Prize-winning poet Jehanne Dubrow reads from her books Dots and Dashes" and "Stateside," and talks with host Megan Hayes about society's view of the military spouse, the power of the arts, grief, mint chocolate bayonets and the importance of a good haircut.
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Jehanne Dubrow: So many of the poems emerged from that question: What kind of attention am I saying that the military wife deserves? And, of course, I immediately, as I asked that question myself, knew some people would say, “None. They don’t deserve it. They’re not the ones fighting the war. They know what they are signing up for.” And I feel like I want to push back against those ideas.
Announcer: From Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, this is “Sound Affect.” Here’s your host, Megan Hayes.
Megan Hayes: Jehanne Dubrow is a prize-winning poet who has authored six books and has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Southern Review and American Life and Poetry, among many others. She’s on our campus as a keynote speaker and workshop facilitator as part of a reading, film and discussion series presented by Appalachian and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The series emphasizes the role of Western North Carolina and its people, and encourages veterans and their families to explore the ways stories help us construct our understandings of war and its myriad and often ambiguous effects. Jehanne Dubrow’s most recent collection of poems is “Dots and Dashes,” which, along with her collection entitled “Stateside,” which was published in 2010, examined her own experiences as a Navy wife looking at the before, during and after of her husband’s deployment. Her perspective and work bring voice to being married to the military, including coping with the actions of spouses in the military and problems associated with social class. The daughter of American diplomats, Jehanne Dubrow was born in Italy and grew up in Yugoslavia, Zaire, Poland, Belgium, Austria and the United States. Her husband is a career military officer. She earned a B.A. in the great books from St. John’s College, an M.F.A. from the University of Maryland and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is currently associate professor of creative writing at the University of North Texas and consults and mentors poets at many ages and all stages of development. Jehanne Dubrow, welcome to Appalachian State University and welcome to “Sound Affect.”
Jehanne Dubrow: Thank you so much for having me.
MH: Appreciate you being here today. I’d like to start with a few general ask-the-poet questions.
MH: If I could. You know, I think many people recall being assigned to write poetry in grade school or high school. I remember mine being particularly terrible and the experience being a little painful, but do you recall writing your first poem?
JD: I do. I was 11, and for some reason, I wrote a poem about seagulls. I have no idea why. I don’t care about seagulls. I don’t really like seagulls, but I remember writing it and just finding that it felt really good to write it, and that I didn’t quite understand when I finished what was this thing I had made, and that feeling stuck with me. And so, years later, I sort of wrote poetry as a teenager. Then I went to college and sort of, in my early 20s, I had a terrible breakup, actually with the man who eventually became my husband. And in the aftermath of that tragedy, I began to write poems again, and within about a year, I remember calling my parents and saying, “I have this really crazy idea. I want to go to grad school and be a poet.” And, much to their credit, they said, “OK.” (laughter)
MH: Wow. So, what are your most powerful memories of being inspired by words?
JD: Well, I spent a large portion of my childhood in communist Poland, and one of the things you learn growing up in a totalitarian regime is that the arts really matter, and so, seeing how much art forms like poetry and painting and music and theater were a daily part of people’s lives in Poland made an indelible impression on me. It was always clear to me that the arts could be life-changing and lifesaving. And so, you know, poetry is revered in Poland. In every city, in every town square across Poland, there is a street or a statue or a school or a train station named after the great Polish romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, and when you see that kind of impact that a romantic poet who is long dead can still have on a people, you realize, “OK, this is something that isn’t frivolous. It’s not a hobby. It’s not a diversion. It really means a great deal to people.” And so, I always knew that I was going to be in the arts. It just took me a little while to figure out that I was going to be a poet.
MH: As someone who mentors other writers and poets, can you just share a little bit of advice for the budding poets or writers who might be listening?
JD: Sure. You know you can do a lot of study on your own, but there is a certain point at which you really need guidance and mentorship, and so, what I would recommend is you don’t have to go to grad school to get a degree in creative writing, but you do need to find somebody who is further down the road to help you get to where you want to go, somebody who is going to teach you how to revise, how to be open to critique, how to find books that are going to inform your work in really positive ways. You need to find that person because, otherwise, maybe you’ll never get to where you want to be, but certainly it will take you a very long time to get to the writer that you have as a vision in your head.
