by Matt Johnson   November 12, 2007

Matt Johnson interviews Louis Jenkins, master of the prose poem, about his new publishing venture, Will o'the Wisp Press, and its first venture, "North of the Cities."

Louis Jenkins is a sixty-four year old wastrel and sometimes substitute assistant security guard at the Tweed Museum of Art with ambitions of becoming a cloud. Also, a poet, called one of the finest of his generation by Robert Bly, something of an ordained arbiter of taste. One must be careful not to mythologize, or flatter with inaccuracies or downright lies, but Mr. Jenkins’ reputation is hard to ignore. He’s been dubbed a "great wit of the North" by Garrison Keillor, and has won a Minnesota Book Award for his collection Just Above Water.
    The kind of poem Mr. Jenkins writes is called a prose poem. Phil Dentinger, in the introduction to Mr. Jenkins’ first book, The Well-Digger’s Wife (1973), explains that “they are all solid and don’t disappear in the middle or fall down at the end. The language is clear and direct.” According to Robert Bly, “most people writing prose poems now agree that Louis Jenkins is the contemporary master,” achieving what John Rezmerski has described as “a kind of relaxed density of detail that shows you movies in your head.” Still, despite its quotidian clarity and perfectly respectable history with the King James Bible and Baudelaire, the prose poem is as scarce on the scene as ever; certainly not an economically viable alternative to poetry as we more commonly know it. I asked Mr. Jenkins what, in spite of its utter lack of monetary potential, spurs him to continue publishing: “fame and glory,” he said, “and the chicks.”
    His new book, North of the Cities, is an understated exploration of chaos and defeat, illusion and sleep in a place where it’s dark at five, and cold, and “sometimes we just watch the numbers on the gas and the electric meters go spinning by” – and time. It is a book of casual wisdom and uncommon wit, of spruce and concessions, subtle sarcasm and confessions, lovers and thieves and “leaves like $100 gold pieces and the blue, blue sky.”
    Mr. Jenkins was generous enough to sit down with me recently at Dunn Bros. on London Road, where we marveled at my brand new silver Sony digital voice recorder.

LJ: I bought a cassette one a number of years ago. I interviewed some people– local artists and writers– for a series in a little magazine. They published several of the interviews that I did, but they went out of business still owing me money. I hope it wasn’t my interviews that drove them to bankruptcy.

MJ: You did a little magazine back in the seventies yourself, didn’t you?

LJ: Yeah, Phil Dentinger– he’s a good poet– married to Connie Wanek, another good poet– he and I started a magazine called Steelhead back in the early seventies sometime. We did about four or five issues, I think; it was going to be a quarterly but it turned out to be an annual. Then he moved off to New Mexico, and came back some years later with Connie.

MJ: So there are a lot of us here not originally from here. I was starting to wonder what the appeal was a few months back.

LJ: Oh, it’s a nice place, I’ve been here for something like thirty-five years now, or more, I can’t remember. I quit counting. It’s all right though– I’ve enjoyed it– it’s been good. Nowadays, I’d like to go somewhere else in the winter.

MJ: When you’re writing these poems, or stories, is there a certain place or setting you’re imagining them being told or heard, or an atmosphere you’re trying to create?

LJ: You mean like the idea of an imaginary reader? No. No, I just make the assumption that if something interests me, it might interest somebody else. But I don’t imagine who they are or where they are.

MJ: You write, I assume, largely from personal experience, but do you also make an effort to tell stories you might have in common with your readers, or that have common themes or images or will otherwise ring familiar?

LJ: Again, you just have to make certain assumptions. You can’t be second guessing what people are going to pick up on, you just have to go with your own feeling and do it. It’s surprising to me, sometimes somebody will pick up on a certain poem and say “I really like that one,” and I’d never thought about that being somebody’s favorite poem.

MJ: In “Law of the Jungle” you say: “Remember all those powerful, intense things you said back then, how the girls found you powerful and intense? You couldn’t say those things with a straight face now, and anyways, those girls weren’t really listening.” Do you think this is a phase all young writers go through? That we all start utterly affected and serious and grow, maybe a little more subtle– stoic even?

LJ: I did. I think I took myself more seriously than was warranted. But, you know, when you’re young you got a lot of other agendas … primarily sex, I suppose.

MJ: So writing poetry isn’t the most effective chick magnet?

LJ: It’s not that you think, “Oh boy, I’m gonna get a lot of girls because I can write poetry”– you would rapidly become disabused of that notion– though there’s some of that in it, some element. It can be a way of channeling that sexual energy, for the same reason maybe that somebody else might skydive, or– I don’t know– whatever it is you do. There’s some of that hormonal turmoil that, as time goes by, wanes somewhat. But you’re only twenty-three, you won’t know that until later.

