Jennifer L. Knox: The Informer Interview

Image courtesy of Jennifer Knox

Jennifer L. Knox is a poet who lives in Nevada. Her work has appeared four times in the Best American Poetry series as well as publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, American Poetry Review, McSweeney’s, and Bomb. She has published four books of poetry, most recently Days of Shame and Failure. She currently teaches at Iowa State University, and is the proprietor of Saltlickers, “makers of unique and inspired herb and spice blends in sea salt for people who cook, and people who don’t but love to chow down.”

How did you, as a famous poet and spice merchant, end up here in central Iowa?

I moved here for love. My partner and I met through mutual friends from the University of Iowa, where we were both undergrads. We were both from California originally, and we’d been at different parties and weddings throughout the years, but we ended up meeting at a backyard barbecue in Brooklyn. Then two years later, I was reading at the Englert Theatre for Mission Creek, so I asked him if he wanted to join me for a drink. And he said, “Well, it’s about two hours away, but I think I can make it.” And even though I had gone to the University of Iowa, I couldn’t fathom that Ames was two hours away, I thought the whole state was Iowa City. We moved in together shortly after that.

Did you grow up in a pretty literary family?

No, not at all. My mother was a speech therapist, and my father was an accountant, but he always wanted to be a cowboy. Neither of them were very literary but they were big readers. One thing I’ve figured out in the last couple years is that poetry might be a more physical or visual than strictly literary. And in that way, my dad is right in that wheelhouse.

When you say he wanted to be a cowboy, what form did that take?

He wanted to go to the Calgary Stampede, he wanted to wear a cowboy hat. One year, he got a bee in his bonnet that we should all wear jean shorts. So he cut off all our jeans one morning before anybody had woken up, because he’d seen that in some magazine. He and I are both allergic to horses, so he couldn’t really be a legitimate cowboy, but he wanted to live the cowboy life.

What did you study at the University of Iowa?

I studied English and I attended the undergraduate writers’ workshop — at the time, you studied with the same people as taught the graduate workshop. You had to apply every semester and there were thousands of people applying, so I kind of lucked out right out of the gate. I studied with Gerald Stern, Jim Galvin, Martin Bell, Linda Gregg.

I actually started out as a theater major, and then I switched to fine art — video-making, glass-blowing, you name it. My GPA wasn’t very good, perhaps because I was studying theater and glass-blowing, so I had to take a semester off. During that time, I found myself drawing, but making little poems to go with the drawings. I said to my mom, “I think I want to study poetry writing,” and she said, “University of Iowa! I’ll get you an application.” She made that happen real quick; again, I really lucked out.

I can see what you mean when you say that poetry has always had a visual element for you.

Yeah, drawings, paintings — and film, my work is really influenced by film. I think if this was an entirely mental pursuit, there’s no way I’d be able to do. I can’t even play chess! I’ve tried. It just doesn’t stick.

I also see that in the covers of your books, which are very… distinctive.

That’s my friend Charles Browning, he’s done the paintings for all my covers. His work is amazing, it hearkens back to this artist George Caleb Bingham, who painted things like a drunk dude on a raft with a cat and a minstrel, all floating down the Ohio River. It’s a hyper-realism and very narrative, of a story that’s kind of disturbing and very funny, but not in a ha-ha way.

I feel like his covers lend an air of importance or history to my books. Without them, people would be like “I don’t know what this is,” but he adds context. [Pointing to the cover of Days of Shame and Failure] You’ve got the dodo, and this guy is in the pose of Burt Reynolds in his 1970s Playgirl shoot.

The dodo reminds me of the recurring apocalyptic imagery in your poems. Do you think we’re living in the end times?

One of the first things I did here in Iowa was see Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of The Sixth Extinction, speak, so yes, I do. But recently, I met two graduate students in the creative writing program here, who are putting together an anthology of “solarpunk.” One of them explained solarpunk to me this way: “You know how cool Star Trek was, how they would always find workarounds? We think that’s still possible,” and I was like “Oh, thank God!”

Rather than step in as an authority and say something is bad and this is the way it’s bad, I’d much rather speak in the voice of Trump, the voice of the idiot.

I know that my brain is uncomfortable living in possibilities. I would much rather go right to “this is the way things are,” which is dangerous in this case. I hear so many people, of all ages, saying “That’s it, we’re screwed,” because the thought of cleaning all this up — which we could do if we had buy-in — is too much.

So I’m very much on the side of the apocalypse, but now I think that’s probably a bad place to be, so I’m looking to get a toe in on the side of possibility, that this is not a done deal.

This is all pretty political. Is there a political dimension to your work?

Yes, there always has been. Rather than step in as an authority and say something is bad and this is the way it’s bad, I’d much rather speak in the voice of Trump, the voice of the idiot — and I realize that position of abdicating authority is a position of privilege. There’s just so many more possibilities, and it’s a lot more fun to write. Someone [George Bernard Shaw] once said, “If you’re going to tell the truth, make them laugh, or else they’re going to kill you.” I want to show it’s bad, and crazy bad, not just tell it’s bad.

On a different topic, I know you said that you went to the undergraduate version of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I feel like there’s this idea out there that Iowa is the perfect place to write because it’s so boring that there’s nothing to distract you. Was that your experience? How has Iowa influenced your work?

I remember it was great to be immersed in a community of such dedicated people, and yeah, there wasn’t a lot else to do other than talk about poetry and about writing.