MH: Yeah. Let's switch gears a little bit and talk about your work in particular, the two texts “Stateside” and “Dots and Dashes.” This is kind of a personal question I think, for me, because I think one of the most influential people in my growing up life was a poet. She was a haiku poet. She passed away last month. Her name was Marlene Mountain. She did some drawing. She did some painting, but even her visual art was centered on word choice, you know, around one word and insisting that that reader or that viewer really, mercilessly examine the word and all of the impact and connotations of those words and she was a raging feminist.
MH: Literally, raging (laughs), and, you know, while the subject matter of your work is really different from hers, I, in my mind, I kept relating the two, and I think some of that is because, you know, just my personal experience with her recent death, but also, she was reacting or responding to a world that was constructed by men, and in a lot of ways a lot of the violence, whether intentional or unintentional, it was constructed by men, and as I read your work, I feel something similar — this depiction of the military wife that we see in popular culture and entertainment, it largely seems to be presented through the lens of, or at least centered around, the experience of the soldier. And so, I wonder if you could talk about the importance of including that perspective of the woman?
JD: Yeah. That’s such a great question. I feel that “Stateside” and “Dots and Dashes” are feminist texts. When I first began to write “Stateside,” usually when I start to work on a book of poems, the first thing I do is research. I want to see what else has been written on the subject, not just in terms of other poetry, but historiography, memoir, anything like that. And so, when I first started thinking, “Well, what would it be like to write a book of poems about the experience of being a military wife?” I went and read the literature. And what I realized very quickly was that there were plenty of self-help books. There were diaries and other kinds of personal accounts, but there weren’t really any texts that I saw as literary, that spoke deeply about the military wife experience, and one of the things that I think literature does is it draws our attention to things that are worthy of artistic, serious attention. And the fact that a military spouse experience had never been depicted in a literary text told me that people didn’t think this was a subject that was worthy of serious literary treatment, and the only really wonderful example of a military spouse is Penelope from Homer’s “The Odyssey,” and I thought more and more about that, and I thought, “Well, huh. ‘The Odyssey’ is kind of an old book.”
JD: “Maybe it’s time to tell this story again.” And so, that’s where the book really began, was with this concern and anxiety about, “What would it mean to claim a space in literature for this figure?” So many of the poems emerged from that question: “What kind of attention am I saying that the military wife deserves?” And, of course, I immediately, as I asked that question myself, knew some people would say, “None. They don’t deserve it. They’re not the ones fighting the war. They know what they are signing up for.” I feel like I want to push back against those ideas, that, yes, maybe military spouses have some idea when they enter a marriage with somebody who is active duty of what they are getting into, but, the fact is they don’t get paid for their work. They don’t get ribbons or nice pieces of shiny metal on their collars, and so, their service isn’t recognized in the same way, and that’s understandable, but maybe it hasn’t been sufficiently recognized period. And so, I knew that I was sort of entering a fraught space where there would perhaps be concern that I was talking about this, and also there is a kind of culture still in the military that even voicing the idea that being in a military marriage is difficult can be seen as unpatriotic.
MH: Wow. That’s really interesting because right before we came in here, Troy Tuttle and I were just talking about this. So he’s our creative director and also a veteran, a military veteran, and, you know, this is something that I think from my experience not being someone who is from a military family and talking with Troy who is a veteran, we were kind of kicking this back and forth and discussing the concept of how the title veteran is one that really is shared by the family because the family goes to war when the soldier does, even though the experiences are very different. So, I guess part of what we wanted to ask you is, is there more that we can do in our communities to recognize and value the experience of the military family and the aftermath of war that they go through because it’s almost like the war continues in some ways or maybe a lot of ways?
