The Practice of Joy: An Interview with Jen Currin

by Rebecca Jamieson

I met Jen Currin several years ago when we were both invited to do readings for a trans friend’s top-surgery benefit party in Portland, Oregon. I felt immediate kinship with Jen, both as a writer and an amazing human being.

Her poetry and short stories get under your skin with their spare, earthy elegance. She can write about love, family, and spirituality in a way that shifts your perspective and makes those topics feel fresh and mysterious. I love to read Jen’s work partly because it gives me the chance to get inside her wonderful head and see the world through her eyes.

Jen is a also a true literary citizen. She’s championed the work of countless other writers, and her kindness, genuineness, and fierce curiosity is a standard we could all do well to aspire to.

Jen was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and did her schooling at Bard College (B.A.), Arizona State (M.F.A.) and Simon Fraser University (M.A.). She lives and works on unceded Coast Salish territories (New Westminster, Surrey, and Vancouver, B.C.), where she teaches in the Creative Writing and Academic and Career Preparation Departments at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Jen’s first collection of stories, Hider/Seeker (Anvil Press, 2018), was named a Globe and Mail Top 100 book of 2018. She has also published four collections of poetry: The Sleep of Four Cities (Anvil Press, 2005); Hagiography (Coach House, 2008); The Inquisition Yours (Coach House, 2010), which won the 2011 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry and was shortlisted for the 2011 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (B.C. Book Prizes), the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry, and the ReLit Award; and School (Coach House, 2014), which was a finalist for the 2015 ReLit Award, the Dorothy Livesay Prize and the Pat Lowther Award. Her chapbook The Ends was published by Nomados in 2013. Jen was a member of the editorial collective for The Enpipe Line: 70,000 Kilometers of Poetry Produced in Resistance to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Proposal (Creekstone Press, 2012).

It was a pleasure to talk with Jen over email. Our conversation covered a wide terrain, including her relationship to writing as part of social justice work, the importance of community, the differences between writing poetry and stories, and the importance of practicing joy.

Rebecca Jamieson: What inspires you right now?

Jen Currin: I have been reading some great books lately and they are really inspiring me. I’ve been enjoying the poems of Tomas Transtromer, Jaime Forsythe, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, and Tongo Eisen-Martin. I’m in the middle of Otessa Moshfeg’s Homesick For Another World, Michael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan and Other Tales, and Carleigh Baker’s Bad Endings, all collections of stories. I recently finished Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony and found it deeply moving and wise. There is so much good work out there and I feel grateful to have some time to engage with it. Reading has always been one of my biggest inspirations and it continues to be.

What else is inspiring me right now? I am really noticing the effects of climate change and global warming, and while this is not inspiring me in a positive way, it is giving me a lot to think about and it is making me want to figure out how to write about it more—how to approach it on the page. As I write this, it is late October and the weather has been sunny for weeks. People in Vancouver are walking around in t-shirts. At parties, friends admit to guiltily enjoying the weather even when they acknowledge it as “abnormal.” I bless the sun on my face even as I pray for rain because the forest fires these last few years have been merciless. It is enormous to think about and try to write about.

Inspiring in a more uplifting way are the many communities I am a part of. It’s fall, so that means lots of book launches, and I have so enjoyed hearing friends read from their just-released books and also encountering new writers. At the community garden I am a part of, we are trimming back the plants and preparing the plots for fall. There have been a number of great parties this fall in my queer community, so many that one friend has quipped that October should be called “the gathering month.” The communities I am fortunate to be a part of are a central inspiration in my life.

RJ: As a writer, I also find myself struggling to write about climate change and the many other terrifying political and social issues we currently face. How do you attempt to approach these topics in your writing?

JC: I don’t know really exactly how I approach them…it’s not always a conscious thing. I think they are a big part of the atmosphere of my life, of our lives, so they make their way into the work. I guess I do try not to be too didactic, although even typing this I’m smiling because I know how preachy I can be!

