Poetry Spotlight: Jeanne Larsen

What Penelope Chooses is a feminist retelling that gives Homer’s Odyssey a modern setting while still retaining the core mythos. In this journey through language jam-packed with allusion, Jeanne Larsen creates a genealogy of women in the Odyssey and their subversive forces. We hear their laments as they try to make their own choices in a world defined by men and a war they have no part in. In Larsen’s feminist retelling, we can read the men of the Odyssey as both courageous and defined by a masculinity that can make them brittle. At a time when we question the meaning and definition of female agency, culturally, Larsen gives us the space to recognize the complexity of power.

Jeanne Larsen’s third book of poetry, What Penelope Chooses, winner of the Cider Press Review Book Award, was published in March 2019 by Cider Press Review. Her two earlier books of poems are Why We Make Gardens [& other Poems], and James Cook in Search of Terra Incognita, the AWP Award Series winner. She has also published two collections of translated poems by medieval Chinese women—Brocade River Poems and Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon—and four novels. She is now Professor Emerita at Hollins University, where she was the inaugural Jackson Professor of Creative Writing.

What Penelope Chooses is a feminist retelling of the Odyssey—the figures of Agamemnon and Odysseus are still there, but there’s more of a focus on Penelope, Klytemnestra, Kassandra and others. It reminds me of Medea by Christa Wolfe, or Circe by Madeline Miller. Would you say that’s accurate?

Yes, a retelling—I like to say I was footnoting Homer, & giving the grand old man some lip. And yes, as I live & breathe, it’s feminist. 

Actually, the Odyssey itself is a kinda-feminist response to Homer’s Iliad. Scholars pretty much agree that the Odyssey was composed some while later, & I go with the ones who see it as the work of a different mastermind. Sure, it’s definitely dude-centric, but the female figures in it matter. They make things happen in ways the women in the Iliad, heart-twisting though their stories are, just aren’t allowed to. 

Which woman do you relate to most? Whose story do you find the most interesting?

I’m terrifically fond of Penelope herself. She’s a maker of art, the clever trickster of the hot-headed suitor/bullies who have camped out in her home, & the one who says “hey, let’s have an archery contest”—which makes it possible for Odysseus to take out the bad guys & regain control of Ithaka. 

She’s complicated. She gets discouraged. She acts like a Good Girl but she gets annoyed. She has weird dreams, & maybe lies about one of them. She gives her roving husband a little test before she’s willing to hop back into bed with him—the woman outsmarts the western world’s poster-boy for wiliness! And there’s that huge mystery: in the run-up to the story’s climax, does Penelope recognize the beggar who’s started hanging around as Odysseus returned, or not? All that interests me, a lot. 

But Circe & Kalypso & Nausikaa, the women Odysseus, uh, encounters on his long trip home from the war, are also compelling figures: the magic-maker, the dumped lover who finally says ciao with dignity, the ingénue who smartens up. Then there’s the mostly-nameless bondmaids: impossible not to see them through the lens of US history, impossible not to feel gut-wrenched by the injustice that inundates & for some, quite cruelly ends, their lives. 

Would you write about classical mythology again? 

Funny you should ask: I’ve been playing with draft one of a novel that riffs off the Odyssey in a very different way.

One of the things I find most intriguing about your book is that even though we have this retelling of the Odyssey, it feels extremely topical, even temporal, like “Achilles sulking in his CHU.” It seems an obvious reference to wars in the Middle East. How do you find the Odyssey compares to our wars, and the way that we see those wars? 

Yes, yes, yes: totally contemporary. Alas. 

When Jonathan Shay’s work came out, classicists slapped their foreheads: of course the epics are “about” PTSD, in ways that I found made them really useful for thinking about recent ‘Merikan misadventures in places not all that far from Troy. This is true even though they can also be read (& have been, you betcha) in ways that lift up the warrior-values—courage, endurance, the nobility of self-sacrifice, the beautiful power of loyalty to comrades on the battlefield. 

Political poetry, to my mind, is best done obliquely. Who wants to be preached at, even if you’re in the choir? The mythic material from Homer gave me the, you know, oven mitts I needed to say what I can’t not say. 

I hope everyone who reads What Penelope Chooses will also be stimulated to think about gender & sexual identity: there’s Tiresias, whom Odysseus consults in Hades—a person whose history plays delicious havoc with rigid notions of the guy/gal binary; Athene transits from one gender to another now & then, too. This book doesn’t get into Achilles’ love for Patroklos, but one of my poems proposes that Penelope’s son Telemachus acquires a boyfriend on his adventures. That’s my reading of Homer, & I want to celebrate it. 

