Jennifer Habel’s Iowa Poetry Prize-winning collection “The Book of Jane,” published by University of Iowa Press, is filled with arresting ideas, images and forms. Deeply invested in considering the lives, ambitions and options of women both past and present, “The Book of Jane” investigates, among much else, the roles men and women traditionally and stereotypically play in the artistic process. Habel skewers the worldview that men are artists and women are muses via the very act of writing these exceptional poems. The book’s final poem, “Matisse’s Great Granddaughter, Or Jane and the Long Way,” is a tour de force bringing the majority of the collection’s themes into even sharper relief even as “Jane” struggles to write anything at all about her subject.
Habel lives in Cincinnati and teaches at the University of Cincinnati. She answered questions about her work via email.
Q: I am always interested in the poet’s journey to poetry. When did poetry first become important to you — as a reader and as writer? What can you tell me about the process and experience of honing your craft over time?
A: Poetry first became important to me in college. I majored in English and found myself selecting more poetry courses than fiction ones. I also found myself writing poems surreptitiously. I went straight to graduate school from college, thinking I might get a Ph.D. and become a literature scholar, but decided to take a break after getting my (master of arts). I worked in restaurants and at a nonprofit, and planned to revise my thesis into a potentially publishable article. Instead I wrote poems and took a workshop at a local writers center.
Eventually it became clear to me, or I admitted to myself, that I wanted to see if I could be a writer. I applied to MFA programs in order to find out. I was lucky in where I landed — the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Their MFA program is supportive and community-minded, and while in it, in addition to learning a great deal, I gained the confidence I needed to make writing my central (professional) ambition.
Q: It is impossible to talk about “The Book of Jane” without talking about Jane. Tell me about her and how you see her. I’m also interested in her relationship (by proximity in the collection, but also thematically) to Mary of “Mary’s Year.” How do you think their aspirations or lived experiences speak to one another in the collection?
A: While writing the book, I thought of Jane as a type, as an example of a certain kind of woman. She is similar to me in a number of ways, but while writing about her I kept her at a distance — I didn’t think of her as a stand-in for me. Perhaps this was a mental trick that helped me write those poems.
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You might be interested to learn that it wasn’t until the book had been accepted for publication and I was making my final revisions of it that I decided to make Jane the author of the book’s long final poem. I had resisted making her a writer; I didn’t think of her as one; and it wasn’t until the very end of the process of writing about her that I realized that she was, that she was capable of it. Which I see now mirrors my own insecurities.
As far as Jane’s relationship to Mary, I would say that I think of them both as “ordinary” women living their lives, and that those lives are to a large extent determined by their responsibilities to other people. They exist inside of “we’s,” to quote the first poem in the book: “‘Where is ‘her’ / inside ‘we.’”
Q: These poems highlight again and again the ways in which woman are undervalued as individuals with agency and ambition and ideas of their own. The collection is unfailingly convicting on this point, and I found myself wondering how you think of your own work in relation to the traditions, expectations grounded in gender, and accepted mythologies of poets and poetry.
A: The mythologies I subscribed to about poets and poetry certainly contributed to my difficulty in realizing that I wanted to be a writer. Even now, after writing seriously for almost 25 years, I wonder if I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. If I am too ordinary, too “sane.” Perhaps not smart, passionate, or talented enough. I am married to a male writer, and over time I’ve noticed discrepancies in our levels of confidence and ambition, as well as in our abilities to focus on our writing in the midst of domestic responsibilities. In writing “The Book of Jane” I was investigating the role gender plays in these discrepancies and anxieties.
Q: I was struck by the various source materials that inform and inhabit these poems. What can you tell me about the artistic process involved in transforming research into poetry?
A: There are two types of research-based poems in my book, and the process of writing them is different. One type is largely written in my words and incorporates information and quotations from my reading. The second type is made up entirely of other people’s words. That type is more fun to write, because doing so resembles solving a puzzle of sorts. I have a finite set of sentences or phrases, and I work to see if I can make something satisfying out of them. Often I fail; I wrote quite a few of these collage-type poems that didn’t end up in the book. Both types of poems require a good deal of time to go by between research and writing. Formal experimentation also seems to be a key part of my process in both. In either case, I truly enjoy research and living with other people’s words.
Q: This particular moment in American is about justice and understanding history and more, and it seems to me that the themes of this collection resonate with those ideas. What do you think is the poet’s role in moments of upheaval and reinvention like the one in which we find ourselves?
A: That question has been on my mind, but I don’t have an answer for you. Something Jericho Brown tweeted a couple years ago resonates with me: “Toward the end of writing a book, you realize the thing you’ve obsessed over will be abandoning you: the two of you have figured one another out. You’ll have no organizing principle or major priority as a writer (read: certainty of identity) until the next obsession shows up.” My obsessions tend to “show up” and I’ve figured out what they are through the process of writing about them. I am now waiting to discover what I am obsessing over now that “The Book of Jane” is finished and in the world. Whether or not this passive approach is acceptable in a time like this is one of the things on my mind. I don’t know how to write otherwise, but I also know that my process reflects my privilege.
Q: What does winning the Iowa Poetry Prize mean to you?
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A: It means that in the coming years I am going to structure my life around writing with a lot less despair and self-loathing than I would have had I not been able to publish “The Book of Jane” with a press that I felt good about. I feel very lucky.