JD: Well, I think one of the challenges now is that a lot of military families aren’t necessarily living on bases, and so, sometimes those families become somewhat invisible. If you live on a base, then it’s sort of understood the role that everyone is playing. The spouses who are going through the commissary by themselves, you understand that the active duty service member is somewhere else and perhaps overseas deployed. But, when you are a military spouse and you’re living in a community where there aren’t many other military spouses, it’s very easy for people to just entirely forget what you might be going through on a day-to-day basis — even just the isolation. And so I think just being more aware and checking in with those families that you know have a loved one overseas can be a thoughtful gesture.
MH: Let’s take a minute and read a few poems, if you would.
MH: There are some that we selected that we wanted to ask you about, in particular. I was wondering if you would mind maybe starting with “The Much Tattooed Sailor”?
JD: Sure. So, this poem initially began as a kind of writing prompt. The Library of Congress did this event — I think it was during one April, which is National Poetry Month — and they had various poets look at the holdings of, I guess the National Archives, and pick out an item that they wanted to write about. And so, I was really interested in these photographs taken during World War II. There were a number of really brilliant photographers, professional photographers, who, during World War II, worked usually for the Army or the Navy to chronicle the war, and so, this poem is inspired by a photo that was taken by Charles Fenno Jacobs, who is known for his Time Life photographs. It was taken in December of 1944, and the photograph is called “Much Tattooed Sailor aboard the USS New Jersey,” and that’s also the title of the poem, and the poem is in three parts.
Squint a little, and that’s my husband
in the photograph, the sailor on the left —
the one wearing a rose composed of ink
and the Little Bo Peep who stands
before a tiny setting sun and the blur
on his forearm which might be a boat —
while the sailor on the right is leaning in,
his fingers touching the other man’s skin,
tracing what looks like the top of an anchor
or the intricate hilt of a sword, perhaps
wiping blood from the artful laceration,
in his other hand something crumpled,
his cap I think or a cloth to shine brass,
lights on a bulkhead, fittings and fixtures,
because let’s not forget this picture
must be posed, the men interrupted —
mops laid down, ropes left uncoiled, or else
on a smoke break, Zippo and Lucky Strikes
put aside — no war for a moment, only the men bent
at beautiful angles, a classical composition this contrast
of bodies and dungarees, denim gone black
and their shoulders full of shadow —
although on second thought how effortless
this scene, both of them gazing toward
a half-seen tattoo so that we too lean in
trying to make out the design on the bicep,
close enough we can almost smell the erotic salt
of them and the oil of machinery,
which is of course the point, as when in a poem
I call the cruiser’s engine a pulse inside my palm
or describe my husband’s uniform,
ask him to repeat the litany of ships and billets,
how one deployment he sliced himself
on a piece of pipe and how the cut refused
to shut for months—Hold still, I tell him,
I need to get the exquisite outline of your scar.
My husband in his new ink, the blade
of his shoulder
now unfamiliar for its anchor,
is a text I visit with my fingers.
Overseas, an artist has tattooed him
with the start of a tiger — three sittings
I’m told it will take
to make the teeth glisten.
Still healing, he turns his back to me
in the bedroom,
and says, it hurts, and waiting
for my response, he anticipates a touch
you do this to yourself.
It’s always like this for our bodies. I too
have a bramble
of blackberry and blossom on my back.
What postcard from another
permanence. What coiled machine
like a clicking pen. For my husband,
introduces some new story,
a mermaid’s turquoise tail, a ship
on his arm. Come home,
he would no matter what be strange.
Consider the tiger:
half-finished leaf and shadow.
My husband as well to me is a bare
Contour, a sketch
that takes the shape of intimacy.
He is also crouched in the tall leaves
of my thinking,
his eyes waiting to be shaded in.
Even in war,
the artist’s narrow
seeing finds an aperture
to let in light across
the injuries of skin.
Our appetite is keen,
Sontag says, for pictures
of bodies held in pain,
The swallow flitting
on a collarbone
is still a wound,
in its position,
the symbolism clear —
that like birds we return
to violated shores,
that we love ourselves
for flinching, that we
love ourselves more
when we refuse to look
away from the hurt
a needle makes, the first,
fine point of red.
MH: Wow. Thank you. There is another one that to me almost feels, well, I don’t know, maybe I don’t ... would you mind just reading “Drone”?