I got my MFA at NYU — lots of distractions, even just to pay for your apartment – but we got some great writing done. I was in an amazing class there, with Ada Limón, Greg Pardlo (who won a Pulitzer), Jason Schneiderman, Kazim Ali, Kathy Graber. It was an amazing conflagration of people.

Now, being in Iowa, I’m incredibly influenced by the landscape, and maybe the sense of alienation. I was just writing something about this. In New York there wasn’t an imperative for me to write in my own voice, and maybe that’s because you’re part of something so much bigger, but here I feel more of an imperative to do that.

I’m actually working on a project called “Iowa Bird of Mouth.” It’s going to be a crowdsourced poem, one for every month on a different Iowa bird: one for the raven, one for the goldfinch, et cetera. People can log in and write 300 words. I borrowed the idea from Juan Felipe Herrera, the poet laureate, who is doing a similar thing called La Familia on the Library of Congress website, where people write on what family means to them.

There’s a connection that people have here to landscape, to the weather, that I’ve never seen. My father-in-law can tell great little stories about any bird, or the trumpet vine, or what sunflowers do. It’s amazing, and it’s something he’s picked up just existing in this landscape. I suppose that’s why certain practices here are so slow to change — reliance on that kind of knowledge. Like the almanac: if it hasn’t happened before, it won’t happen now.

So what’s your writing process look like?

Well, I’ve got about three jobs, so if it’s a writing day, I know when I wake up that’s what I’m doing that day. I wake up around five. I have pet birds who love to greet the dawn. At around six, they start to go off, so I want to get a good hour in before I have to uncover their cages and feed them.

I can’t have anything else on the agenda for the rest of the day. If it’s poetry day, it’s poetry day — for instance, I love to cook, but I can’t think what I’m going to make for dinner.

I’m also working on a novel, which is like getting up every morning to resuscitate this dead body, and put makeup on it, or a wig, or kill somebody else and put it next to the body. It just keeps going and going, and it includes a lot more failure. With a poem, it’s like you balance the egg, back out of the room, shut the door, but this thing’s been going on forever. I had a great story fall into my lap when I was in New York, but I needed some distance. I’ve finally gotten enough distance to not rely on what actually happened.

It’s much more intellectual, much more anticipatory — if I do this and this, that’s going to happen. I’m not good at that, that’s why I’m a poet. As a poet, you don’t figure out who’s going to set the building on fire, how they’re going to do it, how the firemen are going to save the baby. As a poet, you walk into the burning room and it’s already on fire, and you don’t have to save the baby. There’s no necessary resolution, it’s just a moment, which is very liberating.

What, for you, is the purpose of poetry?

I do it because of how I feel when I’m writing it. It’s a physical sensation. It’s like working out a puzzle that only I have the answer to, even if I don’t know it yet. It’s a process of discovery — when I have a good line or a good title, I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of it.

It’s also a craft. There are only a very few people who want to eat this kind of cookie. And most of the people who eat this kind of cookie, make this kind of cookie. But you meet the rare birds who have never baked in their life, but still love these kind of cookies. They’re like golden unicorns.

How has your work changed over the years?

I’m still stuck in the ‘70s: Battle of the Network Stars, junk food. There’s one poem in there [Days of Shame and Failure], “Nazi Art,” based on this artist Charles Krafft, who spent his whole life making Nazi art to explain the paradigm of blah blah blah. They gave him millions! And people were walking through these exhibits, saying, “Oh, this is a commentary on whatever.” No! Nobody spends that much time on Nazi art unless they’re a Nazi. That’s something I wouldn’t have done when I was younger, taking the authority to subvert that story.

How’s Saltlickers going?

It’s good! We’re at the Ames and Des Moines farmers’ markets all summer; we’re at Gateway Market, Wheatsfield, the locker in Story City.

Is it too much of a stretch to ask about the relationship between that project and your poetry?

Both of them take way too long to create, and they don’t pay off. The payoff compared to time is not commensurate. But compared to the inaccessibility of poetry for most people, to watch people taste something and see their eyes light up, that immediate visceral reaction, is so fun. And to hear people say, “This is us, this belongs to central Iowa,” I like that too.

Okay, last question. You mentioned your parakeet, but you also have a great love for corgis — if you had to choose between the two, which would it be?

Oh man, that’s like apples and oranges right there. I don’t have a corgi, but when I was a kid, my godparents had a corgi named Sherman, as in a Sherman tank. When I would go to their house, they would say, “Don’t touch Sherman, he bites,” and I would say, “Oh, come on!” So for me, corgis have always represented this untouchable object of desire. They’re way too smart for their own good.

Parakeets are like corgis in that they’re very smart, but much louder. I wouldn’t recommend them. We’re waiting for ours to pass on. We’re giving them a very comfortable life: pasta every morning, bird balls, imported food. Other than let them fly wild in the house, where they’d destroy everything and kill each other, I don’t know what to do. So we’re just not bringing any more birds into the house.

So it’s an impossible question: Corgis are so inaccessible, but parakeets are the exact opposite.

Evan Burger
Evan Burger is a writer and organizer who lives near Ames. He is a graduate of Columbia University, where he was the editor-in-chief of The Gadfly, Columbia’s philosophy magazine. He has also written for Jacobin magazine. Evan organized in rural areas with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, on campuses with the United States Student Association, and most recently worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign. He can be reached by email at burgerevan [at] gmail [dot] com.