MJ: Robert Bly wrote a poem called “There Are So Many Platos” that says: “To those who make up music, and poems, / I say: Our task is to become a moist tongue / by which subtle ideas slip into the world.” Robert Bly, who also said, “Artistically, Louis Jenkins is one of the most subtle poets of his generation.”

LJ: Yes, he said that. That’s a very nice compliment. Sometimes the things I write don’t seem all that subtle, but I guess compared to the sort of thing you would see on television it’s quite subtle.

MJ: Wallace Stevens wrote that “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” He’s somebody you’ve read for a long time, isn’t he?

LJ: I read and continue to read Wallace Stevens. And a lot of Wallace Stevens’ poetry goes by me, but there’s some that I like very much, and I can always find something new in the poems. I also read Frost often– I just read some last night. There are a number of poets that I read over and over again, and some that I read only occasionally. I’m doing a reading at the Dylan Thomas Center in Swansea [Wales] this fall, so I listened to some Dylan Thomas again after many years, some of those recordings from the fifties. He’s great, in his way, but he’s not a poet that I would pick up again and again, even though he was a very important influence when I was about seventeen years old. It’s very much a poetry of language, you know, its all about the sound [And here Mr. Jenkins starts into an impromptu recitation] “Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It’s about sound.

MJ: Robert Bly has called your poetry “extraordinary works of human memory.” How do you cull and piece together these fragmentary images or memories?

LJ: When you write you’re not terribly aware of how something comes, you know? It just comes. And you take that image or line and ask, “Where does that belong? Where does it go next?”

MJ: Do you ever have to rein it in a bit?

LJ: You do whatever you can to make the poem. The thing you don’t want to do is start out with an idea that’s inflexible– “I’m going to write a poem and its going to be about this”– you have to be willing to say, “Well, I’ve got a line here, I don’t know where its going to go, but I’ll have to see.” Robert Frost says “no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” If you don’t surprise yourself, to a certain extent, then you’re probably just cranking out garbage.

MJ: Is poetry still a desperate act for you? Or what, despite its utter lack of economic value, keeps poetry so necessary in your life?

LJ: It’s what you do– and you do it. But whatever I thought my reasons were for writing when I was twenty-five are different than whatever my reasons are now, I guess. But there’s a fascination with the language, a fascination with the word, with the imagery that you produce. In a way it’s a kind of game, and it’s a kind of… as Stevens says, it’s a way of ordering your life. Frost says that the poem is a momentary stay against confusion. It’s a momentary way of ordering your experience into a group of words. Frost says “momentary” and that’s the important word there; it’s momentary, because you have to do it again. You don’t actually make order in the universe; you only make a momentary stay against confusion.

MJ: How have your ideas about writing, and as yourself as a writer changed over the years?

LJ: I’m less anxious about it than I was when I was young. That’s the desperate act: to somehow think that you can bring your life together by writing. A poet friend of mine said “poetry literally saved my life,” because it gave him a direction to go that kept him from going to prison, or some other horrible fate.

MJ: You’ve said that there’s a kind of spiritual or aesthetic impoverishment that poetry can help one to transcend. Is poetry unique? Or is there something you derive a similar aesthetic satisfaction from?

LJ: Well yeah, I suppose it could be anything that one is passionate about and satisfies whatever need that is that poetry satisfies. In my case, I would have loved to be a painter, for instance, or perhaps a musician, but I have no talent for those things.

MJ: So in the beginning it was just a question of natural predisposition?

LJ: It was a way that I could, with some success, create something. Whereas, when I put paint on canvas it doesn’t look so good. So it was what I could do, what I had some talent for. And seems to me that some people don’t need that.

MJ: That’s an idea that keeps coming up: that unless you absolutely can’t help it, poetry should be avoided. Charles Bukowski, for instance: “if it doesn't come bursting out of you /in spite of everything, / don't do it. / unless it comes unasked out of your / heart and your mind and your mouth / and your gut, / don't do it.”

LJ: Yeah, there’s something about the dilettante that is a little off-putting, those people that do a little of this and a little of that. You know, that’s fun for you to have those hobbies, but to me it was always a bit more important than a hobby.

MJ: You’re not a regional writer, of course, but [and here Mr. Jenkins jumps in. This is a topic he’s dealt with before].

