INTERVIEW WITH JEAN MONAHAN
I grew up in a small town in CT and graduated from Bates College in Maine. After a summer working on a farm in Maine
I migrated toward Boston, where I had always wanted to live. I worked and took night classes at Harvard for a few years
before enrolling in the Creative Writing Program at Columbia University. I am the author of three books of poetry: Hands
(Anhinga Press 1992), Believe It or Not (Orchises Press 1999), and
Mauled Illusionist, published by Orchises in January, 2006.
I taught English in China between 1988 and 1989 and have traveled widely, including Russia (a solo trip made in 1984),
Egypt, New Zealand, Great Britain, Europe, and various places in the U.S. and Canada. I briefly taught poetry at MIT after
being laid off from my job in the dot com world. I live in Salem, MA, with my daughter and run a web site for
North Shore Medical Center.
Describe the room you write in.
Most of the poems in Believe It or Not and many from Mauled Illusionist were written in my East Cambridge apartment,
where I lived for 10 years. It was a tiny alcove adjoining my bedroom, with a window to my right, out of which I watched
blizzards, thunderstorms, 4th of July fireworks and night clouds (from my kitchen window I watched planes taking off and
landing at Logan.) My current study in Salem is a separate room with a single window, out of which I can see cars slide
up and down the steep hill. The walls in my study are painted the color of clover and are adorned with a large piece of
bright pink silk I brought back from southern China.
What writers inspire you? Why?
I read primarily non-fiction for entertainment and as grist for the mill. Poetry that inspires me is musically
deft and structurally sophisticated. I am most inspired by poems that deploy irony, humor sliced with sorrow,
and mastery of metaphor.
Do you write everyday? What is your writing process?
When I wrote regularly it was always on Mondays. I worked 40 hours a week but was able to keep it to a 4 day work week.
My process involved working for a full day on a single poem (with many breaks of course), working through the opening
attempts until I arrived at a place where the language and approach was fresh and surprising and I wasn't completely
in command of where the poem was headed. In other words, a quasi-meditative state. Sometimes I knew at the outset what
the title was; sometimes I knew how the poem ended. Once I had an exciting conceit to work with and had arrived at a
first draft, I would then record myself saying the poem aloud, making refinements based on how the poem worked on the
aural level. For the rest of the week I edited the poem in my spare time, sometimes working and reworking a single
line or lines many times. The poem was completed when it worked aurally, visually and conceptually.
Discuss your books, Hands (Anhinga Press), Believe It or Not (Orchises Press), and your recent
book, Mauled Illusionist (Orchises, 2006).
My first book, Hands, grew out poems I wrote while at Columbia. Part of the requirement for receiving the Masters of
Fine Arts degree was the completion of a book-length manuscript. I assembled some 48 pages of poetry, which later became
the foundation for Hands (several of the poems in the initial collection had to be jettisoned, additional poems were written,
and what felt like an endless reshaping of the flow of poems in the sections, as well as the title.) The poems in Hands
reflect my evolving sense of self, my relationship to my family and the larger world. The seven years between the
publication of Hands and Believe It or Not were intensely lived and
challenging in some respects. The book Believe It or Not
marked a dramatic shift in voice and a much darker, more incisive world view. Although there are some deeply serious poems in
Believe It or Not there are also several humorous pieces, as well as pieces that are a mixture of both modes. Many of the
poems in Mauled Illusionist were written on the heels of Believe It or Not, and there followed several different versions
of potential manuscripts, including an assembly called Dreaming of One and one called 18th Century Zebra. It was very
frustrating to be a finalist in several poetry contests but not be published. Eventually Orchises Press agreed to publish it.
By that time the book had changed again, due to an influx of new poems. Mauled Illusionist was actually a
merger of two separate manuscripts.
You taught English in China. How long did you do this for? What was this experience like for you? What was your biggest challenge?
I taught English to 100 students at Xi Dian Da Xue (university) in Xi'An China for somewhat less than a year.
It was 1988-89, and that June after I left was when students marched on Tiananmen Square. It was a riveting,
formative year. Everything about the experience was in equal measure challenging and rewarding. I had never
lived in a third world country before and it was fascinating and heartbreaking, exhilarating and stupefying
to see how completely differently life was lived in another part of the world. I could take nothing for granted
and as a result every minute of every day was interesting. I traveled a lot, made wonderful friends with my students,
learned a bit about teaching, and came to love China very much. I learned to speak and read a small amount of Chinese
and understood more about the culture, history and personal strengths of my students, who faced adversity every day as
part of their regular lives at university. We had no heat in the classrooms in winter, which meant I was teaching in
temperatures around 10 degrees (courtesy of the broken windows). Electricity shortages would last all weekend, and there
were water shortages (no hot water for showers for over a month); across the country there were coal and rice shortages.
There was dissatisfaction in the air and small strikes were staged at some of the local universities. My biggest
challenge was that I had been given almost no information about the students I was about to teach and therefore was
unable to prepare for the teaching the summer before I left. I ended up sometimes using materials I had brought with
me for my own entertainment (books and music, for example), and also developed strategies along the way in order to
bring some life into the dull textbooks they expected me to use.
What things do you try to teach students about writing?
When I work with students on the subject of writing poetry, I try to get them to grasp the craftsmanship involved, as
well as the necessity of ingenuity and surprise. I try to share with them ways they can engineer the unusual and unexpected
into a line and into a perspective for the whole poem.
What are you working on now?
My last few years have not allotted me any free time or free mental space for writing poetry
(single motherhood and working full time). Very recently though I have taken steps to try to break
this spell and get back into writing. I am working on a series of poems based on fables.