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Debut poet Jennifer LeBlanc on myth and mysteries

On the podcast: Jennifer LeBlanc discusses her debut poetry collection, Descent.

 

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

Descent book cover - old oil painting on top with title and author on lower half

Jennifer LeBlanc earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University (2013). Her first full-length book, Descent, was published by Finishing Line Press (2020), and individual poems have been published in journals such as The Adirondack Review, CAIRN, The Main Street Rag, and Melusine. Jennifer was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize and works in the English Department at Tufts University. Learn more about Jennifer on her website.

Danielle Legros Georges is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University. She is also the former Poet Laureate of the City of Boston, where she was tasked with raising the status of poetry in the everyday consciousness of Bostonians, acting as an advocate for poetry, language and the arts, and creating a unique artistic legacy through public readings and civic events.

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  • Transcript

    Announcer: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books writing and the writing life.

    This week, Lesley professor Danielle Legros Georges speaks with Jennifer LeBlanc, author of Descent, which is her first full-length collection of poetry. Jennifer’s poems are full of myth grounded in reality and as one reviewer noted are “imaginatively expansive.” Without further ado, here’s Jennifer and Danielle.

    Danielle Georges: Hello. My name is Danielle Legros Georges. I'm the director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Lesley. I have the pleasure of talking to Jennifer LeBlanc about her first volume of poems Descent published in 2020 by Finishing Line Press. Congratulations, Jennifer.

    Jennifer LeBlanc: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

    Danielle: I know you were nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize and you work in the English department at Tufts University. Welcome, or perhaps welcome back is more appropriate. My first question to you is an indulgent one. You are an alum of the Lesley MFA program. I'm curious, what made you choose to study here?

    Jennifer: From the beginning when I was looking for an MFA program, it really seemed that Lesley was the best option for many reasons. Maybe the more selfish reason on my part, to begin with, was that it was important to me to stay close to my family here in Massachusetts. The fact that Lesley is located here physically definitely was something that I was looking for to start off with.

    In addition to that, having the low residency model was really something that I felt would help for the program and allowed me to work part-time and do a couple of internships while I was doing my degree. The low residency model was something that allowed me to both continue some of the other parts of my life as well as to really delve into the MFA program.

    Beyond that, what I really liked about Lesley was the interdisciplinary nature of it. When I was looking through the different programs, I saw the focus that Lesley put on both the interdisciplinary aspect as well as cross-genre aspects. Those are some of the reasons that I'm most appreciative of having made the decision to go to Lesley as well as the faculty who work there because, in the end, it was really the faculty who I worked with as well as the cross-genre aspect of the program that I think made the most difference.

    As far as working with people in other genres, just to be able to go to seminars with people who are your peers and are writing in different genres, to be able to hear their point of view, to work with faculty as well from different genres, it broadened the perspective of the writing that I was working on and allowed me to think outside of the box of just one genre, to take other things into account, and to think of myself and more of a community as a whole. Those were some of the main reasons that I felt that Lesley would be a good match.

    Danielle: We do have a really wonderful community, in my opinion. We have got a great poetry faculty and faculty in other genres as well. Jennifer, why poetry for you as a mode of expression?

    Jennifer: That's a good question. [chuckles] I guess throughout my whole life I've felt connected to the arts in some way or another. Very early on as a child, I did ballet and that continued well into my teens. For a good amount of time, dance was the main mode of expression for me. I also played the piano for a little bit and worked a little bit on watercolors. It was probably in the middle of high school that I came to poetry. It seemed for many reasons just a better fit than all of the other modes of expression.

    I remember falling in love really with English when I read Catcher In The Rye. I know that when I'm doing now is leagues away from that, and nowhere near in the same fields. I think it was reading Catcher In The Rye that I first felt like I was home. Literature was where I identified and where I felt a sense of belonging. From there, I started to read poetry in high school and very much so in college when I would read Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, works like that, I felt enthralled. I felt like they were expressing themselves in a way that I could aspire to and would definitely not reach the same level, but that I could use as a model and look to and that I could feel as if I were able to reach for that mode of expression.

    When I write poetry, I appreciate it because I feel that it's something that you could capture a moment in time and it's something that I feel has a universal quality to it. The different types of poetry allow for so many different options of how you're going to express yourself, the story you're going to tell, the mode of expression you'll use to get there.

    For example, in this book, I do a lot of the classic work as well as a lot of dramatic monologues and persona poems. They're all poetry, but they're so different in the way that I would approach the writing and the way that I would work on the editing process that it turns out to be such a-- They're so many options for where you can go and still be in the poetic form and it really just allows you to open the imagination to many many possibilities, which I like about the form.

