Conversation With Poet Jessie Witt Pannell
Last month I went to the cultural event of the season on the Eastern Plains; a book signing. There, I got to meet a newly published author and mom. As I waited in line to meet her, my own mom stood next to me and in typical Lynn fashion, was in a hurry to get home. I wanted to wait to talk to her so our conversation wouldn’t be overheard but my mom took me by the arm and introduced me to her like this;
“Hi, I’m Lynn, this is my daughter Bri. She is starting to write some and she was just in…. What was it called Bri? Oh right, Listen to Your Mother, up in Boulder, it is sort of like the Vagina Monologues, you know, but it was her own writing. Have you heard of Listen to Your Mother?”
It was a similar feeling as being introduced to a new class as a seventh grader only with the word ‘vagina’ casually thrown in.
Luckily, Jessie is as kind and warm as I could have possibly hoped and she agreed to answer some questions for me. A year ago she took a chance by taking a writing class through a woman that she met at her daughter’s career day at school. The result was her book Forever Built of Days being published last month and it has been met with rave reviews. Although she now lives in Oregon, Jessie grew up 30 miles down the road from where I did. Her family still lives in the town where I taught the first three years of my career. We are kindred spirits in this land of creativity. Like the rest of us she has those moments of “One minute I thought it was really good and the next minute I almost threw the whole thing in the garbage!” I am so glad she stuck with it!
Bri: Poetry isn’t the type of book I often pick up, what do you want to say to readers to encourage them to give it a shot?
Jessie: Several readers have picked up my book and opened to read a random poem or two, but I want to encourage people to read Forever Built of Days from beginning to end because it does have a very determined narrative plot which they will miss by random reading. I think the storyline helps people overcome the inaccessibility of poetry.
B: To me, this is a love story, between you and your Creator, would you agree with this?
J: Yes! You heard me! I think so many people struggle with their love story with God because we think our own anxious brokenness or the world’s suffering somehow trumps or extinguishes our love affair, but God invites us to lay all that at His feet and watch the Finch He sent to reign on the Daisy and says, “Do you see that magnificent bird and that extraordinary flower? Well, I love you so much more than that.” To love God, we have to believe more about the grace of His finch than the death of a father.
B: Your poetry is autobiographical. How did you set boundaries about what you would/would not write about?
J: When I was writing, I didn’t set any boundaries at all. The best writing advice I operated on was to write what is absolutely true and honest for you, and then what you say will resonate with your audience because they recognize the authenticity even if they don’t relate on an experiential level.
B: You can certainly feel your honesty. Did you have any hesitation about certain poems being out in the world?
J: The poems dealing with my anxiety in the “Time to Break Down” chapter required the most courage for me to expose to an audience, but I kept convincing myself those were what someone most needed to hear.
B: When you are speaking about anxiety and depression a line from your poem “Twitchy” that really resonated with me was;
I’ve felt hints of more–
More meaning, more fulfillment,
But it’s a shadowy
Do you feel like you are standing more consistently in the ‘more’ you speak of?
J: “More consistently” is a great way to put it. I’ve done so much work to achieve such a minor increase of faith and wholeness, and I find myself afraid of “less” all the time. I don’t feel restless anymore, like I did when I wrote the poem, though, and I think that’s because I had to lay everything down and stop achieving.
B: You are the mom of three, how did you find the time to work on your book?
J: I found time to write by neglecting my family and other responsibilities. I did most of my writing while my kids were in school or in four hour chunks of time on Saturdays at my local library. My sister, for whom I work, had to be spectacularly longsuffering with me. I think my family was so patient because they could see how important writing was to my healing process.
Looking back, my “process” looks more like a collision course to completion. I did a lot of my writing in a weekly writing class and then as the Spirit hit me. I began carrying a notebook with me everywhere, and wrote several poems in the parking lot of the grocery store or while on a walk.
B: At the book signing, it was obvious that your family is so proud of you and are very supportive. You had flown a few days before to surprise your mom not only with a visit but with your published book she didn’t even know you were writing. Did she have the reaction you were hoping for? What were her highlights?
J: Initially, I think I kept the book a surprise as a coward’s way out, in case I chickened out or gave up. When I decided to go for it, I kept contemplating it as a Mother’s Day gift to her and decided to keep it a surprise. My mom has always been one of my most ardent, if prejudiced, supporters, and I wanted to honor her with the first fruits of both of our labors. I loved her reaction, although handing someone a book is necessarily anticlimactic because they can’t read it while you stand there and watch them! I was very nervous for her to read most of the book because my pain also represents hers. Her favorite poems are “Waiting in a Deep Pit…” and “Suppose I Made God My Idol.” I think my mom and I might need to revisit some of the themes and emotions touched on in the book after we’ve both had time to contemplate them.
B: What resources were the most help for you in completing your book?
J: Elizabeth Sims’ You’ve Got a Book in You first told me I could actually write a book and then held my hand while I did it.
B: What is your workspace like?
J: Ha! My work space/office doubles as my laundry room, so my desk is only achieved by stepping over piles of dirty clothes and wiping accumulating lint off the monitor. However, this flawed space can be a precious, quiet space for which I’m thankful! I did most of my initial writing by hand in notebooks, and often went outside or to the aforementioned library, my favorite word watering hole.
B: Who is your favorite poet? What are you reading right now?
J: My favorite poet right now is Mary Oliver. I read her poetry collection Thirst many times while I was writing and her wonderful Poetry Handbook also gave me lots of workable hints. Right now I’m reading Middlemarch by George Eliot and Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans.
B: You now live in Oregon but you grew up 30 miles from where I did, in the town where I taught for the first three years of my teaching career. Share with me specific challenges you see in being creative in a rural setting.
J: Creative challenges I see in the rural setting are finding your niche and the resources to explore it and then knowing whether you’re “good enough” to stand up in a larger, more diverse circle. The answer is always, “Yes!” The intrinsic isolation and loneliness of the plains produces by necessity some of the most stunning creativity.
B: I love your perspective on this.
How did you decide to self-publish rather than go through the submission process?
J: I didn’t have the time or the patience to wait to be discovered or the confidence to withstand multiple rejections. I did research on self-publishing and decided it was a very convincing option to accomplish my goal of publishing my book.
B: What’s next for you?
J: I’m doing what I can now to market my book, but I love the writing process much more. I have a children’s book I’m working on and a family memoir I have rolling around in my head.
B: Oooo! I can’t wait to read it. There are so many things that I love about your writing. Your voice is so eloquent but not fluffy. This is a delicate balance.
My favorite line of how you describe God is by saying on page 85;
A mirror reflecting light into my dark place.
I don’t have a question about that. I just like it.
The poem I keep going back to is “Picture of Me” It is a poem about how God sees you.
Can you tell me where you were when you wrote it and how it came to you?
J: I was on a walk just before my son’s thirteenth birthday. Then – you know how your mind cartwheels – I started thinking about my own upcoming 40th birthday. I was trying to reconcile how beautiful I think my children are with my genetic contribution. I started cataloguing my flaws, but then I felt convinced that God probably doesn’t see me only as flawed and how I’m probably most beautiful when someone can see in me what God means to me. The poem spun out from there, and I had to hurry home to write it down because I’d forgotten my handy notebook on my walk!
B: Finally, what makes you feel alive?
I feel most alive when I read the Bible and discover something new I’d never seen there before or when I’m laughing with my family and friends.
Thank you Jessie for your time, I have immensely enjoyed getting to know you.