A Conversation with Jean LeBlanc…

How do you introduce someone like Jean LeBlanc? As a poet? A teacher? A photographer? A philosopher? An old friend? She is: inspiration, guide, mentor, generous editor of works-in-progress and, yes, poet. These words seem ultimately inadequate to describe her. I hope you will excuse the humble introduction, and instead read further to get to know more about my friend, Jean LeBlanc.

Jean LeBlanc

Jean LeBlanc

Q (Infamous Scribbler): First, can you tell me a little bit about yourself, where you are now, current projects, etc.

A (Jean LeBlanc): I am working on a book called The Haiku Aesthetic, which includes some of my short-form poems (haiku, tanka, and haibun) plus a few essays on what, to me, constitutes a successful haiku, tanka, or haibun. I then posit that this aesthetic can be applied to any poem of any form. The idea for this book came from a workshop I gave a couple autumns ago, by this very name—The Haiku Aesthetic. The workshop was so successful that I wanted to capture that spirit in a book. However, it is daunting to be writing on the topic of haiku; I am no expert on the rich cultural history of this poetic form, and I don’t want to be either shallow or redundant in my observations.

I also have a collection of poems centering around Henry David Thoreau for which I am trying to find a publisher. This is always a project in itself, trying to figure out what to do with a manuscript-length collection of poems, some of which have been published in journals.

Q: On your web site, you explain that your mantra is: “deliberation, discretion, expression”. Could you talk a bit about each of these terms and how they relate in your work?

A: I want my poetry to be—and I hope my poetry is—imbued with ideas. I believe that “idea” is the raison d’etre of the poem, the thing that brings a reader back again and again to search for meaning in an individual poem. “Idea” is the reason I return to my favorite poems: Robert Frost’s “Two Look at Two,” for example. The “deliberation” part of my mantra is thinking about the idea; the “discretion” part is deciding if the idea is worthy of a poem; the “expression” is finding the form and the diction and the syntax worthy of the idea.

Q: In your books of haiku and tanka, as well as in the photographs you take, you concentrate on these delicate moments in time. What is it about capturing that one swift moment that appeals to you?

A: Interesting that you say “capturing.” I have used that expression in the past—”capturing the moment”—but then I realized, there’s no such thing as capturing a moment. The best a poet (or painter or photographer or dancer or musician…) can do is reach out for the moment that is slipping past. I love the image of “reaching out,” and I think this image fits what every artist in every medium does, physically, to try to convey what was happening, psychologically, at that particular moment. It evokes the creative spirit, the image of “reaching out.” What appeals to me most is the almost immediate transition from moment to memory. It is so poignant, so sad really—to dwell on that poignancy and sadness in a socially acceptable and (reasonably) psychologically healthy way is why I write.

Blue Dasher Silhouette, by Jean LeBlanc

Blue Dasher Silhouette, by Jean LeBlanc

Q: As an author, but also as a teacher, what is one piece of writing advice that you find yourself giving to students repeatedly? What is one piece of writing advice that you find repeating to yourself?

A: Look closely. Name things. Name the thing. Be precise. That’s not exactly one piece of advice, but it’s all interrelated, and it gets to being precise, choosing the correct words, respecting the words.

Also, something I tell other writers (especially young ones) is, “Read.” Choosing the correct words and respecting the language means seeing how other writers accomplish this. One cannot find one’s own voice if one can’t hear the voices of others.

Q: Please share a little about the Paulinskill Poetry Project and The Writers’ Roundtable.

A: I live in a rural area, Sussex County, New Jersey, which is about fifty miles from New York City but might as well be 500 miles from any hip, happenin’ metropolitan area. Except, a strange thing has happened here in Sussex County: a community of poets has come into being, and these poets sustain, support, and inspire one another to do good work.

The core of this poetry community is the Writers’ Roundtable of Sussex County (anyone interested in this group can search for that name on Facebook). We meet on the first Tuesday of every month for a featured reader and an open poetry reading. (We do occasionally tolerate prose writers in our midst, too.) The featured readers may come from other parts of the Tri-State area, or may be from within our own ranks. The First Tuesdays are open to the public; everyone is invited to attend.

In order to provide an outlet for this poetry community, Chuck and Barbara Tripi (long-time Sussex County residents and Writers’ Roundtable attendees) started the Paulinskill Poetry Project, and asked me to be executive editor. We have published four books, including an anthology of local poets titled Voices from Here. To quote from our mission statement, “The Paulinskill Poetry Project exists under the proposition that the timbre and resonance and meaning of our local voices ring truest in local ears.” (The Paulinskill Poetry Project is also on Facebook.)

