We’re thrilled to introduce the 2019 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected thirteen writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each.The 2020 OLF applications will be posted mid-May 2019, and the deadline to apply will be Friday, August 2, 2019.
2019 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Jennifer Perrine is the author of three books of poetry: No Confession, No Mass (winner of the Publishing Triangle Audre Lorde Award and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize); In the Human Zoo; and The Body Is No Machine. A fourth book, Again, is forthcoming from Airlie Press in 2020.
Q&A with Literary Arts
What are your sources of inspiration?
Language itself is my biggest source of inspiration, and I often draw on other texts, or the intrigue of certain words, as the genesis of poems. Scientific treatises and terms, in particular, have been particularly fruitful. In poetry, I’m usually trying to make sense of a situation or relationship that I can’t fully fathom, and science is often doing the same thing but from a different angle. I can get a little untethered, stuck in my head, and the literature of natural sciences—biology, chemistry, geology—grounds me back in my body, the air I breathe, the food I eat, the ground I walk. It reminds me that the stranger or lover who vexes me is also made of the same elements—we’ve just been arranged in a different order.
I’ve also had a longstanding interest in religious texts—I was a religion major, back in the day—and I still turn to these occasionally as jumping-off points for poems. I tend to think of these poems as midrash, a commentary on these sacred texts, an attempt to reveal some version of them that’s not evident in the common interpretations. I also enjoy doing this with literary texts that aren’t religious but tend to be considered canonical, examining the perspectives that are usually marginalized or omitted in these texts and the conversations about them.
The texts that I’ve turned to most recently for inspiration are the speeches, tweets, and off-the-cuff remarks of the current U.S. president. In these texts, I’m drawn to words that Trump has used so frequently that they’ve lost their sense or that I can now only hear in his voice. Initially, I saw the poems as a way to re-infuse those words with the meanings they had before they were stripped of their sense, but the poems have also become maps of the emotional terrain of this strange time in which we’re living.
How would you describe your creative process?
My creative process has changed quite a bit lately. I once would have described my process as diligent—for years, I woke early every morning without fail to write before heading to work. I put a great deal of pressure on myself to generate new poems, and if I diverged from my routine, I would scold myself with phrases like, “If you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.”
But of course, that’s not true. I wrote during those years as if some beast were at my back, as if I would be caught and devoured if I slowed the flow of creative work. Sometimes, looking back, I call that beast Midwestern work ethic. Sometimes I call it all those people who said I’d never amount to anything. Sometimes I call it midlife crisis. Whatever its name, I’m glad it’s no longer hounding me.
Now, I write when I am curious, when I’ve found a spark that I want to fan into a flame. I get an idea or a line or a word that I can’t shake, and then I write about it for hours and then not again for weeks. That feels like the better measure now—not how much I write, but whether I’m still excited to return to a poem or story after time away.
What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
I’m relatively new to Oregon, so the most exciting aspect of the fellowship is the word fellow that’s embedded in it. When I moved here just under three years ago, I didn’t know anyone in the area. Although there’s no shortage of literary lovers in Oregon, it’s been tricky to find the right spaces to get to know other writers.
Yet, already in the few weeks since the fellowships were announced, I’ve had the chance to meet many of the other fellows and Oregon Book Award finalists. Local reading series have reached out to me about being part of their upcoming events. Poets have invited me to join their writing groups and shared recommendations of books they think I might like.
I didn’t know how much I’d been missing that sense of community until I found it. The fellowship has been an entrance into a world that felt distant, even though I’d been living right in the midst of it.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve been writing poems in drips and drabs, without a specific theme or project in mind, which is unusual for me. If I were to try to find some coherence in those poems, it might be that many of them explore gun culture in the United States and how closely guns are tied to a sense of identity for many Americans. I’ve realized that, although I don’t particularly like guns, they’ve been surprisingly present in my life, so I’ve been writing about those moments when a gun-averse person like me is still immersed in gun culture just by virtue of where I’ve lived and who I’ve lived among.
