle in with storyteller Jeanne Larsen.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Happy poetry month, and congratulations on the release of your new collection of poems, What Penelope Chooses. The collection is a collision course on the world of Homeric mainstays—all those strange twists in the journey, the drama that we continue to ponder and recount. Reaching back a bit, what was your introduction to this material?
Jeanne Larsen: Reaching way, way back, actually—in tenth grade, I encountered a life-shaping English teacher, and she had us read Robert Fitzgerald’s wonderful translation of the Odyssey. But my hope is that people who haven’t actually read it in any version will enjoy my poems too.
Humans need to share their stories. But, for some common-sense reasons, we as a culture don’t have “a canon” any more—no core collection of literature that all students read because everyone, or maybe every wise and all-knowing professor, believes they need to. Still, Homer’s epics, especially the Odyssey, are among very few works that come close. Thanks to movies, comic books, graphic novels, the Percy Jackson YA book series, Star Trek spin-offs, The Simpsons, all that, a lot of us know about the cyclops, and the Sirens, and the Trojan horse.
The Odyssey can bring us together exactly because it was grounded in a rich mix of cultures as they interacted and changed over quite a few centuries. Also, there are so many ways to read it, and so many theories and de-codings—Afro-centric views, woman-centered ones, and so on. I love that variety, all those voices, all those different understandings in fruitful conversation with each other.
Plus, whatever our individual backgrounds, we all know about feeling besieged, the way Penelope was by the bullies who moved into her house and started feasting every night at her expense, insisting she had to marry one of them—making him the lord of the island—because Odysseus had been gone for 20 years. We all know about feeling lost and powerless, the way her husband was on his ten year journey home to Ithaca from the Greeks’ long war on Troy.
At the same time, there’s a lot going on between the lines in Homer’s poems. He describes a culture of slaveholders. Well, what about the people who were enslaved? We didn’t talk about this back in my high school, but my poems maybe nudge us toward questions about social position and race and gender and sexual identity and environmental destruction and lying power-seekers and the terrible after-effects of war that I think we need to ponder right now, in 2019. Probably next year, too.
Oops. I’m ranting. Anyway, yeah, it was quite a while after tenth grade, in 2014, that I got the chance to do a really intensive week-long summer seminar for college teachers interested in the epic poem one Victorian translator called “the Iliad’s wife”.
I’m a travel-addict, and thanks to my friend Richard—that’s the writer R.H.W. Dillard—I had recently read Zachary Mason’s head-wrenching collection of stories, The Lost Books of the Odyssey. So I whomped up a proposal for a new Hollins lit course in order to get into the seminar, and the following fall, I taught “Literary Journeys” to an intrepid group of undergrads.
By winter, I was making poems that riff off Homer’s characters and scenes and silences and glitches. Eventually, I realized I was writing a book’s worth. That was a pleasant surprise, for sure.
BCR: No doubt. With the dizzying language of the opening poem we know we’re in for a ride. We’re huddled around the fire, and the stage is set for an unusual telling of tales. How do these long-lived stories help get us through?
JL: What else have we poor naked apes got, really? Fear of death and longing for home and feeling cooped up and spinning yarns (ha!)….we need to talk things out. Need to hear we’re not the only one.
We are born to be word-weavers, like crafty Penelope. It seems to be hard-wired in the midden heap—which is archeologists’ way of saying “garbage dump”—of our species’ brains. So that poem of mine you mentioned calls on the muse, the way Homer does. Only my muse is the three pounds of grey matter inside my skull….plus all the stories and experiences and needs that are jumbled up in there.
And I don’t have to tell you we humans are often of two minds, like Penelope and like her husband, Odysseus: Homer’s narrator likes to show us one of them thinking over their options at a crucial moment, just like in my book’s first poem—“what to do?”—and then deciding, okay, I’ll “give it a shot”.
So I guess that first poem also means:hang on to your braincase, dear Reader. We are off and running.
BCR: The section epigraphs add to sense of the work as conversation around a common source. There are many voices reflecting on the tales and their telling. What authors or works most inspire you with the sense of freedom [abandon!] 2 have so much fun with this work?
JL: Yes, yay, glad this notion of me comes across okay. Back in the 80’s, I did a longer summer seminar for college teachers, and I learned about the amazing book-length poem Helen in Egypt, by one of the greatest 20th-century writers, H.D. She based it on a millennia-old tradition that beautiful Helen didn’t actually run off to Troy after she dumped her Greek husband for a Trojan prince, so it was wrong to blame her for that famous stupid war.
