by Ashleigh Carson
“You can never take the exact same walk, or write the exact same poem.” These wise words from my interview with poet Jenny Browne have touched my heart both as a writer and as an artist. I could not have asked for anything more than what I got from Browne both as an interviewer and as an aspiring writer, to know that even when walking the same road or living in the same city as another writer or artist, different stories are formed. Waking up to the same sunrise and watching the same sunset, different stories are formed.
An Assistant Professor of English at Trinity University and poet laureate of San Antonio for 2016-2018, Browne is one that many could look to as inspirational. Not just by way of her poetry and writing, but in her sense of community and education. In the summer of 2011, she traveled to Kenya as part of a sponsored department trip organized by University of Iowa’s International Writing Program where she taught poetry in the refugee camp. As an art advocate, Browne has taught classes through the San Antonio Housing Authority, Arts San Antonio, Gemini Ink, and at the Good Samaritan Center.
Given all of Browne’s accomplishments as a poet and educator living in San Antonio, I wanted to know more about who Browne is. I spoke with Browne about her free time activities, her ideas of poetry, and her life in San Antonio in a recent interview conducted by email.
Ashleigh Carson: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Jenny Browne: I like to read (anything), cook (spicy things) travel (most anywhere, but most recently Chile and Southern Mexico) and grow things (herbs, flowers, children etc.)
I live in downtown San Antonio, and walk along the river nearly every day so I’m fond of poet A.R. Ammons notion that a poem is like a walk, in that both require the participation of the whole body, and both are best undertaken in the spirit of not knowing where you are going, but rather committed to what you notice, imagine, hear and perhaps even understand along the way.
You can never take the exact same walk, or write the exact same poem.
AC: How long have you lived in San Antonio? Has living in San Antonio impacted your work?
JB: I am originally from the Midwest, but have lived in San Antonio for nearly twenty years. There is something about the pace of San Antonio, at once patient and lively, that I treasure, and that seems good for the making poems. I also feel a very keen sense of history living here, and I’m interested in poetry that considers the way we experience time. I’m also inspired by the namesake of SA, the patron saint of lost things. I don’t necessarily think that writing a poem can fix or save a person, but I do believe in the power of attentive naming of what one has lost, and of making something out of remembering, be it a poem, a painting, a song.
AC: What does your writing process look like?
JB: I write first thing every mornings, usually for an hour, more on lucky days.
AC: What is your definition of poetry?
JB: Poetry is both a bird and the wind, both the clock and time.
It is also an experience made of words, something discovered through the process of using language to try say something particular about the universal experience of living in a human body.
AC: What inspired you to write poetry?
JB: I lived in Africa in my early 20s and thought I might be a journalist but I wasn’t any good at it. I was much more interested in the sensory and emotional details of an experience that chasing down the breaking news. I had never lived outside the Midwest and my world felt turned upside down. By this I mean that none of the ways I had learned to make sense of the world worked here. This still seems like a good state from which to begin writing a poem. I also think the rhythms of the language and music I experienced there inspired me to want to use language in more musical ways.
AC: Of all the poems you have written, which poem is your favorite?
JB: The one I’m working on right now, because it always feels the most alive. But this is also a dangerous thing because it’s hard to have any objective distance when you are in the middle of writing. Right now I’m excited about a little poem that was just published because I miss Oaxaca.
AC: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers or poets?
JB: Read, read, and read some more. But also waste time people watching. Become a better listener. Ask questions to kind strangers, and wait for them to answer.
Jenny Browne is the author of three collections of poems Dear Stranger, The Second Reason, and At Once, all from the University of Tampa Press. Her poems and essays have appeared widely, including American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, The New York Times, Tin House, and Threepenny Review. A former James Michener Fellow at the University of Texas in Austin, she has received grants from the San Antonio Artist Foundation, the Texas Writers League, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Currently she is an Associate Professor of English at Trinity University and lives with her husband and daughters Lyda and Harriet in downtown San Antonio.