In July of 2019, Jennifer Habel spoke with managing and poetry editor Eric Smith about her then forthcoming collection The Book of Jane (2020), which won the 2019 Iowa Poetry prize, and about poems from the collection, a number of which debuted in the Review. Habel is the author of two other poetry collections, Good Reason (2012) and In the Little House (2009). Her work plays thoughtfully with stereotypes and gender roles, elevating female voice through close attention to the details of their lives and histories.
We last interviewed Habel in 2017 and were thrilled to talk to her about the relationship between women and their art, which can be, according to Habel, seen as “small and circumscribed” in its traditional forms. Habel speaks about how she finds inspiration in the history of the education practices of young women, and how she has recovered from forgotten annals that women “were making art anonymously . . . not thinking of it as art . . . not thinking of themselves as artists.” In her poetry, centos—which borrow text from diaries and letters by various women throughout history—and fable-like retellings of female experiences encourage a reexamination of the female artistic process.
Through this exploration of female artistry, the persona of Jane emerged as the poet’s proxy in the collection, but not without difficulty: “I think that one of the things I’ve realized is that it’s also about our definition of who an artist is. Who’s a writer? Who is a person making art? What do they look like? What does their life look like?” she says. “And the fact that I was having trouble even seeing [Jane] in that way is kind of remarkable to me given that, in some ways, she’s based on me.”
Habel will read from The Book of Jane alongside Lisa Ampleman, Aditi Machado, and Felicia Zamora on October 29 at a virtual reading event hosted by the Sewanee Writers Conference. Registration is available here.
The Sewanee Review Podcast is recorded in the Ralston Listening Room at the University of the South. It is produced by Hellen Wainaina and edited by Alex Martin with music by Annie Bowers. Don’t miss any of our conversations with some of today’s best writers. Subscribe to the Sewanee Review Podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. The Book of Jane is available for purchase from University of Iowa Press or Bookshop.org.