By the time she arrived at The New School, Jen Benka, MFA Creative Writing '07, had five years of experience as Managing Director of Poets & Writers behind her, and had already published book of poetry, A Box of Longing with 50 Drawers. 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.
JS: What was your thesis experience like? Did the poems you worked on during that time make it into your second poetry collection, Pinko?
JB: I came to the program with some drafts of poems I thought would be in my next book, but I didn’t know what shape the book might take. Mark Bibbins, my thesis advisor, was incredible to work with. He met every poem with a seriousness and care that I really appreciated. He was a generous reader and critic, and every poem I worked on with him is stronger for it. My second book, Pinko, a reflective set of pieces in large part about my experiences in the 90s, is comprised of many poems that I worked on during my time at The New School.
JS: Do you have any advice for our second year students, who are in their thesis semester, on ordering a group of poems that may become part of their first poetry collection?
JB: I would say this: don’t put the pressure on yourself to produce a book. Let the poems be what they need to be. Don’t rush to publish. Your thesis should be a culmination of the work you’ve done in the workshops, and the work that you’ve done one-on-one with your advisor. If you have the pressure of “this has to be my first book,” it might change the work in ways that don’t serve the poems, and eventually, your readers.
Ordering a manuscript is a very complicated thing to do. There are folks like me who like to build an over-architecture that scaffolds the work and moves the poems along, and there are others who organize work by subject matter or other systems. It depends on what you’re writing about, the larger story you want to tell.
JS: You mentioned the influence of Muriel Rukeyser, whose novel Savage Coast, recently published by the Feminist Press, is yet another of her contributions to literature that combines creative writing with reportage. Rukeyser was a writer who was deeply concerned with questions of democracy and social justice. Do you think that poetry is a viable form for exploring the problems of democracy?
JB: I do. In fact, I think it’s an essential way that we explore those problems. There are things that we can explore in art, and uniquely in poetry—because it is art made of language—that are essential to maintaining democracy. Democracy only functions when questions are being asked. Questions can’t be asked by just one segment of the public. Poetry can be a kind of Public Square. Just like journalists help maintain a democracy by serving as watchdogs and holding public officials accountable, artists also raise important issues. We need poets in the world asking questions.
JS: To what extent would you consider the work of the Academy of American Poets activism?
JB: We’re not an activist organization in the sense that PEN is an activist organization, fighting for freedom of expression and assisting writers in exile. The Academy of American Poets is dedicated to building support for and increasing the visibility of poets who are working in the United States, and to shining a light on American poetry globally. We are activists in the sense that we want to engage as many people as possible with this art form that we know is potentially transformative.
Poets provide the words that help us understand our lives, history, and location in the world; they test and reimagine syntax; they move us beyond the noise of the everyday. When we read a poem, we’re engaging with an art object made of language, which enables our mind and memory to wrap around it in a way that a mind can’t wrap around a painting on canvas. Poetry opens people up. In The Life of Poetry Rukeyser writes about how a poem can help prepare us to make changes in our lives by requiring us to feel. The emotional participation that great poems demand can lead to important new revelations. As Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
JS: How would you describe the mission of the Academy of the American Poets? Has it changed at all in the two years you’ve been leading it?
JB: The Academy of American Poets was founded 80 years ago by a 23-year-old woman named Marie Bullock. She’d been living in Europe, and when she returned to the U.S., she was dismayed and frustrated by the lack of support for poets in this country by contrast. She founded the Academy to address that concern. In its early days, the Academy launched the very first prize in the United States to recognize a poet’s artistic merit, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship Prize, which we continue to award annually to this day.
Our focus hasn’t changed in 80 years-- poets remain at the heart of our work. We work to build an audience for their work. And we still have much to do. Poets are unlike fiction writers, screenwriters, and painters—there’s no big check waiting for us. Our most celebrated poets, and the poets who are selling the most books, are still nowhere near being able to support themselves financially the way that other artists can.
