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Louis Jenkins has been called "the contemporary master" of prose poetry by Rober

t Bly and a "great wit of the North" by Garrison Keillor. Speaking with Jenkins
is not unlike reading his poetry he is humble and unselfish, not putting himself i
n the way of the reader s pleasure. Born in Oklahoma and raised partly in Kansas,
he is local by marriage, having made Duluth his home for nearly 30 years. His bo
oks include Just Above Water and Nice Fish, winner of the Minnesota Book Award.
His latest book of poems, The Winter Road, will be published in October by Holy
Cow! Press.
RSN | Do you consider yourself a regional writer?
LJ | That s the kind of thing that irritates me. Everybody s a regional writer. Peop
le who live in New York and write about New York are regional writers. It just d
oesn t seem to be considered regional unless you live in the Midwest or something
and have trees in your poems. I m a writer and I write about what s around me. I don t
see how you can not be a regional writer unless you lived in a vacuum.
RSN | I ve heard similar sentiments from other writers and wondered what your reac
tion to that title would be.
LJ | I don t like it because they put it on books they put it on one of mine and I c
omplained about it. When you pick up a book of poems that says regional, you re im
mediate thought is "Well, here s someone who s trying to write about how wonderful i
t is where he lives, as opposed to somewhere else it implies a sort of parochialis
m that I don t like. I don t think of myself as a regional writer. If I didn t live he
re, I would write about where I did live. I think I m lucky to live in a nice plac
e. On the other hand, if I lived in Cleveland, I don t know. When I first got here
I wrote about it a lot. When it s all new to you it impresses you and you have a
certain perspective that someone who d been here a long time wouldn t have. It s mater
ial.
RSN | Where does the material come from? Do the poems attack you, or do you sit
down and try to write?
LJ | I set aside time for it. I m not writing much at all right now because I just
finished this book. I walk. Usually, if I have the beginning of something, I wa
lk and turn it over in my head until I think it s ready to go, then I go back and
start typing.
RSN | So you use computers?
LJ | People always ask, "Do you compose on a computer?" I don t compose on a compu
ter, I compose in my head. I do the finished work on the computer. I don t think i
t makes any difference. Some people say, "Well, you can t use a computer because i
t will interfere with the process of composition." Well, I think you can do anyt
hing you want to anything you can!
RSN | So you have no rituals or things you must have to write poems the right shoe
s, for instance?
LJ | Well, I might have some rituals, but I wouldn t tell you about them. I don t kn
ow if I do or not, but if I do they d be very small and silly. I might not even be
aware of them. If you re going to sit down and write, you can always think of a t
housand other things to do. Most of the time it s real difficult. Nothing happens.
You think you re going to write something and it s crap.
RSN | Do you go through a strong revision process, or do some poems come out fin
ished?
LJ | Some come out very close to the way they are when they are published. But t
hat doesn t mean that they re ever done. I always like to think of Bonnard, the pain
ter, who would go around to people s houses sometimes and get out his paintbrush a
nd work on [the paintings]. You re never quite satisfied. You can look at things y
ears later and say, "I would have done that differently." You do as much as you
can, then you let it go.
RSN | Why do you write?
LJ | I don t really know anymore. I think that when I started writing I had certai
n ideas about what I was doing that I probably no longer have. I do it because i
t s what I do. If I could do something else better, I d do that. But I can t.
RSN | When and why did you start writing?
LJ | I started in high school. I think I had very romantic notions about writing
and I probably thought that I d become rich and famous and all the good-looking g
irls would love me. But it never happened.
RSN | Did you have certain idols in High School?
LJ | I read romantic poets a lot William Blake, Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Dylan Th
omas. In college I was introduced to contemporaries.
RSN | Do you have particular favorites now?
LJ | Oh, yeah, I have particular poets I like to read again and again. Wallace S
tevens is a poet that I always read, even though I have disagreements with him,
not that he cares. A long list. My contemporaries I like to read.
RSN | Any local artists that inspire you here?
