CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH JENNIFER SCHOMBURG KANKE
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Church of the Unnamed Subdivision” incorporates quite a bit of religious imagery and iconography. Do these themes have personal significance?
Jennifer Schomburg Kanke: I have a chapbook I’ve been submitting to presses that shares its title with the title of this poem. It reimagines a lot of the people from my childhood as saints or other religious figures. In my neighborhood, we were all looking for salvation. Some found it in religion, some in sex, some in shopping. But it’s all that same drive of pain and dissatisfaction. What will soothe me? What can make things suck a little less?
My immediate family never offered much in the way of solace or safety, but my father’s family did and their Christian faith played a big part in their lives. I had an uncle who was what they called a charismatic, evangelic preacher. He’d go into the backs of other people’s churches, wait for the spirit to move him, and then he’d interrupt the preacher’s sermon with his own. My father was raised in the Church of Christ, so most everyone else was a bit more sedate than my uncle. But they lived two hours away from me, so I’d sort of piecemeal my own salvation by hitching rides with other kids to their churches or going to programs at the church that was in my neighborhood. My mother’s family was Catholic and so I picked up a bunch of old religious tracts and catechisms from them, so I did a lot of reading without context and guidance. As I’ve grown, it’s been a challenging process to be able to look at those experiences and see all that they gave me that was wonderful, but also all that they gave me that really messed me up when I was already pretty messed up to start with.
RR: The poem explores the interaction of faith and childhood in a honest and engaging manner. What was your inspiration for combining these topics?
JSK: We recently KonMari-ed our house and one of the things I ended up having to go through was a box of old letters I had sent to my aunt. I can’t remember why she had given them to me, but it was a really unique experience of having both the letters she had sent me and the letters I had sent her. Reading all the letters brought back into the forefront of my consciousness how much faith I had put in organized religion to help save me when I was younger, but also how oddly scattershot I was about the whole thing since I didn’t have anyone taking me to church on a regular basis. My faith is still incredibly important to me, it just looks a bit different from what it did back then. My aunt would probably hate to hear me say this, but I really feel it when Lucille Clifton, in “the meeting after the savior gone” says “what we decided is/you save your own self.”
RR: You strike an interesting balance between harsh and sweet detail, leading to a nuanced depiction of both childhood and familial issues. What was your process of developing a child’s story?
JSK: William Wordsworth said that poetry is “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” and it would be easy to say that my process was to just sit down and remember what these particular aspects of my childhood were like and BOOM the poem appeared on the page. It’d be easy, but it’d be a lie. And the only way poetry works is if it’s honest. Sitting with our experiences and letting ourselves fully remember the details of our lives is a way to get past clichés and abstractions. It hasn’t been easy for me to be honest about my life because I think sometimes the details of my life don’t make sense to other people. I’ve been trying for years to write a poem about how my family was never on public assistance when I was a kid because navigating the system was just too stressful for my mom and it was easier to just figure out how to stretch a dollar than to convince someone else to give you one. And people in workshops would say “oh, because she was too proud?” No, when I say the logistical system surrounding public assistance is complex and labyrinthine, that’s got nothing to do with pride and everything to do with red tape and patience. So those kinds of experience really stopped me from writing about my childhood for many years. I’d write about my marriage and about nature, but never about what it really felt like to be that little moldable me that helped shape this adult version of me. So, I guess the shorter answer to your question is that my process of developing a child’s story was to sit down to write and whenever I heard those voices from my workshop days to try to replace it with a louder voice saying, “Fuck ‘em, what really happened? Just tell them what happened.”
RR: Your poems feel very direct in their narration and flow. What draws you to poetry over other genres?
JSK: I think what draws me to poetry is its ability to compress an entire lifetime into a single word. And with any luck, it’s the right word. When I was first trying to write fiction, I was having so much trouble. I’d get two sentences on the page and then hit a brick wall. Finally, the professor, Joan Connor said, “If you want to write fiction, you’re going to have to learn to let yourself write a bad sentence. Maybe even a bad paragraph.” This made me love poetry even more because there’s something beautiful about the kind of diamond-forming pressure you get there that you don’t get anywhere else.
I think the narrative flow is something that I honed during my graduate programs. I worked with Mark Halliday and J. Allyn Rosser in one program (and also worked with Mark during my undergrad) and then David Kirby and Barbara Hamby in another. They all emphasized clarity and accessibility. I think I leaned a little too hard into the ultra-talk style when I was in school and have been trying to feel my way out of it since graduating in 2015. Most of the other poems in the chapbook are tight little lyrical sonnets, but that time spent focused on the narrative has given me more tools to work with and allows me to make better choices with my work. Which poems and where in those poems is it important for me to be 100% clear and where do I have some wiggle room? Where can I make no narrative sense at all but still be connecting with an audience? I do wish someone would have told me to read to poets like Jack Agüeros back then though. He has a beautiful way of inviting readers from outside his own background into his experiences in a narratively and emotionally clear way without giving up lyricism and shorter poems. There really are so many fabulous poets in the world that it’s hard to keep up, so I’m just glad that I’m finally reading him now.
RR: You mentioned in your bio that you are currently a reader for Emrys and have previously edited for Pleiades. How has working at literary journals influenced your own writing?
JSK: I don’t know if it’s had an effect on the writing itself, but definitely on the way I feel about my submissions and the business side of writing. Working on a journal really helps you see the amount of chance that goes into the whole thing. When I was serving as the reviews editor for Pleiades, I once heard someone say that you should never give a book a bad review because “the silence speaks volumes,” that a lack of reviews would let readers know it wasn’t a book worth reading. But as a reviews editor I realized that a book not being heavily reviewed could mean anything from the press’s publicist having a family emergency when review copies should have been sent out to reviewers only wanting to review books by famous writers or their friends. Sometimes a lack of reviews could mean a bad book, but more often it meant something completely different and that something was usually out of the author’s control.
As a reader for Emrys and back when I was the poetry editor for the Southeast Review, that element of chance was even more apparent. Sometimes we’d have two equally amazing poems, but one needed one page and the other needed two. And you’d think that would mean we’d take the one page, but sometimes we were trying to get a number divisible by four for the printers and would need the two pager over the one pager. Or maybe we’d have too many similar poems picked out for the same issue or we were trying to build a theme and one fit better with it than another. All great poems, but these layers of chance play a huge part in the publication process. Before working with journals I never realized that and it helps me remember not take rejection as personally. I mean, I still take it personally for a few minutes, but I get over it quicker because I can think back to what the decision-making process is like and how much is completely out of the writer’s control. It’s comforting and frustrating, but mainly comforting.
Jennifer Schomburg Kanke’s work in Issue 6.2: