Conversations in the Author's Corner: Jenn Koiter
About the Book: So Much of Everything interprets the author’s experience of international travels, literary friendships, and personal tragedy. Jenn Koiter’s book places individuals at the center, and through these dashing, darling, freaky, scared, and ambitious characters a universal will to thrive is illuminated.
About the Author: Jenn Koiter is the 2021 winner of the DC Poet Project. She holds degrees from Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and Antioch University, and was the recipient of the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship. Originally from Colorado Springs, Koiter lived in Los Angeles, New Delhi, Wyoming, Chicago, and Austin prior to Washington D.C.
Kiera Wolfe: I’d love to start with “The Messy Girl,” a titular protagonist of poems throughout the collection. What makes the perspective of a “Messy Girl?” And how do you see the placement of these poems organizing the collection?
Jenn Koiter: The “Messy Girl” is an alter ego, a poetic persona of mine. That Venn diagram is not a circle but we overlap. She’s all about extremes – you can’t have a mess without abundance. She has qualities I’ve taken to the nth degree. I like to say she’s great fun for the first half of the party. We all know her. As for the way she’s sprinkled throughout the book, that was a deliberate choice. Unlike the other two sequences that I kept very much together, the “Messy Girl” is all over the place. She thinks about sex and travel and mental health and all sorts of topics that are not necessarily unified. I liked having something like that woven throughout the collection, and [she was] a natural fit.
KW: Absolutely. It felt like returning to an old friend, someone to greet you after each new, unfamiliar section. Is she a character that you’ve written throughout your artistic career or someone you found yourself in a period of writing all at once?
JK: I did most of them at once. But this book was 10 years in the making, so “at once” was really over the course of a few years.
KW: Wow! How did it come together over that period?
JK: For about five of those years, I was creatively blocked. It was more like a few years, then a five year desert, then a little bit more writing time. It was interesting to think, how do you go back to who you were several years ago? And reconcile that with who you are now? That’s what was challenging. [Poems] that aren’t necessarily who you are, but are still good pieces. Weaving them together. The book is not chronological, but I come back to the same themes over and over. I’ll think I’m writing about one thing, but surprise! I’m writing about identity again. So it wasn’t as challenging as it might seem.
KW: To put these poems from such different parts of your life into conversation with one another?
JK: Yes. The handle has been replaced a few times, and the blade’s been replaced a few times, but it’s still the same knife.
KW: Candy Jones is a historical figure with a (far too brief considering how fascinating) introduction before the collection launches into found poetry from her writing. I’ll admit I got lost in some articles on her life before diving in. What brought you to Candy?
JK: Like a lot of us I haunt used bookstores. In the dollar book pile back home in Colorado Springs, I came across Candy Jones. I saw the cover and knew I needed to own it, because I have a huge weakness for women’s beauty and advice literature.
KW: A fascinating and horrifying genre.
JK: Oh gosh, advice for women in the 1960’s is exactly that. So I read the book and yes, of course it’s very much of its time, but the voice was catty and funny and like the best friend you wished you’d had in high school. She’s snarky a lot of the time, I just love her. So I did what you did, I said who is this person? Why is she this beauty expert I’ve never heard of? I went on a Google binge and learned she was a cover girl in the 1940s. There was a month in 1940 where she was on the cover of 11 magazines at once. She was a big deal. She did USO shows. She modeled in New York and married the director of her agency, had three kids, they divorced. He absconded with their money. She had three children to raise and founded the Candy Jones Career School for Girls. Sandra Dee came up through there, it was a cultural force. But that’s not the first thing you see when you search. No, it’s that she was part of the MKUltra program and brainwashed by the CIA.
KW: Yes! And it’s a point of controversy. Did this actually happen to her? Or was it a fabrication by her husband who worked in radio?
JK: And honestly, this is not a cop out because my first graduate degree is in mythology, but for me it was just like reading another myth. It almost doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. It’s interesting. It raises questions about who controls her story. Does she get to shape her public persona? And it weirdly resonates with the beauty stuff, because so much of that is about how you present yourself and tell your story. As a woman in public and private. So I just went to town. I bought all the books I could by her – she published about a dozen. I read them all. I scanned them into my computer and picked out the lines I liked and made poems with them. And they’re the most formal poems in the book.
KW: You’re telling her story through her own words, but also by changing and rearranging and transforming them through your own lens, which is so much of what happened to her while she was alive. How do you see your work fitting into this collective narrative history of her life? She was a muse to you and the United States government and her radio producing husband.
JK: I was trying to find what’s underneath. When I think about it, I’m probably the foremost authority on her work. I’ve read everything she’s written, and I can’t imagine that many people who are still alive [could say the same]. I want to give that agency back to her. It’s a great story, and I don’t want it to die.
KW: How do found poems feel different to read and write than traditional ones?
JK: I feel like poets work well with constraints. Folks who are drawn to found poetry are gluttons for punishment. Sometimes it needs to be hard to say what you want to say, and I feel the same way about form.
KW: The last part of the collection, THE SURVIVOR, is really striking - sparse, title-less, haunted by white space. There’s just a complete shift in energy reaching it. How did you navigate situating these poems in a collection?
JK: [That section] gave me a lot of trouble. With a couple key exceptions, those are the most recent poems in the collection. I also felt, as you always feel about the most recent ones, that they’re the strongest. Naturally, in my first draft, I wanted to put them front and center. I wanted them right at the beginning, to grab the reader with them. And, of course, it was a terrible idea. Every one of my beta readers told me they don’t go there. My friend Steve said, “wherever you put these in the manuscript, they will leave a smoldering crater.” So I thought, well they just have to go at the end.
KW: How do you see grief being centered in the collection, especially how these poems work through those feelings?
JK: A lot of poets write about grief because we have to. If we live long enough, we accumulate losses. Maybe they’re not always as dramatic as what inspired THE SURVIVOR, my boyfriend’s suicide, but they’re there. It’s a time when a lot of people turn to poetry. It was interesting to me to write through the process of grieving because the early poems are very fragmented. That’s pretty much all you can do. I didn’t notice until I put the collection together how many list poems I have in that section. A lot of that is because that’s how you’re experiencing things in early stages of grief. You experience that loss over and over and over and over again in different contexts. You can’t string together long, complex thoughts. You’re just jotting stuff down in your phone. It was really healing to edit. I left a lot of loose threads, and it [was healing] to tighten them up. To finally say the last things.
KW: Finally, for our Author’s Corner project, we’re promoting authors who have published with small, indie presses. Could you talk us through your publication process?
JK: It was the absolute weirdest, most idiosyncratic way to get published. Day Eight only publishes authors within the District of Columbia. They do a version of a slam, an open mic where poets compete. And then the poets that win on the individual nights go on to the finals and compete for a prize: a monetary prize and a book contract. And so I got published by reading out loud! Which is not the norm, but if there are any poets in the District who haven’t published yet it’s a great opportunity.
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About The Inner Loop: The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We aim to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and to transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. This interview is part of our Author’s Corner campaign, promoting local authors publishing with indie presses.