Interview with Jehanne Dubrow about The Arranged Marriage
Today I’m interviewing Jehanne Dubrow, Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, Associate Professor of creative writing at Washington College, and editor of the new (terrific!) journal Cherry Tree. I’m asking her a few question about balancing her roles and writing life, her new book, and what it’s like to have her fifth poetry book, The Arranged Marriage, come out!
BIO: Jehanne Dubrow is the author of five poetry collections, including most recently The Arranged Marriage (U of New Mexico P, 2015), Red Army Red (Northwestern UP, 2012), and Stateside (Northwestern UP, 2010). Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, The New England Review, Prairie Schooner, and Hudson Review. She is the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and an Associate Professor of creative writing at Washington College, where she edits the national literary journal, Cherry Tree. Her web site is: http://jehannedubrow.com
Jehanne Dubrow’s newest book, The Arranged Marriage, is a complicated book full of insightful, lyrical descriptions of the shadow side of family, with a dark background buzz of the conflicts of politics and religion. It’s a book, really, about the brokenness of relationships, the damage that can be done by marriage, the costs of being a woman. It teases out the excruciating small sacrifices, the tiny kindnesses, of a damaged partnership.
- As the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, an Associate Professor of creative writing at Washington College, the Series Editor of the Literary House Press and Founder and Editor of Cherry Tree: A National Literary Journal, well, you seem to be wearing a lot of hats! Do you have a favorite part? How do the different parts of your work inform your poetry, and how to they affect the way you send to publishers or editors (if it does?)
JD: One of the things I appreciate about my hybrid position (part faculty member, part administrator) is that I get to do all of the things I love: teach, program literary events, mentor students, edit, and dream big. My writing informs my teaching, teaching my work as an arts administrator, art administration my vision as an editor. In the classroom, reading recent poetry and nonfiction collections with my students, I’ve been able to reflect on my manuscripts-in-progress, to think about where my work fits in the literary conversation and which presses might be advocates for my writing. Overseeing the Literary House’s semesters of themed programming and Summer Poetry Salon Series, I have come to understand just how important it is to be a good citizen in our community, not to mention how meaningful it is for students to interact with gifted writers. Editing Cherry Tree and the books that the Literary House Press produces, I’ve built relationships with writers across the country and have learned so much about craft from handling unpublished poems, short, stories, and essays.
- Your latest book, The Arranged Marriage, is number 5 (!!) for you! How are you approaching your book launch year differently this time around? What do you think you’ve learned from your previous book launches about promoting poetry?
JD: With each collection, I have come to appreciate more and more that marketing a poetry book is all about making personal connections and about identifying one’s ideal readers. My wonderful mother serves as my “mom-ager”; she’s fearless when it comes to reaching out to colleges and universities, potential venues for events, writers’ conferences, and festivals. Before the publication of a book, my mother and I discuss possible audiences, publicizing the book appropriately. So, for instance, The Arranged Marriage is a book that might appeal to those interested in Women Studies, American Jewish literature, Central America, prose poetry, or contemporary poetry in general.
- Speaking of your new book, I thought one line (related to the title) really revealed the heart of the book: The first line from “Set Jerusalem Above My Highest Joy—Psalm 137”“Every marriage is arranged to be /broken.” Can you discuss?
JD: The Arranged Marriage explores different forms of forced intimacy. Yes, the book considers an actual arranged marriage, but it also examines how even those relationships entered into consensually can be shattered, how they can wound us. There’s also a terrible moment of trauma at the heart of The Arranged Marriage. When my mother was a young woman, she was held hostage at knifepoint by a man who had escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane. Writing The Arranged Marriage, I came to understand that this moment of violence was a kind of arrangement of the fates, a closeness that could have broken my mother if she hadn’t been so strong.
- Many of your books deal with conflicts of a different, more global nature (the stresses of life in the military, childhood in a Communist-controlled nation, etc.) and this one feels more intimate, more personal. I was thinking of it as a director narrowing the focus of her camera. How different/difficult was it to write this particular book? How has it been giving readings? I saw in your study guide that you interviewed your mother for this book; was that a difficult/rewarding process?
JD: The Arranged Marriage is based on two years’ worth of interviews with my mother. Occasionally, the collection felt as if it wrote itself. Even before I spent time interviewing my mother in a formal context, I already knew these stories well. Reading publicly from this book has been very intense; the collection is dark, in some cases terrifying, and audience members tend to react quite forcefully to the edge-of-the-seat tension of many of these poems. If my mother is in the audience, people often want to speak with her about the book, tell her how brave she is, or ask what it feels like to the subject of a collection of poetry. Throughout the process of drafting and promoting The Arranged Marriage, it has been important to me that she feels comfortable. Her story is hers. The book is something separate—it’s my translation of her narrative.
- OK, a little switch from content to form. I know you’ve written prose poems in the past, but this book’s poems all match in terms of form – a prose poem in a narrow column. Was this to signal journalistic reporting? What was the significance of this form for you?
JD: Yes! I thought of these poems as a form of reportage. They’re still lyrical, compressed narratives, but the voice I use is detached, the point of view often third-person. I wanted to find a way to narrate my mother’s experiences from a distance, so that I could speak more clinically about trauma and so that I could explore the ways in which trauma itself often forces those in pain to disengage, to separate emotions from the body and the self.
Thanks to Jehanne for this thoughtful interview!