Jennie Gropp Hess: Poet, Teacher, Travel Enthusiast

Jenny Gropp Hess
Jennie Gropp Hess

Jennie Gropp Hess, the former editor of Black Warrior Review, joined The Georgia Review staff as managing editor in the summer of 2012. At The Georgia Review she oversees production of the journal and participates in editorial planning and decision-making.  She holds an MFA in creative writing from The University of Alabama and a BA in English literature and creative writing from the University of Montana.  Her work has led her to extensive travel abroad.

Good afternoon, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. First, what turned you on to the English major? Did you pursue this discipline as an incoming freshman?

I started off at college as a journalism student at CU-Boulder—I thought I wanted to be a music journalist. I used to have a column in the local paper—two different ones, actually—where I’d review albums and concerts. But I started to realize that it was the poetry inside the journalism that was more interesting to me—that I was less interested in interviewing artists and providing facts and more engaged with using language to describe music, its performers, and the environments in which it was played. I missed close reading and literary analysis as well—I wasn’t getting any of that in the journalism school, and I found that I was filling up all my elective hours with English and creative writing classes, so I decided to make a change over to being an English major. Not only that, but I decided to transfer schools—I looked into creative writing programs that interested me that were a day’s drive from Colorado, and decided on the University of Montana-Missoula; I got in my car on a Friday night and showed up in Missoula at dawn one April, and spent the weekend there. It was a wonderful place, and so I moved there to double major in English literature and creative writing.

What steered you towards poetry?

I’ve always written poetry—ever since I was able to write and since before I knew what “poetry” was. My mom used to buy me blank notebooks instead of coloring books.

What is the inspiration to your poetry and how does this inspiration reflect in your works?

I take everything as inspiration, but I still use music as a way to access language. I’ll often inhabit the space of a particular music with language, creating poems or prose out of that space. I also like to let poetry come to life out of the etymologies of certain words or out of combinations of particular etymologies. I’m also interested in geography as a place from which to write—I’ve traveled a lot and so the sensations of the places I’ve been frequently show up in my work. I also write a lot about natural disasters; I lived in Tuscaloosa when the tornado of 2011 happened, and unfortunately, I have a lot of other experiences with disaster as well—the town in Texas where my family had a beach house was razed to the ground by Hurricane Ike in 2008, and I once spent several years living in Japan, so I was quite affected by the 2011 tsunami there, and I’ve had other friends lose places that were dear to them in other hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornados. Sigh. But writing has offered me a way to deal with those events and to deal with things related to them. I write in many different forms—prose, poetry that aligns on the left, and poetry that breathes all over the page in the spirit of William Carlos Williams’ idea of “composition by field,” which opposes the form and measure of traditional left-aligned poetry and allows the poem to move all over the page and use varying lengths of line in an attempt to transfer poetic energy differently; the breakdown of traditional poetic structure was furthered by Charles Olson, who is another of my big influences: he wrote an essay on the idea of projective verse, which proposes that the syntax, and thus the line, be shaped by sound rather than sense, with nuances of breath and motion to be conveyed to the reader through typographical means. I also really appreciate Susan Howe’s work; she practically channels the voices of the dead—both historical and personal—through methods ranging from textual collage to prose. Other great influences on my work include Alice Notley, Clarice Lispector, Tomaz Salamun, and Inger Christensen.

How would you say an MFA in poetry has affected your job as managing editor of Black Warrior Review to managing editor of The Georgia Review?

Well, I’d very specifically say that it’s my MFA from Alabama that affected my job as managing editor. The opportunity to work for Black Warrior Review—where I was assistant editor in all genres, managing editor, and then editor—is something I couldn’t have experienced at most schools, and I’m certain that it helped me get the job I have now. There are just so many opportunities for career advancement in UA’s MFA program, so while I was writing, I took advantage of as many as I could; I also worked, for example, as the director of the Creative Writing Camp, and as the assistant director of the Creative Writing Club, and I taught as many courses as I could as well.

What is the most notable change of transitioning from editor of Black Warrior Review to managing editor of The Georgia Review?

The most notable change for me is in aesthetic. GR is—and I hate to pick adjectives—more traditional overall. I also had more aesthetic input at BWR; as managing editor of GR, I make sure the magazine’s pieces are well edited and typeset properly, and I see the magazine through to press, but I do not participate in the selection of pieces. Overall, both places are a great place to work for so many reasons; I don’t want to imagine myself on any other path at the moment. I love working in editing.

I noticed that your work has led you to “extensive travel abroad.” Can you share with us a specific experience or place that make a lasting impression on you and why?

All of the places I’ve lived have affected my writing. One particular example is when I lived for a time in Hokkaido, in Kushiro, which is on the easternmost tip of the island overlooking the Pacific. Because of its location, it is one of the foggiest cities on Earth. I’d wake up every morning during May and June to a thick cover of fog, and sometimes that cover wouldn’t burn off all day long, so you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you. Psychologically speaking, it was both troubling and amazing, and seemed to meld with my personal life at the time; I was separated from many of my loved ones, and during that time, two people who were very close to me passed away, and I was too far away to return to the States for the funerals. Anyway, I turned that experience into a piece of lyric prose that ended up in the Seneca Review; the piece is also forthcoming in my first book.

Besides being an editor, you have also taught creative writing at university and high school levels. How did these experiences shape you as an editor? A person?

Teaching creative writing has absolutely informed my experience as an editor. Editing can sometimes feel clinical, especially in the final stages, but the teaching and reading and critiquing that comes along with being in charge of creative writing courses puts an aware soul inside that clinical space and allows me to access a particular author’s voice and vision with an empathetic clarity. I think both go hand in hand, most absolutely. And as a person, I felt that teaching creative writing allowed me to access and share my greatest passion, which is amazing writing; I loved watching students change and learn via reading and discussing and responding to pieces of writing and forms that were new to them.

I have to ask, if you were stuck on a deserted island with a celebrity, and author, and a professional athlete who would they be and why?

Hmmm… a desert island question! Who would I pick for my Desert Island Cabinet… well, for celebrities, I’d pick one of those dudes who knows how to do everything. What’s that guy’s name—Bear Grylls? He could show me how to do everything. Maybe we wouldn’t have to hang out that much, though. Ha. Authors… I’d have to say Susan Howe. We could access the spirits of the island and create collages and poems out of our poetic experience. Professional athletes? This is the hardest one. Maybe Michael Phelps, because I could turn him into our professional fisherman. And maybe he could swim somewhere for help and get the rest of us out of there. Yes, that would be the most desirable thing. I wouldn’t want to live with any of these people forever.

Who or what would you say has had the biggest impact on your career?

I guess it has to be a what, not a who. I’d say my life’s mobility—how much I’ve been able to see and experience—has had a huge impact on my career. More professionally speaking, though, I think Loren Stein, the editor of the Paris Review, is awesome; he really brought that magazine into the present day and has made it thrive.