Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with
The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: Your piece “Heat Wave” has a unique tone of voice, rather sassy in places (“you-think-it’s-hot-out-here-you-should-try-my-damn-place”), and serious in others (“feel thick as butter / and a taste like a memory –”). Did you have a certain plan for this tone from the beginning, or did the tone develop as you were writing?
Jennifer Highland: The voice kind of created itself in response to the subject, but once it emerged I tweaked it during the revision process to better match the various moods of the city that had moved me to write the piece—from sass and grit to a certain nostalgia.
RR: “Insulators” has a strict form in regards to the last words of each line. Was it difficult to work in villanelle form? How would you say it affected how the language in the beginning and middle of the lines was written?
JH: I wrote “The Insulators” on the heels of a long run of sonnets, so I was practically breathing in iambic pentameter, and had been in a rhyming mindset for a while—it seems like those things really get easier with practice. So I was primed for a villanelle, and ready for a change of form. Writing formal poetry is a bit like working out a puzzle, and I enjoy the challenge of making all the pieces come together just right. The hardest part for me is not to let it get too formal-sounding, to let the language fall as naturally as possible. Yet I also like to celebrate the structure, and I think a little bit of formality can be appropriate to this sort of poem, so the tone tends to be somewhat different than in some of my free verse.
RR: Do you draw from personal experience in your poetry, or do you work primarily from the experiences of those you observe?
JH: The majority of my poetry is based on my own experiences. I wrote Heat Wave while I was finishing my medical residency in the Bronx. I usually walked home from work, and I always enjoyed the air, the smells, and the vitality out on the streets after being in a stark, air-conditioned hospital all day. The Insulators draws on various building projects that my husband and I have done together over the years. (In New Hampshire, heat and insulation are subjects dear to our hearts.)
RR: What books or collections are you reading right now?
JH: I recently attended a poetry reading by Jill McDonough, and have been enjoying her books Where You Live and Habeas Corpus. I have also been revisiting Elizabeth Bishop’sQuestions of Travel
RR: Tell us about your writing process. For example, do : Do you prefer pen to paper, using a laptop, an iPhone?
JH: I am definitely a pen-and-paper poet. All my drafts start in a series of spiral notebooks, usually written while I’m curled up on the sofa. And actually a fair amount of writing takes place in my head, especially while I’m walking to work in the morning over three miles of back roads. Walking seems to help my mind move. I rarely stop to jot things down—just repeat the lines a few times to myself and remember until I get to the office, or work them over again on the way home. The repetition gives me a chance to revise as I go, so I tend not to go through a lot of drafts—the editing happens word by word and line by line as I’m composing.
Jennifer Highland’s work in Issue 3.3: