Q+A with Janette Kennedy
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
For me, the actual writing is magical and it is a space I love to be in. What scares me the most is my own internal editor. It takes me a long time to bring poems to this side of me because she has the power to completely take the magic out of poem. Just as I can get lost in writing the poem, in a good way, she can get lost in the editing process. She listens, too much sometimes, to what others say it should be, and she’s not always good with boundaries. She likes to tell me all the ways that something could be misunderstood, so I can’t always give in to her. I’ve found the best way is to give her limits and clear directions.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
Virginia Woolf. I actually had not read any of her work until my senior year in college, when I took a senior seminar on her work. What struck me is how the poetry of her words carried me along and how she infused existential questions into quotidian experiences. I love how she pulls me in and I am right there in her world, delving into the existential observations, the beauty of it all, and the connectivity. She integrated so much in her work, art, philosophy, psychology, life, and she’s not afraid to confront complexity.
What books are on your nightstand?
How Humans Learn by Joshua Eyler, Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri, Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison, The Way of Tanka by Naomi Beth Wakan, Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor, Partakers of the Divine: Contemplation and the Practice of Philosophy by Jacob Holsinger Sherman
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
My first draft of any prose that I write contains these extensively long convoluted sentences, because that makes sense to me. Existence doesn’t come in neatly packaged individual steps, its all connected and cyclical, and the em-dash approximates that; it gives us space to build connections, to continue on.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Oh it energizes me. The part that is difficult is coming out of writing mode, back into the world. I’ve never been one to transition my attention well. I get hyperfocused very easily.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Spreadsheets. In addition to being an adjunct instructor, I also do some contract work with managing data and administration of a tutoring program. Once I start managing the pivot tables, writing formulas, or analyzing data, the poetic network in my brain closes up shop for the day and that doesn’t reopen unless I’m able to do some effective meditation and give it plenty of nature time. The great conundrum though is that I really do enjoy using my analytical problem-solving skills for this, and I would miss it if I wasn’t doing it.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Before I had kids, I used to hang out at bookstores and libraries all the time. Sometimes, the sheer volume of words and ideas would get so overwhelming, and I would just have to put all the books back and just start writing myself. I think it is easy to forget how powerful the act of reading can be, and it is important to allow ourselves time to process and pause as we experience that—to glean the value out of it and manage that power.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
That’s a hard question, because I only have being me as a point of reference. I have no idea how much other people feel anything. It’s possible that not feeling emotions as strongly enables you to put words out into the world more easily.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
When my grandmother passed on, she left a small amount to each of her grandchildren. When I got that check, I was mom to three kids under 5, living far away from extended family, so carving out writing time was very challenging. I took this money, hired a babysitter and took a writing class. I reconnected with my writing self in that space and it made all the difference. It gave me a space to be something other than an exhausted mom on the playground for awhile. It reminded me that it made the experience of my family so much more lovely and amazing.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
In my MFA program, I took an international poetry class and I saw on the reading list was this book of ancient Japanese love poems, The Ink Dark Moon. This is a collection of poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani. I got the book and I remember being completely annoyed because I wasn’t in this for sappy love poems. When we got to this book though and I began reading the translation of ancient Japanese tanka, I was completely blown away. The integration of artistry, philosophy, nature, and the feminine was life-changing for me. I felt a kinship with these women through the translation of their words. Here I was, separated from them by over a thousand years, by language, and half-way around the world. This is what makes poetry amazing.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I was in second or third grade, I was upset by something that was happening with my classmates at school. I felt very misunderstood and as if the more I tried to say, the more my words were turned around. I was in tears and could not explain the depth of my angst to my mom, so she sat with me and we wrote a story together. I learned in this moment that the act of writing impacts our internal lives. It gives us tools to manage and develop who we are, and the act of sharing that writing makes a difference in our connections to others.
What does literary success look like to you?
As I was preparing to enter a local poetry contest, I was trying to decide what poems to submit. I read the top contenders to my family to get their input. After I read “Fibonacci Wake,” the one that ended up winning second place, my oldest daughter said “That one, Mom. It sounds like you.” I think for me, it is those small moments that acknowledge the poem makes an authentic connection, that it’s more than words on a page, it's an interaction.
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