LJ: I’m not a regional writer in the sense that that’s all that I am, or all that I hope to be. You’re a regional writer as long as you live somewhere. How could you be unaware of your environment, not have it influence your writing? There are people who write things that are a kind of a glorification of their particular little town, or neck of the woods. I don’t want to do that. Also the label, to be labeled regional writer means, “You might want to read this if you live in Minnesota, but otherwise don’t bother.” I don’t like that.

MJ: Do you demand anything of your audience?

LJ: Just attention for a few minutes. I don’t have any illusions that my books are going to sell thousands and thousands of copies. It’s a small audience.

MJ: Does poetry need to be to a certain extent elite? Or, put differently, is it possible for poetry to be too accessible? Or are these even relevant concepts in the first place?

LJ: I think that one should be clear, so that the reader can at least understand whatever scene or object or whatever it is you’re trying to describe; the language has to be clear enough to do that. I don’t think there’s any point in deliberate obscurity. When writing is obscure I think, “Well, this poet doesn’t really have anything to say, and so he makes it mysterious.” That does not mean the poem has to be stupid, something dogs and cats can understand.

MJ: Is the prose poem a more rigorous test of content then? The story stripped naked of all the “things that insist that the reader should be having a poetical experience,” to use your own words.

LJ: Poetry is always about using language. One tries to make the story, or whatever it is, vivid and meaningful, but to not be too apparent with linguistic tricks. Again, Dylan Thomas, he wrote a kind of poetry in which the sound of the language became almost more important than what was actually being said. That’s a way of writing, but its not my way of writing. Bart Sutter often writes formal verse, rhymed verse; that’s what he does, he’s good. But it’s not my way of writing. He makes the language do a certain thing, and I also make the language do a certain thing, but it’s a different thing. I try to make the poem as casual and everyday as it can be but to still have that surprise.

MJ: “Starfish” really packs that little surprise at the end: “A starfish is all arms and appetite: it has no brain, yet in spite of this, time-lapse photography has shown that the starfish maintains an active social life. So in these regards the starfish is like many of the people you know.” I can sure relate to that, a twenty-three year old new to the North. The whole scene’s about copious and cheap booze. Lacks subtlety.

LJ: Yeah, I don’t know, I have not done that in so long… when I was young and living here there wasn’t much of anything going on. I was more interested then in being in the woods and stuff like that. But we did put together our own poetry thing. We had a poetry reading series that started out as just a bunch of us who wrote poetry giving readings wherever we could and it eventually developed into a real poetry reading series.

MJ: Is that something that still goes on today?

LJ: Well, it’s sort of a continuation of it. We started something called… I think it was Lake Superior Contemporary Writers Series, or something like that. It started out as just an informal thing we did, local poets reading, and then I met some people at the Duluth Depot– The Saint Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, which was new at the time– and there was a woman there who was interested and she said “Well, what do you want to do?” and I said, “I’d like to be able to invite poets from other places,” and she said, “OK, I’ll write the grant proposal,” and she did. She was really good at it and we got money and we had lots of well-known poets come to Duluth. Robert Bly, Philip Levine, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, Sharon Olds, Louis Simpson, Russell Edson, Mary Oliver, Galway Kinnell--… just about anybody you could name, we had at one time or another. And it developed then into a bigger thing with all the colleges involved. We had a committee, and I was on it for years, and then eventually I just let it go. The series went on for a little while after I quit, but then folded. Then a few years ago a group of poets started the Spirit Lake Poetry Series– boy, I hate that name– and I helped with that for several years and then I said, “OK, I’m done now.”

MJ: With the assistance of a Career Development Grant from the Arrowhead Regional Art Council you were able to publish this book yourself, but what about distribution?

LJ: Distribution is a thing that I’m just learning about, and it’s way easier than it used to be. Barnes & Noble has already picked it up; the book is listed on their website. I think that there’s enough demand for the book that it will be picked up by somebody, some distributor. I’m signing books at Barnes & Noble on Saturday, May12, and I’ll be on A Prairie Home Companion on May 19.. That usually brings a spike in sales, but who knows? I hope to do a reading or two in the Twin Cities and I have readings in Norway, England and Ireland this fall.

MJ: Are you ready to be famous?

LJ: Someone once said that to be a famous poet is like being a peanut at a banquet.

As we stepped outside Mr. Jenkins remarked on a change in the direction of the wind: “means it’ll be warming up today,” he said. One could be forgiven for noticing a certain sagacious quality in this. As for the question of regionality, Garrison Keillor has said: “I don’t think they have poets like this outside of Minnesota. You have to go through a long winter to get this good.”

A version of this interview was first published in the Reader Weekly in Duluth.