I recently had the pleasure of discussing the Tudors, Mexico, and poetry writing with the poet Alice Jennings. Below is our conversation. Enjoy!
These poems (five we published earlier at The Fertile Source) are part of a larger collection of Tudor poems. How did your interest in the Tudors emerge? What led you to envision this historical period through poetry? Could you share with us a bit about the relationship between research, history, and imagination in these poems?
My fascination with the Tudors emerged in an unexpected way. I live part time in Oaxaca, Mexico and a year or so ago while I was there working on a series of poems inspired by my experiences as an expat, I turned on the TV and watched the 1998 movie Elizabeth, a film about Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I found Elizabeth’s story so compelling that I began to read more about the Elizabethan Age which led me back to Elizabeth’s mother, her sister and all of Henry’s wives. I began keeping notes on things of interest. After awhile I had binders and binders of notes. Well, one thing led to another and first one poem emerged and then another and another and before I knew it, I had the beginnings of a collection of poems about the Tudors.
Because of my research, the narrative arc of my collection is based on actual facts although the content of the poems is a mixture of truth, myth, and imagination. For example, it is true that Anne Boleyn had several miscarriages and/or stillbirths after the birth of Princess Elizabeth but the exact number is unknown. In my poems, “The Still Birth” and “The Miscarriage,” the dates of these events are real but the remainder is my invention.
One thing that fascinates me about your work is the braiding of history (reimagined in poems) and lines from other Shakespearean and Anglo-Saxon phrases. Could you tell us about this interplay?
This braiding of text from other writers is another curious consequence of my life in Oaxaca. In my Spanish class, I was introduced to the book of short stories entitled Bestiario (Bestiary) by the Mexican writer Juan José Arreola. This led to an interest in medieval bestiaries at the same time I was working on my poems about the Tudors. One of the principal building blocks of a bestiary is the link between the behavior of an animal or beast and the stories of the Old and New Testaments, or intertextuality. In the case of the scribes of medieval bestiaries, this linkage to the sacred texts was a way to impart moral values. I decided that a variation of this type of linkage would be an interesting concept to use within the context of this period when “morality” was often bended for personal gain.
In the selection of poems appearing in The Fertile Source, I “borrowed” text from Shakespeare and an Anglo-Saxon poet; other poems in my collection incorporate the words of writers from other countries and periods of time. For example, I have poems that include lines from classical Chinese poets such as Han Yu and Wei Ying Wu while other poems pull from contemporary writers such as Dana Gioia and Beth Ann Fennelly. I felt this mixture of culture and styles seemed to emphasize the timelessness of the themes of fertility/infertility, religious conflict and persecution, power and opulence, etc.
You cover wide ground in terms of form — a theatrical scene, a prose poem, more formal arrangements. Could you share with us some insight into your poetic process?
This is a terrific question because it addresses how my process evolved as I was writing these poems. Initially, I was drawn to traditional forms such as the triolet and sonnet because they seemed to replicate the formality of the Tudor Court. (Coincidentally, Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet form to English during the reign of King Henry VIII.) However, as this period of time was a time of great turbulence and transition with Henry’s break from the Holy Catholic Church in Rome, I gave myself permission to explore modernist and even experimental poetry. In the end, this collection became for me a sketchbook of poetic craft.
Who and what are you reading now? Do you have any writing mentors?
Currently I am reading Henry VIII by William Shakespeare and The Winter Queen by Jane Stevenson. The Winter Queen is a fictional account of Elizabeth Stuart, the ninth great-grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II.
I am an MFA student in the Creative Writing Program at Spalding University and my mentor last year was Molly Peacock. She was great fun to work with and encouraged me to keep writing more poems. I also belong to an online writers’ group, which has seen me through this project from beginning to end.
How has the experience of writing as an expatriate shaped your work?
While I was writing these poems and researching Tudor England, I felt as if I were entering foreign territory, which mirrored my expat experience. That sense of uneasiness navigating everyday life amidst different rules, language and culture opened up a pathway into the material.
Alice Catherine Jennings