Jenny Lewis Poet Interview

jenny lewis poet interview bookblast diary

Book Blast interview with poet, Jenny Lewis

Jenny Lewis, where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Pembury, Kent and grew up in London.

What sorts of books were in your family home?
Milton, in his Areopagitica, advises us to read “promiscuously” and, as a somewhat lonely, post-war London child, I did just that, reading voraciously anything I could lay my hands on from my grandmother’s leather bound classics (Shakespeare, Dickens, Tennyson …); dictionaries; encyclopedias; my father’s old medical books; the modern novels I found on my mother’s bedside table (The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute) to children’s books such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, comics (The Beano, The Dandy) and, of course, Kellogg’s Cornflakes packets and, most memorably, tins of Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup with the picture of a lion surrounded by bees and the legend “Out of the strong came forth sweetness” which puzzled me. Was the lion dead or just sleeping and why were the bees swarming over him? One of life’s great moments was when I realized there were such things as libraries where there were thousands of books to be borrowed. From then on, I half lived in the Hammersmith Library near where we lived.

Who were your early, formative influences as a writer?
My grandmother’s voice, reading us the Bible with its majestic cadences and larger-than-life, fantastical happenings – a sea that parted to let men pass through, an ark into which the animals went two by two to be saved from the Flood, a man who could walk on water and (the answer to my question) – a lion, killed by Samson, in whose dead body a swarm of bees made honey. At school it was Keats, Wilfred Owen, Shakespeare and Chaucer. Later, the poetry of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sylvia Plath.

Do you write every day, and do you write many drafts?
I do write every day but not necessarily creative work. I write articles and reviews for journals and websites and teach poetry and verse drama at Oxford University which involves giving seminars and supervising student projects face to face and via email. I was also a core tutor for poetry and verse drama at Pegasus Theatre, Oxford for many years and I teach private students and run and promote events through my organization, The Poet’s House, Oxford. For my creative work, I make many, many drafts and would go on refining and editing ad infinitum were it not for publication deadlines. As Paul Valery said: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
I’m embarrassed about some of the headlines I wrote when I worked as a copywriter for London advertising agencies, although they probably sold the products quite well.
I’m most proud of writing Gilgamesh Retold, my modern retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh which is published by Carcanet Press in October 2018, MORE HERE

Books that changed your life?
The poetry of John Keats and Wilfred Owen went straight into my bloodstream; An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language by Walter Skeat showed me what an exciting, many-tiered ocean the English language is (Julia Kristeva says, “I plunge into language and there I swim”); James Joyce’s Ulysses chimed with my fascination for the roots of language; Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck (1973) and her essay When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision (1972) made me question and explore more closely the way we use language, especially in the interpretation and “re-visioning” of old texts from the viewpoint of women; Ibsen’s Brand (written to be read rather than staged) showed me how narrative can be carried vigorously by poetry; Kevin Young’s “verse noir” novel, Black Maria (Knopf, 2005) was a revelation in showing how genres can be mixed – in this case, poetry with film and film script – and influenced my approach to Gilgamesh Retold which also mixes different metrical forms of poetry with script and film techniques.

Your views on book publishing?
I know it requires tremendous effort after a book had been published to market and promote it and that writers need to contribute all their contacts and energy to this. The marketplace is dominated by a few major players, but smaller presses do break through and give breaks to newcomers.

How important were, and are, editors? Have you had much encouragement from your editor(s)?
Editors are crucially important. I rely on them to guide me down the final straight and make the book as good as it possibly can be. And yes, my editors have been hugely encouraging and instrumental in my development as a writer.

Which is more important, style or voice?
It depends on the book. For example, in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, it is the voice of Holden Caulfield that dominates whereas in a book like Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau, it is obviously all about style (and very funny!)

Your views on the explosion of creative writing courses? How helpful are they in reality?
If you see them as nurseries for the next generation of Nobel prizewinners, they could be seen to be exploiting people’s fantasies (although alumni of CW courses do win major prizes). If you see them as places where people who love writing and literature can congregate, learn and develop as writers together in a supportive and knowledgeable community I think they serve an important purpose.

What are your favorite literary journals?
PN Review, Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, London Review of Books, the TLS, The New Yorker, The Author (Society of Authors).

How well are your books received in Europe?
My books have been translated into Russian, Farsi and Arabic but, to date, not into any European languages, although I have had individual poems and poem sequences translated into French, Swedish and Spanish. My first book, When I Became an Amazon (Iron Press 1996, Bilingua, Russia, 2002) has been made into an opera with music by Gennadyi Shiroglazov and was premiered in Russia, by the Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet Company, in November 2017.

Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? What about social media?
Facebook, Twitter and blogs on my own website and for Oxford University and Carcanet Press are indispensable for keeping up my profile as a writer and teacher and for advertising poetry news and events. The internet is also good for checking facts and aiding research.

If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
I would go to Keats’ bedside in Italy when he was dying, alone, apart from one rather reluctant friend, Joseph Severn, to hold his hand and tell him of his huge, posthumous global fame. But then I would probably start a TB epidemic when I came back to the 21st century.

Your favourite prose authors?
James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Bulgakov, Émile Zola, Colm Toibin.

Your favourite noir series?
The Bridge (Swedish/ Danish TV series).

Favourite feature films?
The Piano, A Bout de Souffle, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, The Yellow Submarine, Minions.

Five favourite bands?
The Beatles, Jethro Tull, Santana, The Penguin Café, The Epstein (when my son Ed was the drummer in it).

Your chief characteristic?

Your bedside reading?
Currently The Craft of Thought (Cambridge, 1998) by Mary Carruthers and The Mabinogi (Faber, 2017) by Matthew Francis.

Your motto?
Be kind.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 379 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.