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"With Chest Pain but Living": An Interview with Jennifer Givhan

Jennifer Givhan is a National Endowment for the Arts & PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellow, and the author of Landscape with Headless Mama (2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize), Protection Spell (2016 Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series), & Girl with Death Mask (2017 Blue Light Books Prize). Her honors include the Frost Place Latin@ Scholarship, the Lascaux Review Poetry Prize, Phoebe Journal’s Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, and the Pinch Journal Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Ploughshares, POETRY, TriQuarterly, Boston Review, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Witness, and The Kenyon Review. She can be found at jennifergivhan.com as well as Facebook & Twitter (@JennGivhan).

Her poem, "Madhouse of Spirits," appeared in Issue Sixty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer T.m. Lawson about Allende, Auden, and borrowing.

What is your usual method for writing poems and how did you come by the inspiration for “Madhouse of Spirits”? The title is interesting and to me evoked the title of Isabel Allende’s novel, The House of Spirits, which contained themes of maternity, madness, and generational conflict within families and communities. I can’t unsee the connection!

My poem absolutely borrows from Allende’s work, which I adore. Women in Allende’s novel work from within the power structures, asserting the importance of motherwork during times of upheaval. Taking care of children—mothering—is a definite political and social act. Alba describes how the other imprisoned women care for the children of a mother with PTSD: “the fate of the children, growing up in that place with a mother who had gone mad, cared for by other, unfamiliar mothers who had not lost their voices for lullabies … would be able to return the songs and the gestures to the children and grandchildren of the women who were rocking them to sleep.” Violence begets violence, true. But love, motherlove, begets hope—the chance to rise up out of dark situations and sing. The house of spirits is literally the house of women—of mothers and mother figures who record their stories and alter history by reclaiming it for their children, and by ending the violent cycle through motherlove. My poem takes these ideas and transforms the domestic space, often seen as a peaceful realm of “womanly” import—but so often the home is a place of violence and fear for children, swept under the rug. This poem doesn’t turn away from the destruction and mental illness within, how motherlove can both hurt and heal, is a powerful force.   

I noticed that you open the poem with an epigraph of an excerpt from W.H. Auden’s poem “The Question”, which itself has been seen by critics as ‘riddle-like’, where childhood and adulthood intersect in the mode of madness. The quote “[a]nd ghosts must do again / what gives them pain” has shades of obsessive compulsion in the remembrance of trauma, which carries over directly to the first two lines depicting child abuse. You have woven throughout the poem these interesting themes of childhood fear, pain, parental madness, and the adult perception; we as adults dread and preoccupy ourselves with the past (our childhood, our parents, an echo of what is to come for us). Your term “motherloving fear” brilliantly encapsulates this; of all possible sources for an epigraph to set the tone, why this particular lesser-known piece by W.H. Auden?

Auden’s quote spoke most clearly to me of Jung’s shadow and the dark night of the soul. Through it is the healing. Through it one must go.

Another piece of syntax I loved in your poem was the line “[t]he mother eye isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”. There is definitely a preoccupation with the archetype of the Mother, specifically the more abusive type. A few lines in the poem allude to the novel Flowers for Algernon, in which the speaker relates their own experience with their parent to the protagonist Charlie Gordon, whose childlike mind could not comprehend why he was punished and abandoned until after he acquired higher intelligence and consciousness. The cycle echoes with the later comparison the speaker encounters: “How does one extract the violent bone / without mining that poor child’s spine?” To heal, one must effectively relive trauma; the ‘ghost’ “must do again / what gives [...] pain”. The speaker’s pain is very much intertwined with intelligence, the understanding of the pain, and the neurotic compulsion to dwell upon it. Does the speaker dissociate, separate, and distance themself from this memory? There is very real sense of dread in the language when the speaker meditates on the parenthood, and it seems as if the speaker is in the midst of arrested development when the next stage (the stage the initial trauma’s initiator was at) is considered on the horizon: “I’m trying not to become the kind of parent I feel bound / to”.

The speaker must relive (her) childhood through her children’s eyes. Trauma has ghosted her, but if there is to be healing, she must enter that dark night. She was the Charlie Gordon character before the experiment, and now as a parent has become Charlie at the height of his ability to comprehend—but she fears she is also now his mother. The speaker’s neurosis in the poem comes perhaps from dwelling within so many perspectives at once. Dwelling in another’s consciousness leads to empathy, yes, but so many voices at once is a heavy burden to bear. Epigeneticists now say that our DNA is wired with our ancestors’ trauma. The speaker fears this means she is also bound to the ancestors’ propensity to inflict trauma. She is a house of familial ghosts, has played the roles of both abuser and abused, has come to a crossroads and must choose. Which voice speaks loudest and longest? Love or pain?

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I’m reading and loving Roxane Gay’s Hunger and Christa Parravani’s Her, both creative nonfiction memoirs, as I’m working on my own, currently titled Quinceañera with Baby Fever.

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