profiles in poetics: Jacqueline Gens

Jacqueline Gens


New England College program blog:

Jacqueline Gens comes from a strong lineage of Russian women storytellers who originally migrated to the United States, more specifically Southern California, shortly before she was born. Here, Gens describes her world existing on the “cusp”. In this space of the between, the gritty earth, clouds overhead, language, music, culture; the sacred became, as it still is today, a space of vibrancy and wholeness. Quite similar to Anne Waldman’s forward in Gens’ recently published chapbook Primo Pensiero, Waldman expresses, “this debut bouquet of poems is an elegant display of ordinary mind spiked with the magic and heart of ‘Big Mind’ sensibility.”

When asked about the influence of Buddhism in Gens’ life, she describes her practice as one wrapped around, amidst, below, and between, every moment. She says, “waking up to me is synonymous with touching earth, not escaping for something higher or more abstract.” As co-director and founder of the New England College, Jacqueline tells me “I have served the muse well in this lifetime by nurturing the work of other writers and especially hundreds of new writers finding their voice.” In this way, she nurtures the internal of the feminine in a way that is a gift to the self and importantly to the larger community as well.

1.) Where are you from? What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who, what, where, influenced you as a writer? In other words how did you arrive here as a writer?

I was born in Southern California and lived in Malibu until I was five. That was before it became a Hollywood enclave. I was intensely curious as a child. Even in infancy I would tear through drawers always seeking. I also had a strong sense of the sacred.  I remember looking up into the sky and feeling the magnitude of all that space. Growing up in proximity to the Pacific Ocean was also an early influence — actually something very primal. My mother grew strawberries and I must have spent lots of time outdoors in the playpen while she worked the patch. I love the smell of wet earth and sand.

My mother’s Russian émigré multigenerational family were lively story-tellers and created an oral narrative of their travails and losses that began during the Russian revolution and lasted throughout WWII in China where they eventually migrated. This family of women – mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all ended in the US when my grandmother Lydia married a wonderful Mexican-American sailor in Shanghai named David Hernandez.  Growing up in Los Angeles at the cusps of these two diverse families instilled a love of culture. Then too, I was brought up Catholic although my family was not interested – I enjoyed the sacred aesthetics of a “mission” church with its Latin mass, Gregorian chant before Vatican II. As a kid I read primarily the lives of the saints and fairy tales. But my mother’s family also had some introduction to Chinese and Japanese culture and values. One of my mother’s aunts, the beautiful Natasha, gave up everything to become a pure land nun traveling to sacred sites around western China and later immigrated to Australia after the war where she continued to live as a nun. That interested me. Mostly I felt an outsider while growing up in Southern California as a first generation American so I found solace in reading as a child and a whole community of other outsiders across time and space.

2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

My reading and writing started primarily as a “refuge” a journey of discovery and interconnectedness with a psychic community of like-minded people. I didn’t get much encouragement so I kept it to myself for many years. My main creative inspiration came from reading the Russians early on and poets like Keats, Whitman, Dickinson. When I was thirteen I discovered Allen Ginsberg. His poem “Kaddish” just rocked my world. I deeply connected with his affect of feeling through the stark imagery of his biblical family narrative — warts and all. That’s the kind of poetry I wanted to write and still do.

3.) Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

I was highly influenced by the Beats beginning in my teens, as I mentioned, like many young people of my generation and also Bob Dylan whose elegant syntax combined with gritty narrative engaged me. Their authenticity and non-conformist life style resonated with my own values ( and probably my whole generation too).  Later, I was inspired by Native American writers especially the work of Simon Ortiz and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, along with indigenous poetries from around the world.  In my youth I read Hart Crane, Rimbaud, Whitman and Dickinson, the romantics with great care. 

4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and how so?

I like a good story in person and on the page. People’s origins interest me.

In my youth, I studied anthropology so world music is important to me for inspiration. The music of Mikos Theodarakis especially who put Neruda’s Cantos to music – and then Bob Dylan—a masterful poet whose syntax is unbeatable – I was just listening to “one more cup of coffee” the other day. When I have insomnia I go on You Tube and search for all sorts of world music and poetry—it’s very demotic. Every obscure culture is on You Tube.

5.) What are you plans for the future:

Finish the 60 poems from The Mansion of Elements based on the Tibetan astrological configuration of animals and elements.

Finish a several long works especially Dragon’s Crease which is still very raw about the creative work of woman hiding their power.

Work on some books relating to A Ginsberg especially his pedagogy of teaching and an annotated Kaddish which has been much overlooked.

