Poet Julie R. Enszer Talks Sisterhood , Her New Collection of Poems

Christopher Hennessy: Tell me about putting together Sisterhood. What was on your mind?

Julie R. Enszer: Like many poets, I work intuitively, so it is difficult to say what was on my mind while writing the poems of Sisterhood. After the book was assembled, I asked a dear friend and colleague for feedback on the collection. She helped me to articulate the central questions that the book asks. Those questions are: First, what does it mean to live in a family that is broken and a world of brokenness and take responsibility, however partial, for that brokenness? Second, how can I believe in sisterhood in an imperfect, broken world? So these are the two questions that I think were on my mind while writing the poems of Sisterhood, though I could not have articulated them so clearly until after I compiled the collection.

Now, after having lived with these poems for many years, I find that they are poems that continue to delight and surprise me; they are poems that fulfill an earlier ambition of mine. Many of these poems are poems that were in my MFA thesis, which I completed in 2008 at the University of Maryland. When I applied to MFA programs in creative writing, I knew that I wanted to write poems about the death of my sister, but I did not include that content and my desire to tackle that content in my personal statement. The idea of writing these poems, even in 2005 and 2006, 10 years after my sister died, was frightening to me still. So when the poems that make up the Sisterhood series in the book started coming, they were both exciting and scary; they were the poems that I wanted to write, but they were poems that frightened me.

Hennessy: Cars figure prominently in Sisterhood. Was that conscious?

Enszer: Absolutely not! As I mentioned, part of this manuscript comes from my MFA thesis. At the defense, a member of my committee noted that there were a lot of car poems, but I was completely unaware of that while writing. Although I was not aware of it and did not even realize it until the committee member commented on it, it is an aspect of the manuscript that makes sense. I was born in Detroit, Mich., and I was raised in Saginaw, Mich. After college, I lived in Detroit for 10 years. The Motor City looms large in my consciousness from the first 30 years of my life. My history in Michigan made me pay attention to cars. I am deeply interested in the ways that things are produced and in how industry shapes the daily lives of people. These sorts of concerns are the broad concerns that I am aware of and talk about, but, clearly, there is a subconscious level of thinking about cars that made its way into the poems of Sisterhood.

Hennessy: Talk about the formal elements of Sisterhood.

Enszer: One of my favorite poets is Marilyn Hacker. I read her collection Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (1986) when I was first coming out as a lesbian in 1988. I was entranced by her work with sonnets and villanelles. When I started writing poetry more seriously, I wanted to fashion myself in the mode of Marilyn Hacker. My first collection, Handmade Love, contains more gestures of formalism than Sisterhood, though some of the formal gestures are still present in Sisterhood. There are a few poems, like "Resisting Sibilance," that are in measured quatrains, and "In Dreams" is a villanelle, but mostly I think of this book as informed by the sonnet but not contained by the structure of the sonnet. To be completely honest, I fear that I lack the discipline necessary to create formal poems, but I love and admire them very much. I read formal poets, both poets working today and poets of yore, and I love them, so, like cars, formalism infuses my consciousness.

Hennessy: The book cover is so engaging. I'd love to hear about it.

Enszer: With pleasure! L.A. "Happy" Hyder is a phenomenal lesbian photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I've known Happy for a number of years. The good folks at Sibling Rivalry Press and I were talking and thinking about what to use as a cover image. I'm terrible at this game of envisioning cover images. For all of my publishing activities, I try to work with really smart visual people, since I am not a visual person. Bryan Borland, Seth Pennington, and I were swapping images on email, and nothing really floated my boat. Then I hit upon emailing Happy. I sent her a copy of the manuscript for Sisterhood and asked if she had an image that might work. She read the manuscript and replied that she had some images from Budapest that might work. The second I saw the image of the three women holding hands at night, walking down a street (with all of those cars!), I knew that this image would work for the collection. Happy, like the member of my committee, recognized how important cars were, and she recognized the importance of evoking intimacy between women and of portraying women in the world. All of these are themes that Sisterhood grapples with in individual poems. Finally, I must say that Happy is a working photographer, which means she lives and supports herself through her fine art photography. You can see her work at her website, lahyderphotography.com. Check out her work and think about purchasing her work; it is vitally important that we support working lesbian artists.

Hennessy: What key influences do you see in your work?

Enszer: There are many influences, of course. I feel as though part of the work of a poet is to be a sponge absorbing all of the good and bad things the world has to offer. My teachers, of course, have been influential; I list and thank them all in the book. I have mentioned Marilyn Hacker already; her work, from her earliest collection, Presentation Piece, to the most recent collection, Names, is deeply meaningful to me. The other day, I pulled out my volumes of Sharon Olds's poetry and recognized her influence in the poems of Sisterhood. I like to think that I read deeply and eclectically, though clearly I have a bias for poetry by women. I am a huge fan of Adrienne Rich, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Elizabeth Bishop, Emma Lazarus, Robin Becker, Cheryl Clarke, Genevieve Taggard, Lola Ridge, Muriel Rukeyser, Christina Rossetti, Maxine Kumin, Gertrude Stein, Amy Lowell, Judy Grahn, Elsa Gidlow, and Alicia Ostriker. There is so much good poetry in the world! I feel like I will continue to read for the rest of my life and still not discover it all.

Hennessy: What are you working on now?

Enszer: I am in the thick of organizing, editing, and refining a third collection of poems that explores fidelity and infidelity, with particular attention to recent developments for civil marriage for gay and lesbian people, though when I pulled out that collection to work on it in earnest, a new set of poems began coming to me, poems written in the voices of Lilith's demons. I've been waking each morning with a new demonic poem about Lilith, which is delightful and a bit disturbing. I assume that the two themes -- fidelity and Lilith's demons -- are not connected, but who knows!