One of the things that makes the Academy unique is that we’re guided, in addition to a Board of Directors, by a Board of Chancellors, comprised of award-winning and established poets. Our Chancellors have always provided artistic advice, judged our largest awards, and guided us in our curation. Today, we have 15 of the most exciting, diverse poets working with us to ensure that our programs reflect the breadth and best of contemporary American poetry.
We’re also more focused on online publishing and social media. This year we’ll publish at least 250 poets’ new poems on Poets.org and share them with more than 300,000 readers daily.
In addition, for this year’s National Poetry Month, an annual celebration which we originated in 1996, we will be launching a multimedia education called Poet-to-Poet, which invites young people in grades 3-12 to write poems in response to those shared by some of our Chancellors.
JS: Many writers have a definite political and aesthetic stance. Yours, if I may, could be described as queer, progressive, even radical. You are also charged with leading a poetry organization that promotes all kinds of poetry to all kinds of people across the political spectrum. How do you balance your own aesthetic and political leanings with the perhaps necessarily more moderate leanings of an organization?
JB: It’s true, the Academy of American Poets is a big tent. In celebrating the talented poets writing today, with the support of our Chancellors, we look across a wide aesthetic spectrum. And we do all we can to engage as many people as possible in the art form so we might build a lasting readership for poets. So in addition to working with the artists themselves, we also serve educators, readers, and our members.
I’m very cognizant, as are all of the staff members at the Academy, that the work we do here is not about us. I’m not here to fulfill my own political or personal agenda. When we’re here, we’re working, writing, curating on behalf of a broader, larger mission.
JS: With such a large professional commitment, how do you make time for your own writing? How do you balance the highly individualized and curated world of the poet with the broad social network you’re a part of as an Executive Director?
JB: It’s not easy. I’ve always had to balance working fulltime with a creative life. And I’m fortunate that during my time at Poets & Writers I was able to successfully strike some sort of balance between my professional life, being a part of the literary community, and my own writing, so I know it can be done. It’s a little more complicated at the Academy, because my role is even more demanding, but I hold tightly to the idea that when we’re not writing we are preparing to write, so that there’s always some sort of creative process happening internally. I ultimately feel that my artistic practice is two-fold: it’s about my own making and it’s about serving others. It’s only when I take both together—making and serving—that I understand myself as an artist in the world. Concretely, right now the only way that I’m able to produce my own work is by having very specific deadlines.
JS: Deadlines that you create for yourself?
JB: Deadlines I give myself, or those created by an occasion or an event that I want to produce new work for. The professional-personal balance shifts, what motivates me shifts, the constraints shift, and I just stay open to those changes, hold tight to my artistic vision, and accept that my writing practice will look different over time.
JS: We’ll close with a question from one of our Fiction students: many professionals in the publishing world insist that aside from the writing that young people are doing, it is now essential to build a personal “brand” if a writer wants to be noticed and published. Do you think that the role of the young writer is changing, and how essential is building that “brand?”
JB: Young writers need to make choices that, above all, are going to serve their work. If it serves your writing to consider performance and packaging, to create a public persona and use social media to provoke readers, great. Let your engagement with your work lead you.
Being active on social media does create incredible opportunities for experimentation and community building. And having a social media presence does help you get in the door of the publishing community. Publishers care about work finding an audience. If you can demonstrate that you’re already building one, they pay attention to that.
I’ve been excited to see the connections made between poets through social media. Poets who might not have had anything to do with one another 30 years ago are now very aware of each other’s work and even in conversation with one another. We’re in each other’s news feeds. There was a time when you’d check fliers on light posts to find out who’s reading where and when, and now it’s at your fingertips. There is less space between us.
The Academy of American Poets will be experimenting with some interesting things online beginning this April. Stay tuned!
Jen Benka is the Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets. Her two collections of poetry include A Box of Longing with 50 Drawers (Soft Skull Press) and Pinko (Hanging Loose Press). She graduated from The New School's MFA Creative Writing Program in 2007. Learn more about Benka at The Academy of American Poets.