Women in Form: Jehanne Dubrow


Jehanne Dubrow

TJ: Do you actually sit down to write a sonnet, ghazal, or villanelle? Or is it a more organic process related to the content?


JD: Most of the time, I let the draft teach me what form the poem should take.  Somewhere in the middle of working on a poem, I’ll see that a particular rhyme scheme or a certain rhetorical strategy has begun to emerge.  Oh, I’ll say, this poem wants to be a sonnet–there’s the turn, there’s the dialectic.  But, I also love giving myself writing assignments, and this is how I’ve written most of my villanelles. The villanelle works really well as a writing prompt because the form is already so over-determined that anything seemingly organic in the poem is, in fact, artifice made to look natural.


TJ: Is there ever a thought, even a fleeting one, about where a poem you write ‘fits’ within the history of the forms you choose?


JD: When I write sonnets, I’m always thinking about the way a female poet who works in this form is subverting history:  the tradition of the male gaze, the persuasion of carpe diem (otherwise known as the best pick-up line in all of poetry).  When in doubt, I return to a poem like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What lips my lips have kissed and where, and why.”  The woman is the one with agency, the one doing the kissing, the one trying to remember forgotten “lads,” the one who endures.


TJ: Do you find the structures of form liberating or constricting when you employ it for a poem?


JD: Yes and yes.  Form is a game and a puzzle and sometimes a trap.  Form is also protective and insulating.  By focusing on a set of predetermined rules or conventions, I often find that I can say scary words more easily.  My favorite form–as you can probably tell–is the sonnet, because those fourteen lines determine the poem’s scope, its use of literary devices, the kind of argument it will pose.

In my poem “Against War Movies,” I imagine my husband, who is career military, dying over and over again, as I picture him in films like Platoon and Stalingrad. Here’s the closing couplet:  “Each movie is a training exercise, / a scenario for how my husband dies.”  I’m not sure that I could have reached those final two lines without the constraints of the Elizabethan sonnet, pushing me to say something difficult in such a musically loud manner.


TJ: How often do you look outside English language poetic forms? Do you feel it to be a sort of vacation when you visit them, either when writing them or just reading them?


JD: Well, most of the fixed forms that I favor are rooted in languages other than English:  the villanelle and triolet and rondeau originated in France, the pantoum in Malaysia (and came to us through the French), and of course the Petrarchan sonnet in Italy.  And then received forms–the elegy, the ode–seem borderless, unrestricted by language or culture.  In other words, I think working in form allows one to remain connected, constantly, to big historical moments and to other geographies.


TJ: Which writers are your touchstones when you find yourself in a rut?


JD: Philip Larkin is a model when I’m trying to find a balance between use of traditional forms and handling of modern diction (see:  “groping back to bed after a piss”).  Marilyn Hacker is another important figure, for the same reason; she’s so formally rigorous but always sounds contemporary, not only in terms of her voice but also her choice of content (see: “First, I want to make you come in my hand”).  I read Natasha Trethewey when I’m trying to figure out how to merge private and public histories, Mary Jo Salter for wit and elegance, W.H. Auden for ambition, Anthony Hecht for nuance, Donald Justice for the push-pull between free verse and formalism, Richard Wilbur for longevity, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg for flat-out dazzling genius.


TJ: Which contemporary poets do you envy? Exactly what do you envy?


JD: I envy the imaginations of Patricia Lockwood and Mathias Svalina. I envy the mystery of Alison Benis White.  I envy the musical compression of Idra Novey and Beth Bachmann.  I envy Matthew Zapruder’s intelligence.  I envy Jericho Brown and Traci Brimhall their strong, distinctive voices.


TJ: Did you have a mentor when you began your writing career? What characteristic would you most like to emulate as you move forward?


JD: I was very lucky to have two poetry mentors who guided me throughout my PhD and to whom I still turn for counsel, even now that I’m a teacher myself. One of them taught me that I could aspire to do it all:  write, edit, teach, publish.  She taught me it was okay to have big goals and even to call myself ambitious.  The other taught me that it’s important to write fan letters when you read something you love and to write thank-you letters when someone shows you a kindness in the poetry world. Both mentors taught me that–no matter how accomplished you become–it’s essential that you write/revise/read everyday, that you continue to compete with yourself, to compete with what you wrote yesterday and the day before.


TJ: What do you feel about the current state of the writing community?


JD: I try not to think about the writing community and its current state. That’s too big and abstract for me! Instead, I think of recent books I admire (for instance, collections by Shane McCrae, Tarfia Faizullah, and Erika Meitner). I think about my poet-friends who teach me through their poems how to be a better writer and maybe a better person (Leslie Harrison, Yerra Sugarman, James Allen Hall, Kristin Naca).  And I think about programs and events that I’ve attended in the past year–hours of poetry which have made me want to go home and draft something new (if you ever have the chance to see Elana Bell give a poetry reading, don’t pass up the opportunity!).


TJ: I put writers into two categories: writers who make me want to write and writers who make me want to throw up my hands and give up because they are just that amazing. Can you pick one writer for each category and can you explain the choice?


JD: An important part of my writing process is imitation or what’s sometimes called “scaffolding.”  That is, I like to draft my own poem on top of someone else’s work, exactly replicating the structure of the text, its tone or turns, its shape on the page.  Wallace Stevens has proven a great source of inspiration for me; his diction is so different from my own that, in imitating his poems, I’ve learned how to expand my own voice, reaching for images or making metaphors that would have been impossible without his influence.

In the I-give-up category, there’s Elizabeth Bishop.  What more do I need to say about her?  I suspect there are many poets who, like me, love to read and reflect on her work but find her to be a draft-killer.  Bishop is inimitable.


TJ: If you could go back in time and talk to your wide-eyed 10 year old self, what would you tell her about your choice of writing as a vocation?


JD: My ten-year-old self knew that she was going to be a writer (or an actor or an artist).  I would tell her:  You already have a talent for solitude. You’ll need that self-sufficiency if you want to be a poet.  But, you will also need to learn how to collaborate, how to look to others for advice and friendship and love.  Your best poems will be made in isolation and then remade in conversation with the world around you. 



Read Jehanne Dubrow’s poems “USS Ronald Reagan” and “Come Sailor Let’s Make War on Time


Read more of TJ’s interviews in Women in Form



Jehanne Dubrow is the author of four poetry collections, including most recently Red Army Red and Stateside. In 2015, University of New Mexico Press will publish her fifth book of poems, The Arranged Marriage. Her work has appeared in Southern Review, The New England Review, The Hudson Review, Prairie Schooner, and Ploughshares. She is the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and an Associate Professor of creative writing at Washington College, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.