An Interview with Jehanne Dubrow

My dear MilspoFANs, our Artist Interview this month is with Jehanne Dubrow, an award-winning poet, an academic, and a Navy spouse. As I’ve been reading her poetry and her story, I feel pulled into a thoughtful spiral. Jehanne’s work is most often visceral, sensuous, and entwining.   Forgive me while I wander into a ramble, but Jehanne’s words have gotten me thinking…

Our brains are designed to seek out and to create patterns- to sort ourselves and our experiences into discrete categories. Ironically, our gray matter can’t seem to abide the gray areas. But as milspouses- and perhaps especially when we are also artists- we become familiar with these gray areas.

We feel at home everywhere and nowhere. We are fiercely pragmatic and fiercely idealistic. Our lives and identities are inextricably tied to the military, yet are always on the outside, orbiting it. We constantly reinvent ourselves out of opportunity and necessity, and we know ourselves more clearly because of these metamorphoses.

To me, reading many of Jehanne’s poems was an exploration of (or a lingering in) the gray areas in between the neat little boxes and near-dichotomies our brains so quickly pick out: intimacy/separation, formality/authenticity, anticipation/appreciation, flood/famine, presence/absence, belonging/loneliness, waiting/doing.

Thank you for your indulgence. I wonder what you’ll see in her work…
Now, please enjoy this month’s Artist Interview with Jehanne Dubrow…

 

MilspoFAN: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today. 

Jehanne: The daughter of American diplomats, I was born in Italy (at a U.S. military hospital in Vicenza) and grew up in Yugoslavia, Zaire, Poland, Belgium, Austria, and the United States. My husband and I met as undergraduates at St. John’s College, what’s often known as “the Great Books School.” We fell in love in our language and lab classes, respectively studying canonical texts like Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal and Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species.

After we graduated, we lived together for a year and then had a very sad breakup. My husband joined the Navy during that time, while I went off to graduate school for an MFA in poetry and a PhD in English. Eight years later, we got back together, got married, and then began the strange process of making a long-distance marriage work. At the time, I was finishing my PhD at the University of Nebraska, while my husband was on a ship out of Norfolk. A few years after that, I went on the job market, landed a position at a small liberal arts college, published my first few books, received tenure, ran a literary center, published more books, landed a new job at a university halfway across the country, moved, and published some more.

In the nearly fourteen years that we’ve been married, my husband and I have only lived together a total of about two and a half years. When we do see one another, it’s often for only two or three days at a time. A ten-day visit feels like an absolute luxury! My husband has about eighteen more months in, at which point he’ll hit the twenty-year mark and retire. We’re both excited to learn what it’s like to live in the same house, although I suspect we’re also nervous about sharing our spaces, making room for one another in our daily routines.

 

View a small film made of “The Long Deployment,” one of the poems in Dots & Dashes, here:
http://motionpoems.org/episode/long-deployment/

The Long Deployment
from Dots & Dashes:

 

For weeks, I breathe his body in the sheet

           and pillow. I lift a blanket to my face.

There’s bitter incense paired with something sweet,  

           like sandalwood left sitting in the heat

or cardamom rubbed on a piece of lace.

           For weeks, I breathe his body. In the sheet

I smell anise, the musk that we secrete

           with longing, leather and moss. I find a trace  

of bitter incense paired with something sweet.   

           Am I imagining the wet scent of peat

and cedar, oud, impossible to erase?

           For weeks, I breathe his body in the sheet—

crushed pepper—although perhaps discreet,

           difficult for someone else to place.

There’s bitter incense paired with something sweet.  

           With each deployment I become an aesthete

of smoke and oak. Patchouli fills the space

           for weeks. I breathe his body in the sheet

until he starts to fade, made incomplete,  

           a bottle almost empty in its case.

There’s bitter incense paired with something sweet.  

           And then he’s gone. Not even the conceit

of him remains, not the resinous base.

           For weeks, I breathed his body in the sheet.

He was bitter incense paired with something sweet.                

 

 

MilspoFAN: Is all of your writing inspired by your life as a military spouse?

 

Jehanne: Not at all! My first two books, The Hardship Post and From the Fever-World, look at what it was like to grow up as a Jew in the post-Holocaust landscape of Eastern Europe. My fourth book, Red Army Red, explores my coming-of-age in Communist-era Poland (I turned sixteen two days after the Wall came down in East Berlin), using the language of Communism to speak about the tyranny of the adolescent body. My fifth book, The Arranged Marriage, is a book of prose poems based on more than a year’s worth of interviews that I did with my mother. The collection considers what I like to describe as “different forms of forced intimacy and closeness” and is about my mother’s exiled, Jewish upbringing in Latin America as well as a violent trauma she experienced and the marriage that she was pushed into, in her early twenties. My writing tends to merge personal history with large-scale national history, frequently incorporating research and often meditating on other art forms, including the visual arts, music, and theater.

