Photo circa 1940 by Marion Post Walcott for US Government project. Bayou in Schriever, LA. (US Library of Congress)

The making of the incredibly versatile Jennifer Reeser

Pt. 2 of 3

Jennifer Reeser
Poet Jennifer Reeser (used with permission)

Jennifer Reeser, in case you missed the first article in our series about her, is no ordinary writer. Exceptional poet, widely praised translator, essayist, and reviewer, Reeser has long refused to confine her intellect to one form or genre.

Years ago, a famous poet’s son who became an accomplished writer told how his father “made his head.” As with everything, seeds of one’s future are sown at a very young age.

Born in the complex social and eco-systems of the Louisiana Bayou, Reeser is very much like that entity when it comes to her work. The word bayou stems from the Choctaw word bayok for “small stream”. The bayou, with its social mix and diverse wildlife and habitat, proved fertile ground for a budding young writer.

Asked how old she was when she knew she’d become a writer, Reeser pointed to an experience when she was five years old, standing on the kitchen table to recite “The Night Before Christmas” from start to finish for her family. Six years later, she had developed into a “voracious, unquenchable reader” and lover of books. Her grandmother said Reeser always had a book in her hand and her nose in the book.

In sixth grade, Reeser experienced something that firmed up her passion for words:

“My Reading class did a month-and-a-half creative writing unit, with disciplined writing exercises every single day. I still have the notebook to prove this, a thick thing filled with my very first poems, short stories, and verbal exercises. It was the most fun I had ever experienced scholastically.”

Even after that assignment ended, she said, “I continued writing every day…the habit had been developed in me.” The habit was one she delighted in pursuing.

By eighth grade, Reeser said she was writing longer poems, imitating Tennyson and other Victorian English poets. She’d read them “at a very, very early age.” She’d learned to read, she said, “before the common time.” Reeser was ambitious even at that tender age. She said she wrote “mini-epics, with titles like ‘Guenevere’ which I showed to my English teacher.”

Reeser’s teacher knew Dr. John Wood, founder of the MFA program at McNeese State University in Lake Charles (LA). “He gave me strong encouragement,” she recalled, “saying that I was very gifted, and urging me to continue writing.”

In high school, an influential writer recognized her talent:

“My ultimate early ‘spur’ and confirmation, came when Robert Olen Butler gave me an award in writing while I was still in high school, in an area-wide rally. Right after that, he went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.”

Her peers also recognized her talent. “I was the girl in school whom everyone approached when they wanted something written, for a friend or an event…”

Now that student who was nurtured in school is the professional writer whose work is included as required reading in curricula across the country. Her bio says her ancestry includes “Anglo-Celtic, Native American Indian, and German.” Reeser doesn’t just create works in English. She’s written works, or translated works, in Russian, French, Cherokee, and other Native American languages.

Reeser has also translated poetry from the great Russian writer Anna Akhmatova, with permission from the heirs of Akhmatova. One of her most poignant works is her translation of the poem “Willow”, with perfectly paced lines such as:

“And I matured in peace born of command,
in the nursery of the infant century,
and the voice of man was never dear to me,
but the breeze’s voice—that I could understand.”

Akhmatova was deeply loved by the Russian people. Poets like Yevgeny Yevtushenko praised her work and admired her greatly. She became, as I often put it when I speak about poets, a poetry god. I spent time with Yevtushenko years ago when poet James Dickey brought him to my alma mater for a reading. Translating Akhmatova’s work, and doing it with the blessing of her heirs, would have been accomplishment enough for most.

That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what Reeser has made of her work and her passion. Here’s a snippet from Reeser’s official bio:

“Her poetry has been set to music by composer Lori Laitman, for the song cycle tribute to writer Edna St. Vincent Millay.   Her verses have been translated into Hindi by Kalpana Singh-Chitnis, Dr. Dushyant, and Tripurari Kumar Sharma, published on the subcontinent of India. They have also been translated into the Czech language by Vaclav Pinkava, into Urdu by translator Mohammad Sheeraz, published in the country of Pakistan, and into the Persian language.   Her work has received seven nominations for the Pushcart Prize and multiple nominations for Best of the Net anthologies, as well as The Lyric Memorial Prize, New England Prize, and Innovative Form Award from The World Order of Narrative and Formalist Poets, for her invention of a new  poetic form, the cretic hymn. She is a mentor with the West Chester Poetry Conference.”

Despite accolades and her prolific output, Reeser remains oddly accessible. Most of the top writers I’ve interviewed have been reticent. Interviewing some—Donald Hall, for example—was like trying to pull Excalibur from the stone. Interviewing others, like Billy Collins, was pure joy because of the flood of quotes and information emerging from the exchanges. Reeser doesn’t hold herself hostage in an ivory tower.

As a matter of fact, she does both Facebook and Twitter, and her personality and open mind brings all manner of people together for discourse.

Reeser’s latest book, Indigenous, is in the works at Able Muse Press. As with many writers’ works, Reeser’s family history impacted this collection, in part, because of grief. The book centers on her identity as Native American Indian:

“Several years ago, the last of my mother’s family passed away. I was left as the sole local heir to handle multiple estates. These were the people who raised me. One task was to sift through all the belongings, the houses where I had grown up, personal effects which went back for generations.”

Reeser said her grief “was considerable.” She said she and her “Indian family were close,” and she realized she had to “write about these things.” Amid tangled affairs with the estate, she said, dealing with it became “more difficult than it ought to have been.” She felt “overwhelmed.”

Then an epiphany of sorts occurred:

“I began to feel, also, that I could lean on the spiritual memories of the ancestors. I drew an uncanny amount of energy from those ‘tokens’ of my family’s Native American past. It was wholly unplanned and organic. The poems just began to come to me at a fast pace.”

Those poems, borne of Native American Indian ancestry through both her parents, grew into the book Indigenous.

Once the book is released, new readers will find Reeser’s work via social media and Internet publications. What does the writer think of the Web’s influence on writing? On writing workshops?

Stay tuned for the final article in our series to be published on Thursday, Nov. 1,  on poet Jennifer Reeser.

Read Part 1 of the series on Reeser
Read Part 3 of the series on Reeser

Featured Photo was taken circa 1940 by Marion Post Walcott for US Government project. Bayou in Schriever, LA. (US Library of Congress)

(Kay B. Day/Oct. 30, 2018)

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