Anne Sexton Talks to God
by Jen Rouse
Anne, frantically twisting
her sea-tossed hair through
her fingers: I’m telling you,
you see, I’ve been here
before. I remember
the way you held me
and then pushed me
back into the water.
I remember! Why won’t
that I’ve been here?!
God, turned towards
the sunset, back to Anne:
I know. I’m certain,
for you, it felt like that.
For me, it was often you
there, not quite within reach
yet, a tiny bird throwing
herself against the pane
of a window. I wanted
so much for you. But you
wanted your misery
just a little bit more.
Anne rises from the beach,
throws sand at God — her usual
tantrum: That’s a horrible fucking
thing for God to say. You’re not
really God are you? This is
not where I was supposed
to have landed. Where is my
boat, goddamnit?! I’m going.
God, softly, like the voice,
of an ocean, like the arms
of a tide: For some of you, I feel
more maternal, and your struggles
cause me something that manifests
in you as a kind of hellish anguish.
I would’ve let you come sooner, but you
were so strong. You had to do
it yourself. Such a constant dervish.
The unsettled rattle of your brain.
Anne: You could’ve saved me.
God: You could’ve saved yourself.
Anne: Why am I here?
God: You decided to row.
First appeared in Glass Poetry 2018.
Jen Rouse is the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Cornell College. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Gulf Stream, Mississippi Review, Lavender Review, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Acid and Tender, was published by Headmistress Press in 2016. Riding with Anne Sexton, Rouse’s second book was recently released from Bone & Ink Press in collaboration with dancing girl press. Find her at jen-rouse.com and on Twitter.
Jen’s work was brought to our attention by poet Risa Denenberg, whom we interviewed here. We offered Risa the opportunity to “pay it forward” by choosing another poet to interview, and she chose Jen. Risa says, “Headmistress Press published Jen Rouse’s first book of poetry, Acid and Tender, in 2016. It was a finalist for the Charlotte Mew Prize; the contest judge for that year was Ellen Bass. I was delighted to learn that Jen’s second book of poetry was being published with the fabulous title Riding with Anne Sexton, and I was totally blown away by this poem (“Anne Sexton Talks to God”), which was published online at Glass: A Journal of Poetry. In looking for more of Jen’s work, I learned that she had two poems published in Poetry in 2002. I was jealous! But also intrigued. Why did it take so many years for such an obviously accomplished poet to publish a first book? And, so pleased that Headmistress Press was given that honor.”
So, here is Risa’s interview with Jen.
Risa Denenberg: That is a very brilliant poem. When did you first read Sexton’s poem, “Rowing” from The Awful Rowing Toward God? Did a particular line catch you in the throat?
Jen Rouse: So much of Sexton’s “Rowing” is about not fitting in and how the gaze of everyone watching the ways we don’t fit can seem to be constant. Her line “I wore rubies and bought tomatoes” speaks to me of the ridiculousness of living that she really sought to convey in her final work. The writing in the entire posthumously published The Awful Rowing Toward God has this frenetic feeling—the desperation of trying to find some foothold anywhere. And nothing takes. In my poem, I get Sexton to that island, and she has her first conversation with God. I rarely spare anyone (including myself) in my poems, and this piece is no different. Anne wants to understand why God would make her suffer, and God basically tells her: These were your choices. Not mine.
Risa: The poem is from your new book, Riding with Anne Sexton. Mazel tov on its publication! I am very much looking forward to reading it. Can you describe it for us? How can people order it?
Jen: Riding with Anne Sexton is an unflinching portrait of my relationship with mental illness. I use the conceit of a journey with Anne Sexton—a poet who committed suicide at age 45—as a way to examine the darkest and, perhaps, most tragic voices in my head. In an absence of connection and care, the confessional voice of the pieces expresses the constant struggle I face in trying to end suffering, even in the face of great beauty and hope, while capturing what it’s like to remain trapped in a cycle of pain, longing, and loss.
Riding with Anne Sexton is collaboratively published by Bone and Ink Press and dancing girl press. Sending $10 for the book plus $2 for shipping to my PayPal address will get you a copy.
Risa: You are a poet and a visual artist and also a playwright. How do these arts interact in your life and your work? Do you work on them at the same time or do you work on art or poetry or playwriting at different times?