MilspoFAN: According to your website, Your most recent book of poetry, Dots & Dashes, “functions as a ‘sequel’ to [your] third collection, Stateside, exploring what it’s like to be both a military spouse and an academic, a member of two communities that speak very different (and often conflicting) languages.” Tell us more about living and working in that duality. How was writing this second collection, Dots & Dashes, different from writing Stateside?

 

Jehanne: It is very strange to belong to two communities that struggle to communicate yet need one another so desperately. Dots & Dashes came directly out of my experiences of promoting Stateside at civilian and military institutions around the country. As I read and spoke in these different spaces, I realized that I was pleasing no one. In civilian settings—particularly colleges and universities—I was frequently critiqued for being complicit in America’s foreign conflicts, just by virtue of being married to a man in uniform. And in military settings, I was often critiqued for articulating (through my poems) the simple fact that being married to the military is difficult, even painful at times.

 

I began to write the poems in Dots & Dashes in order to ask how or if empathy, communication, and understanding might be possible between these two communities. I’m not sure if I ever found answers to my questions. But, then again, the job of poetry is to exist in a condition of uncertainty and ambivalence, what Keats called “negative capability”; so, perhaps, that’s an answer in itself.

MilspoFAN: You hold a BA, MFA, and PhD- how were you able to balance military moves and the general uncertainty of military life-planning with earning these degrees and moving forward into your successful career in the arts and academia?

 

Jehanne: Being an academic is not a portable career, particularly once one has tenure. In my field, there might be no more than 15 – 20 poetry jobs posted nationally every year, with hundreds of applications for every position. So, I’ve gone where my job as a professor has taken me, while my husband has gone where his job takes him. We both care deeply about our careers, and we treat our separate ambitions as equally important, equally deserving of respect. That’s not to say the uncertainties of military life haven’t had a huge impact on me. They have. I try to channel my worries about my husband’s work into my art (in fact, this is how I came to write Stateside, thanks to those very anxieties).

 

Hear Jehanne read three of her poems, Secure for Sea, Against War Movies, and Nonessential Equipment, from Stateside on NPR’s Fresh Air
https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127135397

 

 

Against War Movies
from Stateside

 

I see my husband shooting in Platoon,

and there he is again in M*A*S*H (how weird

to hear him talk like Hawkeye Pierce), and soon

I spot him everywhere, his body smeared

with mud, his face bloodied. He’s now the star

of every ship blockade and battle scene—

The Fighting 69th, A Bridge Too Far,

Three Kings, Das Boot, and Stalag 17.

In Stalingrad he’s killed, and then

he’s killed in Midway and A Few Good Men.

He’s burned or gassed, he’s shot between the eyes,

or shoots himself when he comes home again.

Each movie is a training exercise,

a scenario for how my husband dies.

 

 

MilspoFAN: What’s next for you?

 

Jehanne: I’ve just finished a new book of poems about academia; Wild Kingdom looks at how college and university campuses have become screens onto which we project all of our anxieties about society, including issues of gender, sexuality, race, and social class. Next year, my first collection of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes, will be published. It’s a book-length essay about how I came to fall in love with the art and science of perfume; it’s also a defense of frivolous things, arguing for why we need frivolity, particularly in bleak times such as these.

 

Because I love to work on many projects simultaneously—it’s one of the ways that I avoid boring myself—I have another in-progress manuscript of poems, Dark Lines Against the Dark. And, I’ve started a new collection of essays, Exhibition, a Self-Portrait, which is about art, specifically what it was like to grow up in a home that contained a remarkable art collection.

MilspoFAN: What is the most practical piece of advice that you would give to other artists?

 

Jehanne:

  1. It’s not enough to have an interesting story to tell. No matter our age or life experiences, we all begin as beginners. Therefore, pursue training, mentoring, whatever support will help you to hone your craft. If you can afford formal training, do it. The kind of creative and professional guidance you receive within a program can take years to acquire outside of a university setting.
  2. Don’t squander your gifts; talent can fade if it’s not put to use.
  3. Give yourself time and room to fail and to learn from your mistakes.
  4. Prioritize your work; make sure others understand that your art is a priority in your life.
  5. And, finally, don’t give your work away for free. The arts should not be a gift economy. Once you’ve achieved a certain level of mastery in your art, you should charge for your work the way experts in other fields do.

Thank you, Jehanne, for sharing your work and your story with us! 

MilspoFANs, were you moved by Jehanne’s poetry and wisdom? Share your comments and questions with us in the comments below or on Facebook.
Don’t forget to grab your copy of Stateside,  Dots & Dashes, and Jehanne’s other works on Amazon.
You can learn even more about Jehanne by visiting her on the web at: www.jehannedubrow.com
And you can read two more of her poems here:

“Homeport” from Dots & Dashes: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/homeport

 

“Armed Services Editions” from Dots & Dashes: http://www.americanlifeinpoetry.org/columns/detail/553  

 

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