    Danielle: You mention Sharon Olds and Marie Howe as models, as exemplary poets. I'm curious about what in their poetry appeals to you.

    Jennifer: When I first read Sharon Olds, I think what I enjoyed reading about her work was her willingness to go to places in her work that might not be considered polite by certain people. At the time when I was reading her work, I was very much-- I grew up in a Catholic house and I went to a Catholic college and there were certain topics being approached in her work that I had not come across before.

    What I liked about her work was her willingness to say things and to write about things that were clearly important to her and clearly of importance to art over the course of humanity. Her ability to do so bravely in a way that would be perhaps offensive to some, but also incredibly life-giving to others who needed to hear a perspective like that.

    With Marie Howe, what I enjoy her work is the voice that she brings to it. It's almost as if you can hear when you're reading her poems the music behind the poem. As if there's the voice chanting or singing the poem along with you as you're reading it. The lyrical quality is in large part what I like about her work.

    Danielle: You also engage in some bravery in your writing. I find that your poems were peopled with women and girls, and relationships between them: mothers and daughters, nanas and nuns, a pregnant cousin and a poem speaker, the Virgin Mary, Jean d’Arc, Vestal Virgins of Ancient Rome, there is even reference to menstruation. [laughter from both] I find that they contain what I call feminine subjectivities.

    Jennifer: Yes.

    Danielle: Were you aware that you were taking possibly a feminist point of view in the series of poems or in this book?

    Jennifer: Yes, definitely. For me, when I first started at Lesley I was definitely more timid in my writing. My first mentor was Teresa Cader. She was so instrumental in helping me to find a sense of bravery and to say what I needed to say especially in the way that she guided me to be reading other poets who wrote from a Christian perspective as well. I think it allowed me to give myself a little bit more freedom with what I said even if it didn't completely match what I should be saying as I might have been brought up to as a Christian.

    That was instrumental. I definitely was a feminist at the time, I still am. I definitely brought feminism with me to my poetry because when I write, I feel that much of what I'm expressing relates to my life as a woman, as a woman in society that is decidedly not feminist [chuckles] in many cases. Yes, I definitely was aware when I was writing, and especially when I was forming the collection, that I wanted it to be a feminist statement. I wanted it to speak to many different women's experiences throughout time and throughout much of the world as well.

    Danielle: Yes, you absolutely do that. You take up Greek myths, the ancient Roman vestal virgins, you engage in intertextuality with women. There's a wonderful poem you have called Discovering, and in it, is the statement, ‘I like to think that God is a small young woman’ which is provocative and delightful. I'm wondering if you wouldn't mind reading that poem to us, and then talk a little bit about it.

    Jennifer: Of course. The text under the title is from an Anne Sexton poem, and she's another poet who, I read extensively in grad school. The text is, "Though no one can ever know, I don't think he has a face".

    Discovering.

    You paste the halls of heaven, waiting to find out, waiting to see.

    Fur coat wrapped around your shoulders, you hold a poem in your hand.

    Under the watch of curious angels, you walk from stand to stand.

    I imagine Heaven has podiums and mark your lines with revisions

    until it is time to meet him or her.

    I like to think that God is a small young woman,

    the girl in Burton's dreams, who rests on a green pillow.

    Her shimmies draped from her arm and purple flowers, not poems in her hand.

    Let her be our God. Let this girl cup and chin and her palm.

    Let her sense the world spinning with firm delicateness.

    Danielle: "Let her be our God", it's provocative, it's flirting with big themes.

    Jennifer: Yes.

    Danielle: I'm reading the poem as a willing to turn over Judeo-Christian iconography and the patriarchy embedded therein.

    [laughter by both]

    Jennifer: Well, I definitely didn't want to do quite that much but no, I think for that poem, I was working heavily with ekphrastic work at that time and I had found this painting by Burton. It was an image of this girl and it didn't connect in any specific way to what I was reading at the time. Then, when it went to be time to work on the poem, there was that connection. I was reading Anne Sexton's work. She grapples intensely with spirituality and with the ability to whether you can reconcile the very patriarchal nature of Christianity, with more feminine aspects.

    She has the Book of Psalms, where she turns Christianity basically upside down on its head. Poems in which she imagines the Virgin Mary saying and doing things that one would not traditionally imagine her doing that. When I read those poems, I found them incredibly liberating and freeing because there was something about them that still honored the divine and still saw her as a figure who was important and deserving of recognition, but that also took a second look at it and supposed that maybe the way that the story has been told in the past is not all there is to the story.

    There's that connection between the painting that I had been looking at and the more feminization of the religion. I think at the same time just longing for a kinder, maybe more accepting religion that might come if that young girl or a female figure were the divine figure. I think that's where that line came from.