RJ: I’m also struck by what you said about how the communities you’re part of inspire and sustain you. Can you say more about the role of community in your life? And specifically in terms of literary community, what does being a literary citizen mean to you?

JC: My first community was my family; I come from a big one, eight siblings, and that was my first sense of being a part of a larger group. It was a very tumultuous and hard childhood, but I still had this sense of the tribe, of this strong bond connecting us. Since then, I’ve co-created many other families with groups of friends. Community at its best can be an exemplar of loving interconnectedness. Of course there will be strife and drama at times, but there is also this capacity to work through that and feel a sense of home or family in community. I have experienced this happening and it has given me hope. Communities can be amazingly resilient. I don’t know how I’d live without them. Without the love of and connection to others, it’s really difficult to want to keep living.

In terms of being a literary citizen (I like that term), it means connecting with other writers near and far, reading their books, being in conversation with them, sharing opportunities, going to their events if I can, hosting events if I can, promoting others’ events. It means wishing other writers well, not engaging with the dog-eat-dog capitalistic thought-energy that is so rampant at this time.

RJ: What does writing give you?

JC: Writing gives me so much that it is hard to articulate all of the gifts. It gives me a space for pause and reflection, and at the same time a way to connect to the stream of life—to enter this stream via writing, if that makes sense. Writing gives me a place to record experiences, thoughts, and dreams. It gives me a connection to a deeper part of myself, and a connection to a sustaining, sustained practice. Writing helps keep me steady. There is a sense of relief or homecoming I have when I write something in my notebook (I am one of those writers who always carries a notebook). Even if I never use the fragment I’ve scribbled down, the very act of writing it gives me something—this satisfaction in noticing, this tiny contribution to the work of the world.   

RJ: How do you work with resistance to writing?

JC: I accept it. If resistance is there, it is there for a reason. Sometimes we can’t write, or can’t write something that we “want” to. If that happens, I try to be patient, to wait and to listen. Maybe it means I need to be doing something other than writing, like taking a walk or reaching out to a friend. Or maybe it means I should be writing something else.

Sometimes, especially when working on stories, I feel a lot of resistance and I try to push through it and keep writing. This hasn’t worked very well for me. It’s been more helpful to take a break, maybe do some research for the story or for another piece, or go exercise or meditate. I respect resistance as a necessary part of the process and try not to fight with it—I try to trust that, after whatever necessary time of resistance, the story or poem will let me in again. It might take a few hours or days, and that’s okay. I haven’t yet had the experience of encountering a block of resistance that lasts months or years; but then, I’ve also never attempted a novel!

RJ: I’m currently getting an MFA, and I’ve heard many stories about people who stop writing after they finish their programs. What are your thoughts about this? What advice do you have for writers who have stopped writing but want to start again?

JC: I’m not surprised that a lot of people who did MFAs aren’t writing anymore. I mean, I love writing, but it’s hard—the dedication, the hours required, the constant trying and often failing. It’s not for everyone.

Advice—giving it or receiving it—makes me a little nervous, although I do find myself doling it out at times (my poor students!), even when I should know better. I guess if someone came to me and said, “I have stopped writing and I want to start again. What can I do?” I would first ask them if they knew why they stopped writing. Understanding this might lead them to a solution to their problem. For some folks who like the energy of a group, taking a class or joining a writing collective is helpful. For people who prefer to work alone, a morning ritual with their notebook might do the trick.

RJ: You’ve published four books of poetry, but your latest book, Hider/Seeker, is stories. My experience of your poetry is that it isn’t strongly narrative. Talk about why you made the transition into stories and what it was like for you to work in that form.

JC: I have always loved stories and novels. I grew up reading a lot of novels. Later, I delved into stories and fell in love with the genre. So, I’ve been a reader and appreciator for many years, and I dabbled in story writing in undergrad and grad school, taking classes with some good teachers. But for a number of reasons, I didn’t keep up the practice, and that part of my writing remained dormant for many years, until about eight years ago, when I started seriously working on and studying the form.

