Writer, poet and teacher Jessica Noyes McEntee explores “compression” and other writing techniques in her new poetry chapbook, Jackie O. Suffers Two Husbands and Other Poems, from Finishing Line Press. Here she answers questions about the project.
What prompted you to put together the chapbook?
I put the chapbook together
for the 2018 New Women's Voices contest held by Finishing Line Press. I didn't
place, but they said they wanted to publish me. I found this really amusing and
surprising (I wasn't good enough for the contest yet I was good enough to be
published!), and then I figured I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. The
poems represent a smattering of my work from a particular period, as opposed to
a collection centered on a theme.
How does your approach to poetry differ from
your approach to fiction?
I felt my prose was becoming too verbose and that I
was straying from specificity. Then I read that one of my favorite authors,
Jenny Offill, had studied poetry for ten years while writing Dept. of
Speculation. I started out writing the poems to learn compression, the
poetic device of saying exactly what you mean with high-energy words that pull
their weight and other editorial techniques — I was like a parasite trying to
suck my host dry so I could move back onto my larger prey of fiction. Soon, I
found I quite liked poetry itself. In contrast to writing a novel, a
multi-month if not multiyear endeavor, I could generate a poem and hone it
within a few weeks. I fell into a pattern of writing poetry during the fallow
periods in between writing novels. I don't typically write both at the same time.
What main challenge did you encounter in
creating and/or completing the poetry and chapbook, and how did you overcome
As someone who's really quite new to the genre — I had studied a bit of
poetry in college and beyond, mostly Elizabeth Bishop and Gwendolyn Brooks – I'm
still refining my ear. I don't totally trust my instincts yet so I remind
myself to embrace this sense of uncertainty. I'm not really tied to the idea of
myself as a poet, but I think this frees me to experiment. I'm grateful for my
poetry teacher, Charles Rafferty, who leads a fantastic class out of Westport
Writers' Workshop, and for my classmates, who are all wonderfully encouraging
of each other. The workshop is hardly a staid atmosphere; we laugh a lot and
goof around with language.
What primary writing lesson did you learn while
creating the project?
In my experience, a lot of playfulness goes into writing the initial
drafts of a poem so I try not to get too tied to an idea of what the poem “has”
to be. As my writing process evolves, I have to become more and more definite
about what I'm trying to say, giving great attention to
my selection of each individual word. Unlike prose, a poem demands a lean
precision. I have to root out anything that doesn't pull its weight. I suppose
all of this happens with generating prose, too, although with poetry you're
working on a more granular level.
would you like to add that you feel is important for other writers to know?
the genre of poetry is so distilled, I think great poets demonstrate the power
of consistent voice and style. A short list of contemporary poets I'd recommend
for total newbies are Ada Limon, Jenny Xie, Meghan O'Rourke, Billy Collins, Stephen Dunn.
For the chapbook by Jessica McEntee visit, Jackie O. Suffers Two Husbands and Other Poems.
A graduate of from Amherst College, Jessica Noyes McEntee worked as an
editor at John Wiley & Sons and taught at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn
Heights, NY. She currently teaches fiction at the Westport
Writers’ Workshop in Connecticut, and her work has appeared in
Ragazine. Her poetry chapbook, Jackie O. Suffers Two Husbands and Other Poems
will be published in June 2019 by Finishing Line Press, and she won an
honorable mention in the 2019 Third Wednesday poetry contest judged by Robert
Fanning. For more on McEntee, visit her at Jessica McEntee.
For more on the workshops, go to Westport Writers’ Workshop.