JD: So, this poem came from an episode of “60 Minutes.” I was watching “60 Minutes,” a section of the show which was titled “Drones Over America.” And the person who, the expert who was talking about the future use of drones said that, you know, he was rattling off a list of possible uses for drones, and in the middle of that list, the expert said, “We will see small drones that deliver wedding cakes.” And I thought, “Oh my god, what an amazing image.” And so, that’s where this poem began, and so, that’s the epigraph for the poem. So, this is “Drone.”
A bee a buzz a monotone
a drone that hummingbirds
across a town a drawler
a crawler of cities
on an instrument
a string that moans drone
of panoramic pix little clicks
emitted in the sky sleek
robotic fly that whirs its wings
bringer of things that blast
and boom to pass away
drag out as if all living plays
slow-mo gizmo that spins
to the burning trees below
device at the meltdown ghost
in the walls and hills and halls
of the capital storm drone
and parrot airdog gone aerial
a body that’s flown remote
by a land-bond god finder
of those who would stay
unfound subject of research
searcher of subjects lurcher
that jets a box of sugared tiers
to the church in the nick
of time to shoot
the vows wrest the guests
from their facelessness zoom
toward the bride and groom
drone of white noise
and beak unveiled
as if to speak now and forever
hold the peace.
MH: Yeah, I think the reason that I liked the idea of hearing those two next to each other is because so much of your work, I think, brings significance to things that for those of us that exist solely in civilian life, significance that never even occurred to me. So, you know, I mean, I remember, you know, lots of those conversations about, “Oh, drones are going to deliver wedding cakes. They’re going to deliver packages. They’re going to deliver pizzas.” I work with photographers who use drones, and so, in our minds, we think about drones in relation to research and photography. Tattoos I feel like are, you know, they’re very common, you know, I think now more so with our generation than with older generations, and so, it’s something that we have in common and yet they are so personal and hold very different significance so they can also set us apart in a way while bringing us together, and it just made me think of maybe the details of a story or a photograph become more significant for someone who feels like, at any time, that goodbye or that kiss or that meal that they just shared with their loved one could be the last one, and I guess I wonder with that hovering in your mind, do you feel like those details are sharper or stronger to someone who might be living with that kind of hovering sense of impending loss?
JD: I think it’s possible. When I first was working on “Stateside,” part of the motivation for writing that first book was that my husband, who is career Navy ... it looked like he was going to be sent on something called an individual augmentation. At the time, in our war in Iraq, there was a significant shortage, particularly in the Army, and so, people from other branches, particularly the Navy, were filling in and often they were administrative positions, but when my husband was told he might be sent on an individual augmentation, it looked like he was going to be sent to Afghanistan or Iraq, and all of a sudden, this kind of safe parameter that I had established around the idea of our marriage completely fell apart because I had sort of come to terms with the idea of him being on a ship, but I hadn’t come to terms with the idea of him being in country. And so, suddenly I was visualizing him in a Kevlar vest and, you know, imagining him as doing a different kind of service than the one that I had sort of figured out how to make sense of, and so, I had a complete meltdown, and that was how I started writing the poems, was from this place of panic, and what I later learned was something called anticipatory grief, and this is a kind of grief that you engage in where you are grieving for the things that you could imagine might happen in the future. So, of course since I have a good imagination, I was imagining the worst. As it turned out, he never went on that individual augmentation, which is very typical of military life. There is an old Yiddish expression: “When man plans, God laughs.” That is really the experience of being married to the military. You learn very quickly not to believe that anything is going to happen until it’s actually happening. So, you don’t really decide that a deployment is really going to happen until that deployment begins. You don’t decide that shore leave is going to happen until it happens, because to do otherwise is to constantly exist in a state of disappointment or panic or just deep, abiding fear.
MH: Yeah. If you wouldn’t mind reading a couple of poems out of “Stateside.” We’d love to hear them. One in particular: “Penelope Considers a New Doo.”
