Interview with Jenn Givhan by Brenda Mann Hammack and Lynzee Alarcon


BMH and LA:

A number of the poems in your collections concern themselves with the body’s mutability and intractability. In “The Change” from Girl with Death Mask, an adolescent girl begins to sprout antlers. In another poem from the same volume, a woman lays eggs, which she ritualistically checks for signs of fertility. And in “Reabsorption Elegy,” which appeared in Glint, issue 5, the body both gives and takes away, regardless of a new mother’s desire to continue breastfeeding.

“Look what the body can do,” she wonders. “It can lie I can lie too I’m choosing this / The truth can wrap itself in cabbage leaves.”

Sometimes, the mind’s magic allows us to compensate for the body’s determined realism. But your poetry reminds us that the body often works its own alchemy, albeit with the perversity of wish-granting in fairy tale. The mind attempts to control and determine, to set limits on its changeability. Milk and blood may or may not respond to summoning.

Given that you have taught a number of workshops, influenced by magical realism, via Poetry Barn, we wondered if you might comment on the ways in which mind and body collaborate when you conjure poetry. How do prepare yourself to transmute lead (depression, suffering) into spirit gold?


When I was a little girl I used to eat rocks. I think of this today, a below-frozen day in the Albuquerque desert, staring at the plants on the windowsill I’m trying to keep alive and almost failing and pondering this insightful line of magical questioning—the main engine of my poems, converting pain to magic.

When I was deep in the mire of a postpartum depression/psychosis episode—exhuming girlhood trauma I’d long buried that had only begun to rise to the surface when my daughter began sprouting from an infant to a more recognizable little girl shape—I turned to quantum physics and stage magic searching for places where real magic could be located. Magical realism, we call it, the magic woven into the ordinary of our existence. The strange happenings and déjà-vus and glimmers of signs we experience. Where I clung to hope that I would revive, would awaken from the nightmare cage my hormones and neurons misfiring had fashioned for me and by extension my children if I didn’t pull through.

And it’s been there, in the nightmare cage, that the threads of hope began weaving together—hope meaning black holes blooming backward into new universes and trap doors leading from the underwater milk jug to a kitchen table of the past where I could begin, anew. Hope meaning a circus in the desert created where an atomic bomb had left its green glass scars. As a girl I ate rocks, one bead of sand at a time, believing my whole belly filled to the brim with what would hold me to this world. If I became heavy enough, I couldn’t float away into the ether, the protective wings that flew me upward and away from the traumatic events of home, or the stirrings of mental illness.

I suppose this, for me, is the transmutation: The rocks are the lead that hold me here, and the spirit gold is whatever I believe the stuff to be. I cannot always change the world I live in, but I can change the me who lives in it. And whenever I squint my eyes, there are the ghosts, who’ve come from me, who are me, who’ve come to save me. When a poem begins to form, it begins in the rocks. In the belly. Where it hurts. Where it pins me down. And then I remember, I am tied to something solid. And begin to float. And there the poem goes . . . unravelling.




BHM and LA:

Frida Kahlo frequently appears as a muse or sister spirit in your work. In some poems, you seem to be intuitively connecting with the artist. Others suggest that you have conducted research that allows you to recognize scholarly misapprehensions of the relationship between Kahlo’s life and work.

When Frida pays a visit in Landscape with Headless Mama, the artist admonishes the speaker to “Paint your damn self, chica.” In “Half Mexican,” you seem to be considering your right to explore this affinity, observing the inauthenticity of storytelling (“I’m not even telling you my story.”). And, at the beginning of the titular and most unusually formatted poem in Girl with Death Mask, you describe a wall decked with Frida iconography. Around the main body of the poem, smaller units of text appear in little boxes or frames. These passages reminiscent of Frida’s fondness for retablos, those painted expressions of gratitude for saintly intervention.

How has this sister spirit changed during the time you have known her? Do you expect her to continue to manifest in your work?


