Interviewed by Jessica Reidy
Jeanne Larsen is the author of Why We Make Gardens (& Other Poems), These Gardens, as well as multiple novels and translations. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in many journals, and she has received numerous grants and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and the William L Crawford Award. Larsen lives in southeast Virginia and is currently Susan Gager Jackson Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University.
Q: What was the greatest surprise for you while working on Why We Make Gardens (& Other Poems)?
A: The way the poems showed up on demand, and then kept on coming. I wrote the sequence over perhaps five years (and did a lot of revising after that) but what I didn’t expect what that I’d wind up with so many keepers. I’m quite used to obsession, but hadn’t ever run a single long sequence—allowing for some major turns and twists to keep myself from getting bored. The moral for other writers? Whatever it is, try it.
Q: Buddhist themes and imagery play in Why We Make Gardens. What do you feel is the relationship between Buddhist ideas and writing?
A: I’ve been known to fret about this way too much, like Willie Yeats claiming we have to choose between “perfection of the life or of the work.” But I won’t start.
I will say this: a view of experience that encourages attentiveness to how things are and to the consequences of our actions, that discourages sensory gluttony even as it opens you up and loosens the neurotic ego’s lockdowns, any view that says “things change. this body, too. now breathe”—well, I find it helpful.
Q: What was it like writing about the gardens of other writers?
A: Loved it. Actually, writing those particular poems—or, getting them up to something like speed—was probably the most difficult aspect of making that book: only parts of them came from the deep place out of which, say, most of the “elements” poems arose. Still, there’s something satisfying about wrenching a left-hemisphere-dominated first draft into the realm of poetry. Knocking away the scaffolding, wooing the images, summoning the goddess Metaphor.
The first time I visited Ann Spencer’s home in Lynchburg, Virginia, I had the amazing good fortune to meet her lively, gracious daughter-in-law. Sheer chance, and a brush with history I won’t forget. But all the visits meant a lot to me: touring Dickinson’s home, peering into Emerson’s back yard, checking out Wharton’s country house: there’s something very human about the way we shape landscapes by taking our bodies to spots we perceive as out of the ordinary. Pilgrimage and making poems have a lot in common. If nothing else, they both say, Listen. Here. And they both bring the lost dead into a present moment. I think we can always use more of that.
Q: Tell us about your garden.
A: Weedy. I’m best at envisioning, though I definitely enjoy using both roto-tillers and spades. Upkeep is another issue. Watering houseplants makes me pretty happy, though. Thanks for the oxygen, guys, I tell them. Thanks for the whole role-model thing.
Q: How do you strike the balance between poetry and fiction?
A: Oh, I favor imbalance—and messing around and poaching and border-busting and annoying the compartmentalizers—whenever possible.
Now, except for the occasional sad case where some poor soul says “oh, I don’t know how to read fantasy/SF” or “everybody here favors poetry over fiction” [or vice-versa, though for some reason one doesn’t hear that as often], we in the early 21st century U.S. are relatively free of the kind of criticism that tries to shove texts (er, chunks of language) into pigeonholes; our critics are stoopid in other ways. Still, I hold with the early meanings of poetry, back when it meant something like literature. I mean: it’s all the same game really. Sometimes I drink red wine, sometimes white. Sometimes, spearmint tea.
And by literature, I mean not only all genres, but quite unashamedly, the good stuff. I don’t believe that any old crapola between covers (or on-screen) is as good as any other, or as worthy (but I’m talking to the critics again) of study. I mean art. No make that: Art. The stuff that saves us.
But that’s not what you were asking, is it? Really, all I can say is that sometimes I need to tell a story, or a knotted up mess o’ stories, or to make an essay in the direction of truth, and sometimes, as lucille clifton put it, things poem up inside me. Eat whatever shows up in your begging bowl.
Q: Which writerly habit would you most like to break?
A: Avoidance. Gee whiz, Larsen, you feel so happy when you go into the focus zone. Shut up and get to work.
Q: What kind of child were you?
A: High-spirited nerdy bookworm. In braids.
Q: The job you’d want to have—other than writer, teacher.
A: Antarctic explorer? Street-corner preacher with a shaved head, dressed in rags? Stand-up comic? World-class ballerina / revolutionary choreographer? Low-level State Department flunky with a heavily stamped passport?
The vocational aptitude tests I took when I turned 18 said either psychotherapist or something arty. A year later, I dropped Statistics and signed up to major in Phenomenology of Religion. I bruised my mother’s heart when I told her that both med school and her back-up plans (law school or an advertising agency) were no go’s. Now, if I had another sixty years, I’d go to art school. Or (no, really, Mom), I’d suck it up, work my way into med school, and apply to Doctors Without Borders.
Sometimes I wish that teaching didn’t suit me so well. Sometimes I thank my stars.
Q: What is the question you wish people would ask about your work?
A: You mean, after they ask, “How about signing this copy of Why We Make Gardens that I’m going to give my sweetheart / favorite auntie / high school English teacher / veterinarian / mail carrier / local library?”
Okay, then: “What are you writing now?”
Answer: I recently polished off a couple travel-memoir essays and found a home for them. I’ve been working hard researching and writing another novel—a Buddhist bodice-ripper set in an amazing time and place (the Kushan empire, which straddled Asia’s crossroads, 3rd century C.E.).
And my current poems are quite different from Why We Make Gardens: I’ve shifted out of that kind of gnomic, wisdom-lit thing and have been doing a series that tangle up stuff from here-n-now with Zen teaching stories, or old Chinese poems, or dharma talks and sutras, or…you know. Things to read.
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