On a clear Monday morning, Barb Fulton Jennes and I sat on the patio of the Newtown Café in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Over cups of coffee, we discussed her award-winning poem “From the Room of an Unknown Girl” and how it earned her the first-place prize in the 2021 Leslie McGrath Poetry Contest. The rush of the Pootatuck River below accompanied us through a dialogue on topics such as mental health, family, creative inspiration, and her use of poetry to heal from trauma.
Firstly, congratulations on winning the 2021 Leslie McGrath Poetry Contest! You’ve earned various other accolades; from your first placement in Writers Digest’s Rhyming Poetry Competition, to your appointment as The Poet Laureate of Ridgefield. The late Leslie McGrath has been a prominent figure in the hearts of many poets and writers, so I wonder: how has winning this prize differed from your others?
As I mentioned at the celebration of Leslie’s life, even though we had never met in person, I felt kind of like we had connected. She had selected one of my poems to win second place in 2019 for the Connecticut River Review poetry contest, [and] winning this—I just felt somehow like there was a cosmic connection. Her work is so personal and so narrative in terms of her connections to other people, her connections to herself, that it inspires my writing too. It was a huge honor. I’ve won other things that have been wonderful to win, but this has been just a real honor.
Was “Room of an Unknown Girl” a piece written solely for the Leslie McGrath poetry contest?
No. I’d seen, when they announced the competition, that they invited people to respond to one of Leslie’s poems…and I thought about it. I’m working on a collection about my childhood and growing up—you always think of childhood being this innocent, happy experience when most childhoods are not innocent, happy experiences. So, a lot of the poems deal with the sadness or the abuse or the difficulty experienced by mine and other families, people I saw in my community experiencing trauma and tragedy. Unlike this idyllic take on what it is to be a child, it’s more showing how childhood is anything but this panacea of joy. Flannery O’Connor said, “Anyone who has survived this childhood knows enough about life to last the rest of his days.” It’s true; you learn it all when you’re a kid, whether you want to or not.
Is that how you knew this piece was the one?
Yes! Leslie has been called “the spokesperson for the alienated,” and it [the poem] is based on a true story about my aunt taking us into this abandoned house. She owned a farm and one of the workers on her farm couldn’t pay the rent and just left—either that or got a better gig on another farm—but they didn’t give her any notice and left everything behind. She took us into this house and said, “Take what you want, it’s all garbage!” (laughter) So just getting a sense of what this little girl who left behind the snow globe was like, and feeling empathy and compassion for and a real connection to her based on her alienation and loneliness: that’s how I knew it was the one. I still have it [the snow globe], by the way! It’s broken. That’s why I said at the end, “I coddled up its fragility for years until I forgot how.” It’s in my kitchen cupboard on a shelf. You can see the skaters, there’s no water, no more snow, but it’s still there.
If you don’t mind me asking, what year was this?
I was probably seven so…early sixties. My aunt lived in upstate New York; there were still a lot of large farms—family-owned farms—as opposed to now where everything’s going mega agriculture.
There’s a line in “Room of an Unknown Girl” that mentions a longing for the “frosted eternity” present inside the snow globe, “away from the fury” that shakes both the worlds of the speaker and the figure inside the globe. It’s a line that evokes a profound sense of stillness—“frosted,” “eternity.” Living in a world that’s hardly still and often shaken, what kind of place, metaphorically. do you go to when writing poetry?
Good question. Wow (laughter). If I had to describe it, it’s like a connection to a different voltage somewhere, where things happen around me that I’m not even aware of anymore because it’s such a focused, internal experience. External, too, because I’m very fussy about the environments I write in. Some people can write anywhere—I can’t. I need to have a certain solitude and quiet. So, metaphorically, I guess I would go into underwater. Where you get some impression of the world around you, and you hear sounds but not crisply. Only if you can hold your breath for that long (laughter)—which sometimes I can’t—you can write a piece of poetry that reflects that inner state.
I noticed a subtle contrast between “Room of an Unknown Girl” and “Lessons of a Cruel Tide” of Writer’s Digest. In “Room”, as I mentioned earlier, there’s that longing for stillness—to drown out the outside—whereas in “Lessons” you write about being a “lover of the wrecks,” a “battered seashell” who undergoes “lessons of a cruel tide” with “scars that speak of grace.” There’s beauty to be found in stillness, and lessons to be found in the cruel tide; so, when writing your poems, how do you decide from where to draw from?
