Litdish: Writing About Grief: An Interview with Jenn Koiter
Jenn Koiter is a poet, screenwriter, breathworker, and creativity and writing coach. Her debut poetry collection, So Much of Everything, was published in 2021 by Day Eight, and it won the 2021 D.C. Poet Project Award. Her poems and essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Smartish Pace, Bateau, Ruminate, Copper Nickel, and other journals and magazines, as well as in anthologies, such as Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence.
Koiter earned her B.A. in English and Religion from Northwestern University, an M.A. in the Social Sciences from the University of Chicago, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Antioch University. She is a recipient of the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, awarded to students of superior academic ability.
She lives in Washington, D.C., with three gerbils named Sputnik, Cosmo, and Unit.
I was immersed, intrigued, and impacted while reading her poetry collection and felt honored to interview her about the book and her writing processes.
- Your poetry collection has been described as one created to process complicated feelings of loss and grief. In fact, the first poem, “Easter Night,” seems to indicate that loss has occurred (“Since yesterday, the earth has tilted…What will I do with darkness in this new life?”). During the writing and editing stages, what strategies did you choose to employ to convey the deep sensations of grief (e.g., the use of certain poetic forms such as elegies; the language utilized to express the multifaceted feelings and aspects of loss)?
I wish I could say I had a strategy. I clung to poetry like a lifeline in my grief, and what got written, got written. I will say that, early on in the grieving process that followed my boyfriend’s suicide, I wrote a lot of catalog poems. Writing in lists at that stage makes sense. I was feeling and thinking in fragments. I was also still integrating the loss into a bunch of situations (i.e., he’s not at work anymore, we won’t go to that Thai restaurant again, I don’t have to take that exit anymore, etc.). So it made sense to jot down those moments where I re-experienced loss. It turned out to be very useful, both in terms of my own process and in making poems.
- I noticed in your poems that you juxtapose humor with the deep and dark throes of grief, like in this sentence from “The Survivor”: “My instructor says dead body pose seventeen times during hot yoga, which is, as they say in Hollywood, a little on the nose, especially since I’m lying on your yoga mat.” Can you discuss why you feel humor is important and how it can provide connection and relief during times of loss?
I love this question! For one thing, grief is exhausting, and humor is a way to give ourselves a break from the work of grief. It undercuts the seriousness. At the same time, our senses of humor don’t go away just because we’ve had a loss, and I think humor is a way of bringing our whole self to the process of grieving. Dark humor isn’t only a way out of grief—it’s a way to be honest in our grief, because our powers of observation and our sense of the ridiculous don’t go away just because we’ve had a loss.
- Your collection has “found” poems, like “The Makeover.” Can you talk about what it’s like working with found texts and specifically how you construct and employ them?
I love working with found texts. For one thing, it’s a way to skip straight to editing, which I heartily enjoy. I also love a good challenge, and making a poem out of a found text is certainly that. Poets do well with constraints, I think, whether of rhythm or rhyme or syllables. I’d add found poetry to that list of constraints. I think the best found poems uncover something in the original text, rather than being divorced from it, and I love that, too!
- You have been quoted as saying that So Much of Everything “was written over a period of more than 10 years.” The collection, according to your publisher, also follows you through international travels, literary friendships, and personal tragedy. What approaches and decisions enabled you to take forty diverse poems from different timelines and situations and arrange them in ways that they somehow connected, took on new meanings, and created a collective whole?
I think it was actually helpful to have that temporal distance from so many of the poems. A certain detachment is needed when assembling a manuscript, and I imagine it might be tougher to summon that when all the poems are new. I had no problem throwing out poems that I thought were weaker or didn’t fit. As for finding coherence, even over the course of a decade, there are themes I’m drawn to return to again and again: identity, loss, faith. I hope I’m not the exact same person I was ten years ago, but I do still have a lot of the same concerns.
- Do you have a personal favorite poem in So Much of Everything? If so, why is it your favorite?
I don’t know if I’d call it my favorite, exactly, but the second poem, “Reading Tour,” is quite special to me. It’s an elegy for two poet friends who were also friends with each other and who both died young, Craig Arnold and Jake Adam York. I tried to write this poem for years, first as a poem, then as an essay. Nothing ever stuck. Then it was the first poem I wrote after dissolving my writer’s block. I still miss them both terribly, and I hope I did justice to them and to their friendship.