Hardly anyone knows this, and it’s been a bit embarrassing to admit, but when I first encountered Frida as a younger girl, I judged her, really harshly criticized her. I’d grown up in a restrictively religious home, and was taught to believe all kinds of untruths about others’ beliefs. And when I first encountered Frida, I thought, Do you have to flash your pain so unabashedly? Do you have to flash all that blood? For a few weeks, she unsettled me. Of course, this initial reaction is akin to meeting your twin spirit and hating yourself so deeply, misrecognizing yourself so completely, that you project that onto your kindred. And then, Frida began speaking to me. Within months, I’d gone from wishing she’d put the blood back in its casings, or paste wings to her broken spine, to the faintest stirrings of what she’d teach me over the next twenty years. I hear her in my head, even now: Let them see, chica. Let them see what they’ve done. Let them see what you’ve done in return.

My mother was molested as a girl, and I grew up with an alcoholic father in an emotionally abusive home, and was molested by the neighbor at a very young age. All of this, her pain and mine, I carried within myself. She had taught me from a young age not to keep secrets, but when the secrets are sewn into your skin—it’s difficult to unstitch the seams. The church often taught me shame.

Frida taught me freedom.

She’s been my spirit guide, truly, and has taught me through her art that every reality I paint from my own vision is unstitching another repressive, shameful secret from not only my own psyche, but from my familial consciousness as well. I am unloading the burdens of my forebears and children; I am a link in the chain to autonomy, to choosing the directions our own lives take, released of the violence and trauma sewn/sown into our genes.

I laughed sardonically at the drug store the other day when I came upon a little plastic bin of “Frida” red nail polish, her picture commodified, plastered on all our consumerist detritus, all the Gringolandia garishness she despised. And yet, sometimes I wonder how insufficient my own understanding of her is—my Spanish so limited (my grandfather did not teach it to my mother during the 1960s and 70s; she was growing up when they were trying to assimilate to escape the ridicule and persecution rampant of Mexican-Americans then, as still now) and my own Gringolandia ways deeply entrenched in my American upbringing.

Frida and I share so much—art and physical pain, miscarrying blood in the bathwater. And I think of her as a mother figure—the confident, no-fregadas-to-give mother I wish mine could have been. Still, I believe I have much to learn from her.





BHM and LA:

In “3 Card Spread    What Is True     What Isn’t True     Advice,” the desire for sex gets conflated with the pain of violation. The word “trauma” appears as subtitle to the first section of this poem. Its language might be described as direct, crude, eviscerating.

Reading your poems on rape and mutilation, some readers may recall Frida Kahlo’s “A Few Small Nips,” in which a man with a blade pauses over a woman’s gouged corpse. Reading your poems on miscarriage, I think of her “Henry Ford Hospital,” in which a stillborn infant remains tethered to his mother’s body by a ribbon that resembles an umbilical cord.

A number of your poems deal with the unpleasant consequences of heterosexual relationships. What would you say to a young woman who is coming to her sexual awareness amid images of horror? What effect will the onslaught of #metoo accounts have on adolescents? Do you worry that girls will come to perceive themselves as eventual victims of #youtoo episodes?

Can you speak to the need to scream, rage, testify on such difficult subjects?


I’ve often wondered at the relationship between horror and violence in art, and what good can be done in the world by showing it, flashing the blood as I’ve said of what Frida taught me, or gilding it in healing gold (as in Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted with powdered gold). The Handmaid’s Tale shows us the terrifying realities and potential for worsening if we do not change our ways, and certainly there is a place for dystopias. But what about new landscapes where hope is not just a distant light, but a reality already spoken into being. I’ve read studies that what we speak is what we create. Our thoughts, our words—they have power. Already our media as well as our literature is saturated with violence. Several years back I wondered at our “best” picture of the year, No Country for Old Men—when savagery and indifference win the day, when light is snuffed out, when violence wins the coinflip, what hope is left? And perhaps it’s gotten even grimmer in some ways, with MOTHER! as our representative fable, and we gather around watching the woman brutalized, her baby eaten.