Good question! Let me say first that I was a public-school English teacher for years, and I found that was my modus operand—where I was very much attracted to students who were outsiders, who had suffered trauma at home or among peers with bullying. I kind of felt that way myself; it takes someone who has been damaged to commiserate and feel compassion for another person who has been damaged in some way. Otherwise, it’s sympathy. See, even in “Room of an Unknown Girl,” there is that damage that has been done to the little girl and to myself and eventually to the snow globe itself, all of which produced grace of some kind. It’s not a grace that most people would embrace but a grace that enables the person who suffered that trauma to connect with other people who have also been traumatized by something. I should mention that a lot of the trauma I refer to in that poem and in other poems that I’m writing—my mother was undiagnosed bipolar and spent most of her adult life (and I imagine her childhood, too) in a state of deep depression. When you’re raised in that environment, it definitely affects the way you see the world and family and self and everything else.
In December 2020, you undertook the challenge of writing 30 poems in 30 days for Tupelo Press. As you mentioned on the site, we were going through a lot: systemic racism, the pandemic, the election. If so, how did those circumstances influence the poems you wrote each day?
Good question also. 30 poems in 30 days, first of all, requires you to put your nose to the grindstone. We had a midnight deadline for submitting each day. I like writing at night. Some people like to write when they’re fresh in the morning, but I like having got all that stuff out of me during the day—all that garbagy stuff—and then being able to settle down and write. So, I’d be up 6:30pm to three minutes to midnight (laughter) every night writing a poem. I think what happened is at that point in my life I was so angry and hurt and worried—all those emotions tangled together because of the political state, because of the pandemic, our isolations—that the poems became rawer [to the point] where I wasn’t afraid of expressing anguish because I was feeling anguish at that time. Some of the poems I had backed away from as perhaps being too anguished, or some about my mother, that I’m still not able to reread to edit because they were so raw, but I think every poet is a reflection of what’s happening in the world around them. And even though we had the election, there were still so many questions about what was going to happen in our country: would Biden become the President, or would chaos and anarchy erupt? There was still that uncertainty until January 20th or whenever the inauguration was. I think that was reflected in the poems. I’m not afraid to say how worrisome the world can be.
Do you have them posted anywhere online?
A lot of them have been published in journals. I had a really good year—I’m kind of in a low right now in terms of how many [poems] I’m producing. Even though that period of time wasn’t a lot of time for letting it [the poem] sit a few days, it was still very productive in terms of other people liking them!
You held a program titled “Baldwin and Beyond: Black Poets in their Own Voices” back in December 2020. When preparing for the program—research, etc.—what surprised you the most about African American poets/literature?
Boy, you’re good (laughter). I think, as a former English teacher having well known the world of contemporary poetry, I think what amazed me the most was the honesty that black poets would express. The outrage, the protests. It enforced an element of my own white privilege that I had not been fully aware of—how black citizens go out in the world every day and face fear and anger and abuse, and how even people who have incredible jobs and careers that should engender an unbelievable level of respect face the same things. So, it wasn’t a new awareness, but it was a fine-tuned awareness.
I spent a lot of time reading a lot of poems and listening to a lot on the internet. I work with the Aldridge Museum and the Ridgefield Library in terms of bringing poets to Ridgefield, and we had Patricia Smith come in either October or November of last year. We had Jericho Brown that February and Patricia Smith just put it so amazingly well in her collections. What we did was listen to the poet read their work and watch videos, and her having been a spoken word poet—she just delivers great performances of her work. We had wonderful attendance at that program too which was very heartening. People had been getting pretty tired of Zoom seminars and workshops at that point, and it was in the evening so other people had plans, but we had about 60 people come to that which was very good.
Is another program in the works?
We’re faced with money issues now. The series that I’m doing in the Keeler Tavern Museum—the poets are doing it so graciously and generously without honorarium at all. They’re just coming to support the art! But there are some poets who would bring a larger audience who…need money! They can’t afford to do it for free, this is their livelihood, for heaven’s sakes. So that’s the issue we’re facing right now. But we do plan to have some more poets—can’t say who, but I’m hoping we get some real doorbusters.
How old were you when you started writing poetry?
Too funny! My grandmother used to read to me from a couple of different—like A Child’s Garden of Verses—a couple poetry books. She loved poetry. And I can remember sitting on the steps to my playroom with paper and pencil and I was too young to know how to write, so I would do scribbles (laughter). And that was my poetry! I was very young when I started to write. Then I wrote all through grade school—I can remember marching into the front office of my elementary school, handing over to them poems to put on the mimeograph—the PTA newsletter! I was always into promoting my own work.
