Jehanne Dubrow is the author of six books of poetry, including most recently Dots & Dashes, winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award (Southern Illinois University Press, 2017). Her previous books are The Arranged Marriage (University of New Mexico Press, 2015), Red Army Red (Northwestern University Press, 2012), Stateside (Northwestern University Press, 2010), From the Fever-World (WWPH, 2010), and The Hardship Post (three candles press, 2009, Sundress Publications, 2013). She has co-edited two anthologies, The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems about Perfume (Literary House Press, 2016) and Still Life with Poem: Contemporary Natures Mortes in Verse (Literary House Press, 2014). She has been a recipient of the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, the Towson University Prize for Literature, an Individual Artist’s Award from the Maryland State Arts Council, a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship and a Howard Nemerov from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a Sosland Foundation Fellowship from the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. She is an Associate Professor of creative writing at the University of North Texas.
Memorious contributor Jessica Murray spoke to her about her latest book, Dots & Dashes.
Jehanne, can you talk a bit about how this book came to be? What were some of the initial impulses that led to these poems?
After my third book Stateside was published in 2010, I thought that I was done writing about the experience of being a military spouse. But, once I began to read from the book at civilian and military institutions around the country, I realized my poems hadn’t fully addressed what it means to belong to two such different communities that speak very different, often conflicting languages.
The first poem I drafted for Dots & Dashes was “Reading Poetry on Maryland Public Radio.” After I gave a radio interview, I made the mistake of reading what someone had written about me online. “[A]s a poet where’s the anti war?…interview seemed grievously war enabling and shallow.” These comments led me to reflect on a certain kind of privilege—that of knowing no one and loving no one who serves in the armed forces. It’s easy to have uncomplicated, pure views about war and military service when your love doesn’t implicate you. Before I married my husband, I used to share in that privilege.
Please, forgive me if I quote myself! In a recent essay, “In the Country of War,” I write: “I sleep beside a man who does not fit the trope of the baby-killer or war-mongerer and yet, on one ship, he was responsible for the Aegis Combat System, which uses computer and radar technology to track and guide weapons that destroy enemy targets…I wonder: Can my poems represent my husband as a real and nuanced human being while acknowledging that his work unnerves me? How do I explore the country of war simultaneously at a great distance—the imaginative leap—and within the intimate bed of marriage?”
And, so that was where Dots & Dashes started, with this need to address how civilians and soldiers might to talk to one another more compassionately, more empathetically, and in more nuanced terms.
The collision you render in Dots & Dashes between the military and artistic worlds is fascinating, but it’s also often very funny. I’m thinking especially of sections of “Five Poetry Readings,” not to mention “Shipmate” and “Patton,” where the military husband “rallies” his troops, that is, his wife, with felicities such as “we must love one another by the bushel- / fucking-basket” and ends “All right, you wonderful guys, go grease / the treads of your tanks…That is all” (43). How is it that these miscommunications or misapplications can still function, to bring it back to Auden, as an “affirming flame?”
I think if there is an “affirming flame” in Dots & Dashes, it’s that these people keep attempting to communicate with one another, despite all the misunderstandings, all the crossed wires. The poems are asserting that an effort at speech is desperately necessarily (now, more than ever!). We need to talk to one another, because the binary of soldier versus civilian is a damaging and false one. Most soldiers eventually reenter the civilian population and, conversely, civilians who have never served are engaging in a kind of self-deception when they say that the violence is happening somewhere else and has nothing to do with me. And, certainly, this sort of binary thinking isn’t helpful within the space of a marriage.
Do you have any favorite poems the collection, or are there any that took an especially long time to get right? What was the “aha!” moment?
In most of my collections, I have a favorite sonnet that represents a kind of formal breakthrough for me, embodying how I try to keep pushing myself to experiment within tradition. In Stateside, that sonnet was “Against War Movies.” In Dots & Dashes, it was “From the Pentagon.” Interestingly, these poems feel like a matched pair; they’re both list-making sonnets, both use humor to address the darkness, and both end with deadly rhymed couplets.
A key poem for me in Dots & Dashes was “Five Poetry Readings,” a longer piece in five parts. It started out as a series of smaller poems scattered across the manuscript, each one exploring a different public reading that I gave when I was promoting Stateside. The individual poems were fine, I suppose, but just didn’t seem to do much on their own. After more than a year of trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, I finally realized that I had written one poem in five parts. The revision process has a way of puncturing the ego and making one feel like a novice again.
I was thinking a bit about how part of the deal your husband signed up for in your partnership is the poetic role of the “exotic” military spouse:
And so I kept him out of sentiment. Displayed him.
Impressed my guests with this curiosity from a field
we’d only read about—the dust, the sweating horses,
the quick, iambic marching of the boots. (8)
But, of course, that works both ways—so much of military life, its lingo, its rituals, finds its way into this collection. How do you imagine the artistic or poetic life finds or might find its way into your spouse’s military realities? If poetry does influence some aspect of military life, what is it—or, what would you want it to be?
In Dots & Dashes, I was really interested in examining the ways that my husband and I each function as the exotic other, when stepping into one another’s professional worlds.
Although I don’t think of my husband as an outsider in academic spaces, I’ve witnessed the awkward interactions that can occur when he meets my professional colleagues. Sometimes other academics make assumptions about his political leanings based on the fact that he’s a career military officer. Or else they fumblingly thank him for “his service” (many people in the military find this kind of civilian gratitude problematic or at the very least discomfiting).
I’m an equally odd figure in military circles. The choices I’ve made—to pursue my own career, not to follow my husband from billet to billet—set me apart from many other dependents. But, it’s in military communities where I’ve also seen my poems do their most important work. As you know, literature can make us feel less alone, by reflecting the specificities of our experiences from the page. So, when a military spouse tells me that a poem in Stateside or Dots & Dashes captures something she has been through, for instance, the loneliness of deployment or the challenges of a husband’s return, I feel that the poems are accomplishing what I have always hoped for my writing.
Is it too soon to ask what you’re working on now?
Not at all! In order to avoid boredom, I like to work on several projects simultaneously and have just finished a draft of a new poetry manuscript, Wild Kingdom, which deals with what I’m thinking of as the hidden, birdlike ferocity of academia. I’m also writing a series of essays about what it was like to grow up in a home that contained a very fine collection of art, a project I’ve tentatively titled Exhibition: A Self-Portrait.
Jessica Murray is a poet, educator & grant-writer who lives in Austin, Texas. Poems of hers can be found in journals such as AGNI Online, Cherry Tree, The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Memorious, and Painted Bride Quarterly. Her website, www.if-you-want-to.com, features linked interviews with contemporary women poets.