You are here

English Works: Poetry Prize Winner Launches New Book

MFA alumna Jennifer Willoughby hooks readers with poems . . . and advertising copy
December 1, 2015

Winning the fourth Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry “triggered the five stages of poet euphoria,” recalls MFA alumna Jennifer Willoughby. Which are? “Stunned disbelief, shrieks of joy, wanton fist-pumping, sensory overload, and total brain melt.” The $10,000 prize was established by Milkweed Editions and the law firm Lindquist & Vennum in 2011 to forward the careers of poets working in the Upper Midwest. Willoughby’s winning manuscript, Beautiful Zero, is published this month by Milkweed.

According to this year's contest’s judge, poet Dana Levin, the collection’s poems argue for joy and release as they “describe the contours of being strange and alive in our electrified now.” (A sample at The Believer.) Or, in Willoughby’s words: “I don’t make a conscious effort to find the weirdness in my poems, or my life, for that matter: It’s already there.”

Do these poems stem from the years around when you graduated in 2006, or are they of more recent vintage? In curating this collection, did you have poems that didn't fit the theme and could end up elsewhere?

There are a few poems in the book that were from the tail end of my MFA years, but most of it was written in the past five years. For me, the heart of Beautiful Zero is the ten-poem series Kaiser Variations. I created three characters—a victim of outlandish medical crisis, her romantic companion, and a comic/sinister surgeon. These poems were a stylistic shift for me: tightly wound, visually cinematic, and more condensed than how I had previously written. Like many people, I tend to fall in love with my most recent work and disdain the old stuff, so that’s a long way of saying that while I have poems that didn’t fit in this book, I’m not enthusiastic about using them elsewhere. I’m still exploring and playing with the voice that came out of Beautiful Zero.  

Did you work with an editor at Milkweed on the manuscript? If so, what sort of things did you go over?

I worked with Joy Katz, a fantastic editor who is also an amazing poet, on line edits. She helped me tighten up phrasing here and there and pointed out verbal tics that had been invisible to me. One of the coolest things about this process has been seeing my work through other eyes. It makes me more aware of the secret collaboration between reader and writer, and it’s a lovely experience.

Your day job is freelance copywriting. What do you most enjoy about that work? How do poetry writing and copywriting relate?

Copywriting is a dream job I lucked into. Both copywriting and poetry use compressed language to create an emotional response in an audience, and their toolboxes are remarkably similar. Slant rhyme, overt rhyme, alliteration, musicality, vivid imagery, and unexpected or surprising comparisons are a few shared traits. Both are in tune with the zeitgeist. One driver of successful advertising is its ability to create an identifiable moment that seems unforced, and to do that you have to put yourself in the shoes of other people and see how they view the situation.  It’s a good thing to practice, for life and writing.

As a freelance copywriter, I write about anything—babies, apps, cosmetics, the aging process—often things I know little about. So I am always researching new things and dreaming up voices or copy styles that will hook the audience. That process of trying on, discarding, or refining various voices happens in all kinds of writing.

Any advice for other writers trying to do creative work in addition to a day job?

I’m still working it out. Letting go of rigid ideas about how a writer is supposed to be and work is helpful. I think some writers (including me) spend time beating themselves up if they’re not constantly writing, sending work out, or attending readings. In the MFA program, all you do is read, write, and talk to other writers. You’ll probably never spend that much time again focused solely on writing, and that’s okay. Reading is the single biggest writing motivator for me, so I dedicate time to reading and know the writing will come.

What did you most appreciate about your time in the MFA program?

Teaching! It was an amazing, terrifying, and transforming experience. Teaching poems I loved taught me to think about why I loved them and how I understood them in relation to my own work. My students were amazing, kind, smart, funny, and strange. They taught me how to be a better teacher, scholar, and listener; they energized, delighted, and constantly surprised me. And circling back to celebrating the weirdness in the everyday, during the first class I ever taught, I had a student suffer a collapsed lung. (He recovered.) An elderly pet iguana occasionally attended classes. I had an IT student who rivaled George Herbert’s mastery of metaphysical shape poetry. Really, it was one of the best jobs I ever had.

What book(s) are you recommending these days?

Dorthea Lasky's Rome: You see the word “muscular” on a lot of book jackets these days, but these poems are so muscular as to be steroidal or bionic. You feel as though you are laughing hysterically and getting smacked at the same time.

Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen: A dark, dark, disturbing, gross-out, and funny novel. Like when you see something by accident on YouTube that you can’t unsee. You may think you don’t want that thing in your head, but it’s there, and it grows on you.

Mary Ruefle's Trances of the Blast: I am into Mary Ruefle with the love of a zealot since reading Madness, Rack, and Honey, her book of lectures about poetry. Her poems are smart and deadpan and tender. There is one about rabbits in a graveyard that feels both like a huge cosmic truth and a testament that everything is going to be okay.