JD: Yeah. So, as I said before, Penelope was one of the figures who hovered over “Stateside.” She was this impossible role model. There is no way that any military wife can really live up to Penelope. She’s alone for 20 years, holding down the fort, fending off dozens, well, hundreds of suitors, who are all trying to marry her because they are convinced that Odysseus is dead. So, she is perfectly chaste for 20 years. She maintains the island and raises a son by herself. She is incredibly strong and independent, and she doesn’t just do it for a few years, she does it for two decades. You know, the first decade, Odysseus is off fighting the war and in Troy, and then the second decade, he is trying to get back to Penelope. That’s a long time to wait for a husband who you are not sure is still alive. And so, she was really this guiding figure over the book. In some ways, somebody I was pushing against, because I don’t want to be Penelope. I imagined Penelope in various contemporary situations. I wasn’t saying that I was a Penelope, but I was just sort of imagining, “What would Penelope do in this current era of war?” So, this is “Penelope Considers a New Do.”
The magazines declare don't ever cut
your hair just after breaking up. So what
if he's been absent nearly twenty years?
Fact is: each day the loss feels new, the sheers
still biting as the first time they'd been honed.
Looks like he's never coming back. You've moaned
for two decades about the shroud of bangs
which veils your face, the way your ponytail hangs
down your back like a ragged piece of rope.
Your follicles have given up all hope
of hair that moves, of Farrah Fawcett's flip,
Meg Ryan's shag, or anything so hip
as the pixie, the asymmetric bob.
Go see the stylist-to-the-stars and sob
your story out (that endless Trojan war,
those gods). André has heard it all before.
He'll trim away dead ends so razor-fast —
chop chop snip snip — you'll wonder why the past
cannot be sliced so easily away
or died a golden shade to hide the gray.
MH: I really love that poem because of the … because it’s about your haircut.
MH: So, without knowing any of the backstory about Penelope and her inspiration for this, I keep thinking of all the bad haircuts or haircuts I’ve had in my life and just how common of an experience that is for women ... to stress about our haircut.
JD: Yeah. Women put a lot of weight on the success or failure of a haircut. So much depends on a good haircut in some ways. (laughs)
MH: It does! It really does! So, if you don’t mind, I do want to transition back to “Dots and Dashes” because I like going from the haircut to the chocolate.
JD: Oh sure. This is one of my favorite poems in “Dots and Dashes.” There used to be, on the first floor of the Pentagon, a beautiful chocolate store. And my husband was at the Pentagon for about two years, and frequently I would beg him to bring me chocolate because I just thought it was so amazing, but his joke was always that on the first floor along with the chocolate store there was a flower store and a jewelry store, and he used to say that these places sold all the products that a husband needed to purchase when he had really messed up at home. So, I was just entranced by this chocolate store. I thought it was so strange to have such a place in the Pentagon. So, this poem is a sonnet, and it’s called “From the Pentagon.”
He brings me chocolate from the Pentagon,
dark chocolates shaped like tanks and fighter jets,
milk chocolate Tomahawks, a bonbon
like a kirsch grenade, mint chocolate bayonets.
He brings me chocolate ships, a submarine
descending in a chocolate sea, a drone
unmanned and filled with hazelnut praline.
He brings me cocoa powder, like chocolate blown
to bits. Or chocolate squares of pepper heat.
Or if perhaps we’ve fought, he brings a box
of truffles home, missiles of semisweet
dissolving on the tongue. He brings me Glocks
and chocolate mines, a tiny transport plane,
a bomb that looks delicious in its cellophane.
MH: That’s just amazing. I just love the imagery of the chocolate with those, in those destructive shapes and …
JD: I think one of the things that the poem does is try to navigate some of my discomfort with the ways that war and the military are eroticized. Kind of the sensual treatment that we often bring to our examination of war. So, I think the poem handles my anxieties in a sort of tongue-in-cheek way, but definitely that tension between love, between Eros and Death, Thanatos, sort of playing out with all these delicious pieces of chocolate that are shaped like weapons of war.
MH: Wow. Well, the final poem that we would like you to read is from “Stateside.” This is the poem that introduced us to you, so it’s the one that when we heard about you and that you were coming, our creative director sent me this poem and said, “We got to get her here.” Because it’s just very moving. So, if you wouldn’t mind reading “Secure for Sea.”
