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Meet Our Poetry Judge, Beth Ann Fennelly

This year we welcome the current Poet Laureate of Mississippi, Beth Ann Fennelly, as our poetry judge. Fennelly has published three collections of poetry, including Open House, Tender Hooks, and Unmentionables, plus Great With Child, a collection of letters, the acclaimed novel The Tilted World, and most recently, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, which Electric Literature called “poised, elegant, and full of moments of tenderness.” Fennelly has also won teaching awards throughout her time at The University of Mississippi. It is our great pleasure to have her back with us this year. Recently, Fennelly spoke with our program assistant James Jordan about her multifarious career and what she is looking forward to as judge.

Despite having written, successfully, in poetry, non-fiction, and fiction, you have said in interviews that this exploration of other genres was not, initially, intentional. Do you still come to new projects with a poet’s eye first?

To be honest, I never intended to be a writer who works in multiple genres. All I ever wanted was to be a poet. But I found, increasingly, I was cheating on poetry; I started a love affair with the sentence, digging the possibilities it provides for a wider canvas that allows for a more complex narrative. I guess basically I’m greedy; I kept wondering how a story would be different told in someone else’s medium. But no matter what I write, I think my training in poetry and my deep love of the form will always underline everything I write.

In your most recent book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, how did your approach towards composing in this micro-form differ from how you approach a poem?

Before I published this book, my husband and I wrote a collaborative novel. Called The Tilted World (HarperCollins, 2013), it was set in the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, and it ended up being a big project. Although we’d each published four books, we’d never written one together. In addition to teaching ourselves how to collaborate, we had to do a lot of research. And it was high stakes: we spent four years writing the novel. Imagine, if it failed, how costly that would have been for our marriage.

Luckily, it didn’t fail. After we returned from book tour, tuckered, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write next. There followed a long, frustrating, fallow period in which I wasn’t writing. I mean, sure, I was scribbling little thoughts and ideas in my notebook, but nothing was adding up to anything. Many of my scribbles were just sentences, or a paragraph, the longest just a few pages. I kept complaining to my patient husband that I was “not writing.” Eventually, however, it occurred to me that I was enjoying this scribbling in my notebook. After the high stakes, research-heavy, character-imbedded-thinking of the novel, my own life seemed rich material again. The little memories or quirky thoughts or miniature scenes I was creating seemed refreshing. So, strangely, I identified the feeling of writing before I identified the activity. I thought, What if this “not writing” I’m doing actually is writing, and I just don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like other writing I’ve done? What if I need to stop waiting for these things to add up to something, and realize maybe they already are somethings, just small?  Once I’d recognized the form and gave it a name, the micro-memoir, I realized I was almost done with a book.

I was drawn to the dynamic compression of poetry, almost like a chemical reaction—how can so few words trigger such a big response? Also, I was (and still am) in love with the sound of words, their mouth-feel, as wine enthusiasts say. It’s a huge pleasure to create music with your body and release it back into the world with the air rises from your wind pipe. At the same time, I wanted to take what I love from fiction writing—the arc of narrative, the true beginning/middle/end feeling of a journey. And I wanted the truth telling of memoir writing. So I took what I love from the three main genres and created tiny true stories about my life. It was important to me that the book embrace the full range of human emotions. Some are wistful, some wry, some poetic, some acerbic, some deliberately flat. Many are funny. Also, they vary in content. Some are recollections, some observations, some cultural commentary, some scenes composed of overheard conversations. Finally, they vary in form. All are written in sentences, and all are faithful to the truth, but the shortest is one sentence, the longest four pages. Some are in sections or numbered or make use of the page in interesting ways.

You currently serve as the Poet Laureate of Mississippi. What has that experience been like?

It’s been an amazing platform I’ve used to try to get poetry in front of as many Mississippians as possible. I’ve visited a ton of places to conduct workshops, host readings, and make poetry visible and accessible.

What aspect of a poem engages you most? What are looking for as the poetry judge?

I love the experience of reading a poem for a contest and forgetting I’m reading it for a contest—forgetting everything but the poem itself, its world, and how it begs me to read it aloud, to myself, and very slowly! I love it when the sound teaches me how to feel about the sense, for a great poem comes with built-in instructions that educate our emotions. I can’t wait to see what the entries look like for the contest!