I’d like to welcome poet Jennifer Bullis. Jennifer, it’s such an honor to have you here for an interview. Thank you!
Please provide us with a short bio (up to you; say, 50 words or so?)
I grew up in Nevada and went to college and grad school in California. After that, seeking green landscapes, my husband and I found our way to Western Washington. I taught composition and literature at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham for 15 years, resigning three years ago to raise our son and write.
What does it mean to participate in National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo)? What is its significance for you?
Participating in NaPoWriMo was a decision I made completely on impulse! After a difficult beginning to April, during which I was out of town dealing with a health crisis in my family, I jumped into NaPoWriMo a week late in order to focus my attention on something positive and creative.
Going into it, I didn’t even give myself time to think about what its significances might be; it just sounded like a fun challenge to write and post a new poem daily. But several benefits became evident within the first week: my writing muscles were being energetically exercised; other participants were making warmly supportive comments on my poems, and I loved reading the poems that other participants were coming up with. By the end of the month, I was enjoying a marvelous sense of community with them. It was a privilege to connect with these poets (and other artists, writers, and lovers of poetry) through such a positive project.
Did you use prompts? Did you use one or more prompters?
I used prompts, or prompts that I modified or adapted, for nearly all my poems. I began by using Maureen Thorson’s, and soon discovered even more, created by Robert Lee Brewer, Danielle Mitchell at Litnivorous here, and Rachel McKibbens. I really enjoy using prompts as poem-starters because they take me in directions I wouldn’t think to go on my own.
What was your favorite prompt?
It’s hard to pick a single favorite, but one of them was Rachel McKibbens’s Writing Exercise #60 here. It asks the writer to list responses to two separate lists of questions and then to merge those responses into a dialogue poem. The resulting non-sequiturs are funny, surprising, and often moving.
Please describe your writing process.
I find I need friction among at least three initial elements in order to spark a poem. Those three things might include a sensory image, a topic, a quotation, a word, an emotion, and/or a persona or voice I want to use. I’ve learned to collect three of something to work with before I draft a poem; if I gather only one or two elements beforehand, I end up trying to muscle the poem into action instead of allowing it to travel under its own power, and I’m rarely happy with the result. But once I do have those three things assembled, an energy forms among them; the poem seems to write itself, and I just get to play along. This is why prompts are so useful to me: they provide at least one or two of those elements, or ideas for identifying those elements. I appreciated them during NaPoWriMo especially, when a new deadline loomed every 24 hours!
What are your plans for your NaPoWriMo 2012 poems?
I’m still working on plans for those poems. I probably won’t submit them to journals, since most won’t take previously published work, and increasingly, editorial policies state that posting a poem on one’s personal blog constitutes previous publication. However, a few poems I plan to re-write extensively, and in these cases, the ultimate revisions are likely to differ so much from the drafts I posted that they become, essentially, different poems—these I may decide to submit to journals.
Other of the poems I plan to plug into chapbook and book-length manuscripts I’ve been working on.
Will you share one of your poems with us?
Here’s one titled “Conversation with my Four-Year-Old” that I wrote in response to one of Rachel McKibbens’s prompts: here.
For more of her poems, here is Jennifer’s Poems page.
Will you participate in NaPoWriMo 2013? If so, will you do anything differently?
Now that I’ve experienced what it’s like to participate, I want to do it every year until the end of time. Next year, I’ll need to do a better job of carving out space in my schedule to write during the daytime instead of late at night. Now that NaPoWriMo is a commitment I intend to plan for, instead of jumping into impulsively, I’ll be able to make arrangements in advance for child care, so that I’ll be able to keep up while my son is home during lengthy school breaks in April. In addition, I’m considering holding myself to a schedule of writing a poem every day-and-a-half, instead of daily, to allow myself more time to savor and respond to the work that other poets are posting, since this was one of the most enjoyable aspects, for me, of participating.
Please share your favorite advice for writers:
From another person
Bellingham poet Luci Shaw once told me, “Jennifer, you write your best poems with your hiking boots on.” So true! Going for a long walk clears my mind of everything but the ingredients for what I’m going to write next.
I’ll add a corollary to Andrew’s advice to write every day. Starting about twelve years ago, when I began to think of myself as a poet, I did journal daily, or nearly so, following Julia Cameron’s advice in her wonderful book The Artist’s Way. But several times, because of the demands of my teaching job, and especially six years ago, when my son was born, I was forced to set all my writing aside, sometimes for long stretches. When this happened, I was terrified that I’d never be able to write another poem again. But my fear never came true; I went back to writing every time, and more productively in each instance. For anyone else having to stop and start your commitment to writing, please know that it will come back to you; it will be there for you when you are able to return to it. All you need to do is pick up your pen or sit down at your keyboard. Lay down some words, and you are a writer again.
Please share what you can and are willing to about your current project(s).
I have a full-length manuscript tentatively titled “About the Food Chain, and Other Pointed Questions for the Deities” busily gathering rejection slips from first-book competitions. As well, I’m circulating chapbook manuscripts variously titled “Post-,” “Having It Out with Abraham,” “Winnie Obeys the Fifth Commandment,” and “Myths of Origin, Falling Away.” From time to time, one of the chapbook manuscripts makes it to a semifinal round somewhere, which only eggs me on.
Did your participation in NaPoWriMo help you with your projects, directly or indirectly?
Participating in NaPoWriMo resulted in several new poems for these projects. Already, I’ve begun pulling weaker pieces out of my manuscripts and replacing them with new ones that are stronger or in some way better-suited.
Indirectly, the joy of becoming part of an online network of NaPoWriMo poets helped me see these projects as a little bit less important to me than they were before, which I think is healthy. It’s been thrilling to have people actually tell me they read and enjoyed the poems I posted. Their enthusiasm has been terrifically motivating.
Any last comments?
Thanks, Andrew, for giving me this opportunity to share reflections on a great experience.
Thank you Jennifer, this has been great!