Audre Lorde writes, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” And though perhaps I have not quite succeeded yet, every moment of writing, for me, is trying to find a new language, a new story, a new way of flashing the blood, standing up and proclaiming what has been done to me (and my family, my people, those girls and women who have been violated and brutalized) and yet to sing strength, resilience, renewal. Philosopher Julia Kristeva posits a semiotic chora that is prelinguistic, on the edge of language and verbalization, and has the capacity to rise out of culturally constructed space. She aligns it with a mother’s womb. And I think of this chora space as the landscape of my own writing and the #metoo stories I recount. Yes, we must tell our truths. But our truths are not limited by the violence. They did not begin in violence, and they will not end there. Violence may have been etched into our stories, but they do not define them or us.

And this is what I hope to convey to every reader, every girl/woman/femme who reads my work. The horror and dystopia are only one depiction of what we’ve undergone, our forebears, perhaps ourselves. But every poem or novel I write is meant as a guidebook for my daughter—a survival manual for how to stay the hell away from the dark forests I’ve traversed. And how, if the darkness does surround her, to fight back.

My mother couldn’t teach me these things, though she tried. She still too often finds herself in the mire. But I’m writing forward, speaking the past, healing the past, and paving a way for my daughter.

Knowledge is power. My mother couldn’t show me how to escape, but she told me what to watch for. And though her #metoo story still became mine, I have every hope that writing the horror outside of the structures that have sustained the horror—writing on our own terms, changing the rules—our #metoo stories do not need to become our daughters’.




BHM and LA:

These questions have been prepared in collaboration with my intern, Lynzee Alarcon, who is preparing to graduate from Fayetteville State University. What advice could you offer her and other students, who may be concentrating in creative and professional writing? Can you share some background on the effort and endurance that is involved in publishing? (You need not limit your response to those who are enrolled in academic disciplines as so many writers begin are solitary practitioners of the craft.)


If I’d given up banging on the doors of publishers and editors after the first hundred rejections, after the first several hundred rejections, all the while studying and honing my craft, revising, polishing, rewriting altogether, and yet remaining staunch in my belief in my gift and my art, relentless in my pursuit of readers who understood my goals, who were as drawn to my subjects as I was, for whom my work hummed—then I would have walked away through a damp alley, feeling defeated, never realizing what glorious worlds were about to unfold, what doors were beginning to open.

I’ve known since I was a little girl that I was a writer, but it was not until I was thirty-three (my Jesus year) that my first book was published, though I’d had a complete poetry manuscript I was sending out when I was twenty-four. Nearly a decade I peddled those pages up and down poetry lane, open readings and competitions, as it transformed, changed names, shuffled poems, and, eventually, became something altogether different. My first published collection, Landscape with Headless Mama, houses perhaps two or three of the original seeds of the manuscript I’d truly believed was finished and ready to go at twenty-four. And it took that near-decade to learn and study, both on my own, with small groups of likeminded poets, through fellowships I’d applied for and scholarships to workshops and conferences I’d earned, and then within a structured setting, a low-res MFA program I decided to undertake (though I could have very well continued learning through the other methods, the MFA program felt like an expedited road to mastering the craft).

If you hear anything I’ve said, it’s this: Never, ever give up. If you’re a writer, and you know that deep in your bones, then you must write. But you must also be your own best advocate. Seek out every opportunity. Put your work out there. Put your heart on the line, every time. Sometimes it’ll get crushed. But that’s when you turn to your writing community (start making connections in writing classes and workshops, with the editors and teachers who support your work, and with the fellow writers in the pages of the journals you’re being published in—and for Latinx poets, there are places like CantoMundo to look into, and so many others! I always look through Poets & Writers for opportunities, but there are many other great resources out there). That’s when you turn inward and upward, to your highest self and your spirit guides.

It boils down to this, every time. Write your truths, hone your craft, and don’t give up. Truly, the combination of these will carry you through your writing life: 1) Urgency/Necessity (if you have something you need to say, you can’t go through this life without saying it); 2) Practice (write your story a hundred times, a hundred different ways, until you’ve said it the way it absolutely must be said); 3) Resilience (never, ever, ever give up, no matter what anyone tells you). If you are a writer, then write. There will be no other way.