Jennifer K. Sweeney’s second poetry collection, How to Live on Bread and Music, received the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of America Poets, the Perugia Press Prize, and was later nominated for the Poets’ Prize. Her first book, Salt Memory, won the Main Street Rag Poetry Award. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Award from Passages North, and two Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg awards. Her poems have been translated into Turkish, included in Oxford and Benchmark textbooks, and published widely in literary journals including American Poetry Review, Southern Review, Pleaides, and Poetry Daily.

To learn more about Jennifer K. Sweeney — one of our favorite poets — included below is an interview from 1/10/11 conducted by Simon A. Thalmann featured at

MLive: How did you begin writing poetry and why did you stick with it?

Jennifer K. Sweeney: I began writing poetry as a child and wrote through high school. It was more for self-expression then, but I think I was practicing how to be present and innovative with language. As an adult, poetry is the most natural way for me to engage with the world, to continue to see it, to dwell both in clarity and curiosity. I stick with it because the privilege of experiencing life from the poet’s eye is the gift. To be in communion with the natural world, open to the possibility of other, is a kind of intelligence that writers are able to tap into. I envision thought fused with the five senses as a kind of “body-thought” or “body-sense,” a sixth sense of poetry. This writing from and into the intelligence of the body is an intuitive state that can be a gift to the writer.

ML: Who or what are the major influences on your work?

JKS: A wide range of poetry and literature, nature, the body, music, memory, meditation, art, field guides, dailiness, relationships with my city, my family.

ML: What is your process for writing poetry like? Do your write
 fast or slow? Are you more of a stream-of-consciousness writer or are 
you more methodical?

JKS: Both. My process can include the careful tending of ideas and experience and guiding them toward a poem through multiple drafts and new perspectives, but it is also often a quick rush of moving through time via the subconscious. Poems don’t happen in one way, and that’s the wonder and mystique of writing them. They arrive whole, in fragments, over a period of years, in five minutes, methodically, painfully, casually, recklessly. I don’t think I write one kind of poem and each arrives with its own timing and boom. In general, the work is more limber, has more possibilities when any external goal about the creative process is relaxed. I think it’s important to observe the mystery of the process, to be present for what may arise, to know everything I know in my waking consciousness and then to forget that I know it.

ML: What kinds of poetic structure do you find common in your
 poetry and why do you think you gravitate toward those particular
 forms? Is it a conscious or unconscious decision to use them when you
 use them?

JKS: I appreciate formal variety, so I’m not sure I could pinpoint a representative form or structure. I love a lucid unfolding narrative poem, a distilled lyric that takes me a year to fully understand, a compressed prose block, a hybrid of fragment and image. I think content guides the form, but those are often unconscious decisions that are intuited in the writing process.

ML: What kinds of themes or images do you gravitate toward in your 
poetry? Why? Do you use them consciously or do they appear

JKS: For myself, each book or manuscript seems to have its own dialogue with themes and imagery. In my first book, Salt Memory, the sea serves as subject, metaphor, spirit guide, and there is a “yin” energy overall, many poems that address the female experience. In How to Live on Bread and Music, there is a sense of endurance underlying the work. I think that many poems in the book address time in some manner. There is the obsolescence of eras bygone (railroad, record album, glassblowing, Chinese ruins), music as an experience of time, the cyclical nature of the daily experience. Themes and imagery are more the work of the unconscious. This is the part of poetry where I step back and find larger connections, the part that is continually revealing something to me.

ML: What do you think is your best work and why?

JKS: My second book, How to Live on Bread and Music, is my most accomplished complete work. I was able to write those poems with a greater range of styles, and as a result the poems render their subject matter from different modes of consciousness. This flexibility of approach was something I admired in other writers and hoped to house in one collection.

ML: Which writers or books do you think people should be reading now?

JKS: I hope it’s not too pessimistic an answer to say that I think people should be reading period. Technology has changed so much so quickly that I think many of us are guilty of being preoccupied with our toys, our networks, the next do-it-all device. These are not bad things in small doses, but I worry about perspective, about how the art of attention will be affected.

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