Under Pressure: Jenny Molberg

Jenny Molberg, author of Refusal

Refusal, Jenny Molberg

Jenny Molberg is the author of two poetry collections: Marvels of the Invisible (winner of the Berkshire Prize, Tupelo Press) and Refusal (LSU Press). She has received fellowships and scholarships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and the Longleaf Writers Conference. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Tupelo Quarterly, Boulevard, The Missouri Review, West Branch, and other publications. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Missouri, where she directs Pleiades Press and co-edits Pleiades magazine. Find her online at jennymolberg.com.


Bina Ruchi Perino: How long did Refusal take to write from conception to publication?

Jenny Molberg: About five years ago, I started writing the epistolary poems that would inform the heart of the collection—a kind of book-length love letter to my friends. Over the next few years, as I dealt with a divorce and a subsequent abusive relationship (both included dealing with our often-broken legal system that continues to favor white male-dominated power structures), the book began to take a clearer shape. I wrote the final series of poems, the battle between Ophelia and the Demogorgon, during my time at Vermont Studio Center in 2018.

BRP: Where do you get your title inspiration from?

JM: When I was putting the book together, I had the sense that I wanted a one-word title—a word that resonated with more than one meaning. “Refusal” is a word that I often encounter in the work of writers I admire, like Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Anne Carson, and in formative books like Jane Eyre. The word confronts female anger, and the canon’s eschewal of female anger, in its many definitions: a denial or rejection of a demand, a horse stopping short of a jump, an opportunity to accept or reject something before it is offered to others, something that has been rejected—I was thinking in terms of Rich’s concept of refusing patriarchal constructs, in art and in life. I had landed on the word “refusal” in the first Ophelia poem of the collection: the refusal of a character to play one’s role; the refusal to view a work of art through the male gaze; in many ways, the refusal of the muse.

BRP: When working on a project, do you give yourself deadlines? What does that time management/organization look like?

JM: In the past few years, as I have become a wearer of many hats—professor, editor, administrator, budget coordinator, mentor, press director, etc.—I have tried to be kinder to myself about productivity and deadlines. I demand a lot from myself, and it often times becomes too much. The current quarantine due to COVID-19 has forced me to reevaluate that self-pressure and to think about both my privilege and obsession with time—to try to manage time when one needs to worry about finances, health, family, parenting, etc. is an impossible task, and we just have to do the best we can. I look to poets I love, like Brigit Pegeen Kelly, or Ilya Kaminsky, or Carolyn Forché, who take their time between collections, several of whom embarked on important projects of translation or memoir or editing that were equally important passion projects in the spaces between publishing collections of poems. It takes time to live and learn, and it takes living and learning to write good poetry. Living and learning are inherently disorganized and resist timelines, so I often remind myself to slow down. This is a luxury I am not often afforded—it is a luxury in and of itself to be able to discuss it here—but because of reasons of gender and workplace competence and money, time is a concrete thing with which I’m constantly sparring. 

BRP: Who/what is currently inspiring you, art-wise?

JM: In terms of reading, I’m currently inspired by the work of Carolyn Forché, Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, E. J. Koh, Philip Metres, Leila Chatti, and Donika Kelly, among many others. I’ve also been mining the photographs of Corinne May Botz, who captures the work of female forensic scientist Frances Glessner Lee in Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death—this work confronts violence enacted upon the female body and our society’s obsessive focus on the male perpetrator rather than the female victim. I’m also consistently inspired by Jenny Holzer’s projection art and Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouettes. Refusal takes a lot of its inspiration from art I encountered when I was living and working in Spain—I found myself revisiting canonical artwork and texts and revising their narrative through the lens of the damage inflicted by patriarchal gaslighting, silencing, and violence. Finally, I’ve been reading a lot on the work of female forensic scientists (which is an art!), as well as exploring the true crime genre; I just finished I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, and I’m currently reading Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, recommended to me by poet and fellow true crime enthusiast Ruth Williams. 

BRP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

JM: Bruce Bond once described a poem as a “gift,” and that idea has long resonated. It helps me to see that the poets I love present offerings in their crafting of language and experience, and it helps me to think more about the kind of communion that occurs between a poem and its reader—to focus less on any outside validation and more on the ways in which a poem can start a conversation. My mentor David Keplinger once encouraged me to get in the practice of writing every day, even if what I write down hasn’t found its own meaning or form. The practice of poetry can become a daily exercise, and though the cultivation of that habit can be frustrating or difficult to keep, it develops muscle memory for experimentation with language. He describes the poems that emerge out of that kind of practice as “poems from the future,” and I’ve experienced that a few times when I’ve kept up with the practice—after weeks of writing to no avail, a poem will sort of fall from the sky fully formed, like a weird little Icarus. I have to admit, though, I am not always able to keep up with the daily poetic workouts.