- You mentioned in a previous interview that you read and studied Hindu mythology. Did that influence your poetry, and if so, in what way?
I’ve written a fair number of poems that reference or retell stories from different religious traditions, though only some of them made it into the book. The weirdest way that my studies in mythology impacted my work is that they inspired the Candy Jones found poems. Jones was a cover girl in the 1940s and went on to become a beauty expert in the 50s and 60s, founding a finishing school and writing a dozen books. But what she’s best known for is being the subject of a conspiracy theory in the 70s. She claimed to have been brainwashed by the CIA, who ostensibly discovered and strengthened her second personality, Arlene, sent her on spy missions, and programmed her to kill herself. Reading Jones’s books—and others’ books and articles about her—was like studying a contemporary myth. It almost didn’t matter what was true. The interesting questions for me were how the different versions of her story were being used, and by whom.
- Do you feel that being and staying connected to a community of writers is important as a poet? What communities are you connected to?
I think literary friendships are tremendously important. How else are we going to know we’re not broken, if we don’t have writer friends to say, “Oh god, me too!” I feel like I’m finally starting to weave my net of literary connections here in D.C. (I moved here not long before the pandemic began). There are wonderful literary organizations here like The Writer’s Center and The Inner Loop. And, of course, the many lovely writers, some of whom have become friends. I’m finally starting to feel at home here now.
- On your website, you share about lapsing into a brutal, five year writer’s block, which you’ve mentioned also included resistance and avoidance. Yet you were able to overcome that. Can you share more about that recovery journey, including the methods you used and have developed to help others vanquish their blocks?
It was definitely a combination of things. Changing genres and writing a screenplay helped. Starting with free writing helped. Very short daily writing sessions helped. Virtual writing dates over Zoom helped a lot. I discovered breathwork, and practicing that regularly made a big difference, as did starting writing sessions with short breathing/meditation exercises. Honestly, I still struggle with blocks sometimes, and it depends on the day what’s going to work, so it’s good to have a variety of tools in my tool belt.
- Are there any particular poets who have greatly influenced or inspired your work?
More than I can count, but here’s one that’s close to my heart: I met Adam Zagajewski as an undergraduate, which I remember very vividly. I had loved his book Tremors, especially. Still do. He seemed sad and wise. I remember thinking that he was never fully at home anywhere: exiled from his homeland of Poland; living with the love of his life in France, but not fitting in with the literary community there; finding literary community part of the year teaching in Houston, where he was far from his love. Maybe I was just being a sentimental nineteen year old, but I found that heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.
- What advice can you offer to emerging/upcoming poets? Or is there any advice you’ve received that was helpful in your writing?
Here’s some advice I wish I’d received: Try not to edit while you write. Eventually, you’ll just freeze up. Try to write every day, if only for ten minutes; the longer you go without writing, the harder it is to start again. If you miss a day, or a week, or whatever, don’t be hard on yourself—you’re still a writer. Don’t be so hard on yourself, period. Comparison really is the thief of joy. Find real writer friends, some of whom work in your genre(s) and some of whom work in others. Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing.
This excerpt, from “The Survivor” in So Much of Everything, was chosen by Koiter to illustrate her use of catalog poems.
I push my foot into my boot, and you die.
I put my toothbrush on its stand, and you die.
I put on my headset, and you die.
I fix myself tea, I order Thai food, I smudge
the surface of my tablet, and you die.
I find the plushie you gave me
for Valentine’s Day, and you die a little harder.
You die as I walk past the gas station on 51st,
past Alex and Alix’s apartment,
past the Chili’s at 45th and Lamar.
I click the key into the ignition,
the radio switches on, and you die.
A pothole jars my right front wheel, and
you die, you die, you insist
on dying. You always were
a stubborn ass, but I can be stubborn, too.
I can hold out as long as it takes
for you to listen. Listen:
That’s enough dying, now.
You can stop, now.
Gail Vannelli retired as an attorney and now writes children’s/YA fiction. She has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her Post-MFA Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s won several Writer’s Digest awards for her fiction. Her recent work has appeared in Cynsations, where she’s a news reporter and writer, and in Lunch Ticket, where she’s been a lead editor, assistant editor, interviewer, and blogger. She’s the founder of Kids Story Studio, a free kids story writing class.