10 Questions for Jackie Craven
- By Abby MacGregor
You fa ox fa, you fa ox ga
sea ahhh, how proof you?
In catch I jump slap like a rack,
my dradda hours, all sticks and pikes,
& never once did you zoo-hoo.
—from “In Which I Try to Leave My Husband, But Cannot Find the Words”, Spring 2019 (Vol. 60, Issue 1)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
At ten I was an academic disaster. For homework, I composed a rambling tale about a girl who traveled to Australia to find an enchanted aardvark who would magically transform her into a boy, with all the prestige and privileges of being male, plus the bonus of living on an island with kangaroos. My fourth-grade teacher usually gave me Ds and Fs, and I figured she'd hate this story, too. So I shoved it under my bed and told her I lost it. Then I really did lose it, and have been trying to recreate the story ever since.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Whenever I got into trouble, my mother used to say that I was "easily influenced" by wild children from other families. I hope that's true! I admire Danez Smith and other rule-breakers from the spoken word tradition. At the same time, I'm profoundly grateful for the teaching I received from masters like Frank Bidart, Ellen Bass, Thomas Lux, Tim Seibles, and so many others.
What other professions have you worked in?
I started out as an advertising copywriter for a clothing store, a remedial reading teacher, a college English instructor, and question writer for an educational testing company. Eventually I turned to freelance journalism, writing articles and columns about travel destinations, architecture, and house styles. To support myself, I invested in several run-down Victorian houses and became a full-time landlady. Turned out that was a good choice, because old house woes and a lively mix of renters gave me a rich reservoir of stories to tell.
What did you want to be when you were young?
As a child I wanted to be a zoologist. With a microscope. And a terrarium of miniature dinosaurs. My deepest longing was to discover a new species of animal. Or a different kind of human.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Bernadette Mayer really set me on fire. Long after I completed graduate school, I audited her MFA class at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. Bernadette encouraged us to bypass logical thought and explore sound and rhythm. We wrote jabberwocky-style language poems, laughed hysterically, and toyed with free association. A couple years later, while reading Chen Chen, I decided to imitate his use of a long, wildly comical title. My title, "In Which I Try to Leave My Husband, But Cannot Find the Words," suggested ways to revise the nonsense poem.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
In the early morning, half-awake, I turn phrases over in my mind. When I can, I delay getting up until I've mentally composed enough to launch something that might grow into a poem. Then I type the ideas on my cell phone, send myself an email, and fiddle with the poem off and on throughout the day.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
For decades, I've enjoyed the guidance and support of fellow writers in upstate New York. I belong to four critique groups and also coordinate a monthly open mic for poetry. I depend on feedback from these sources, and also from the wonderful poet Barbara Ungar, who teaches in the area and pushes me to move beyond my comfort zone.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
My mother and sister were both visual artists and I grew up breathing turpentine. Their work inspired many of the poems in my collection, Secret Formulas & Techniques of the Masters. I wish I had inherited the talent to create the shocking and surreal images my mother painted.
What are you working on currently?
Lately, without intending to, I've been writing about sisters—childhood sisters, elderly sisters, evil sisters, supportive sisters. The sisters in my poems are metaphorical, but—like my real sister—they have a strained relationship with language. Malapropism, misunderstandings, and various forms of wordplay are becoming part of the narrative.
What are you reading right now?
A bottomless collection of literary journals is calling to me, and I'm also spending time with fiction and memoir that explore autism, developmental disabilities, and language disorders. I've just finished Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos and I'm currently reading Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon. There are so many other titles on my must-read list.
JACKIE CRAVEN is the author of the poetry collection Secret Formulas & Techniques of the Masters and the fiction chapbook Our Lives Became Unmanageable. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Columbia Poetry Review, New Ohio Review, River Styx, and Salamander.