Poetry Contest Entry Essentials: What This Year's Judge Likes About the Genre

Interview by 
Nav Nagra

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Jen Currin has lived in East Van for thirteen years. She rides her bike nearly everywhere and has gotten better at growing vegetables in her community garden plot. Jen teaches writing and literature at Vancouver Community College and Kwantlen Polytechnic University. She has published four books of poetry, including The Inquisition Yours, which was a finalist for three awards and won the Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry in 2011; and School (Coach House, 2014), which is currently a finalist for the Pat Lowther Poetry Award and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Jen is currently at work on a book of short stories.

ROOM: Your poetry is both abstract and intimate. Are you conscious of this pairing as your write or is it a kind of happy accident?

JC: I don't think of my poetry as abstract—for me, so much of it is grounded in the tangible, physical world. By abstract, do you mean the spiritual content?

ROOM: By abstract I was talking about the spiritual content in a way as when it melds with your amazing imagery it comes off as both vivid and just beyond the fingertips (in a good way).

JC: I like how you put that—"just beyond the fingertips." It can be difficult to write about less-than-tangible things like spirits, energy, intuition, etcetera; yet, for me, these things are just as "real" as the computer I am typing this on and the coffee cup next to it. The challenge, I guess, in writing about such intangibles is to lend them tangible qualities—via imagery, dialogue, etcetera—so a reader can connect. I'm honestly not sure if I do this in my writing and if I do it, how. I was aware in writing School that I was allowing myself to use more abstract words than I ever had before. The ideas of the book seemed to need this approach.

ROOM: I found your poetry to be rich with imagery. What are your inspirations and influences in writing such rich poetry?

JC: Every experience I've ever had, every book I've ever read, every reading I've ever attended, every person I've ever met…the range of influence and inspiration is too huge to document. I am very inspired by the people in my life, by what I read, by what I experience…I find inspiration while weeding my garden or kicking a ball with my nephew or laughing with my lover or dancing in my kitchen or reading Kathleen Fraser or Wayde Compton or Raoul Fernandes or Jamaica Kincaid or Sommer Browning…(just a few great writers I've read recently).

ROOM: Is poetry your favourite genre to write?

JC: Poetry is my first love, genre-wise, but I also love writing short fiction and dabble in playwriting. Each genre has its pleasures and its difficulties. I appreciate that sometimes I can write a poem in one day. This could never happen with a story or a play. But I love the deeper engagement with plot and character that narrative offers. The characters talk to me for months. Revisions are endless. It's hard work—but there's a real pleasure there too.

ROOM: What do you like most about the genre of poetry?

JC: I find this question as difficult to answer as the question about influence! Hmmm…voice, immediacy, imagery, sound/music. I love that you can read a poem on the bus and have an intense experience in two or three or five minutes. Poems can go so deep so quickly. It seems to me no other genre can do this—even flash fiction takes more words to get to a place of transformation; a poem can transport you in just three or two lines (a stunning couplet, a haiku…).

ROOM: What is your writing process?

JC: It depends on what genre I am working in, and what sort of form. In writing poetry, I often use a collage method (although my form poems are often generated differently). With stories and plays, I let the character lead me to the story. I listen to them and take a lot of notes. Plot, or "what happens," usually emerges from what a character or characters tell me about their situation(s)…

ROOM: What is your next project?

JC: I am currently working on a collection of short stories entitled Hider/Seeker, to be finished this summer.

ROOM: You are Room Magazine's Poetry Judge for 2015, have you judged any other contests before and what do you like most in reading submissions from a myriad of different poets?

JC: I've judged contests for Prism and Pandora's Collective, and I've also been a reader for the CBC Literary Prize in poetry. It's always interesting to touch the pulse of poetry in a given country or city…the sheer variety of work being produced always astounds me.

ROOM: What do you think is the most challenging thing about being a poet?

JC: Trying to explain to people why poetry is so important.

ROOM: Can you give any advice to writers trying to burst into poetry?

JC: Read, read, read; write, write, write; find a loving and supportive community; be quiet for part of every day; exercise; listen.

Nav Nagra is a member of the Growing Room Collective.

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