LJ | That s hard to say. Inspire is a few poets I like to read. There are painters
, visual artists I like. I worked with Richard C. Johnson, a photographer who do
es computer imagery. We did a show together, so that was fun, we worked together
. We re working toward the same ends, with different media all artists, I think.
RSN | What is that end?
LJ | The ineffable. We don t know. To write poetry, to paint, to write music, is t
o try to say the unsayable. If it isn t beyond you, then it isn t worth doing. If yo
u already know it.
RSN | Do you ever experiment with other forms? Do you paint?
LJ | I think I ve done about five paintings in my life. I m not very good, or I d do t
hat. Because there s lots of funding.
RSN | Why do you write prose poems and not other forms?
LJ | I write some poems that are lines, but to me prose poems seem to be comfort
able. It has a casual quality to it that other verse does not.
RSN | It s a form people aren t familiar with.
LJ | I know, People are spooked by the funniest things. It s not that difficult. I
don t know why they should get upset but sometimes they do.
RSN | People think it s harder to understand a prose poem?
LJ | Well, I don t know. They think it s mysterious. "How could there be a poem in p
rose?" There is a certain thing about poetry that s off-putting and scary. It s usua
lly like "this is going to be really really difficult, and I m not going to enjoy
this. I just have to do it." Part of that is the fault of poetry. A lot of poetr
y is boring, and stupid self-indulgent. Robert Frost said "A poem begins in deligh
t and ends in wisdom." A whole lot of poets try to jump right to wisdom and forg
et the delight.
RSN | That s good.
LJ | Yeah, well, whether it ends in wisdom or not, it should at least begin with
delight.
RSN | That little "aha" moment?
LJ | Yeah. It s recognition. It s a shared experience. Shared insight. Maybe a poet
tells you something that you knew all along, only you didn t notice. Poetry is ple
asure. If it s not pleasure, it s not worth reading.
RSN | Do you ever picture your books in people s bookcases, do you have an image i
n your head about how you would like people to enjoy or read your books?
LJ | No. I can t imagine. It s always a surprise to me when people read and buy my b
ooks. I don t know why. I sort of always expect there will be half a dozen people
out there. There s certainly no money in it. No fame, no beautiful women.
RSN | Apparently a few more people do read your work, and there s been a little bi
t of fame lately?
LJ | Oh, yeah. I m lucky. I ve been lucky compared to a lot of poets who never get a
nywhere, who never publish. I ve managed to publish and actually sell a few. That s
nice. There seems to be a greater interest in poetry. When I was in my youth in
the 60s and 70s, it seemed like poetry was important, in some way, then. And the
n the 80s came along, the Reagan era, poetry seemed dead as a doornail the interes
t in it, not that the poets were dead. Now there s tremendous interest there s the Spi
rit Lake poetry series, people buy books of poetry, and it s happening all over, n
ot just here. And then I don t know what younger people are doing, having these po
etry slams I m way too old to be slammed. I don t know if it s good poetry or not. Some
kind of interest or longing is there, whatever that is.
RSN | The longing to create?
LJ | The longing for whatever it is that poetry seems to fulfill, or at least he
lp. It s all a mystery. I don t know exactly why I do it or what I m doing or why anyo
ne would read it or what happens when they do. But it s like life. What s it all abo
ut then? Who knows?
RSN | Has your poetry changed over the years?
LJ | It changes in the way a person changes. You don t just wake up one morning an
d say, "Ah! Everything s different!" It s just gradual. You realize your hair is a l
ittle more grey. It s like looking at old photographs. I don t think that I could wr
ite the poems that I wrote when I was 25. I like to think that they are becoming
better, but that will be for someone else to decide, if they want to. You just
do what you can do. As far as publications all that stuff, it just accumulates. On
e year you publish something, and your book is reviewed well. And then five year
s goes by and something else happens. And when you live to be 100 like I am, you
look back and there s a whole lot of things there. You say "Oh yeah! I won the wa
tchamacallit award a few years back."
RSN | Are you planning new works for the future?