Finish a play in verse on the life of Mary Lyon

Hope to write a cool death-bed poem to make its way into my practice lineage—anonymous OK

6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

To be honest (and opinionated), I’m not a great fan of women’s poetry especially more ‘academic’ women. We are talking of a relatively recent emergence in Western culture. I came of age in the era of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton whose suicide deaths were public affairs—not great role models. Dickinson’s –“say it slant” is still very much at play, say in accomplished poets like Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Marie Howe, the late Debra Digges – a lot of beautifully crafted work covering up trauma just plain wearies me. I’ll never forget being asked to write a paper on Wild Iris in graduate school—jeez—‘flowers talking with God’, what rubbish, and yet so hauntingly beautiful. The tantric practitioner in me says– Throw some raw meat in there –a bit of “recrudescence” a taste of wildness to get real, touch the earth.  That’s my Buddhist training talking. When the Buddha reached enlightenment (woke up), what did he do? His first gesture / mudra was to touch the earth. Waking up to me is synonymous with touching earth, not escaping for something higher more abstract. Poetically, my primary slogans are objectivist—Williams’ “No ideas but in things” and “close to the nose,” based on my allegiance to Ginsberg’s training I received at Naropa.

For me Anne Waldman rises to the top as a female writer who has fearlessly captured the fire of patriarchy and turned it on its head. She once said she thought that Olson’s Projective Verse’ was the most singular brilliant poetic form in late modernism or something like that (forgive me Anne, if I misquote you). Her long poem Jovis will some day be recognized as one of the great epics of all time.  I do wish she would interject some space into her performances so that one has time to revel in the text which is always brilliant with richly complex language and often erudite, especially in Buddhist philosophy and wisdom traditions.

7.) What direction do you see the future of women writers headed in the next ten years?

Women who find their joy and wholeness through their inner language and less in the OTHER missing half.

8.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Women who are practitioners of body and mind trainings.

9.) Do you feel as if you have a poetic responsibility?

I try not to think too much about my responsibilities otherwise I get apprehensive. I have served the muse well in this lifetime by nurturing the work of other writers and especially hundreds of new writers finding their voice – first at Naropa and then in the program here at NEC.

10.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

“Dharma bum” to steal Kerouac’s phrase or to be really crude—”dharma cunt” might be too shocking for the general public.

11.) Can you describe how the Zen Buddhist view on “unknowing,” has influenced and challenged your own work.

The concept “unknowing” whether Zen or Christian or whatever is a place free from concepts, judgments, opinions. I personally have found that uncertainty or an experience of groundlessness is a trustworthy place to begin writing from. This seems to be the physical trigger that accompanies my early drafts of a poem with a cipher of the subject matter, a spark so to speak. In Buddhist doctrine this might be called sunyata or emptiness which radiates luminosity. With this sense of lumen comes the magic or the ordinary seen from fresh perception such as the famous First thought, best thought.

12.) What are your personal views on death and how do you address the concept throughout your poetry.

Death is the big banana for practitioners of meditation. Recently, someone a former colleague with whom I have had a long-standing disagreement with many tensions, asked me (with a hint of Sarcasm) “How’s the Buddhism?” Meaning, I expect, that I am a miserable failure in her book for lacking compassionate behavior. She’s right, I’m sorry to say. Somehow my journey through life has been less about outer development and refinement or persona but about my inner journey.  I can’t seem to get it together to ‘craft’ my outer dimension.

At this point I try to identify my lapses in awareness moment by moment to prepare for death. Each failure is like a luscious wake-up call that refreshes my commitment to begin again. Increasingly my poetry arises from those moments when “I notice what I notice” which can be funny, odd or bits of language that show up in my face, even shocks. An example would be my poem “Backstory” about hearing an old Yankee farmer at a café in Brattleboro say across the room, “Did the Dali Lama ever hold a job?” or recently at a dinner party when an Italian professor friend of mine told me about the wide-spread infanticide of females born in the year of the Fire Horse. I’m interested in waking up and writing poetry that wakes people up.

13.) How has your work with archiving affected how you create and assemble your poetry?

I am thoroughly disorganized with seeming endless notebooks of pure junk—to do lists, interspersed with dharma notes during teachings, the usual unmet personal goals to lose weight go to the gym etc. A few lines of poetry.  Sometimes I review these usually to throw out but I almost always find some fragment for a future poem. I love it when I find fragments of a poem that are startling and without recollection of writing them, as though written by someone else. These must have been shadows I captured before they sprinted away. Not often but on occasion I find myself saying WOW!

In terms of “archiving” SAVE EVERYTHING which is something I don’t follow very well because I periodically ‘deconstruct’ and throw everything out.

14.) What inspired and encouraged you to found the Program in Poetry at New England College?

Chard deNiord for many years really wanted to found a poetry only creative writing program. He and I had worked together on previous projects such as the Spirit and the Letter Conferences in Mexico. Basically, I liked the synergy we created together which was fairly grounded yet open undercutting a competitive edge. He was trained in the legendary ruthlessness of Iowa and I was basically a product of Naropa. He had his poetry friends like Jerry Stern, Tom Lux, and Lee Young Li and I had mine like Anne Waldman & company. We tried to combine these lineages, historically at odds. Today, I feel that the New England College MFA program really embodies our original broad vision where at the same table you can hear conversations about Robert Lowell and Ted Berrigan — Alice Notley and Jorie Graham. The old divisions in the newer generation are dissolved. That excites me.