Jen: When I first start to conceptualize a poem or a play, I often think in images or images pop up while I’m doing research. Sometimes I draw or paint those images as a way to connect with my subject. Sometimes I draw while I’m writing if I need to approach the poems in a new way.
Risa: How did it feel to have poems published in Poetry in 2002 and then to not have your book, Acid and Tender (which was a finalist for the Charlotte Mew Prize) published until 2016 (by Headmistress Press)? Were you submitting the manuscript and getting rejections during those years? Or, did you take a hiatus from writing poetry?
Jen: Ha! It was the thrill of my life to have a poem next to Maxine Kumin’s in that issue of Poetry. What a trip. And, it was an even bigger thrill when I got the Headmistress email, saying my first book was accepted. Such a full heart for Headmistress! I was doing something I hate—clothes shopping—that afternoon, when I checked my phone and the message about my book was there. My sister was with me, and we totally flipped out in the store. The person helping us even gave me an extra discount on my purchase that day.
As for the years in between, I was still writing. I never stop writing. But, I had to do a lot of relationship work during that time. I moved to Iowa with my partner. I finally came out to my mom—because we would be near her in Iowa. I landed my job at Cornell College—where I have been for 15 years now and will go up for full professor this year. I gave birth to my now 13-year- old daughter, Madeline.
Risa: Did you feel that your identity as a poet was marginalized during those years?
Jen: My major mentor, the one who guest edited that issue of Poetry, rejected me when I had our child, basically treating me as though that decision was the one that would end my career as a writer. I’m a very devoted and loyal friend, and the sting of that still lingers. It wasn’t until one of my amazing poet friends—Paulette Beete—from my MFA program at American University asked me to participate in an online writing group that I really started thinking about the trajectory of my writing career, of getting better, of publishing again. A wonderful writing group. I am deeply indebted.
Risa: Who were your gateway poets? Ones who made you feel passionate about reading and writing poetry.
Jen: I only ever wanted boxes filled with poetry books for holidays. When I started struggling with mental illness at 14, I found Plath and Sexton captivating. Later in high school, I had the biggest aha moment of my life. I only got to see Rich once in person, but on the day of her death I felt like something in me went with her. Later there would be Maureen Seaton, Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Li-Young Lee, Mark Doty, Louise Glück, and so many more.
Risa: How do you feel being a lesbian affects your poetry?
Jen: There’s a kind of crazy wonderful courage I’ve developed over the last few years in my writing, especially in publishing poetry, that is very lesbian-centered. I love queering fairytales. I love having heartbreaking muses. I want everyone to know what a fabulous press Headmistress Press is and how you and Mary Meriam made me excited to be a poet again, excited to have a community. The attention you pay to your authors and their works is truly remarkable.
Risa: Thank you! Is there any advice you want to share with other poets on writing, submitting, dealing with rejection, doing public readings, etc.
Jen: God, I really love every bit of the writing life. I’m too old to think too long about rejection—though when they come with thoughtful criticism I sincerely listen. I am old enough to lift up poets who need a boost in the mix. That’s important to me. I’ve always been a teacher and a learner. As a writer I want to be learning, constantly. When I do readings, I like to think of them as teaching moments. Of connecting with audiences in ways so that we really grapple with the material together.
Risa: How do you balance work life with your writing life? Also with your family/personal life?
Jen: I’m very fortunate to have a stellar community of colleagues at Cornell College. They celebrate my writing successes and promote my work. My last sabbatical really contributed to getting more of my work out into the world. Even though I’m constantly on the run, I believe it’s important to show my daughter that the life of the mind is important. She’s been in the audience for all of my plays. And she even asked if she could give my book, Acid and Tender (Headmistress Press), to two of her favorite teachers. Not that there is anything even close to balance, but I also don’t believe in bemoaning my choices. I live a life of privilege—with rewarding work and healthcare, a brilliant daughter, and supportive friends and family. Even when I struggle with my internal demons, I refuse to take these things for granted.
Risa: On lighter note, what are you reading this summer?
Jen: Your magnificent Slight Faith is on my bed, along with Maureen Seaton’s Fisher. I’m also reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press, publisher of LBT poetry. She has published three chapbooks and three full length collections of poetry, including Whirlwind @ Lesbos (Headmistress Press, 2016) and slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018).