LJ | I just say I m going to write some poems. I d like to have another 25-30 years
to write, and I think I could turn out some really good work in that time, by pi
cking and choosing. Oftentimes poets first books are good because it takes so lon
g to publish them. Manuscript accumulates. Better poems stay and some poems go o
ut, by the time it s finally published, it s a good book. And maybe it s a little easi
er to publish the next time, so it takes two to three years, so that process of
weeding out hasn t really happened. So I d like to have another 10 years to publish
my next book and be assured that I d live to see the end of it. We don t have those
kind of assurances. I ll probably finish my next book in two to three years, which
I think it pretty much as fast as I can possibly work.
RSN | Who is your favorite poet?
LJ | Oh, I m my favorite poet!
RSN | Do you have a favorite poem of your own?
LJ | The next one. What people like, you can t help it. I ve had poems that I like a
lot, and then I get no reaction to them and begin to wonder if they are any goo
d.
RSN | Where do your subjects come from?
LJ | Just certain things will resonate. I could probably pass up half a dozen id
eas for poems because they don t strike me particularly.
RSN | How do you find your words?
LJ | You say "How will I say this? What certain tone do I want? What kind of inf
lection? How would I say this if I were telling somebody a story?" Which is esse
ntially what I want to do. I want the language to sound as though someone were t
elling a story. You re not really paying attention to how it s told, you re interested
in the story, you re interested in what s going on. Of course, there s a lot going on
linguistically, but I don t want that to be obvious. It s like the scenery or props y
ou want that to become a part of the actual fantasy, part of the play. So that t
hose cardboard waves are somehow believable.
RSN | But there are certain words that feel right together?
LJ | You do it intuitively. Then you look at it and you say that s not right. You
go back with your more critical sense and you say that s not right. Whatever.
RSN | It is a fascinating form that I wasn t aware of until recently.
LJ | They don t teach prose poems in college by and large. There is no definition
for prose poem. There are no rules except that it s in prose so a prose poem can be
anything. I write the kind of prose poem I write. I don t see them as necessarily
a model for anyone to go by any more than I have been influenced by any rules or
other writers. It s just me, writing in prose, the way I d write it. You try to cre
ate an atmosphere there is not necessarily any point to what you are trying to say
. Usually I try to have a beginning, middle and end. A poet said to me one time
"You re into closure" That was a derogatory term. She wanted to see poem as proces
s. It s a poem. It s a finished work of art. It s not a process. Process is like readi
ng people s journals. I m not interested in that very popular, journal writing. People
will read from journals. Journal means to me that it s in process notes, scribbling
. I don t want that. I want finished art.
RSN | Do you write every day? Do you keep a journal?
LJ | I don t write every day. I have a little notebook that I collect little notes
, fragments usually ideas and things that I look at later and don t know what it s all
about. Forgotten what does that mean? Sometimes that s useful.
RSN | What spurred you to start writing and publishing? Any advice for aspiring
writers?
LJ | Poetry for me in the beginning was a desperate act. I think poetry is a des
perate act, and if it s not a desperate act, then you probably don t need to do it.
Because it has to be so necessary in some way that you do that poetry in particula
r. Poetry is so useless absolutely no cash value.
RSN | But it has other value, doesn t it?
LJ | It s an act of desperation. A friend of mine, a teacher, says there s no doubt
that poetry saved his life got him out of the impoverished life he lived as a chil
d in Detroit. It gave him something beyond his life, and I think it did that for
me, on a different level. But there is a kind of spiritual, aesthetic impoveris
hment that one longs to transcend. Poetry can help with that.
RSN | Do you think some people will read poems about "the lake" or something els
e local because they like the lake and not because they like poetry?
LJ | There is a certain kind of art loosely termed art where your prejudices are rei
nforced by looking at it or reading it. That s not real art. There has to be some
surprise. Robert Frost said "No tears in the poet, no tears in the reader" It ha
s to be genuine. You can t just make it up. And all of that s hard, because you do m
ake it up. You just go at it and hope that it comes out right.