BRP: Besides writing, what else would you say you do you have a passion for making? What parallels do you see between it and writing?

JM: This is a great question. Most of my adolescence and early adulthood was spent in frustration that I wasn’t a more talented visual artist or musician, but my failure in those crafts led me to see that poetry was my art form. I consider the work I do for Pleiades magazine and Pleiades Press to be a kind of making that informs and inspires my writing. The editing, design consultation, selection of work to publish, and overseeing the curation of special features introduces me to the work of new writers, and I find the process of ushering a new book into the world to be so rewarding. I consider myself to be very fortunate to be able to contribute to the literary dialogue. This work doesn’t leave me much time for hobbies, though I love to travel and am often looking for ways to travel to share the work of our press or to find some time and space for writing. I also love to cook—I’m an adventurous eater and enjoy learning new recipes—there’s something about the timing of making a meal that I find akin to the musical tempo of poem making. Cooking is daily practice, one that creates sustenance, and I think of poetry as a thing I can cultivate and consume, a thing that nourishes me.

BRP: What is your process when drafting? Do you use a journal or draft in other ways?

JM: When I draft, I always hand write. I keep a dream journal and try to write down something every day, even if it’s just an idea or lines I love from other poets. I like to write in the afternoon or late at night, and I find it difficult to draft when I’m not alone, sitting in silence. It is important for me to have the books I’m reading and old favorites that inspire me close at hand as I draft a new poem. I’ll often pick up a book, read a poem, and start drafting. It’s a kind of call-and-response practice—it’s almost impossible for me to sit down and start writing on a blank computer screen. 

BRP: How did writing Refusal compare to writing your first book, Marvels of the Invisible? What are some lessons you learned from your first book that helped you through the second?

JM: It’s interesting—I found the experience between writing the two books to be wildly different. First, Marvels of the Invisible, I think, was the product of writing two other collections that failed as books—it is the culmination of at least ten years of practice with poetry, and in some poems, the beginning stages of my learning. I also wrote Marvels of the Invisible as part of my dissertation for my PhD, so I had a lot of guidance and mentorship from my peers and the faculty at the University of North Texas, most significantly Bruce Bond and B.H. Fairchild. Most of the poems in that collection took a lot of time to whittle and craft. Refusal, on the other hand, though not necessarily written quickly, came out of more immediate feeling, anger, obsession, and fantasy. While Marvels responds to scientific texts and memory, Refusal is in many ways the product of imagining spaces where I could deal with my trauma that don’t exist in the real world. I experiment with persona and form more in this collection, and it helped me write my way out of some really difficult psychological spaces. I do think I learned a lot about ordering and shaping a manuscript from my first book that were useful to Refusal—it took me a lot less time to see the collection as a whole, to organize and fill gaps in the book.

BRP: If you had to describe Refusal in only three words, which would they be and why?

JM: Testimony: Many of the poems in the collection rise out of witnessing my own experience with trauma, abuse, addiction, and gaslighting, as well as larger, more societal dealings with those issues. As I have forced myself to confront the fear of testifying through poetry, and dealt with our culture and legal system’s victim blaming and failures in addressing power structures, I have heard many other people’s testimonies in response, and this inspires me to speak out in the interest of changing our systems. 

Friendship: Publishing one of these poems allowed me to reach out, through poetry, to someone who would become one of the most important friends of my life. As I invented “hospitals” for the kind of trauma I was dealing with—gaslighting and abuse—that doesn’t always have a clear treatment path or cure, I decided to dedicate those poems as epistles to my friends. My friends pulled me from the depths of the underworld during the time I was writing these poems, and I am interested in the idea of rethinking the beloved as a friend. Adrienne Rich explores communities of women as a form of resistance or refusal of male-dominated society (most specifically in her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”), and it is my hope that these poems embody that concept. 

Resilience: Refusal deals with difficult issues, trauma, and cultural toxicity, and as I was writing these poems, I found myself longing for hope. I think that in this collection, hope is embodied in community—an unburdening that comes from shared experience. I reimagine the Ophelia figure in the book as a character who is unfettered by a patriarchal dictation of her own narrative, and I hope that these poems reach even one person who is struggling with similar experiences—it is my ardent desire that the poems issue forth a sense of strength in healing. 

Order Refusal here!