Then there was high school of course and college—I majored in English with an emphasis on creative writing (poetry) but then the real world hit. I got out and sadly I started to compartmentalize my life. I didn’t leave a lot of room for writing in it. It was always family, and work, and home, so it wasn’t really until I retired four years ago that I started to put the pedal to the metal again in terms of producing poetry and appreciating poetry and teaching poetry. I always taught poetry, but I mean getting out into the community; not only with my students, but adults and senior citizens, anyone who would listen to me (laughter).
Are you the only writer in your family?
My sister was a painter, my oldest sister was another teacher; she was so brilliant. She began life as an engineer; my father made her go to engineering school, but she hated it. She created super ceramics for the space shuttles and when she had her first child she said, “That’s it, I’m becoming an 8th-grade science teacher.” and that’s where she went. So, we’re educators, we’re creators—the three of us girls. My mother wrote poetry too, but never tried to publish anything. She was a very creative writer and even her letters were amazing reads. She would write poetry when she was young.
That leads me to my next question: who was your favorite author/poet growing up?
When I was really little, I love Mary Norton’s The Borrowers series because it was so imaginative. It was about little people who lived under the floorboards and fought off rats with pins and needles and sat on thimbles—you could just be in this world with them! It really sparked my imagination. A lot of my middle school and high school years were spent reading very popular poets like Rod McKuen and the people who my peers were reading, so—in high school anyway—I didn’t spend a lot of time on serious poetry until I got to college. Sylvia Plath instantly became my favorite. It’s just like anything else; it’s a matter of being introduced to it. I went to a very small school. There weren’t a lot of teachers who embraced poetry as something worthy of being taught. It was a lot of dead-white-men literature being taught, nothing contemporary. If we read poetry, it was Shakespearean sonnets or Ozymandias or something. It wasn’t until I got to college that I got into at that point what was contemporary poetry and now it’s considered modern poetry (laughter). It was a long while ago.
Your chapbook—Blinded Birds—is set for release this upcoming spring. In one word, what should readers expect?
“Confirmation.” May I tell you why?
(Laughter) Okay. It’s a story of generational addictions and depression and the idea that things are handed down genetically. It focuses on the idea that, increasingly, research is indicating genetic links to all sorts of addictions. There’s one thing called the A1 Allele, which is one small mutation on the dopamine receptor in the brain that has been linked to advanced alcoholism, heroin and cocaine addiction, gambling addiction, obesity, childhood-onset depression, ADHD, intractable PTSD. This is just one small mutation. It gets activated, of course, by environment. So, the chapbook traces my mother’s depression, my foray into alcoholism which—thank God—I’m fourteen years sober now, long-term recovery, and my daughter’s descent into heroin addictions. She’s about to celebrate seven years of recovery which is amazing also. But it shows how all three generations were like a slinky going down the stairs: it went from generation to generation to generation. I say “Confirmation” because I think a lot of people will see it and say, “Yeah, it happened to my family!” So, in addition to being painful to read sometimes because they were painful periods, they also offered hope in the end. Not so much about my mother’s depression—she remained untreated until the very end—she refused treatment—but my daughter and I at least are a glimmer that with intervention, with help, with love, these horrible claws stuck in your life could be released.
Wow. Just to confirm, are you okay with me adding this to the transcript?
Thank you. Where will we be able to find this?
It’s going to be released by Finishing Line Press. They start presales in October, so I’ll let the whole world know when they’re taking orders! I’m looking forward to it—it’s my first publication and I’m hoping with that I’ll also have full courage to go into the publishing world and say, “Here, you need to take my full-length anthology!”
Barb Fulton Jennes, the first Poet Laureate of Ridgefield, is a well-acclaimed poet and former English teacher with works appearing in various publications such as The Comstock Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Night Heron Barks, Tar River Poetry, Stone Canoe, The Vassar Review, Ekphrastic Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Connecticut River Journal, ArtAscent, Naugatuck River Journal, Frost Meadow Review, and others. Jennes’s upcoming chapbook, Blinded Birds, is set for publication in the spring of 2022.
Nehway Sahn is a senior computer science student at Central Connecticut State University, a poet and musician, as well as the poetry editor for The Helix Magazine. She has earned multiple accolades such as publications in CCSU’s Blue Muse Magazine, first placement in CCSU’s 2021 Leslie Leeds Poetry Contest, and first placement in CCSU’s 2019 Apollo Night competition. As an intern for CCSU’s Center for Africana Studies, Nehway is also the creator of Coffee & Kala: Open Mic Social, which is an open mic series that ties Liberian heritage to underground artistry.