“Little, safe boxes that contain trauma and violence”: An Interview with Jehanne Dubrow

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Jehanne Dubrow’s latest collection of poems, The Arranged Marriage, tells a difficult and moving story about the poet’s mother and her early life. The narrative gradually comes into focus for the reader through a sequence of beautiful, haunting prose poems—narrow blocks of words the poet likens to “newspaper columns” that convey her “poetic reportage.” Jehanne is also the author of four previous books, including Red Army Red, Stateside, From the Fever-World and The Hardship Post, and co-editor of The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume. She is the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and an associate professor of creative writing at Washington College.

Matthew Thorburn: How did this book come to be? Did you conceive of it as a larger project from the outset, or did it come into focus as you were writing the poems?

Jehanne Dubrow: My mother has told me the stories that form The Arranged Marriage since I was a little girl: her exiled Jewish childhood in Honduras, her experience of being held hostage by a violent man, and her forced marriage in El Salvador which followed that trauma. These narratives are so much a part of me that The Arranged Marriage happened very organically. I wrote fifteen of the collection’s central poems in the first week and then spent the next two years building the rest of the book around those key texts.

MT: Did you find that the prose poem form offered advantages for you when creating this book? How did you decide that these would be predominantly prose poems?

JD: I came to think of these as my “newspaper column poems” and their narrative strategy a sort of poetic reportage. Received and fixed forms would call too much attention to themselves, and so I learned how to write my version of a prose poem—little, safe boxes that could contain trauma and violence.

MT: The Arranged Marriage is your fifth book, which suggests to me you’re a very disciplined writer. Do you have a specific writing routine or regimen you follow?

JD: I write every day. This can mean drafting or research, revision, editing. I try to have multiple manuscripts going simultaneously, in order to avoid boredom and writer’s block. I like to joke that I’m like a shark—my writing has to keep moving or it will die.

MT: What are you working on now?

JD: I’ve just finished Dots & Dashes, which functions as a sequel to my third poetry collection, Stateside. I’m working on a manuscript of poems about opera, Dinner with Kathleen Battle. And I am almost done with a book-length essay about the experience of falling in love with poetry and perfume, fromsmoke. Oh, and along with my colleague, Lindsay Lusby, I’m co-editing a new anthology, Still Life with Poem: 100 Natures Mortes in Verse (as a follow-up to The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems about Perfume).

MT: What have you read recently that moved you?

JD: Working on fromsmoke, I’ve been rereading a number of books by Elaine Scarry, who writes so gracefully about art and the magic it works on us. Her meditation on aesthetics in On Beauty and Being Just has served as a model for me, as I’ve attempted the challenge of writing about smells and smelling.

Read a few poems from The Arranged Marriage here, here and here.