    Danielle: Yes, you’re re-inscribing, you're re-envisioning some of our myths and some of our traditions and you're talking back to texts as well. You’re internalizing them and then you're talking back to them. You're talking to them: Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Eavan Boland. Jennifer, would you talk a little bit about the intertextuality you engage in, in your work?

    Jennifer: Sure. With the intertextuality, I feel like much of poetry is a conversation. Although when you're reading poetry, you're just reading the one voice that is coming from the page or when you listen to a recording of poetry, there's just that one voice. I think that for me as a poet, and I feel for many poets as well, part of the writing of the poetry and the putting the poetry out into the world. You want a response in some way, you're expecting that somebody is going to read it, you're hoping that somebody is going to read it. Part of the joy, I think, is imagining that somebody outside of you, outside of someone you'll ever know, will think about it and respond to it, even if you never hear the response.

    I do think of it as a conversation. When I would read different works, when I was at Lesley and before and after, as well, I often felt the urge to respond in some way. Then, many of these poems were formed, I suppose out of that urge to respond. They would not be what they were without the poems that prompted them. I think that my time at Lesley was so rich in the way that I was able to read poets that I had never heard of before, read widely and deeply and devote a lot of time really just to thinking about what I read, and to sitting with what I read, and to then form ideas about that. One of the greatest gifts I think that Lesley gave me was that space in which to think and to sit and let ideas stew and formulate.

    Then, another aspect of the program that was invaluable was the craft papers. When we wrote the craft papers, just really slowly walking through a poem or a couple of poems or series in a book that we had read. Just saying what we saw, how the poet did it, not making any sort of thesis or essay, just observing. That real close observation of the poems was instrumental in allowing me to slow down my thoughts and see what was going on.

    Danielle: Speaking to your point of conversation, do you speak to Pablo Neruda?

    Jennifer: [chuckles] Yes.

    Danielle: Could you talk a little bit about that?

    Jennifer: Sure. I loved reading his Book of Questions. I can't remember quite when it was in the program that I read that book, but I just had such a blast with reading that book. It was unlike any other poetry book I had read before. Every poem, every sentence was a question and the limitless possibilities for answers are-- They just struck me.

    I think he asks many of the questions in a way that there is no real answer but of course everyone can have somewhat of their own answer. This was just a very small, very small answer. There are many, many questions in the book and the poem that I wrote addressed only two of them. [chuckles] I felt it was part of the conversation that I was having at the time with the book that I was reading, and that's where the poem came from.

    Danielle: I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about craft, structure and form. You write a number of ghazals.

    Jennifer: Yes.

    Danielle: An Arabic form. It's a form I really love. I want to ask you what appeals to you about that form.

    Jennifer: In that form, I first learned of it in college when I was in a poetry workshop with Julia LaSala, she wrote one of the blurbs for the book. I had never heard of it before then, but I was immediately drawn to it. I'm not sure what drew me to it at the time, but I know what drew me to come back to it in grad school was the idea of identity.

    In the ghazal, the way that you mentioned yourself in the last couplet. There was something about that when I was working with other dramatic monologues, working with voices of different people, that I felt this lends itself really well to speaking in someone else's voice, but trying to embody that voice fully. Knowing that at the end of the poem, there would be some sort of reference to the self, I don't always follow the traditional role of putting the name in, but some sort of reference to the self, to the identity. I felt that the form would encourage me to fully embody the voice by doing that.

    Danielle: What about the dramatic monologue appeals to you? What can you do through that mode? Or how have you adopted that mode as one that is useful to you?

    Jennifer: What appeals to me is that you can escape your own voice, you can escape the poet's voice, and you can still express what you want to express. Whether it's a feminist message or a message about history, whatever you are getting at. For the art, for example, if I write an ekphrastic poem, and I look at the painting, and I write in one of the characters' voices, you can still say whatever you want, but I like that sense of distance that it puts between the poet and the poem and the reader.

    I feel that sometimes the distance that gives you-- I'm not sure exactly how to explain, but it puts the poem in someone else's voice. In that way, it might separate it from more personal poems maybe that your reader might be used to reading. There's just a sense of distance that gives it a little bit more, I'm not sure, maybe it allows me to feel the authority to say things that I wouldn't otherwise feel able to say maybe.

    Then the other part of it is when you embody someone else's voice, I feel that creativity is enhanced as well. It's entirely separate from the life that you're living. You can step out of the current life that you're in, and perhaps think in ways that you would not if you were only thinking in your everyday mindset.

    Danielle: Well, this leads me to the next question. What should a poem do? Or what do you hope a poem does for a reader?