The world of Odysseus & Penelope is wonderfully multi-cultural, too: there is in fact no monolithic group called “the Greeks”—it’s more of a coalition. And the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Ethiopians all play significant roles. Some very current issues around race & social class show up in Homer’s epics, too, like colorism, & the survival-strengths enslavement calls forth in human beings. 

Also, you can see in them the start of our insane destruction of other species & “the cool, green hills of Earth.” And I bet you noticed one poem’s mention of “galling witlessness” trying to get our “breaded, be-circused votes”, & maybe thought of a certain “comb-o / ver tub thumper”… 

The wordplay in Penelope also reminds me of the punning wordplay of classical literature and biblical Aramaic. How do you feel the play of language contributes to storytelling? 

Ah, what my poet-pal Barbara Hamby calls the “lingo tango”! Poetry is words that shimmy, boogie, pirouette, break into a buck-&-wing. Of course poems are about speaking our truths—like as not, in the form of nifty lies. But they’re also about that remarkable phenom, human language. 

Poets in every language I’ve heard tell of find all kinds of ways of saying “yo, pay attention: this is not an ordinary utterance: tune in!” Think of rhyme & other sound-links, rhythm & actual meter, the very fact of having lines. Think of anaphora, parallelism, breaking away from conventions for capitalization or punctuation, the layout on the page in open-form poetry… 

All that we call “craft” is flexible, break-able rules for playing some kind of language-game. But games, of course, are very serious things. Very human, & very pleasurable, life-enriching, neural-net enhancing things. 

In poems like “When Wisdom Turns Her/himself into Dusk” or “Slay—The Gods May Have Another Word,” various moments feel like they are aiming for specific voices, or to give specific voices certain sounds—what made you choose certain voices for these poems? Why these voices in particular? 

Smart question. No idea. But waitaminnit: I have stuff to say nonetheless. 

For Penelope, I gave myself all kinds of prompts: some came from my intensive, compulsive, semi-random reading around in the delicious trove of scholarly & popular books & articles about the Homeric epics & their world. I’d hit a fun fact here, a theory or perspective there, scrounge up some nifty vocab from somewhere else. (Thank you, thank you, Ms.-&-Mr. Translators.) Then: go, Jeanne, go—string those threads up on the loom.  

Or sometimes, I’d think, “okay, Larsen, whatcha gonna do about Book XXIV?” or “where are Skylla & Charybdis?—gotta have ‘em somewhere in the sequence.” Sometimes, I’d get a line out of who-knows-where &, you know how this happens, I’d realize it was, say, Nausikaa talking, because she had a few things to point out to the bro who’d washed up naked on her parents’ beach… 

In other words: voices in the sense of high-falutin’ diction mixed with slang-speak, puns, quasi-onomatopoeia, nifty turns o’ phrase, etymological whizbangs, nuance networks, a little verbing—all doing the do-si-do. And voices in the sense of human identities that will not be kept silent. Yeah. I guess that’s what I was after.

Knowledge of the Odyssey is obviously central to this collection, which draws so deeply from its characters, plot, and legacy. What would you say to readers who haven’t read the Odyssey and might feel intimidated by a mythos they don’t know well?

I want it to work for readers like this. Knowing Homer only through kiddie versions or refracted stories & footnotes & class discussions is the normal thing, I’d say. The Coen brothers sure had fun with the Odyssey in O Brother Where Art Thou?, yet they claim they too never read it. 

But I’ve been happily surprised by how many high school & college students are still being made to read, or pretend to have read, the Odyssey—and then come to love it. It is so darn useful to a culture to have figures like the cyclops or wanderin’ Odysseus or resilient Penelope that we can hold in common, & reimagine, & share our differing perspectives on. “Trojan horse” is a mighty handy phrase, isn’t it? 

Plus, I did toss in those notes at the end of the book. Plus: the google, right? I used it approximately 100,000 times while working on these poems. 

What books do you feel pair well with What Penelope Chooses

Books that pair well? Great concept. People can check my acknowledgements page for a list of recs: the Bearden’s Odyssey poetry anthology, & Zachary Mason’s brilliant stories, & a swell graphic novel, & more. 

If you want to feel like you’ve read the Iliad without actually reading the Iliad, check out Carolyn Alexander’s The War That Killed Achilles. Oh, &: everyone should brace & then read Alice Oswald’s book-long poem, Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad

You can also learn about Homer’s epics as comments on the horrible effects of war by reading a couple books by the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who has done a lot of work with Vietnam vets. Me, I’ve got a sweet, fat folder of poems by women responding to Homer; maybe someday I’ll do an anthology myself.

Interviewer Julie Webb is an MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University. She has most recently worked on creating poetry workshops for the local community.

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