Jennifer Habel is the author of Good Reason, winner of the 2011 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition, and In the Little House, winner of the 2008 Copperdome Chapbook Prize. Her poems have appeared in The Believer, Blackbird, Gulf Coast, LIT, The Massachusetts Review, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere. She is the coordinator of creative writing at the University of Cincinnati. We published some of her work in our Winter 2017 issue, with more forthcoming in the Spring issue; she also agreed to talk with us here about centos, getting permission to write, and the miniature.
SR: Tell us about your centos. How does your process differ from your usual mode when you’re working on one? Do you collect scraps of text that strike you in some way, and construct a poem when you have a significant pool of material to pull from, or do you set out to write a cento on a particular subject and then go in search of fitting language?
Habel: Most of the centos I’ve written have been the result of my encountering a text, or a group of related texts, with which I want to engage in some way. I collect passages, either in a notebook or a Word document. I don’t have a subject in mind, although one of my centos in the Sewanee Review (“J Is for Judgment,” forthcoming in the Spring issue), grew out of my focus on the repeated appearance of a particular word in a girl’s diary. Repetition of her use of that word—“Father”—was the engine or organizing principle of that poem. In terms of how the process differs from my usual mode, at a certain point writing a cento feels (to me) somewhat like trying to solve a puzzle. I have a large, though finite, collection of pieces from which I will or will not be able to construct something that I find satisfying. Often I have to leave out some of my favorite “pieces,” sometimes the ones that made me want to try the cento in the first place. I wish, for example, I could have included some portion of this statement from the girl’s diary that I mentioned: “36, a lovely number. I like it so much. I don’t really know why, but when I hear anyone say that number it sounds to me like a squirrel jumping about in the wood.”
SR: “P Is for Permission,” a cento of yours from our Winter issue, highlights commonalities between some very different writers. What was your process like, and was it in any way distinct from your other centos (for instance “P Is for Pedestal” or “J Is for Judgment,” both forthcoming in our Spring issue)?
Habel: I’d written several failed centos that were each composed of statements culled from a single Paris Review interview with a female writer. In each case I was attracted to the writer’s wonderfully distinct voice. I don’t recall making the leap to collaging their voices, but I know I experienced some of their statements as overlapping, almost as though before Joy Williams finished saying, “Who was I, anyway? What was I supposed to do?,” Ann Beattie started saying, “If anything, I just thought I was not an unusual person, and in retrospect, I wasn’t.” Putting the quotes in text boxes was my attempt to visually represent that sensation.
SR: Was there a moment when you, too, received “permission” to write?
Habel: There was. I’ve had multiple such moments, but the first—and I think the most important—was during a conference with one of my college English professors, Dillon Johnston. He required his seminar students to meet with him to discuss their final papers, and during our obligatory conference he asked me if I wrote poetry. The significance of that moment was located in my shock that Dr. Johnston saw me as someone who might do so. That was not at all how I saw myself, even though I did (secretly) write poems. Dr. Johnston asked me if he could see some of my poems, and I agreed. When we subsequently met to talk about the ones I’d shown him, he paid me the compliment of not pretending the poems were good. He’d written, “Show, don’t tell” on one of them—I can still see the phrase in his handwriting.
SR: The visual elements of “P Is for Permission” and “P Is for Pedestal” are playful, but certainly much more than gimmicks. What challenges did the concrete aspects of these poems bring to their composition?
Habel: In both cases, the visual element of the poem came fairly late in the writing process, and in both cases it was the key to my being able to finish the poem. The idea of using text boxes in “P Is for Permission” came after several more traditional-looking drafts. The idea of the pedestal shape of “P Is for Pedestal” (which in draft form was called “W Is for White”) came from a quote from Suzanne Farrell that I’d had in mind for some time: “That Balanchine spent his life building pedestals for his ballerinas to stand on is no secret, and although some might protest the position as one of inequality, no one who has been there has ever complained.” Once I thought of trying to write the poem in the shape of a pedestal, I was able to do so quickly. Which was fun.
SR: One of the things that interests me about your work is the apparent linkage between small, seemingly inconsequential objects and enormously complicated relationships: married lovers, mentors and their students, parents and children. (The mother in “M Is for Mouse” keeps a box of her children’s baby teeth, while the purse Jane carries in “S Is for Shame” contains a litany of little, useful things: “Matches, bottle opener, tweezers, ibuprofen. / Nail file, bug spray, chapstick, sunblock.”) Could you talk a bit about this connection between the domestic and the miniature?
Habel: “Father is big. Mother is little.” So says one of the Dick and Jane readers. Probably many of them do. I’ve been aware of a preoccupation with the concept of “littleness” in my writing in recent years, particularly as it relates to gender, but had not noticed the preponderance of little objects of the sort you mention. Thank you for showing me that. In answer to your question, I’m thinking about how a house that comes to house a small child fills up with small things—at least mine did. So did my mind. I’m also thinking about how when my husband and I do domestic chores, he typically does ones that are large in size while I do small ones. He cuts down branches while I weed; he assembles a piece of furniture from Ikea while I clean out a drawer. This can feel comical. Nevertheless, after an hour of yard work, he has a big pile to show for himself, and I have a little one. Lastly, I am thinking about the poignancy of certain small domestic artifacts, a box of baby teeth, tiny vases my daughters inherited from my grandmother, or, going back in time, the needlepoint samplers that girls were taught to make.
SR: I’d also love to hear more about the alphabet-title conceit; “G Is for Genius,” “S Is for Shame,” and so on. Are you working through the entire alphabet?
Habel: I am hoping that my alphabet-titled poems are going to coexist in a book with poems that are titled in a different manner, ones that I am writing concurrently. That hope enables me to think that I won’t need to work through the entire alphabet and that I don’t need to worry about doubling up on certain letters. I of course fear that the opposite will prove true.