    Jennifer: I think there are so many things that a poem should do, and I'm not sure that every poem can do all of it. I think back to when I read Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly, and I think that a leap is very important in a poem. I think that one of the things I was working on when I was at Lesley was trying to make the poem go somewhere, and taking a leap at some point, making itself of larger importance. When I started off in the program, I was writing poems that were in many ways, just more stagnant observations. Through the workshops and through the reading that I did, I wanted the poems to- and I figured out how to give the poems a bit of a sense of life so that they moved as well.

    I think poetry, what a poem should do, I feel that it needs to speak to something important and speak to someone outside of the poet as well. Back to what we were saying about the conversation, I think that engaging in a conversation is an essential part of the poem. It doesn't just sit there, forever stagnant. It's something that can be picked up, talked about, maybe aren't hearing about. It's something that will hopefully help people also to see things in a way that they don't usually see things, maybe truths or perspectives. That might not usually be on their mind.

    Danielle: Conversation seems to be a theme for you, and in how you do your work. I want to ask you about ekphrasis, which you've mentioned a couple of times, in this conversation [both laughing]. You are engaged in responding to works of visual art, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Victor Jorgensen, many European visual artists. On the cover of your book, you have a painting by Rembrandt.

    Jennifer: I stumbled upon this painting, really by accident. I did not use this painting in any of the poems in the book. When I was looking for a cover image, I definitely wanted something that made reference back to the female aspect of the book, and back to the mythological aspect of it.

    I was looking for paintings that at first- I was looking for like a painting of one of the Vestal Virgins, or trying to figure out if one of the Annunciation paintings would work correctly on the cover. Then when I found this, it's part of the Getty Open Content program, and it just seemed, although this story itself is not one of the poems in the book, the Abduction of Europa, it just seemed to embody much of what was in the book.

    The Persephone myth is featured very early on in the book and this image of the god carrying the woman away, away from her family, away from her home, away from her mother and her village. That felt like an appropriate image for the cover. Also, it had the emotional tenor to the painting that I wanted. I didn't want a happy picture or a happy painting. This seemed to have the gravity to it that I wanted.

    Danielle: Myth, your relationship to myth, please address?

    Jennifer: [laughs] Myth? I find myth to be, well, of course, part of it is related to the dramatic monologue. It gives you a vehicle to speak through someone else's voice who isn't directly you but might be internally you in many ways. What I like about myth, or I should say what I like about incorporating it with the poems is the timelessness of it. These are stories that have survived thousands of years and I feel that they have survived for a reason. They speak to people for a reason.

    To incorporate those in my work or at least in the work that I was doing at the time, I felt they grounded me somewhere, they gave me a sense of tradition, the work that I was writing in, they gave me a space to tell a story that I wanted to tell, but to also relate it to stories that had been told before so we get the conversation.

    Then the final thing about myth is just it's fascinating to me the way that different cultures will come up with myths that might differ in certain ways, but that also have ties that hold them together. There's something eternal about them, something that I feel like the human spirit searches out for some eternal truth and different cultures, different people find it in different ways. There's something about myths that encapsulates all of that.

    It's a different spirituality from the Christian aspect that I was approaching in other poems. The myths that I was working with had some very powerful female characters as well and so I enjoyed working with those characters and speaking through their voices and their stories.

    Danielle: There’s this very interesting poem of yours entitled Seasons,” that I think draws on the Hades-Persephone myth, which begins, "Daughter turns the seasons of daughter and woman." The second stanza, the line, "Woman is where she is headed. Cotton sheet draped over her shoulder at night," I found that line and that notion really interesting. "Woman is where she is headed". As if, womanhood is stepped into, or something. I wonder if you could speak about that, or what were you thinking when you wrote this poem and those lines.

    Jennifer: Yes, definitely. At that point, when I was thinking about the Persephone myth, I was thinking about how she was carried away from her house. It really wasn't her choice to become a woman, to become Hades' wife, to leave her role as the daughter. It was an abduction. It was what was forced upon her. In the reimagining of the myth, I did want to maintain that the part of the story where it really wasn't her choice and where she's not allowed one decision or the other. At the same time, I wanted to, in a way, have the modernizing of the myth, thinking about decisions that women make currently in the modern-day.

    I know for me leaving the mindset or not leaving the mindset, but broadening my perspective of for so long, my main role had been as a daughter, and then suddenly when you're an adult that's not the only role that is open or even expected. Not wanting to leave that identity, wanting to hold on to it somehow, but also this new identity, this new role that is an option now and that was something definitely to grapple with.

