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10 Questions for Jen Ryan Onken

At dawn, when I have to pee and there is that dread of standing, and after
I pee and drink a small jam jar of water, you’re the first thing I put in my hand, Pill.

In my palm you’re so perfect and white and round, and then I add
another one of you, broken so that the half-shard is less perfect but still a good Pill.

Lately I’ve been wondering which part of me is me-me and which part that
feels a little better than before when I just couldn’t but did— was that Me-Pill
from "Ghazal for Pill," Volume 65, Issue 1 (Spring 2024)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
When I wrote the poem "Breezy Point after the Hurricane" about eight years ago, I was processing my mom's illness at the time. I was beginning to think realistically about losing her. After I read it aloud in a small writing group, people were silent. One woman got up and left the room. In that moment, I began to trust that what I was writing could be powerful.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
When I was younger, I spent many hours reading and studying the poems of Robert Frost and Seamus Heaney. They have likely formed the undercurrent of what my brain believes a poem should sound like. When I first began to think of myself as a writer, I read Marie Howe's What the Living Do, and that book leveled me. From there, I began to dive deeper into contemporary poets whose work I continue to use as a guidepost. There are so many, but I owe a special debt to Laura Kasischke, Donnika Kelly, Catie Rosemurgy, Natalie Shapero, and Jill McDonough. And how gobsmacked was I to see my poem sharing a home in The Mass Review with Jill McDonough?

What other professions have you worked in?
I am proud to say that this year is my twenty-eighth as a high school English teacher. Teenagers are the absolute best.

What did you want to be when you were young?
I was not one of those kids you found under a table writing deep thoughts in her secret journal. I recently opened an old diary of mine from when I was about twelve, and honestly, it was pretty boring.

What inspired you to write this piece?
A few years ago I was in my bed during mud season, that depressing time between winter and spring here in New England. I had just started taking a new medication, and I wasn't sure if it was going to help me with my mental health and lack of energy.

Middle age can make you crazy because you don't know if what your body is experiencing is environmental, seasonal, aging-related, medical, or just, you know… your life. For some reason, a childhood memory of the book, Frog and Toad are Friends came to me. I began to think about this pill I was taking as a kind of companion trying to wake me up from this prolonged winter, the way Frog wakes up Toad. Then, this whole sequence sort of arrived as Pill and Jen are Friends.

Some of these poems are sad. Actually, most are sad and also a little goofy; some take set forms like the ghazal published here. I have Catie Rosemurgy's "Miss Peach" poems to thank for helping me locate a playful but serious tone in these persona poems.

I must thank the poet Miss Terri Ford for mailing me a pill bottle studded with gems after she heard me read from Pill and Jen this summer. She must have thought the pill bottle I used as a prop deserved to be more dressed up for the occasion. Should I schedule a special event to take the pills out in their star-studded coat? Maybe? I'm still revising them.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I live on a retired dairy farm in Southern Maine. The surrounding fields and barns and the strangely evolving and dissolving farmhouse I live in set the stage for most of my recent work. And also water—all kinds. The necessity of the ocean is in my DNA.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
This may sound counter-intuitive, but sometimes my best work comes from writing when I'm really tired or almost half asleep. This haphazard process worries me, but it must allow some kind of strangeness to enter my work, almost a form of subconscious inebriation. Sometimes I don't remember what I wrote at all the night before, and when I read it, it feels as if it's been composed by a stranger. Is it good to surprise yourself? I suppose. Accessing that flow state can be helpful to me because my brain is often so critical of the work as it's arriving if I'm too dialed in. However, this process never works for revision. A great friend and trusted reader recently told me that I usually wreck my work in revision. My revision practice has become much more challenging since hearing that proclamation!

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I write alongside five wonderful poets whom I trust with first readings of poems or drafts of manuscripts. I am so lucky to have them in my life. We have been writing and reading together for about seven years. Sometimes we do a "side-grind" where we send a poem a day for a month with a larger group of Maine poets. I appreciate the quiet encouragement when a writer you trust reads your poem and writes you a quick note to say, Love that line. Keep going…

Sometimes I read my work to my high school students. They are definitely my toughest audience.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I wish I could draw a line in pencil with the precision of a mark-maker like Albrecht Dürer. How does he make a line look so graceful and effortless? It makes me wonder, could he always do that? I selfishly hope that Dürer completed thousands of lousy drawings to get to the moment when that astonishing drawing arrived. Is it because I've written so many bad poems that I might one day write a good one, I ask myself. I like imagining Dürer at his little desk, pounding his head on the wood, saying to his little drawing, this sucks. this sucks. this sucks… What kind of sorry, misguided motivation is that? All mine.

What are you working on currently?
I am working on a manuscript about losing my dad to dementia. Right now, my pill poems are tucked strangely into the middle of the book as a wild detour that may serve to inform my response to that loss. I am not sure if it's working.


JEN RYAN ONKEN lives and teaches in southern Maine. Recent poems have appeared in SWWIM, Deep Water, Zocalo Public Square, The Night Heron Barks, and LEON Literary Review. Her chapbook, “Medea at the Laundromat” was a 2020 and 2021 finalist for the Larry Levis Post-Grad Prize at Warren Wilson’s Program for Writers, where she recently completed her MFA. Jen was the Maine Poet’s Society winner of their 2019 prize for previously unpublished poets. She reads manuscripts for Persea Books’ Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize. 

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