Jennifer Sweeney
February 2010


Jennifer SweeneyJennifer K. Sweeney’s second poetry collection, How to Live on Bread and Music, received the 2009 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets as well as the Perugia Press Prize.  Her first book, Salt Memory, won the 2006 Main Street Rag Poetry Award.  Nominated five times for a Pushcart Prize, her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Southern Review, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard, Spoon River and Passages North where she won the 2009 Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize.  She was awarded a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission and a residency from Hedgebrook.   Sweeney holds an MFA from Vermont College and serves as assistant editor for DMQ Review. After living in San Francisco for twelve years, she currently lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband, poet Chad Sweeney, where she teaches poetry privately.

Poetics Statement

I’m not sure I could pinpoint my earliest introduction to the love of language and rhythm.  It would likely root back to a greatest hit from 1973 overplayed on the radio and incidentally heard daily from the womb, Love Train or Let’s Get it On, perhaps.  Surely, because I was read to, there were countless favorites that made me beg for repetition if not for the content itself, the particular lull and cadence of the words, though they too have retreated to the recesses of my memory.

 In the third grade, I kept a journal of poems that I would on occasion read for my older sister when she brought friends over.  Raised in the era of post-fallout shelter hype, I recall taking my first stab at the political poem, a rhyming admonition on nuclear war, and then my sensibility swinging toward the romantic in the fourth grade with a love poem to the color blue.

As a moody teenager, I gave what I felt was a stirring speech to my English class in which I explicated Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, then later took a seasoned turn as editor of the high school literary magazine, Sidetracks, with a staff of gently subversive young writers. Incidentally, it wasn’t such a bad start. I recently reconnected with one of my co-editors, Mark Lamoureux, who is also a poet.

My first real poetry reading was hearing Sharon Olds at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival in Connecticut when I was 21. I couldn’t even see her, but lying on my blanket along the periphery of the circular garden, her poems were a liquid palpable truth. I became extremely alert, all through my senses like a sea anemone with its nerve endings exposed. The fact that I could not see her was significant, the words issued from the half-light of a summer evening seemed somehow accurate.  I think of Gary Snyder’s ars poetica, How Poetry Comes to Me:  It comes blundering over the/Boulders at night, it stays/Frightened outside the/Range of my campfire/I go to meet it at the/Edge of the light.  It is that suspension of logic, the willingness to abide in the mystery of creation that continues to beckon.

I entered the MFA program at Vermont College over ten years ago with a slim folder of finished poems under my belt, only a handful of poetry volumes on my bookshelf.  A former dancer and as much at home in body as in mind, I did not consider what I didn’t know or was supposed to know, but chose unabashedly to go with whatever gave me that anemone feeling, what shock of truth and image left me unfurled.  I was simultaneously doing a practice period at the San Francisco Zen Center and my guidebook, Suziki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, helped fortify the assurance that my lack of knowledge and wide-eyed curiosity would be a productive foundation for artistic receptivity.

Why revisit the charm of these early beginnings? For one, I still find beginner’s mind, though harder to cultivate when one is no longer wholly a beginner, to be a sturdy and clear-headed place to return to.  It helps guide me away from my habit energies and from creating poems that are overdetermined, and the result is that I continue to savor the intangibility of poetry’s arrival and departure with the elemental sources of art and wonder more readily refreshed.   It helps to take the capital S out of “self”; it keeps me playful and flexible, open to change.  And it feels especially pertinent now as I am carrying my first child while giving a tour of readings for How to Live on Bread and Music.  I can’t help wondering whether this baby is sharpening his or her newly formed ears to the rise and fall of phonemes, the breath of the line that repeats intimately from the darkness, readying to meet them at the “edge of the light.”  Maybe that’s all too tidy and sentimental a suggestion, but I find immense satisfaction in going back to that first impulse of word and sound where language is a felt place in the body, a sensory pleasure.  To begin is to be held by a word—cochlea, photon, scimitar—and the word becomes a door through which I might enter, the mind settles and loses itself into the task, the senses unfurl, and sometimes it is a practice, sometimes a poem.

Back to PoetryNet