That’s when I really got it, about doing push-back against Homer, despite all my admiration for his multiple and slippery voices.
Then, for my Hollins course built around the Odyssey, I started collecting poems in conversation with that Grand Old Man. Derek Walcott, the Afro-Caribbean writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in ‘92, received it in part for a book-length poem called Omeros, the Greek word we pronounce as “Homer”. My students read a bit of that, along with the short poem of Walcott’s I take one of my epigraphs from. Also, Lyrae Van Clief-Stephanon, who went to W&L in the 90’s, when my friend and colleague Cathy Hankla was teaching there, gave a poetry reading at Hollins five years ago, and I was really struck by her work. Lyrae teaches at Cornell in Ithaca NY, so she cleverly made a few poems like the one I quote as the pull-it-all-together epigraph to the final section of What Penelope Chooses…
You probably know that Odysseus shows up in Dante under his Latin name “Ulysses”, and in a poem by Tennyson. Plus, Eudora Welty wrote a story about the magic-maker Circe, whom Odysseus spends a year with on his journey home from Troy. So did Nathaniel Hawthorne—the story, not the year, I mean! And Barbara Hamby’s deliciously playful, snappy poetry was inspiring me long before her book Bird Odyssey came out a year or so ago.
There are a zillion more yakkers in this inter-textual gabfest. But I’ll stop. Except, I gotta shout out to the literary scholars and the neuro-scientists, especially the ones who explain cognitive science in ways that I can understand. Their work definitely fed these poems. A last example: the two classicists who came to Hollins’ annual Classics Symposium in 2015. One of them, Robert O’Meally, who teaches at Columbia, talked about the stunning artwork he describes in a book called Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey and it became a portal to…. Wait. I said I’d stop.
BCR: Part 2 of the above question pointed at the poet: I can imagine that you might have surprised yourself at times here with your own fearlessness in the face of tradition. Do you think you might yourself raise an eyebrow or laugh aloud as you read these poems before audiences (…may they be many and rapt)?
JL: Well, I’ll find out, I guess. I’ve only read a few in public. The joke-y, sexy siren songs went over pretty well. One of my eyebrows may have levitated a bit.
I’m doing my first real reading of Penelope at Hollins next Thursday, actually, on the 25th. If some people in the audience go into the word-music zone, if I get a few surprised looks, a couple forehead-slaps, maybe a laugh and possibly a silent “oh, wow,” I’ll be satisfied.
BCR: Of course, there’s also all the brutality and ruthlessness of the Odyssey. How do you see your language choices as helping the reader access or buffer against it?
JL: Well, life, friends, is brutal. Also ruthless. The Iliad, being so much about the actualities of combat, rather than the PTSD-slash-life-on-the-home-front poem called the Odyssey, is even tougher, psychologically.
But again, here’s a cool thing about Homer. If you’re, say, a British soldier heading off to World War I, you can find genuine images of nobility, of endurance and survival, of berserker rage, right there. But if you’re a 21stcentury person convinced that violent conflict is never the solution, then you can read both epics as powerful anti-war poems.
Let me be clear. You can read both epics as anti-war poems that honor people who find themselves on a battleground and do what they feel they have to, what they have hardly any alternative to doing. And then, if they survive, they pay the price. That’s what Homer wrote and it’s what I’ve tried to write, in some of mine.
Why all my linguistic intensity? Why the double-meanings and the mix of Englishes and the I-hope-they’re-zingers? That’s one way I process pain. It’s a way we can see the bad stuff, not repress it, while still giving ourselves breathing space around it. Jokes, and making art, and meditation, do that too. So does trauma therapy, come to think of it.
Actually, if anyone is going to be stopped short by my language, I suppose it would be by the sex words. I do drop the f-bomb, for example, and a couple c-bombs and p-bombs too, although I don’t think of that as unusual in these, um, flippin’ times. Anyway, I don’t want readers to avoid having to think about the lives of the enslaved women in Homer—Trojan or Greek or Phoenician or whatever. As in other times and places, they were considered sexual property and they were used. So-called noblewomen were, too, in fact. We have to recognize historical realities if we are going to make things better.
BCR: This collection feels very contemporary. How is this work possible for you today in a way that wasn’t, even 10 years ago?