Damselfly at Sunrise, by Jean LeBlanc

Damselfly at Sunrise, by Jean LeBlanc

Q: One of my absolute, favorite poems of yours is “Baseball, Poetry”. In fact one of my first, clearest memories of you was hearing that poem when you read it at [a poetry festival…]

A: […I think you probably heard me read this poem at the Warren County Poetry Festival in 2007, which was held at Blair Academy in Blairstown.]

I was born and raised in Massachusetts; thus, for better or for worse, I’m a Red Sox fanatic. Baseball is a game of “deliberation, discretion, expression,” so I find this subject fits in nicely with my poetic world view as well as with my world view in general. As for “Baseball, Poetry” in particular, I was watching a game on television, and the “loogie” thing happened exactly as I describe it in the poem, and somehow I tied it in with poetry and teaching, by wondering what it must be like to have a job in which it is socially acceptable to spit like that! I love reading this poem when I give a poetry reading; it is priceless to watch people’s faces as I describe that loogie.

Q: What is the hardest poem you ever had to write?

A: This question kind of stumped me, because I don’t really find writing poetry “difficult.” Then I remembered haiku, which usually leave me flummoxed! The shorter the poem, the more precise the imagery needs to be, and the more perfect each word in the poem must be. I have an idea for a haiku, then I try to write it and realize how imperfect it is, and I go through draft after draft of this poem, and often it doesn’t feel right no matter how I revise. Same thing with tanka.

I also wrote a series of twenty poems, each inspired by a favorite painting. This project clipped along for about the first ten poems, but then it became excruciating to reach my goal of twenty. I’ll never do that again—set an arbitrary number of poems and then force myself to write that many. It felt artificial, and thought I think the poems themselves in this case hold up well to scrutiny, it diminished the joy of the act of writing.

Q: What is the most joyous poem you ever had to write?

A: One summer, I wrote a series of poems based on the work of naturalists; this project morphed into a series of poems based on the life of Henry David Thoreau and the Concord Transcendentalists. Out of this, my poem “Gardening with Ralph Waldo Emerson” captured the love and joy and beauty and sublime nature of a beautiful moment. When I finished writing this poem, I was shaking—it was such a joy and relief to get these words on paper and not botch this job! This poem has just this year been published by a journal titled The Community College Moment, published by Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon; if you would like to reprint it here, here it is:

Gardening with Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Nature is a language, and every new fact that we learn is a new word; but rightly seen, taken all together, it is not merely a language, but the language put together into a most significant and universal book. I wish to learn the language, not that I may learn a new set of nouns and verbs, but that I may read the great book which is written in that tongue.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, journal entry of November 2, 1833

You frake the mulch, I’ll clumple soil around the newlybeds,
and boggle in some peat moss. Will you help me multiply
the lamia into six times itself, the hosta too? Your pants
held up by braces, my hat held on with twine,
don’t we frump a country pair, set the tongues a’gossin’
in our waspy Concord lane? Picket ’em all, we laugh,
the plot of them, every mizzy Mrs and her muzzy Moore.
In August, we’ll sly a basket of zucchini at their door.
You have mislost your gloves again, my dear.
Tonight your cuticles will still be earthed. I do not mind,
but you will be distracted by a blotch of garden
on your knuckle, and you will call to me, and that
will be that, nothing written down this night,
the bedroom shutters open to the moon, a candle saved –
ah! frugal love! – and kisses petal for petal, well into dew.

*****

Q: What is the most hopeful aspect of your work?

A: One of the nice things about being an artist and a teacher is that one gets a double dose of hope! Every poem I write is, for me, a new way of seeing the world; I hope that’s what my poems are for readers, as well.

At Any Moment, by Jean LeBlanc.

At Any Moment, by Jean LeBlanc.

Q: What else would you like to talk about? 😀

A: Books I think everyone in the world should read; my favorite poets; the generative and creative nature of teaching; the importance of art in any form/medium….but really, it’s time we all go write something! 🙂

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You can find Jean online at her Web site: www.jeanleblancpoetry.com

As mentioned above, the Writers’ Roundtable of Sussex County, New Jersey is on Facebook, as is the Paulinskill Poetry Project.

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