    In the Persephone myth, I started thinking of Persephone as someone who maybe once she was in the relationship with Hades. Now, of course, this is very problematic because well, it was not her choice to begin the relationship to begin with. In a reimagining of the myth, perhaps if she was happy in it and maybe liked aspects of the new relationship that she didn't expect to like, there was that aspect of the poem.

    Danielle: I'm want to pivot just a little bit or return to a comment you made about the lyrical quality of Marie Howe's work that appealed to you, and your interest in music behind that poem. There's a poem of yours that I find deeply lyrical, musical. It's entitled “Divine.” I'm wondering if you wouldn't mind reading it for us.

    Jennifer: Sure.

    Divine.

    Seeing the early morning September coming, the window lifted.

    Ask for the divine and I will hold up my palm,

    nothing to offer, waiting for a coin.

    Every autumn the ache returns,

    sweet cider snapping in my mouth like a kiss

    and I want to be taken back into his love.

    Am I wrong for it?

    In the sharp apples, in the still Greenfields, he, he.

    In the mist wet porch swing, in the early moon.

    In the out from storage will, he, he.

    In the air, I give to the wind.

    Danielle: I think it's a beautiful poem.

    Jennifer: Thank you.

    Danielle: Lovely imagery, still green fields, mist wet porch swing, and out of storage will. That wonderful last line of letting go, in the air I give to the wind.

    Jennifer: Thank you. I definitely wanted music to be part of that poem. The rhythm was I think what I was focused on. The rhythm and the imagery, I suppose were the two things I was focused on most in that poem. That's one of the poems that is not dealing with art-ness or a persona poem. Those three things aside, I was definitely focused on the music and the rhythm, and the imagery more for that one.

    Danielle: Yes. I'm curious about the "he, he".

    Jennifer: [laughs] Yes, it was an incantation of sorts. Not a casting of a spell, but definitely trying to call back a person or a spirit. The repetition I felt was. "Every autumn, the ache returns", so there's something about it that the speaker can't get rid of. This persistence of this person, he, he. I think that was what that was reaching for.

    Danielle: Yes, it's fantastic. Our Lesley University podcast is called, Why We Write. I ask each interviewee the same question. Why do you write?

    Jennifer: I write to make sense of the world and to make peace with the world. I can't remember where I first heard someone saying that reason they write is to make peace with the world or their attempt to accept it as it is and to be able to engage with it. That resonated with me when I first read that, and that is why I write. There's so much in life that I can't control. There's so much about the world, whether it's suffering, sadness.

    There is much that I cannot fix, and that I wish were a different way, but when I write, it's the way that I can engage with it and maybe find a reason that it might be that way. Or at least recognize the conditions under which it takes place. It's something that I can give-- I can give meaning at least to that small moment in time of the poem on the page, even if I can't find a larger cohesive meaning for everything.

    I can't solve everything, I can't provide meaning for everything, but when I am in that one individual poem, the act of creating it, and in making it just the best I can, is something that is essential to me. To be able to use my voice, it's something that I wouldn't be able to live without, I think. For me, that's probably the main reason that I write.

    Danielle: Okay. My last question for you, Jennifer LeBlanc. What's next for you?

    Jennifer: [chuckles] Right now, I have been working on other poems. They are very different from the poems in this book and in some ways, it makes me nervous how they're different. I don't feel that I've yet quite found exactly, the voice or the tone or the emotion that I want in them, but I'm working on it. I'm hoping to be able to sharpen the focus a little bit and adjust the lens so that this new batch of poems is a little bit more cohesive than they currently are, and I don't know where they'll go. I will say there are far fewer dramatic monologues. Most of it is in just, it would be considered my voice or the speaker's voice. They’re a lot more personal. They're a lot-- I might even say a lot more messy.

    They're more focused on the music and the lyrics and less on the traditional forms, certainly less on the myths. It's a very different direction that again, makes me very nervous and anxious to see. What happens if anything comes of them or not? That's, that's where I am now. I'm just trying to work through them trying to see where they might be leading to find a central theme to latch on to and then sharpen things from there.

    Danielle: It sounds like a wonderful place to be relative to the work. [laughs] I don't know that you want to be sure of exactly what you're doing.

    Jennifer: That's true. [laughs]

    Danielle: All right, It's a great space. Jennifer, thank you for this time.

    Jennifer: Thank you so much, Danielle.

    Danielle: I look forward to the next book.

    Jennifer: Thank you so much. It was so wonderful to talk with you. I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

    Announcer: Thank you for listening. For a link to Jennifer LeBlanc’s website where you can find more information about her debut book Descent, check out our show notes. We also have links to our podcast page which has our episode archive, transcripts, and show notes.