That was five years ago. In the years since, Fitzgerald’s name has begun to appear regularly in the literary news that arrives in my inbox. And not only for her poetry, which has a distinctly direct and morally clear voice, but for her work on behalf of literature.
A few months ago when my chapbook BY THE WINDPIPE was newly published, I answered Jen’s call to feature new poetry chapbooks on New Books in Poetry, which is part of the New Books Network of podcasts. She offered to feature my chapbook in a brief interview-cum-reading as part of “Chapbookapalooza”, a month-long celebration of the format. Jen was well-prepared, knowledgeable and a very good interviewer. I learned afterwards that she’d organized these interviews not for a paycheck, academic credit or a personal favor, but because she felt they were necessary. Necessary. Not a word I associate with much of the business of literature at this point. It seems almost old-fashioned to labor alone on behalf of the literary community. I became curious about what motivated Jen Fitzgerald to work so hard, both on the page and in her life. What follows is a casual interview with Fitzgerald.
LM: What led you to become not just a writer but a social activist in the literary world?
JF: Books saved my life. I would read first thing in the morning, throughout lessons in school, while walking, during meals, and until I fell asleep. My record for a single day was eight books (YA, of course). When I was a kid, if I hadn’t had those realities to escape into, I might not have made it.
Books raised me. Literature gave me an unshakable, empathetic moral center. The words of strangers offered a solace I could get nowhere else. It is with gratitude that I put back into the pot from which I took so much.
I’m not sure how someone could be a writer and not a social activist. We are imparting our ideas to the world, we use persuasive language, surrealism, and entirely invented narratives for our own ends. We study people: their tones, inflections, mannerisms, and personal histories.
The impulse that drew me to the page is the same impulse that compels me to act. A writing life is one of constant learning and expansion. I seek first to understand, then to learn, and ideally, to share. I was (and still am) new to the system and social structure of the literary world. Fresh eyes easily see the cogs and gears, they aren’t yet entrenched. I saw a lack of equitable representation. I saw that groups of writers were fighting two or three times as hard for the smallest acknowledgement. And I saw that the composition of the community creating art today was very different from the composition of those with enough recognition to sustain a creative life. If writers raise the volume on suppressed voices, how could we tolerate it in our backyard?
LM: How did your work with VIDA become a gateway into a broader kind of activism?
JF: While I have taken part in grassroots activism throughout my life, VIDA gave that impulse an intense focus. The task was much larger (the VIDA Count is an enormous undertaking) but the response was commensurate.
VIDA helped me figure out where I could be most useful. Coming from a long line of engineers, I have a natural proclivity for systems, applied mathematics, and data interpretation. I eased into the task somewhat seamlessly. Co-founder, Cate Marvin saw this, and entrusted me with the reigns. My desire to act had constant nourishment and as VIDA grew, I grew with it.
LM: Would you describe the New Books Network?
JF: The New Books Network is a series of literary podcasts that focus on new collections throughout all genres and sub-sections of writing. Each one has its own channel and platform. The whole network is run by Marshall Poe. He is like a demi-god of audio editing and formatting who also runs his own channel.
Each of the 80+ channels has one or more hosts who have complete creative control over their content. It’s kind of a dream in that respect. Various channels promote one another and it feels like a big disjointed family that has a minor obsession with literature.
LM: You’re now in charge of New Books in Poetry after having worked with John Ebersole, who has moved on to other projects. What led you to focus on poetry chapbooks? Is there something that a chapbook can do differently from a full length collection?
JF: Not all collections will extend to 70 or so pages. Sometimes the poems say they are done and no amount of coaxing will budge them. This is where the chapbook comes into play; just as the novella is still a respected medium, so too should be the chapbook.
By dedicating an entire month to them, they are made into an event—hopefully something that people will look forward to in upcoming years. This is where I got the name “Chapbookapalooza,” after the yearly music festival, “Lollapalooza.” And why not celebrate the chapbook? They are absolute works of art; the attention to aesthetics and detail is astounding. Visual art is often interspersed with verse and it adds an entirely new dimension.
They are a joy to read because sometimes the smallest poems and collections contain the largest worlds.
LM: How do you select the work to be featured?
JF: I love startling language, I love when a title subverts a poem’s content, I love when prosody kicks out the wall of a stanza, and I need to feel an exhale when the poem’s dust falls to coat my bones.
Although I had a pretty broad knowledge of the contemporary poetry scene going into this, I spent the first month or two familiarizing myself with poetry presses and asking fellow poets for lists of presses that were putting out collections they enjoyed. As I browsed catalogs, I pondered the key elements of our literary community that make it so awesome.
The conversation surrounding the VIDA Count data has lead our community to request that editors be conscious, aware, and proactive in their representation of those creating literature today. I was handed the rare opportunity to implement the very thing I was asking others to do.
Once put into action, it proved that to diversify is not to lessen, but to strengthen. With each group of folks that feels welcome and included, this platform only gets wider and stronger— it grows to meet the demand of the bodies it holds.
(Read Part II tomorrow)