Photo by Dianne Bond (adjusted to fit media space)
The Peauxdunque Review and the Words and Music Writers Conference are pleased that Beth Ann Fennelly has agreed to judge the 2020 Poetry category of the Words and Music Writing Competition. Nordette Adams, Poetry Editor of the Peauxdunque Review, had a chance to catch up with Beth Ann to interview her about her own writing.
Nordette Adams: Often poets, especially those who are just beginning to think about craft, have trouble determining where to end a poem. Sometimes readers observe that the poet ended the poem before the poem was done. At other times readers perceive that the poet extended the poem a line or strophe too far. How do you know when one of your own poems is done? How often have you had to kill your darlings in revision?
Beth Ann Fennelly: Someone once said, “A poem is never done—it’s abandoned.” I do think it’s sometimes hard to know when a poem is done. I’m a huge reviser and sometimes can take it too far. When I was a younger writer, I didn’t enjoy it as much, especially cutting—I guess my words seemed so unbearably precious that I couldn’t imagine hitting DELETE. But now I like nothing better than cutting. If a piece is good at 500 words, could it be better at 400? Could it be great at 300? It’s not always the case that a shorter piece is improved. But it usually is.
N.A.: I enjoyed watching your interview with Marshall Ramsey, which focused in part on your collection of micro memoirs, Heating and Cooling. I discovered that you’ve written songs. After reading a few of your bios, including one at the Poetry Foundation, I concluded that you are truly a multi-genre writer. You write not only poetry and songs, but also fiction, creative nonfiction, travel articles, and academic essays. Does your approach to a piece of writing change based on the genre? Which genre draws you most?
B.A.F.: To be honest, I never intended to be a writer who works in multiple genres. All I ever wanted was to be a poet. But I found, increasingly, I was cheating on poetry; I started a love affair with the sentence, digging the possibilities it provides for a wider canvas that allows for a more complex narrative. I guess basically I’m greedy; I kept wondering how a story would be different told in someone else’s medium. Right now I’m just enjoying how much I’m learning in prose. I don’t think I’ll go back to poetry for a bit.
N.A.: Reading your poems, I hear sonic echo, see attention to line breaks, allusion to other literary works, figurative language, and other earmarks of poetic craft. For instance, your use of repetition is powerful in “We’d Been Drinking Champagne When I Found It” from your book Unmentionables: Poems. Cleary, you’ve read and studied. So, I wasn’t surprised to see that you won a Fulbright to study Elizabeth Bishop’s work. Did you have a revelation about your own work while studying Bishop’s work, and how has studying her work influenced your poetry?
B.A.F.: Bishop is such a careful, reserved writer. I have learned restraint from her. Also, she was a painter, and her painterly precision delights me. Sometimes she’s verging on too restrained—and then she says something off-the-wall. I love her.
N.A.: What advice do you have for new poets?
B.A.F.: Read your poem aloud, to yourself, and read it very slowly! And memorize and recite your favorite poems—even just recite them to yourself. Let the sound teach you how to feel about the sense, for a great poem comes with built in instructions that educate our emotions.
Beth Ann Fennelly, the poet laureate of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi, where she was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. She’s won grants from the N.E.A., United States Artists, and a Fulbright to Brazil. Her sixth book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-memoirs (W. W. Norton) was an Atlanta Journal Constitution Best Book of 2018.