Jamie O’Hara Laurens breaks the lines of her poems with intention. She likes digging into poems that challenge her, as well as any work that shines a light on the musical quality of poetry.
When we talked with her while sitting on a sectional sofa in the living room of her place in Park Slope, she offered that “the common denominator, the ultimate unit of which the poem is composed, is the line.”
Last August, Ping-Pong Press chose her book, Medaeum, as the winner of its 2016 poetry competition. And at one point during the afternoon we spent with O’Hara Laurens, Emily asked her how she came up with the idea for the book. “If you re-read Medea as if it were an episode of Desperate Housewives, it’s a total modern story,” she said. “If the murder is just metaphor, then it’s just a story of anger and range.”
She has an eye for detail and precision, which is easy to see when you read her poetry, and easy to appreciate when you glance around her apartment. There’s an order to the place, which must help whenever she decides to sink into the emotional and mental space that allows her to create. But even with her detail-focused mind, she’s always been comfortable with the nuances and ambiguities that the study of poetry invites.
O’Hara Laurens and her son, Theo, speak French, and she teaches English at a Lycée Français de New York, a bilingual French school located on the Upper East Side, which has students from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. As part of her MFA at New England College, she studied translation, which she credits for allowing her to become more aware of how the English language is evolving.
Whether making meaning out of a wonderfully-dense and intricate line of poetry; or determining the precise angles at which three brownies should be placed upon a small circular plate that she’s set out for her guests, she’s paying attention to the details, and enjoying every bit of that within the line, or within the moment, which cannot be explained.
[Emily pulls out a seat at the dining room table. Rhyme the cat is seated in the chair.]
Emily: Oh, who is this?
Emily: Is he friendly?
Jamie: Yes. That’s Rhyme. Theo named him.
Emily: He’s very pretty.
Isaac: Rhyme the cat.
Emily: So I heard you spent some time in France.
Jamie: I spent my senior year abroad, including France. I speak French and some Spanish.
Isaac: Didn’t you mention that you studied translation as a part of your MFA?
Isaac: And where was that again?
Jamie: New England College. And what drew me there was that the faculty was largely international. Ilya Kaminsky who is Russian, Eleni Sikelianos, Malena Mörling who is a translator for Tomas Transtömer, and Brian Henry, who translates Tomas Salamun. Between Slovenian, Swedish, Russian, French, and Spanish, there was cohort of people who were intimately connected with languages around the world, and that was important to me. Translation is a kind of service; a handshake with the world. I focused one semester on different degrees to which translation makes us uncomfortable or comfortable. For instance if you look at Elliot and at Pound, they were some of the first people to practice foreignizing translations: I’m going to bring this language to you, either translated in a way that puts more pressure on the reader than it does on the text, or in some cases . . . a lot of Elliot epigraphs were in Greek or Latin, and where he would just say to the reader -–– you do the work, look it up. And then Pound even more so, where he would just drop a Chinese character in the middle of a poem as if to say, suffer - you figure it out.
Isaac: You had mentioned that.
Jamie: Yeah, he would be suggesting, how is this not a legitimate experience of language, just because it’s foreign to you? Compared with domesticating translation, or even more loosely, the artistic interpretation of translation, this idea that the translator needs to be a practitioner, him or herself, because no matter how faithful you try to be to the original, it’s always coming through your mind, and what you’re producing will always be yours. You can’t take your hands off of it; you’re not a neutral party. And though I don’t practice must translation, I did do a little bit of Malena’s work into French. And I’ve done a little bit of interpreting for people and for my community, which is a really fun exercise.
Emily: It sounds very challenging.
Jamie: It is and it isn’t. Your brain goes into a different mode when you’re doing interpretations.
Emily: You kind of dial into it?
Jamie: It’s sort of a gymnastic exercise for sure. Page translating is demanding, it requires a sustained commitment, and a sustained focus, and I don’t always have the patience for it. It is, however, one of the best things that you can do to get unstuck. And you don’t have to know a language intimately in order to be a good translator into your arrival language. I think we’re going to start to see more translanguaging in writing, and in poetry in the future, as multilingualism starts to become more of the norm.
