Jennifer Givhan, a Mexican-American poet and novelist, has earned an NEA and a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellowship. Her books include Landscape with Headless Mama (2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize), Protection Spell (2016 Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series), Girl with Death Mask (2017 Blue Light Books Prize), Rosa’s Einstein (2019 Camino Del Sol Poetry Series), and two novels, Trinity Sight and Jubilee (Blackstone Publishing). Her honors include the Frost Place Latinx Scholarship, a National Latinx Writers’ Conference Scholarship, the Lascaux Review Poetry Prize, Phoebe Journal’s Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, The Pinch Poetry Prize, the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize 2nd place, and fifteen Pushcart nominations. Her work has appeared in Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Ploughshares, POETRY, TriQuarterly, Boston Review, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Witness, Southern Humanities Review, Missouri Review, and The Kenyon Review. She lives near the Sleeping Sister volcanoes in New Mexico with her family, and can be found discussing feminist motherhood at jennifergivhan.com, Facebook, & Twitter @JennGivhan. We recently sat down with her to discuss her writing habits:
Is there a topic that you would like to write more about, or that you would like to see be written about more? Why are you interested in said topic?
More than anything, I often need to give myself permission to (re)write my obsessions, those topics I’ve already written again & again—like Emily Dickinson’s flood subject of death, my own deep wells, what Tony Hoagland calls our “mythic wounds”—those topics that haunt us, dig deep, & won’t let us go. So I find myself writing poem after poem & book after book of mothering through depression, for instance, but I need to remind myself that the topic hasn’t let me go because I haven’t yet written & lived my way completely through; there are still tunnels to navigate & while I’m deep in the trenches, surviving it, I need to respect my Muse’s need to write it.
In your mind, what sets a really good poem apart from the rest? Are there a number of factors, or is it more of an indiscernible quality?
A gut-punching poem for me weaves together a few important ingredients, the most potent of which for me are when the following five jibe: 1. Voice (whoever speaks does so compellingly, makes me want to pull up a chair, & listen); 2. Surprise (take me somewhere strange, unexpected, show me how poetic logic leaps & launches & maybe never looks back); 3. Sound (sing it strong, carry me away on rhythm); 4. Specificity (image, image, image—worldbuilding & sense, grow me a place I don’t want to leave); & 5. Symbol (wed that image to some deeper meaning, the poem’s raison d'être, the speaker’s heart truth, & you’ve hooked me 4-eva).
For you, how important is it to read contemporary and/or canonical poetry?
I grew up reading all the cis white dead dudes & since I have a poet’s heart beating in my chest, yes, yes, I loved them anyway. But dang I would’ve loved to know women of color like me were writing & publishing & powerful wielders of magic too. Now, I primarily read contemporary women & especially woc because I’m making up for a whole systematic education of lost (misappropriated) time & I’m teaching my children what possibilities exist for them. Plus, #SupportWomenWriters
How do you balance writing time with your “day job,” family responsibilities, etc.?
Oh, there’s no balancing. It’s all juggling all the time in this three-ring circus. Shortest answer, I have very little social life. #MamaWriter
What advice would you give to writers submitting entries to the Pinch contest?
So often we’re afraid to submit to contests because we’re not sure our work is good enough to “win” but I’ve also learned there’s just so much we can’t control in the subjectivity of responses to our poetry; what we can control is our craft (getting our best words onto the page in our best order) & pressing that submit button. You’ll never win if you don’t show up, so my motto has been just that—show up, every time. I’ve earned my stripes in rejections. But I’ve also struck lightning again & again because I’ve kept challenging myself, honing my craft, & tucking my fear away to show up, my whole heart on my sleeve each & every time. Good luck, you wonders! Shine those poems, remember my fab five potent ingredients, go watch Isabel Allende on Jane the Virgin, & then submit your poems!