Queers Fail Better – Q / A with Jen Currin

Queers Fail Better – Q / A with Jen Currin

In her book ‘The Queer Art of Failure’ Judith Halberstam offers alternative ways of knowing and becoming. Instead of valuing the conventional paths of belonging, achievement and completion, she thinks about and champions the ways of “failure”: losing your way, giving in, being excluded, forgetting, awkwardness, coming apart. Not just rejecting the “normal,” Halberstam shows alternatives to success as paths that have always been there, moving away from mastery and coherence. In this series of Q&A’s with contributors to our upcoming Queer issue, we play with these ideas. When we aren’t trying to finish first (or finish anything) where do we end up?

Think back to when you started writing. What’s an earlier influence you outgrew, abandoned, or turned against?

John Ashbery. Mark Strand. They just don’t interest me that much anymore. But I don’t think of such things in a linear way. I could pick up Ashbery’s latest book tomorrow and again have an affinity with the poems. I’m just not feeling these two right now, and haven’t for several years—but they were very strong influences on my early work.

When a piece of writing doesn’t work out, what do you do with it? Discard? Fold it into another project? Salvage parts?

Save it and see if any of the lines can be used elsewhere. Or just write the best lines in my writing notebook and recycle the poem.

What do you do with your rejection letters?

Save them and share them with students.

Do you plan out the piece beforehand or find your way as you go along? A combination of both?

Definitely find my way as I go along—or the way finds me.

When a project is finished, how do you start the next one? Or do your projects overlap?

I don’t usually work on “projects”; I’m mostly a poem to poem writer. There is usually a point where I have a group of poems and I start to think of the poems as a manuscript/book, and at this point I am aware that I am working on a “project.” But this usually happens pretty far along in my process. I don’t usually overlap projects, although I have had a sleeping project—which I started over four years ago--that I keep hoping I’ll return to.

Have you ever not sent a piece of writing somewhere because it seemed “too gay/queer” for that publication?

No. Every publication could be improved by being queered.

What do you do to procrastinate?

Wash dishes, avoid washing dishes, listen to seagulls, take walks, catch up on email, cook, sleep, daydream.

Has anyone ever said something completely discouraging to you as an artist? Did it take the wind out of your sails or did it drive you forward? Or both?

One of my mentors, the poet Norman Dubie, was wonderfully frank. In workshop, he once told me that a line was “dead in the water.” Another time, he called me at home and left a message on my answering machine in which he recited a line from one of my poems and then said, “That is just painful.” In both cases he was totally right. I thought it was funny. Norman was just trying to help me be a better writer, and he is not the sort of person to be afraid of honesty. I appreciate that. It did not discourage me; it just reminded me that I’m capable of better work.

Can a piece of writing fail, or is that a bullshit notion?

It really depends on what the writer and the reader hopes to “achieve” from a given piece of writing. In terms of craft, yes, there are countless examples of “failed” or “bad” writing—writing that is full of clichés, structurally awkward, forced, etc. But: what did the writer hope to get out of writing it? Perhaps she/he doesn’t care if the writing is technically good; perhaps he or she simply wanted to express something. In which case, such writing is not a failure. Likewise, a given reader might get something significant out of a poorly executed piece of writing just because the theme, voice, etc. speaks to them in some way. I prefer to read brilliantly crafted work and I try to carefully craft my own work, but I learn from reading all kinds of writing, and I often learn from my own “failures.”

Jen Currin has published three books of poetry: The Sleep of Four Cites (2005), Hagiography(2008), and The Inquisition Yours (2010), which was a finalist for four awards and won the Audre Lorde Poetry Award. She teaches writing and literature at Kwantlen University, Vancouver Community College, and for SFU’s Writer’s Studio.