Isaac: Translanguaging is when you see the two languages side-by-side?
Jamie: Yes. It allows for active transitions and alternation between languages. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz will start a sentence in English and finish it in Spanish. I think that’s going to become more of the norm. It almost feels like languages used to be buildings, and now they’re starting to turn into rivers.
Isaac: I’m going to have to hear more about that. How so?
Jamie: When I think about the English language establishment that I grew up in, I see it as this multi-story brick and mortar structure, where there’s a notion of what belongs and what doesn’t, and what’s proper and what isn’t, and what’s acceptable and what’s valued, and what the agreed-upon notion of excellence is. And being more confronted with, and reckoning with the multiple cultures and the multiple languages that we co-inhabit and that we live side-by-side with, having that come into our literature, has forced us to open the doors and the windows and to start to see things a little bit differently, and now there’s more fluidity than there was before.
Isaac: I hear that. And then there’s thing about, you can only step into the same river once, is that right?
Jamie: Oh yes, exactly! I’ve always been fascinated by the notions of English, how it is involving.
Isaac: You mentioned that you lived out west for a while, right?
Isaac: Can you take me through the chronology again?
Jamie: I chose education as a vocation. I started teaching at an arts academy in the mountains in California, Idlyllwild Arts Academy, when I was twenty-two. I moved to Los Angeles because my partner at the time was involved in the film industry, and we really had to choose New York or L.A. I grew up in the Rockies, so I was sort of allergic to L.A., I had an aversion to it.
Isaac: An aversion to cities, or to Los Angeles in particular?
Jamie: Cities, but Los Angeles in particular.
Isaac: How so?
Jamie: It’s known as being polluted and superficial and it’s one of the hungriest places in terms of ambition, but it’s not the liveliest in terms of intellectual activity.
Isaac: This is just what it’s known as . . .
Jamie: Yeah. We spent six years there, and I taught there was well. But it was really exciting to be living downtown during the great re-imagining of downtown L.A. I was there when that happened, and we saw it change around us.
Isaac: I don’t know much about that.
Jamie: Most of downtown L.A. used to be downtrodden, there were a couple of important spots, like the Flower Market that remained vibrant, but a lot of it was rundown. A lot of factories were just abandoned, and then developers started to buy up factories and to change them into apartment buildings. We lived in a hat factory. We met with a really wonderful diverse circle of friends who were from all over the world: Canadian and Filipino painters, Tanzanian filmmakers. We all gathered around the same table. Some of my favorite memories come from being there. L.A. is a great place to go when you’ve done what you’ve needed to do and you’re ready to take a break. But you don’t feel time pass. And I knew there were things that I wanted and needed to do, in terms of my education and career, and we knew that that this would be a better place to do it. I knew we would find more of a bridge to our values in New York, and in Brooklyn specifically. So this was a very intentional move. I also cut my carbon footprint down to one fourth of what it was from when I lived in L.A., where I had a car ––– just switching to bicycling, and on foot, and with smaller spaces.
Isaac: I can’t remember, did you say you biked to the Upper East Side every day?
Jamie: Oh, wouldn’t that be cool? We have this Dutch tandem. We rode that around for three years. We love that thing, but I only took it uptown once. Just because the bike paths going up are great, but coming down it’s still very much a work in progress, and Second Avenue just doesn’t feel safe with a child. I have a friend who does it every day though.
Isaac: So when you first moved to Brooklyn, were you in Park Slope?
Jamie: When we first moved to Brooklyn we were in Brooklyn Heights. In a converted insurance building. I must have a thing for converted spaces. In New York, finding a way to be outside has always been a challenge. It was a long-term dream as I was living in New York to move into a garden level apartment and to be able to grow some things. It’s been really nice to be able to do that.
Isaac: Some people don’t prefer them because they don’t like to be so close to the street level.
Jamie: I can understand that, but there are ways to work with that. We keep the front windows closed and the back always wide open, and then it’s also really quiet. And then you can grow your own kale.