JL: Well, that’s a nice thing to hear. One of my blessing-curses as a writer is that I keep lurching off in new directions. Now, if anyone here in BOOK CITY is allergic to the, um, s-bomb, they should just skip to the next question, but…one thing I did for these poems was work my way into a kind of form that was almost totally new to me. Busted sonnets, call them.
They didn’t start out this way, but they almost all have 14 lines, or 28. (Like Shakespeare, ahem, I bend the rules for line-count now and then—in part, to keep readers on their toes.) As I revised, and re-re-re-revised them, I moved from simply listening to the beats, the way every poet needs to, toward five or six beat lines in rough iambics. They’re un-rhymed, though. Instead, I play with layout the way we mostly-free-verse poets like to do, so that the look of the lines on the page maybe becomes a sort of visual “rhyme scheme”.
No one needs to worry about all that, but it really helped me with compression, an essential tool for poets, and with attention to, I dunno, shapeliness. Design. Con-figuration. After I decided to re-make my poem-drafts into weird quatorzains, 14-liners, I started noticing that, hey, it’s like the 1590’s in England, here in the USA these days; so many people I admire are doing some kind of sonnet-y thing, like Terrance Hayes, and Kelly Cherry, and Rafael Campo, and and and. It’s been happening all along of course, but there’s a blossoming, a—heh,heh—renaissance…
BCR: You’re preparing to retire from your work at Hollins, where you’ve inspired and guided a heap of young poets. How have you seen poetry at work in the lives of your students as they prepare for full lives and careers?
JL: Oooo. Well, when I make students memorize a poem, I tell them it will give them something to think about if they are ever sitting in a jail cell. And then we all laugh, and then I change my face and say, “seriously.” And then the room goes silent for a minute.
So yeah, you bet poetry opens doors in the imagination—I want them in that moment to think about how incredibly lucky they are, we are, to be sitting in a classroom, to have whatever lives brought us to the privilege of full bellies and shelter and enough peace that we can access the benefits of talking about poems. If they also think of the heroes who did civil disobedience for voting rights or other moral issues, and got thrown into the slammer for it, that’s A-okay with me.
The basic thing I hope students get from poetry is that art nurtures and enlivens and heals us. Right this minute, in some sun-baked refugee camp, someone is reciting a poem, rapping, singing an old song or a new one, don’t you think? Anyway, when we read or write or say a poem, our brain activity shifts. The rhythm—of whatever sort—and the associative, conjunctive thinking of poetry, those give us a break from dullness and from the dis-junctive, the dividing, ways of thought that our culture and our K-12 educational system one-sidedly value. We need both modes, if we are to live more fully.
Of course, I hope my students have also honed their skills in putting words together—making poems and stories if that’s what they go on to do, but also in writing op ed pieces for a newspaper or blog, or in an email to a senator, or simply in communicating with the people they deal with every day.
Besides, moving into someone else’s voice and perspective buffs up our empathy muscles, right? We need that nowadays, but human beings always, always have.
And there’s comfort not only in the out-of-ordinary experience of intensive reading or hearing, but in content: while Notre Dame cathedral was burning, I read Rilke’s poem “The Cathedral”. It helped some.
BCR: What will you miss most about your tenure at Hollins?
JL: The students. Talking with them, listening to them. The whole literary network that loops out across the continent from the place, though I suppose I’ll still be threaded into that for a while. The sense of mission, the idealism, that informs the community. Plus, oh yes, the gorgeous, gorgeous campus. I’m staying here in Roanoke County, speaking of gorgeous. I expect to travel some, but I’ve rooted in.
BCR: What’s your next acrobatic literary endeavor?
JL: Whatever it is, I sure hope there’s a big ol’ net down below the trapeze!
BCR: Of course there is. So write on. And have a great reading on Thursday.
Jeanne Larsen’s first book,James Cook in Search of Terra Incognita,won the AWP award in poetry. She has published Why We Make Gardens [& Other Poems], four novels, and two collections of translations of poetry by women of Tang-era China. The recipient of grants and awards from the Japan/US Friendship commission, the NEA, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and others, she teaches in the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins University. Learn more at www.jeannelarsen.com
- Read some poems from What Penelope Chooses at Terrain.org.
- Order What Penelope Chooses from Cider Press Review.
- Buy What Penelope Chooses at Book No Further.
- Hear Larsen read from What Penelope Chooses at Hollins: April 25th at 8:15 PM.
- Attend the Q&A with Larsen at Hollins: April 26that 11 AM.
- Celebrate National Poetry Month by memorizing the opening of the Odyssey.★