Jennifer Newhouse earned her MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Triquarterly, Lake Effect, The Chattahoochee Review, SAND, The Minnesota Review, Appalachian Heritage, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Chowan University and lives in Suffolk, Virginia. Her poem “Portrait of a Woman” is forthcoming in the Winter 2017 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, January 22, for special savings and discounts.
How did "Portrait of a Woman" come about and how did it develop over time? Is this poem's process indicative of your "usual" process?
This poem finds its origins in a religious ethics class I took one summer at the University of Virginia as an undergrad. I was fascinated by all of the course readings, but especially Suffering Presence by Stanley Hauerwas. It's been years now, but the essential message was that the sick or suffering don't necessarily need a caretaker, they need a companion. It was empowering to me. I think as a society, we're always trying to be useful, to be helpful, but so often, our loved ones — in whatever ways they are suffering — just want to know they're not alone. True presence is courageous. The book is a reminder that suffering is natural and normal, that praying for perfect health and perfect bliss belittle the human experience and the human capacity for love.
Years later, I was writing in response to photographs by Melissa Ann Pinney in her book Regarding Emma. She has these great photographs of girls and women in everyday moments — waiting in crowded public restrooms with armfuls of children, smiling awkwardly at wedding receptions, sitting with their fathers, etc. There's one with a middle-aged woman and a little girl sitting in a backyard. It immediately brought me back to my childhood. My grandfather died when I was almost three; my grandmother was only in her fifties. I felt like I knew the woman in the photograph immediately, and I began writing. She is trying so hard to be present, to enjoy this little girl, but the sunlight almost overtakes the photograph and complicates the woman's expression. This woman isn't described in the final version of my poem, but we can imagine a mother or grandmother is speaking, watching this little girl be vibrantly alive while she is overwhelmed by grief.
I struggled a lot with this poem, more than I do with most. It seemed to come out nearly finished, but I wasn't getting much reception to it. It would have been workshopped, and it was included in my MFA thesis in 2013. I thought it was a strong poem, but newer, simpler poems were getting picked up. It wasn't until this year that I mentioned the photograph within the poem. I added the lines "The husband is / clearly dead." This statement made the reader aware of the weight of the speaker's suffering and its rawness. The poem finally felt complete.
The speaker doesn't come into the forefront of the poem until the final two couplets. What was your reasoning behind this decision?
When I made revisions this past year, I realized that the poem lacked a personal connection. I admitted that I felt like the speaker, had forced myself to smile through different kinds of heartbreak. I decided to add an ambiguous "I" at the end because I wanted a reader to be able to connect as both the suffering woman and the onlooker. Who is remembering this pain? Immediate grief is unbearable, but so is watching someone you love suffer with no way to pull them up from those depths.
What's your favorite part of "Portrait of a Woman"? What draws you to this part?
This poem in general is special to me. It's one that I haven't been willing to give up on. The little girl running through the sprinkler is my favorite part. She's doing exactly what Hauerwas suggests: She's going to want to be held, to sit with the speaker. Because the water is an icy knife, the reader knows that something is not quite right in this scene, and that the child is aware of it too.
What are some of your challenges as a writer and how do you overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges I'm facing lately is making time for reading. I used to hope that I would get into a daily writing schedule, but that's a great way for me to stare at a wall frustrated for three hours. Engaging with other art and just being present in my daily life leads to me jotting down poems and notes. My new goal is to make sure that I'm reading something new throughout the week and to be careful not to fall numbly into daily routines (which, oddly enough, are mentioned in this poem). Small things, like taking a walk or listening to some new music, can spark writing for me.
Does teaching creative writing inspire your writing?
Teaching creative writing helps break bad habits. Students say the most insightful things, and more than once, I've realized what is wrong with something I'm writing by how they critique a creative work. My students are excited about their futures, which is a good reminder for me not to get lazy. I want to be a good mentor to them, so we talk seriously about making time for writing and their aspirations.