Isaac: Where did your relationship with poetry begin, do you remember?
Jamie: There’s a musical ear in my family. I think that’s really where it started. When I look through the children’s books that I kept from my childhood, the ones that I love the most were in meter and rhyme. There was an incantation and a singsonginess. I owe a lot of it to both of my parents. My father taught literature for a while when I was little. My mom was a librarian, and she was an anglophile, and she has an ear for accents, and so there was always wordplay. And there was always access to a wide-variety of books. When I was in middle school, I started to play with poetry a little bit. It started with weepy odes to childhood objects.
Isaac: You started with the odes?
Jamie: Yeah, and poems about being deeply concerned about the future for marine animals –– very sentimental, surely, but I always believed that when we are teenagers we become these cruel editors of our childhood selves who were actually on to something. At one point one of my teachers picked up a piece of mine, and said that she’d put it in a contest. And I was like, “Oh, okay, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Isaac: Yeah, whatever.
Jamie: It mystified me because I didn’t know what the poem was about. It was an object poem. And it was about a candle. And I thought it was about a candle because I like candles, and because I like to watch candles, but she, of course, more than I, knew that it was a self-portrait. And so she submitted it to a contest and it won something and a real radio person with a real voice read it on the radio. And I remember being at a friend’s house . . . and hearing my own words read by somebody else’s voice . . . when I try to piece that feeling together, it wasn’t vanity, it was just a surprise. And I think it was more than anything, this notion that language that you can create can have a life beyond your four walls, or beyond you. It was that it was in someone’s house, and in someone else’s hand’s, and in someone else’s voice. And then later, things between poetry and me were really slow . . . I have really major crushes for different poets, I’ll read one and I’ll be think, wow! And of course, when I was in high school it was Elliot, and I would think, “Oh my god!” And I wouldn’t always necessarily know how to say why, because I was too young and didn’t have the maturity, but I knew that something in it worked, and that there was a beauty and an alchemy to it. I was always comfortable with ambiguity, and nuance, and with grey space. I enjoy the ways in which language can confound you. And then, when I was in college at Carnegie Melon, I didn’t study poetry, but I did start collecting poetry books. I would think, I’m really busy doing all of this other stuff, but there’s only one book like this. And so I started to amass a collection. I was going to write fiction. And I wrote a lot of really bad fiction for about five years, and then people kept saying things like, “I’m confused by this story, but it’s really descriptive.”
Isaac: It’s like, “I’m giving you a hint,” right?
Jamie: Yeah, like, “Wow, your language is really poetic, but I don’t understand why your character is doing this.” And it was just that plotting out story is not for me. I love losing the forest for the trees, all the time. I want to look at the leaf, and I want to look at the pine needle.
Isaac: That’s a great analogy.
Jamie:. It took a while. I was really reluctant to come around to it.
Isaac: Where was college for you?
Jamie: I went to Carnegie Mellon. I loved that there was a conglomerate of specialists, individual satellite institutions, and colleges that work separately to form and train musicians, architects, and computer scientists, and writers. And I loved being able to learn from people who are experts in their fields.
Emily: How did you get the ideal for Medaeum?
Jamie: I experimented with establishing a landscape before trying to populate it. As I did this I came across a sort of “mad woman in the attic” character who was in a different space, almost exiled. She was dangerous. She was threatening. And I knew that in this landscape, if she wanted to, she could set fire to all the fields, and burn the entire place down.
Emily: That’s darkness.
Jamie: It was scary. And I would write about her, and I would think, I don’t know who this character is, or what she wants. I was tinkering and struggling with a manuscript, when I read Medea, and I understood that the voice of the madwoman in the attic was Medea’s voice. I needed to explore her story from the point of view of someone who is not murderous at all, but who has had to confront her reproductive rights, and relationship issues, and notions of success, and men and women using each other for success. If you re-read Medea as if it were an episode of Desperate Housewives, it’s a total modern story. If the murder is just metaphor, then it’s just a story of anger and range.