JD: Yeah, and I’ll just say, a lot of the poems in “Stateside” take as their inspiration military terminology. I find the language of the military really interesting. So much of it suggests metaphor, and so, this term “secure for sea,” is sort of the idea of what happens before you go out to sea, the kinds of preparations that you make on board a vessel to secure everything — anything that could bang about or jostle loose when the ocean is rough. But the term is also used to speak about the kind of things that families do when they’re preparing for a sailor to get underway. So, this is “Secure for Sea.”
It means the moveable stays tied.
Lockers hold shut. The waves don't slide
a metal box across the decks,
or scatter screws like jacks, the sea
like a rebellious child that wrecks
all tools which aren't fastened tightly
At home, we say secure
when what we mean is letting go
of him. And even if we're sure
he's coming back, it's hard to know:
The farther out a vessel drifts,
will contents stay in place, or shift?
MH: Wow. Are there any that you would like to add that we didn’t ask you to read?
JD: Let me see if there’s one more. So, this last poem is written in a French form called a villanelle, and so, when I read it, you’ll hear that there are certain lines that repeat over and over again, and there is also an interlocking rhyme scheme. So, villanelles are often used for subjects that are obsessive or for problems that don’t have solutions. And for me, that sort of describes the experience of sitting through a deployment; that it can be an obsessive experience and it certainly often feels like a problem without a solution. So, this is “The Long Deployment.”
For weeks, I breathe his body in the sheet
and pillow. I lift a blanket to my face.
There’s bitter incense paired with something sweet,
like sandalwood left sitting in the heat
or cardamom rubbed on a piece of lace.
For weeks, I breathe his body. In the sheet
I smell anise, the musk that we secrete
with longing, leather and moss. I find a trace
of bitter incense paired with something sweet.
Am I imagining the wet scent of peat
and cedar, oud, impossible to erase?
For weeks, I breathe his body in the sheet —
crushed pepper — although perhaps discreet,
difficult for someone else to place.
There’s bitter incense paired with something sweet.
With each deployment I become an aesthete
of smoke and oak. Patchouli fills the space
for weeks. I breathe his body in the sheet
until he starts to fade, made incomplete,
a bottle almost empty in its case.
There’s bitter incense paired with something sweet.
And then he’s gone. Not even the conceit
of him remains, not the resinous base.
For weeks, I breathed his body in the sheet.
He was bitter incense paired with something sweet.
MH: Thank you. We were talking about the sense of smell and the power of the sense of smell and that we noticed that in a couple of your poems, actually, and —
JD: Yeah. I am a passionate collector of perfume, and I won’t tell you how many bottles of perfume I have.
JD: But I often use perfume as a teaching tool in the class. It can be a great way to write poems about memory, or a particular place, or a particular person because our sense of smell is a bridge to so many different parts of our thinking. So, yeah, I like to sneak in a scented poem whenever I can because ... because, often writers privilege the sense of sight, and we forget about something as evocative and powerful as the sense of smell.
MH: Yeah, wow. Well, Jehanne Dubrow, thank you so, so much for the time you spent with us —
JD: Thank you.
MH: — and for reading your poetry for us. It’s such a treat to have the poet right here with us, reading her poetry and getting your sense of what inspired you to write the poetry and also your interpretation as well. So, I really appreciate your time today. Thanks.
JD: Thank you so much for having me.
MH: Today’s show was written and produced by Troy Tuttle, Dave Blanks and me, Megan Hayes. Our sound engineer is Dave Blanks, with assistance from Wes Craig. Our web team is Pete Montaldi, Alex Waterworth and Derek Wycoff. Research assistance comes from Elizabeth Wall, and video and photo support come from Garrett Ford and Marie Freeman. Our theme song was written and performed by Derek Wycoff of Naked Gods. Our podcast studio is dedicated to Greg Cuddy. Special thanks to Stephen Dubner for the inspiration, advice and moral support. “Sound Affect” is a production of the University Communications team at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Thanks for listening. For “Sound Affect,” I’m Megan Hayes.