By the time she arrived at The New School, Jen Benka, MFA '07, had five years of experience as Managing Director of Poets & Writers, and a published book of poetry, A Box of Longing with 50 Drawers, behind her. Since graduating, Benka has published another collection of poetry, Pinko, and now serves as the Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets. Justin Sherwood, MFA '12, interviewed her at her office in lower Manhattan to ask about what brought her to The New School, her vision of poetry and politics, and what she's been up to at The Academy.
Justin Sherwood: You began your academic career with a BA in Journalism from Marquette University. Does your interest in journalism persist, and have you found a journalistic impulse emerging as you write poetry?
Jen Benka: While journalistic investigation isn’t expressly what I do in my own work, I am personally interested in the possibility of poetry as a means to explore contemporary issues. I’m interested, for example, in the work of Muriel Rukeyser, who could be described as a poet-journalist. She wrote an important piece in 1938 about her journey with a photographer friend to Appalachia to document a trial involving several miners who were dying from lung disease. In the poem she weaved together primary source texts including trial documents, and her own interviews with people at the time. It’s called The Book of the Dead, and is part of her volume U.S. 1. I’m also interested in the work of Carolyn Forché, who thinks about poetry as a way of documenting atrocity. Forché has recently published another groundbreaking anthology called the Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500-2011.
JS: I noticed on Twitter that you identify as “A Midwesterner in Brooklyn.” What brought you to New York City?
JB: I had always wanted to live in New York. I grew up in the Midwest, and my family moved in what I think of as a kind of Bermuda Triangle—I was born in Milwaukee, then we lived for a while outside of Madison, Wisconsin, in a small farm town that was actually a stop on the Underground Railroad, called Milton Junction. Then we moved outside of Chicago, and I eventually made it back to Milwaukee. Ultimately, I was able to move to New York because I was offered the position of Managing Director at Poets & Writers.
JS: When you enrolled in the MFA program at The New School in 2005, you were already five years into your service at Poets & Writers, and had recently published your first book of poems, A Box of Longing with 50 Drawers. Why did you decide to get an MFA?JB: It had long been a personal goal to obtain an MFA degree. I come from a family of teachers, and higher education is something that had always been stressed. And, I was looking at turning 40 in a couple of years. I knew that if I didn’t follow through on my dream of obtaining an advanced degree by the time I hit that milestone, I probably never would. I was excited about the possibility of studying at The New School.
JS: Why did you choose The New School for your MFA?
JB: I had a great job in the literary field, so I wasn’t willing to relocate from New York City. When I researched other programs it seemed that The New School was the most open to someone like me—someone who was older and working fulltime. Being able to keep my job while attending a graduate program was essential for me financially and important to me philosophically. And, of course, The New School has excellent poets teaching and a terrific reputation as one of the leading programs in the country. I was thrilled to have the chance to work with so many poets whose poems I had long admired.
JS: Have you remained in contact with your classmates from The New School?
JB: You know, when I started the program I planned on being singularly focused on my studies because I had a demanding job. But I had a wonderful classmate who second semester reminded me that meet-ups after workshops were part of the experience. Thanks to him, I established meaningful connections with an incredible cohort of student poets at The New School, and I’ll say that that’s another defining characteristic of the program. The New School MFA program genuinely fosters a non-competitive, generative sense of community among students. I’ve remained in touch with a number of my fellow students, and many have gone on to be innovators in the poetry field. They’ve won Fulbrights, launched readings series and publications like the Agriculture Reader and Coldfront, started new poetry organizations like the Poetry Society of New York, and published books with wonderful small presses. I believe the success I’ve seen from my fellow classmates is due in part to the supportive energy and community that the program facilitates. Continue reading here.
For more information about The New School MFA program, go here.