The Moments in Our Lives
An Interview with Beth Ann Fennelly
by Charlotte J. Robertson
A glimpse of Beth Ann Fennelly, a captivating red-headed beauty, hints at the lust for life reflected in the poems she captures on paper. Such passion is the driving force which garnered her The 2001 Kenyon Review Prize for Poetry for her book, Open House, published by Zoo Press.
Beth Ann Fennelly grew up in a north Chicago suburb. She received her B. A. magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame. The following year found Beth Ann teaching English in a coal-mining village on the Czech/Polish border after which she returned to the States to earn the Masters of Fine Arts degree in poetry from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Following graduation, Beth Ann received the Diane Middlebrook Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin. Currently, she and her husband, novelist Tom Franklin (Poachers and Hell at the Breech), and their toddler, Claire, can be found in Oxford, Mississippi where Beth Ann is an Assistant Professor of English at Ole Miss. (Tom was the Renee and John Grisham Chair of the Creative Writing Department last year. This year he chairs the Creative Writing Department at Sewanee.)
From the time she starting publishing, Beth Ann has received notably rave reviews. Jeff Roessner, in the Notre Dame Review said, “Reflecting a subtle eye for telling visual details and a keen ear for the music of the language, this volume [A Different Kind of Hunger] marks the arrival of an important poetic talent…The dynamic sense of life distilled in Fennelly’s verse, along with her gifted use of personae, provide clear evidence of her unique and compelling voice. Amply demonstrating her talent, the chapbook leaves the reader with the promise of more exceptional work in the future.” In praise of Open House, The Harvard Review declared, “Beth Ann Fennelly’s poems are consistently dramatic, complex in their perceptions and formal unfolding, and enthralled with language…This is one of the most interesting, challenging, and accomplished first books to appear in recent year… Genuinely outstanding.”
Of her own work, Beth Ann states “ I like to write poems in different styles and modes, so it is hard for me to draw generalizations about my work. Overall, I would say I'm drawn to the moments in our lives when a decision is made that will change whatever follows. Also, I'm fascinated by language, especially metaphor, and I like to read (and try to write) poems that have a sense of movement, and perhaps a sense of humor. ”
Beth Ann has received grants from the National Endowment and the State of Illinois Arts Council. She is a recipient of the Wood Award for Distinguished Writing from The Carolina Quarterly, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Lily Peter Fellowship, a MacDowell Residency, the University of Arizona Summer Residency, and the 1997 Texas Review Breakthrough Award for A Different Kind of Hunger. Her poetry has been published in numerous literary reviews, Best American Poetry 1996, “The Pushcart Prize 2001: Best of the Small Presses, the writing textbook, 13 Ways of Looking for a Poem, and several anthologies including Stories from the Blue Moon Café (hers was the single poem included), The Penguin Book of the Sonnet and Poets of the New Century.
Beth Ann Fennelly, read her work March 5, 2003 at the Library of Congress.
She also read her work during a March 6 interview on government-sponsored Voice of America, an international broadcasting service, which weekly airs more than 1,000 hours of news, educational and cultural programs to some 94 million people worldwide.
“This marks poet Beth Ann Fennelly’s elevation to national status—the elders of American poetry, so to speak, have identified her as one of the next generation of major voices,” said Joseph Urgo, UM Department of English chair. “We in the English department made that identification when we hired her, but it takes time for Mississippi literary news to reach the (nation’s) capital.”
Those who have experienced Beth Ann’s poetry anticipate Tender Hooks – forthcoming from W. W. Norton in April of 2004.
When did you first know that you were a poet?
When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to be an actress. I went to a very small high school (40 kids in our graduating class), and because there wasn’t much competition, I got big roles in almost every play. So I didn’t know how truly wretched I was until I went to college at the University of Notre Dame, where in my first theatrical production I didn’t even get a speaking role. It began to dawn on me that I really had no talent for the stage, but I loved the attention words got when presented in well-written lines delivered by good actors. So I took my first poetry workshop, taught by John Matthias. It was wonderful. I remember that I felt like, although I had never gone swimming before, I had just been thrown off the dock deep into the lake, and in that moment I realized I had wanted to swim my whole life.
What poets do you read?
I like to read both contemporary poetry--Anne Carson, Alice Fulton, Jack Gilbert, Louis Gluck, Stephen Dunn--and the classics, in particular Shakespeare, Donne, and Hopkins.
How do you juggle being a wife, mother, teacher and poet?
Well, I can’t say it’s easy, or that I always manage everything as well as I’d like. What helps is how lucky I feel to do the things I do: I love being Tommy’s wife; I love being Claire’s mom; I love being a poet, and I love my teaching job.
How do you account for the excellence in the sensory and the sensual in your work?
Um, I’m not really sure I have “excellence” in this area, but I have always been interested in the body and the way we apprehend the world through the senses. Baudelaire said a poet must be “A professor of the five senses”--I love that. Also, I think of poetry as an oral art, the body is the instrument through which the art comes into the world, so I guess it’s natural that I’m attuned to the sensory and sensual.
You excel in the world of poetry while your husband, Tom Franklin, has made his mark in the realm of fiction. How do you reconcile this difference?
We agree, of course, that fiction is more “acceptable” in that one can make money with it, and it’s not quite so high brow and threatening to the average person. But I think poetry really needn’t be so threatening, and people could really love poetry if the right poetry was presented to them in the right way. Maybe what poetry really needs is an advertising campaign.
I love fiction, love to read it, read it every day. But poetry, I believe, is a higher art form. Terrible to confess, but true. Sometimes fiction writer pals, after reading my poetry, say “You could write fiction!” Which always strikes me as cute and just maybe a little egotistical. If I could live to be a thousand years old, I’d give a few decades to fiction, sure. But how many years will I have? Not enough to “master” poetry, or even come close. As Chaucer said, “The lyf so shorte, the craft so long to lerne.” So I’ll stick with poetry and do the best I can.
Of all your poetic works, which is your favorite?
I’m proud of “From L’Hotel Terminus Notebooks” because it’s such a departure, and my most experimental poem.
How much research goes into the preparation for your creations?
It depends upon the poem. Some of them have no research involved beyond the everyday stance of attentiveness to the world and its inhabitants. Others, like some of my historical dramatic monologues, are very carefully researched. For “Madame L. Describes the Siege of Paris,” I probably read part or all of about 20 different books.
Describe your recent experience of reading at the Library of Congress.
It was an honor I don’t expect to duplicate, or forget. I couldn’t help but think how many of my favorite poets have read for the library of Congress, including Elizabeth Bishop, who is my favorite poet. It really gave me quite a thrill. Oh, and I got to go shopping for a glamorous dress. I think I felt like I was going to the Academy Awards!
What advice would you give aspiring poets?
Read all you can, every day. Write all you can, every day. Be patient, be humble, be tenacious, and most of all, do not stop writing poems.
What about your sojourn overseas?
I love to travel. The most significant time I’ve spent abroad was the year after college during which I lived in a coal-mining village on the Czech/Polish border and taught English. It was a strange and difficult and lonely and wonderful year, and more than anything convinced me that I wanted to write. I applied to the University of Arkansas from there, sending in a sheaf of handwritten poems, and surprisingly, they accepted me.
© 2003, Charlotte J. Robertson, All Rights Reserved