Art Talk with Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, 2011 NEA Literature Fellow
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. Photo courtesy of Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University
2011 NEA Literature Fellow Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is the author of three books of poetry: The Gospel of Barbecue (winner of the 1999 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize); Outlandish Blues; and Red Clay Suite (a winner of the Crab Orchard Open Competition). She has received an award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, and fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the MacDowell Colony, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including African American Review, Callaloo, and The Gettysburg Review. Jeffers is a native southerner but now lives on the prairie where she is Associate Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma and teaches creative writing. We spoke with the poet via e-mail about the writing life.
NEA: What?s your version of the writing life?
HONORÉE FANONNE JEFFERS: My full-time job---what my family would call my ?real job?---is that of a college professor. And I teach ten months out of the year. So I can?t write every single day, all day, because I don?t always have the emotional energy or time, but I do write whenever the spirit moves me. I get a poem coming to me in the shower and I keep saying the words over and over so I won?t lose them in the hot water. Or, I wake from a dream, write the words down, and then roll back over and go to sleep. I wish I could say that I had rituals because that would make me sound really wise and smart, but I don?t. Nothing?s regular with me. I just try to stay open to the poem. Years ago, Ms. Lucille Clifton advised me to do that once and that advice has held me in good stead.
NEA: What do you plan to do with your NEA fellowship, and what impact do you expect the grant will have on your writing life?
JEFFERS: My current manuscript-in-progress is a book of poems imagining the life and times of Phillis Wheatley, the 18th-century American poet who was the first black person to publish a book of poetry (in 1773). She was kidnapped as a very little girl into slavery. So some of the money from this fellowship will go toward paying for travel to West Africa to tour slave castles; these were the ?points of no return? for the kidnapped Africans who were forced over the Atlantic Middle Passage, never to see their homeland again. And some of the money will go toward travel to New England for more research beyond what I?ve already done, because Phillis Wheatley lived in Boston. This book requires a lot of research and that research can get expensive, but this book has been and continues to be a labor of love; Phillis Wheatley made my own life as an African-American poet possible. So, this fellowship has come right on time in the process of writing this book.
But then, there are those things we poets can?t buy that we need to, that we get embarrassed to talk about; we take a break from working the second and third gigs to write our poetry, and thus, we take a break from making extra money. Thank goodness in this economy I can cover my bills, but extra things can fall by the wayside. I?m way, way overdue on getting a new eyeglass prescription; my glasses cost a lot because I have a writer?s typical bad eyesight, but now, I can get a new pair of glasses! I?ll take some of the money to provide little, essential things like that. But there won?t be any luxuries taken care of with this fellowship. Whatever luxury money I might have had, the IRS man is getting in taxes.
NEA: Why do we---the general public---need poetry? Why do you need poetry?
JEFFERS: The general public needs poetry in their lives because it provides a connection with other human beings and an understanding. That?s what all of us (with rare exceptions) search for, some true understanding from another human being; poetry can give that understanding. I need poetry for the same reason the general public needs it. I need to reach out and tap somebody on the shoulder and get an ?Amen? to certain truths I want to share, and my poetry helps me do that tapping.
NEA: You teach creative writing at the University of Oklahoma. What?s the most important thing that you want your students to learn?
JEFFERS: I want them to know a professor doesn?t make you into a poet; she can only help you grow in the word. If you are blessed to be a poet, that?s not my doing. I?m not even the one who can tell a student, ?I certify that you are blessed.? I?m just here to help my little poet-apprentices grow in their words, the best way I can.
NEA: What is your definition of creativity?
JEFFERS: Creativity is a mojo or a root-working power or a God-force within a human being. But it?s also a courageous spirit that will be what it will be, regardless. Creativity doesn?t listen to anybody else, and that?s what I like about being a creative woman, because I have an excuse to be headstrong, which is my nature.
NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community?
JEFFERS: To connect with people and bring beauty to their lives, hopefully with kindness.
NEA: In the new issue of NEA Arts, Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington says, ?I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can...I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren?t yet part of our work but should be.? When it comes to poetry what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work you or other poets or artists as a community are making that isn?t yet there?
JEFFERS: One thing that I would like to see more of is necessity in poetry. What is necessary to a poem---to make it last beyond a moment or a particular zeitgeist? What is necessary to humanity in that poem? Also, I?d like to see more U.S. poets engage with non-poets and ?laypeople.? There?s so much wisdom and beauty we poets bring to our work, and I wish more regular folk found and read poetry to experience and learn from poets? wisdom and beauty. But I feel that some of us poets---many of us---could try to reach out more, too, to regular folk. Just a little bit. I know that?s not a popular thing to say among other poets, but I feel it needs to be said.
NEA: In the spirit of Thanksgiving, last week I asked my NEA colleagues what artist (living or not) they would like to thank and why. Your answer?
JEFFERS: I?d like to thank those women who created poetry at their kitchen tables in between chopping vegetables, or while hanging out laundry on the line to dry in the sun. Poetry no one besides them ever read. They have helped me with their collective hopeful spirits and I hope my life?s work thus far is a testament to these unpublished, unknown women poets. I hope they are somewhere saying ?well done, girl? about me.
NEA: What does the phrase ?Art Works? mean to you?
JEFFERS: It means, the artist works for a living, whether other people understand or validate that living. It means art will work it out---whatever need you have, there?s some kind of art, somewhere, that will work with that need.
NEA: Anything you wish I would have asked, and how would you have answered?
JEFFERS: I wish you had asked me, ?Honorée, is this poetry life you?ve chosen a good, worthy life, and are you happy?? And I would have answered, ?Yes, indeed, it is a good, worthy life, and yes, I am happy. I feel so grateful and blessed.?
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