Jen Currin

Interviewed by Kit McKeown

200x267_BioPicJen Currin is a writer from Portland, Oregon. She went to Bard College for her undergraduate degree, and Arizona State and SFU for her MFA and MA respectively. She currently lives in New Westminster and teaches Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, as well as Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Creative Writing and ACP Departments.

Jen’s first collection of stories, Hider/Seeker, was the Globe and Mail’s Top 100 Books of 2018. She has also published four collections of poetry: The Sleep of Four Cities (Anvil Press, 2005); Hagiography (Coach House, 2008); The Inquisition Yours (Coach House, 2010), which won the 2011 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry as well as shortlisted for the 2011 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry, and the ReLit Award; and School (Coach House, 2014), which was a finalist for the 2015 ReLit Award, the Dorothy Livesay Prize, and the Pat Lowther Award. Her chapbook The Ends was published in 2013 by Nomados, and she was a member of the editorial collective for The Enpipe Line: 70,000 Kilometers of Poetry Produced in Resistance to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Proposal (Creekstone Press, 2012).

I sat down with Jen in early October 2019 at Prado on Commercial Drive.

Are you reading or watching anything right now?

I’m always reading a lot. Like any teacher of writing, I spend a lot of time reading student work for the classes I teach. I’m reading Mica White’s “The End of Protest” for a story I’m doing research on. Today I did a lot of research on tea dances and the queer community for another story I’m working on. I just read Ali Blythe’s “Hymnswitch” for a class I’m teaching, Natalie Diaz’s “When My Brother Was an Aztec.” I’m reading a great collection called Sudden Fiction International for a class I’m teaching on flash fiction and the prose poem. I’ve read that collection probably two or three times but it keeps giving, you know?

Who are some of the writers who inspire you to keep writing?

God, there’s so many good writers. Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Angela Carter. So many poets too. It’s always changing. Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, all the magic realism people. Alice Munro – I can’t believe how good she is, and I’m always amazed by what she can do with a story. I return to her to study her. Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson. I read heavily in poetry and short story because those are my genres, but I love a good novel, so I’ll read novels and nonfiction too.

What first drew you to writing?

I wrote very young. My mom always wrote, and I grew up in a house full of books. And so I read at a very young age, she had us reading very young, before we went to kindergarten and from that it was a natural segue, for me at least, into writing. So even as a very young child I’d make little books that I’d staple and give to people. I’d write poems, like limericks and haiku when I learned those forms. I just always wrote. Then when I was eighteen, I thought I’d go to school for public relations or something, money, I don’t know. Then before I went, I was like, “What am I even thinking?!” So I changed my major before I even started my degree to Creative Writing. And I kind of haven’t looked back ever since.

What was your experience like in your graduate studies at Arizona State and SFU?

I was very lucky – I had very good experiences at both schools because of the communities I encountered there. The people. My cohorts were pretty great, and then I had some really good teachers. I got to work with the poet Norman Dubie at Arizona State, who was incredible. Beckian Fritz Goldberg was also one of my mentors, which was great. and my friends went on to publish books and do really cool things. That’s when I started teaching composition and poetry classes, so it was great to cut my teeth at teaching. I went back and did my other Masters at SFU because I thought I was going to get my PhD, but I decided not to because I was already working and teaching. Even now sometimes I wonder if I should go back and get one, because certain jobs we used to be able to get we can’t get anymore, but I don’t think I will at this point.

I know that mindfulness is a part of your writing practice. Do you consider connecting with breath and the writer’s physical self an integral part of your creativity?

That’s a good question. Yes – I was thinking about this yesterday, because I was actually at a tea dance, and I was dancing, dancing, dancing. But at the same time, my writer’s mind was recording, recording, recording, and was like “Don’t forget the description of the lights on her hair! You will forget it!” But I think being embodied and very present to the physical is a really important part of writing. And it’s not like when I’m writing I’m like, “okay, breathe,” but I meditate every morning. If I feel like I’m getting too hyped up, I can connect to breath. It’s a big part of the way I move through the world now, and in that way it is connected to my creativity process.

How has your writing process changed over time? Say, from undergrad to now?

It’s interesting – some things are very much the same. In terms of poetry, I started being a notebook writer at the urging of my first mentor. I’m always taking notes. I work in a collage kind of way, weaving from my notebooks. That hasn’t really changed, actually, since I was eighteen. Although, the sources I draw upon might be wider just because I’ve read a lot more in the last thirty years.

Fiction is a very different process. With fiction it’s so many hours, so much research. Poetry takes a lot of time too, but fiction, for me, takes a lot more.