Mostly, though, I find I’m not focusing on poetry as singularly as I once did. Longer forms have been calling to me, so I’ve been writing short stories, often with a speculative fiction bent to them. That’s the genre that first made me a reader, and I’ve been returning to it more often as both a reader and a writer to help me envision alternative possibilities to hostility and injustice.
I’m also taking a stab at non-fiction, and most of my creative energy lately has been focused on an essay, “Voice Lessons,” which explores a number of different experiences that have fed my fear of singing in public. Many of those experiences are tied to race, gender, and embodiment, and writing the essay has been part of a process of undoing my fear by prying loose the roots of it.
What advice do you have for future applicants?
Persistence and resilience are the traits that have been most helpful for me, both as a writer and as a fellowship applicant. Very rarely does something go the way I hope the first time around, and the ability to dust myself off and try again has kept me from living every day with my hands perpetually thrown up in the air in exasperation.
I don’t think that ability came naturally to me, though. It was carefully cultivated, and if it doesn’t come naturally to you either, I suggest finding ways to fend off discontent and despair. For me, that’s yoga and meditation. It’s gardening and planting trees. It’s taking my dogs on long walks. It’s dancing in my kitchen to Deee-Lite and Queen and Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s congratulating friends and acquaintances on their writing successes, even when I’m achingly envious.
Even so, sometimes I still get stuck in the woe-is-me rut and feel like giving up. When all else fails, I stare down the application form and hum to myself a little Crosby, Stills, & Nash: What have you got to lose? Your mileage on these techniques may vary, so find whatever brings you joy, whatever makes you feel hope, and keep turning toward it. Make it the center of your world.
Comments from judge, Tarfia Faizullah
“I’m impressed with the way the quotidian and natural worlds become tangibly felt backdrops that frame the writer’s wide-ranging concerns: gender, race, family, politics, faith. These are ambitious concerns, and the writer handles them with grace, a sense of humor, and gravitas, all at once: a feat. This is a writer who, as George Oppen put it, is really seeing what they ‘live among.'”
We Call This an Anniversary
as if something were born that night: music
the flint that sparked electric through muscle,
through sinuous spine, every nerve alight,
pulse that leapt each synapse, thrum that filled gaps,
spaces where we fled to be safe, brave-faced
in the dark that kept time, that pressed us close
as if we needed one another’s sweat
to survive. We do. The breath of the drum,
the hum of bass echoes in our hollows.
The beat goes on. We whirl and sway in tune
with what we have lost. When the DJ winds
down, closes up shop, we turn out pockets,
upend purses, shake loose all of our change,
feed every last dollar to the jukebox.
We keep dancing, no matter what the cost.
—Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2017
**Originally published in Arc Poetry Magazine (Fall 2018)
The Students Have Asked Me to Be More Visibly Queer
First, you must peruse my shoes. Always black
boots, chunky, militant. Do these heels seem
too high for a dyke? Then you must assess
my hair. Is the fade ethnic or gay? White
women say, You pull that look off, meaning:
Even with a buzz cut, you still look straight.
If the shorn locks don’t disclose what you’d hoped,
eye my clothes. Do jeans, do shirts that expose
lean biceps read as queer? No? Punk, you say,
or the prof’s slumming today. In drag, then—
boas and leather skirts, peacock strutting
his stuff—do you name this dragon lady
or genderfucked? Here’s where you scrutinize
my nails, painted deep green and blue, livid
hues. Lesbians keep theirs short. What do bi
and pan folks do? Do my fingers obey
the rules? Will you view instead my tattoos:
snake circling my shoulder, Venus symbol
on my fist, the sheela na gig spreading
her vulval lips. Are these clear enough clues,
or do you wonder, as my father did,
How will you explain these to your husband,
your kids? Last resort: please appraise my space,
my office adorned with rainbow stickers,
safe zone signs, bookshelves lined with Cunt,
Gender Outlaw, Stone Butch Blues. Attributes
of a good ally, or have you unearthed
definitive proof? Still confused? That’s not
your fault—the world erases us faster
than we can carve our marks. Listen: if we’re
out in the forest and no one sees us,
let’s learn other ways to find each other,
to walk together, even in the dark.
**Originally published in Crazyhorse (Spring 2016)