LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Sunday, March 08, 2009

"How I Work": Poet Jean Janzen

I interviewed Jean Janzen last year and wanted to find out more about how she works. Jean is a poet living in Fresno, California, who has taught at Fresno Pacific University and Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. She is the author of six poetry collections, the most recent one entitled Paper House (Good Books), and a book of essays on writing entitled Elements of Faithful Writing (Pandora Press). Her work has been included in numerous anthologies and many journals, including Poetry, Gettysburg Review, Christian Century, and Image. Janzen received an NEA grant and other awards. She also has written hymn texts which have appeared in various hymnals, and some of her poems have been set to music, including an oratorio written by Alice Parker. She was interviewed in Stonework, an online magazine from Houghton College, where some of her poems have also appeared. Her poems have also appeared in New Pantagruel.

LeAnne: Jean, I'm fascinated by artists' creative processes. What is yours like?

The first necessity for me is to be open, a stance I try to keep as I go through my day. To begin writing I need to sit down, to be quiet and open, to receive whatever is willing to rise from the deeper places, the far places. In that position I sense the swirl of chaos--so much milling around from memory, observation and reading. From that disorder I hope to be given a beginning, an image, or an event. Sometimes such gifts arise from the stream of writing in which I have been immersed in recent weeks or months.

The next move often requires my willingness to move into unknown territory, a kind of wilderness. Questions arise for which I won't have answers, but perhaps an understanding of the question will enlarge. I am participating with God in the ongoing creativity of life.

Overarching all is the necessity of humility, the knowledge that I may not discover or be given anything, and that my efforts may not become art. With this position I am willing to start writing a rough draft, short lines that move down, that turn and turn again. Something concrete, a real connectedness to the senses is required. Abstractions float away, do not connect. Will it lead to something? I don't know. If I know the outcome, the poem will not be art. The joy of discovery comes when the poem assumes a direction of its own.

A developing poem is making some order out of chaos. It is finding a shape, a form,in which the wild can be held. It can become a reservoir for grief or for joy, or both. Even then, the necessity of revising and revising again is paramount, for precision and for beauty. I test the meter and the line-breaks. Are they appropriate to this poem? I listen for the music of rhyme and alliteration. I let the poem rest for days, weeks, and sometimes a year and look again. Does it need more revision? This is not about self-expression; it is about giving faithful witness to the grace which is present in the created order, and sometimes finding it.

LM: What is your latest project?

Currently I am working on memoir essays as well as new poems. My latest book PAPER HOUSE was released in October 2008 by Good Books, Intercourse, PA.

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