This is a bit of a segue from what you were just saying – I know that you primarily work in poetry, but how do you like working in short fiction?

I would say now I have been working more in fiction the last five or more years. I mean, I’m still writing poems, but I’m undoubtedly putting more time into fiction. I guess one thing that’s frustrating for me is—I was just reading an interview with Shirley Jackson who wrote that famous, widely-anthologized story “The Lottery” that most people have read. She was saying she pushed her buggy up a hill, with her kid, unpacked the groceries, sat down, wrote the story, made very few changes, and sent it off to her agent and it was sold to the New Yorker and published within a few months. And she herself said, “Yeah, that hardly ever happens.” But for me, that really doesn’t happen. Because of the way I work with fiction, oftentimes, I don’t know what the story is. I know a lot of people don’t work that way. With these two stories I’m working on, the tea dance one and this other one about poets at a protest, I have no plot, I do not know what the characters want, and I don’t know what the story is or why I’m doing it. And that can be a long, messy process to figure out who the characters are, what they want, and why there’s even a story. It requires a lot of patience and often I feel despairing that the stories aren’t coming together. Luckily, because I have published a book of short fiction, I know that with enough work, the stories will come together.

I really enjoyed Hider/Seeker because, frankly, it was a pleasure to read short fiction that was primarily focused on queer characters and their lives. I find it kind of rare to find a whole collection of stories dedicated to queer people and voices. I’m wondering what drove you while you were putting that collection together.

For me, it’s not a matter of focusing on queer characters – those are just the characters I work with, what I live with. I’m interested in the intersectional realities of people who are dating all kinds of folk and are still part of the queer community. And I want to write into this more, different class backgrounds and characters of colour. It wasn’t so much that I set out to write queer characters, it’s just my life.

 Where does your inspiration come from? And do you find yourself returning to similar topics time after time?

 Inspiration is an odd thing, isn’t it? You can have a lot of ideas, but they can die away very quickly sometimes. Often I just feel inspired from life, being alive, the people I know, the stories I’ve heard, the things I read, the things I see. It’s interesting too, though, because we often think of inspiration as this positive thing, being inspired by something. But sometimes it can be a positive reaction to a negative thing, like when you see something you don’t like that you write a response to. Or when you see something in the news and think, “this is horrible.” What kind of story could speak against that? There has to be space for inspiration. If life is too crowded, I can’t feel the streams of things that interest me, or the things I want to write to.

As for topics I return to, things like addiction, queer relationships… But did Raymond Carver sit around thinking “here I am again writing about these white working-class people and their drinking problems”? Or Angela Carter, did she ever consider “here I am writing another weird feminist fairy tale”? I need to go with it, even though sometimes I don’t want to do another queer relationship or addiction story.

How, if at all, do you think teaching has influenced your writing?

 The biggest way is that it takes up a lot time in which I could be writing, but I find teaching can be inspiring. It doesn’t necessarily usually make me want to write. Usually I’m processing what happened in the classroom, interpersonal relationships. Though sometimes in exercises we will generate material together, or students will recommend cool things to read. To me, they are just very different spaces. One is about your project, and in workshop it’s not about you, but about others, and you’re focusing on the workshop.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, perhaps those about to graduate their BFA? People working towards getting their work published?

 I will say, for me, that community and having artist and writer friends is important, people you can share your stuff with. I don’t do social media. I find it draining. A lot of people do it, but I feel that energy can be going into a person’s writing. On the other hand, careers have been made on Twitter, so it’s just a very different stream. For me, I don’t want anything taking energy that I need from my writing. And just, staying in practice. Always having my notebook, trying to write or at least take notes every day. Same with meditation – you don’t ever want to give it up. And you know, when it’s in you, you don’t really give it up. You’re always gathering. I remember my mentor John Ashbery said something in an interview like, “People often talk about writing as pain. I don’t relate. Writing makes me happy.” I remember being really struck by that. Whether I realized it or not, I had internalized narratives about “my painful process,” and it was refreshing to hear a writer talking about writing because they like it.

Could you say a few words are you working on currently?

Stories. A few of those, and notes for others. I also put together a poetry manuscript from the last few years. I put that together last winter and am figuring out what to do with it. There are a lot of stories I want to write – I hope I write them!

Kit is a queer nonbinary writer. They have a BFA in Theatre Performance from Concordia University and are a current student in the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Program. Their poems have previously appeared in Bad Nudes, The Void, The Puritan, and Poetry is Dead. Their play “Mighty” was recently presented in Ergo Pink Fest, a festival for female and nonbinary playwrights in development with Ergo Arts Theatre in Toronto. They roast coffee in Vancouver, BC.


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