When I was younger, I had this love-hate thing with narrative. I loved reading narratives, but I struggled with feeling that stories and novels were “fake” or “inauthentic,” somehow—that they couldn’t capture the multiplicities and complexities of life. I thought poetry was better for that. But this view changed over time. I so deeply appreciate what short stories can give a reader that I wanted to learn how to write them. But it was and is intimidating.

There is comfort to be found in writers like Chekhov, who said that stories and poems have more in common than stories and novels. The density of imagery and capacity for mystery in both forms are a part of what engages me as a reader and a writer, but I find stories a lot more difficult to write than poems. Stories take a long time for me to compose—many, many drafts. Whereas many of my poems might need only 4-5 drafts, the stories need at least 20-30. I’m hoping this might get easier as I become a more experienced practitioner of the form, but I’m not sure it will.

Writing stories has also forced me to think more deeply about devices like plot, characterization, and dialogue. I’m grateful for the opportunity to engage more extensively with these devices, even if it feels like I still have so much to learn. But of course, that is also part of the attraction—being a perpetual beginner!

RJ: I’m intrigued by this idea that poems are somehow more “real,” and that stories and novels are “inauthentic” or “fake.” Can you say more about why that idea changed for you?

JC: I honestly don’t know if it did completely change. Poetry is still my first love and I think poems can do things other genres can’t. Poems can be the wildest creatures; fiction in comparison often seems more tame. Initially, I was very put off by things like plot and characterization. They just seemed so clunky and forced to me as a writer. Like, how to make a character believable? Dialogue? How to do that?

Now I’m interested in these questions. I’m trying to learn to write stories that have some poetry in them—that can capture some of what I love so much about poetry. One of my favorite writers who does this in the short story form is Denis Johnson. His recently published posthumous book The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is full of stories that move like poems. I read it recently and am already craving another read. I want to study how he made those stories work.

RJ: I experience your poems as political in a deeply personal, embodied way, which can sometimes be challenging to do when talking about such enormous issues as systemic oppression or environmental destruction. Do you see your writing as a form of activism?

JC: I think of writing as activism when it is part of an action, like a reading at the anti-Olympics Tent City in Vancouver, or a performance at Standing Rock, or writing a script for eco-guerilla theater performed at an oil company’s headquarters. Using this definition, very little of my writing is activism. But, I do think writing can play an important part in changing the consciousness of whoever encounters it. Even if an audience for a piece is relatively small, the reactions can create ripple effects in spheres we might not even consciously be aware of.

Writing—and all imaginative acts—are important because, in addition to containing the possibility for joy, they allow us to conceptualize change. Writing can create a space for visions of the past, present, and future that we haven’t yet seen and need to see. I’m interested in imagining and working towards a future where Earth is honored and respected and humans work together in dynamic harmony for the collective good. (Which isn’t to say that I won’t write stories or poems that express hopelessness, conflict, etc. at times—giving voice to these realities is also important.)

Writing and imagining is only part of the political work, of course. There is also the important on-the-ground work, which we can each take part in, in large and small ways, in our communities.

RJ: “The possibility for joy”—I love that! So often activism, or overtly political writing, is characterized by anger, struggle, and grief. As you say, it’s important to honor those realities, but can you say more about how and why joy enters into your work?

JC: I think some people are more oriented towards joy, but even if you already have this bent, it’s still necessary to work at it. Joy is a practice. For me, it’s about clearing away some of the mind-gunk so that I can actually feel the life-force thrumming through me—I experience this force as essentially joyful; it’s just happy to exist, to be able to live. Underneath it all, for me, is the heart—this universal, impersonal source that we all have access to, even if we don’t consciously know it.

How this connects to writing is that writing, for me, comes from this same life-force energy that brings joy—this is what I understand creativity to be. I don’t always write from a joyous place, but I always write because of that life-force energy. Without it, there’s no movement—the words can’t get on the page.

RJ: You currently teach creative writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. How have you supported yourself as a writer at other points in your career? How do you find a balance between teaching and writing?

