Jennifer Militello, Poet, Goffstown
By Jane Eklund
I remember now. Something was chasing
blackbirds from my mouth. My hands
were willows or their speechless wives.
-- from “The Museum of Being Born” by Jennifer Militello
Imagine seeing as a kind of feeling. Imagine the waking world overlapping with dreams, with nightmares. Imagine language that shifts like weather.
A Jennifer Militello poem can propel you into a universe of image and leave you hovering on the edge of something fantastic and evocative. “If you pin things down too much,” Jennifer says, “you lose that play that allows you to capture the reality – the kind of interior, underneath reality.”
If that sounds like Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant,” it’s not surprising: Jennifer herself was propelled into the world of poetry after stumbling upon a collection of Dickinson’s poems. She was 10 years old, poking around in a back bedroom at her grandparents’ house, and when she read the poems, she remembers, “I thought, This is something I want to do.”
Born in The Bronx and raised mostly in Rhode Island, Jennifer chose UNH for college because her family had taken many camping and skiing trips to the state. “I wanted to live here from the first couple of times that we came,” she says. “I loved in the winter, the fact that you could hear the quiet.” She also loved the state’s license plate slogan, “Live Free or Die,” which struck her, as a child, as very bold.
At UNH, Jennifer says, she was naïve: “I knew I loved poetry, but I didn’t know what that meant yet.” She took a form and theory class with Charles Simic (who recently wrapped up a stint as U.S. Poet Laureate), and “learned a lot, really quickly.”
Poetry then took her south, to the University of North Carolina, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. But soon she was back in New Hampshire, living in Nashua and working on her first collection of poems. A job teaching at River Valley Community College took her to Claremont in 2002. These days she commutes to River Valley from Goffstown, which is midway between Claremont and Cambridge, Mass., where her husband, Kieran Clyne, is a horticulturist at Harvard University.
Kieran is the person behind Jennifer’s backyard studio, a cozy and elegant building that rivals anything you might find at an artists’ colony. He built it himself, working nightly after coming home from his day job while Jennifer was carrying their baby (son Dylan is now one). Nestled into a wooded area, it’s a tranquil spot for Jennifer to write poetry, a process she describes as intense, complicated, and ruthless.
She culls the best work from pages of free writing, then culls and culls again – after which she culls some more. “I’m putting out this dirt through a sieve about 47 times,” she says. She takes the pieces and then, she says, “I look to see what they want to do.” Eventually, she writes a draft. Later she types it on a typewriter; still later she enters it into a computer, where it goes into a file – only to be taken apart again when she comes back to it.
“It’s like I’m carnivorous in my process. I destroy drafts. I sacrifice them,” she says. “I’m not going to make really good poems unless every single moment in those poems is good.”
Jennifer’s poems are driven more by voice than by image or metaphor; she’s looking to capture the intensity of voice, she says, the furiousness of the eye. Her first full-length collection, History of the Always Pain, comes out next spring from Tupelo Press. She’s now working on a manuscript titled Body Thesaurus. Her State Arts Council fellowship will fund a teaching-free summer in which to finish that manuscript and start working on new poems.
Having time to work in a concentrated fashion is an immense gift, she says, as well as an affirmation of her work and worth as a writer. “It’s just like somebody saying to you, Great: you’re worth some support.”
What We No Longer Know
Whether the severe theater of your shadow
breaks into ravens or is broken into crows.
Whether morning makes a list of last night’s weapons,
or if warmth is any kind of reminder.
Whether the night is a wide car worth driving.
Whether angry water makes martyrs of the stones.
When exactly fear, crushed by your feet
as you entered the room, gave off its slight odor.
When exactly you opened your mouth
and I saw the teeth of a laid trap.
If pieces of ourselves are darker when apart.
How my skin healed if it was never cut.
Whether open doors everywhere ever open further.
When two voices at once become the same voice twice.
(This poem originally appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review.)
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Photo by Jane Eklund, NHSCA
September 17, 2008