Jen Rouse’s piece “Of Skeletons and Garden Parties” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2017 issue, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I grew up driving through cornfields in Iowa and South Dakota, lurching through the brilliant sun dancing in the dust motes, climbing into the sky. Cities excite me. I’m a little bit Virginia Woolf like that, but they’re not always good for me. My deep longing is always to come back for the honey gold of a Midwest fall against the vibrant brilliance of heartbreaking blue horizon. Also, I think there’s something a little Hitchcockian about the Midwest, ya know? It’s super quiet here. A lot of ways to see oneself in shadow. So many ways to be lost. And never found. Or found in an entirely different guise.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
There’s a subtle hum of routine about the Midwest, a thrumming that lives in the heart. We wait for the seasons to change. We embrace the mythology of living here. And each other. In a place where one might not expect to find rich vibrant arts communities, I have found, perhaps, the most amazing place to make art—in the middle of the Eastern Iowa corridor. People here are steadfast, sturdy, grounded, and that means they are also incredibly comfortable taking risks. Risks in supporting new art—plays, poetry, spoken word, visual art, mixed media, everything. It’s all here. And the artists are some of the truest, most talented people I’ve ever met. Build relationships in the Midwest, and those relationships will withstand almost anything.
How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?
This summer I had to say goodbye to a place where I spent the most beautiful moments of my life, a cabin that belonged to my grandparents in Hackensack, MN. I spent every summer there growing up—swimming, creating skits with my little sister, playing cribbage on the porch, sitting quietly in an old fishing boat with my grandfather, hunting for shells with my grandmother. At night, we’d fall asleep to the weeping of the loons. The smell of pine and cedar rooting us to the earth. There was no technology. We laughed and told jokes. We saw each other. And all that love that passes between people who really know each other in a place. Though I don’t directly address this aspect of my life very often in my writing, it is everywhere.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I write a few times a year, a month at a time, with a wonderful group of writers from the east coast. I went through an MFA program at American University with one of these delightful writers, Paulette Beete, as well as my spouse, Eve Rosenbaum, and others in this group—like Susan Kay Scheid—have provided such deep rich attention to my work. We write in a private online blog. We support and respect each other as professionals. I wrote my first chapbook, Acid and Tender (2016) by Headmistress Press, while working with them. Such an incredible debt of gratitude to these women! Fierce writers, all!
Honestly, I don’t really think about writer’s block. If I am not feeling like writing a poem, I look at a group of poems and think, huh, I wonder if this is really a play? And, often, that will transform writing that might have felt stuck to me. I also believe in finding other ways to think about writing while not writing. Painting, cooking, going to a new place, embracing a new relationship—these are all things that will bring me back to the page.
I’m really inspired by the ways in which people grapple with belief. As a person of little traditional faith, I am drawn to others who find so much in their various versions of god. I find in people of faith a kind of hunger to connect, and, somehow, those belief systems provide those moments of respite. Even when they seem to question, they find their answers—or expect that those answers will come. (And, really, isn’t that a kind of poetry?) I find that kind of thinking fascinating. So, you’ll hear a lot of voices in my poems grappling with issues of belief, forgiveness, longing, and loss—and often saints and gods—always women, of course—turn up to offer them solace.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I always have a sense of the ending of a piece before I know where the beginning is going. It’s those moments of uncertainty when I write the opening lines that give me pause. I revise those most heavily. When those beginning lines live up to the end, then I know I’ve gotten somewhere.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
I’ve recently been working on a collection of poetry about my relationship as a poet to the work of Anne Sexton, a complicated, brilliant, troubled figure. I’ve always considered myself a confessional poet, and there’s something tragically brutal and vulnerable in writing from that place. It also allows for incredible moments of joy. I think I learned that in studying Sexton’s work and in the fictional conversations I have with her in this new collection. Adrienne Rich, of course, was my hero. Is my hero. When I was younger, I was fearful of being a lesbian poet and sharing that voice outside of myself. But, then, I heard someone read “Diving into the Wreck,” and my life as a writer was forever changed. Never to be silent again. To write from the margins.
What’s next for you?
In some ways as a writer, I’ve been a kind of late bloomer. I began writing when I was 14, went through an MA and an MFA program in my twenties, but I was also taking care of a lot of people in my life during those years—so giving my full attention to a writing career or publishing wasn’t easy for me. But let me tell you at 44, I am ready for anything. I’m having a wonderful time. Publishing Acid and Tender with Headmistress Press last year was a delight. Exquisite women to work with, and they produced a gorgeous book. Because I’ve never considered writing my job, it has always remained my passion. Tonight, on August 11, my new play Conjure: A Cycle in Three Parts opens on the main stage at CSPS in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I have great hopes for this piece, and I hope it finds its way outside of our small community. I’m working on two new plays, and my latest chapbook Riding with Anne Sexton is making the rounds. Truly for me the greatest success is when a reader, a cast member, an audience member says, I needed to hear that, see that, play that role—I’m in your words, I can tell my story now. It’s ok to understand bravery a little differently. Never to be silent again. And when my daughter tells her grandmother that my cast, my writing, is important because people don’t always see themselves in writing or plays but they do in mine. I’ll come back to the page every time for that. Every. Single. Time.
Where can we find more information about you?
I am always happy to answer an email: firstname.lastname@example.org