JC: I started working outside my house at 14, at a fast food restaurant, and have worked ever since. I devoted myself to the path of writing at 18. So, for most of my writing life, I have had one or more jobs. I’ve done a lot of things; when I was younger I worked mostly in restaurants and coffee shops, and then after my undergrad I worked as an early literacy program coordinator and later as a grant writer and literacy tutor before going back to school for my MFA. Since I got my MFA, I’ve mostly been teaching; English, academic writing, creative writing.

It is always a dance to find time for writing when needing to work a certain amount to pay the bills. I will soon be able to have one semester off a year, and am excited to dedicate that time to writing more intensively. I have a lot of stories I’ve wanted to work on during the last couple of years that I haven’t managed to attend to. I have been jotting down some poem drafts here and there; I have a few on my desk right now that I need to type up. Poetry is easier for me to write in the nooks and crannies of the day; I often write poems on transit or in coffee shops when I’m supposed to be grading. Fiction takes a lot more hours, and so I need concentrated time off to work seriously in that genre.

RJ: I think I remember that you meditate, and your writing often explores spiritual and ontological themes. Talk about the relationship between writing and spirituality for you.

JC: The two are very interlinked, but then I see all of my life through a spiritual, for lack of a better word, lens. It’s hard to put into words. I’m always thinking about things like death, reincarnation, bettering myself as a human being, the spiritual causes of political problems, peace, how relationships can be our spiritual teachers, karma, forgiveness, why we are here, etc. So these topics usually make their way into my poems.

I do not subscribe to any organized religion, but I’ve read a number of religious texts and they have helped inform my world view. Writing is a practice like a spiritual practice in that it’s something you have to really devote yourself to—you can’t be half-hearted about it. Or, if you are, that will be shown in the work.

I haven’t been sitting down to meditate a lot lately, and I miss it, but what I have been doing is practicing more mindfulness from moment to moment in my daily life, which has been really enriching. I meditate a lot on public transit. Interestingly, I just got an email from the incredible San Francisco-based writer Camille Roy and she said she’s been doing this too. I wonder how many of us are meditating on buses and trains! Maybe it could become a movement and change transit as we know it…

One thing I’ve noticed is that this connection to the breath, whenever I’m able to notice it, has opened up more spaciousness in my life. Even though I am very busy with teaching right now, I simultaneously have the sense that I have plenty of time—the attention to the breath and the present moment gives me this. This can help a lot with writing because the space for creating can still be there—at least somewhat—even when we think we don’t have it. That’s how I can manage to still write some poems and sketch ideas for stories while teaching five classes and keeping up a bunch of other commitments. I feel I’ve gotten a bit off-track in this answer…?

RJ: No, not at all! I love where you went in that answer. I especially love the idea of using our time on public transit to meditate. I’ve done that before, and am inspired to do it more, after reading this! I’m also really struck by what you said about writing as a spiritual practice that you can’t be half-hearted about. What does that look like in your own writing practice?

JC: Devotion practice is a big part of my life, and the writing practice is one of my devotions. I approach writing with the knowledge that it will take huge amounts of time and energy, and that even with intense commitment I will never be a master in this lifetime, and also with deep gratitude to be able to even have a practice like this. I think the least I can do is try to give it my all. I think about love and spiritual practice all the time and I also spend a lot of time thinking about writing. They are very interlinked for me.

My deepest thanks to Jen for her willingness to engage in this conversation with me. It was one of those exchanges so packed with inspiration that I find myself returning to it again and again to continue contemplating the insights she shared. Please check out Jen’s amazing books of poetry as well as her new book of stories, Hider/Seeker.

Rebecca Jamieson is the author of the poetry chapbook THE BODY OF ALL THINGS, published by Finishing Line Press in 2017. Her writing has appeared in various publications, including CalyxLion’s RoarRattle, and Stirring. A longtime student of meditation, Rebecca is the founder of Contemplate Create, where she teaches Mindful Writing classes in person and online. Rebecca has also taught with Write Around Portland, a nonprofit that offers writing workshops for marginalized communities. She is currently the Teaching Fellow at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she is pursuing an MFA in Writing & Publishing.