I Fell Out With The Line Break | An Interview with Jenna Clake

Jenna Clake was born in Staffordshire in 1992. She is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham, where her research focuses on the Feminine and Feminist Absurd in twenty-first century British and American poetry. Clake’s poetry has appeared in Poems in Which, The Bohemyth, Oxford Poetry and more. Clake won the 2016 Melita Hume Poetry Prize and published her debut collection Fortune Cookie in 2017.


I sat down with Jenna on a cold January morning over coffee and green tea, to talk about her debut collection Fortune Cookie, prose-poems and line breaks.

Mark Ford the judge of the Melita Hume poetry prize in his forward to your collection Fortune Cookie, said that your work reminded him of the late American poet James Tate. How influential is Tate on your work?

I was really pleased when Mark Ford picked up on the James Tate influence. I see James Tate as really influential to my work. He is the reason I got into writing the kind of poetry that I write alongside other poets like Caroline Bird. I read both these poets together and I know that Byrd was really influenced by him. I think what I like most about his poetry is his ability to tread that fine line between the funny and sad, that’s what i’m trying to balance in my poetry. In Tate’s poems you can have this really bizarre situation that is hilarious but it ends in a devastating subtle way. ‘I like that he focused on everyday situations, people trying to navigate normal life, and create meaning out of something bizarre. I see him as one of the forefathers of absurdism. When the statement at the beginning of the book was made public after winning the competition, someone quoted that statement to me on twitter and said: ‘You’ve just ruined my life’s aspirations I was going to be the next James Tate.’ I’m not sure Mark Ford meant I was the next James Tate but its nice for him to recognise the influence he has had on my work.

In the beginning of my PhD thesis I write about James Tate, specifically looking at aspects of the domestic in his poems. There is one poem, The Book Club, where Tate dismantles the idea of what white suburban women do in their spare time. The poem centres around a wife who comes home dishevelled after all the women at her book club have got into a brawl. The women disagree on the book they are reading. The wife thinks the book is sad and profound but the other women think it’s trite and sentimental, which leads to the brawl. Tate’s work is so layered, it deconstructs and reconstructs domesticity in his poems. The end of the poem ends on an image of her husband looking at his wife and not understanding her. This poem really investigates how in relationships there is a distance, a lack of communication, couples talk across each other, around each other or just not listening to each other. It is seated in reality, in friendships and especially romantic relationships. Tate’s poems highlight these themes in an interesting way. These are the kinds of themes that I want to bring out in my own work specifically in Fortune Cookie.

How important is your research into the Feminine and Feminist Absurd for your creative work?

When sitting down to write a poem I don’t think I’m now going to write a Crispin Best poem for example, but spending time with poems and poets you love is going to help the development of your work. Background noise is a nice phrase to describe it, its always there in the background and to separate the two would feel unnatural.

In my MA I wrote a lot ekphrastic poetry for my dissertation which are based on real artworks from galleries, and from notional artworks that I made up. I was making up the artworks that I was writing poems about. I thought, I’m never going to run out of things to write about because I can go to art galleries all over the world and then write about them. It was a-lot tougher than I thought it was going to be. Some of the notional ones made their way into this collection. The most successful poems were ones which were from notional artworks where there was less of a tangible connection to the art work. An ekphrastic poem should always stand on its own right anyway but the more successful poems were ones where I hadn’t shoved aspects directly from the artworks into the poem, I’d create more of a world around the poem.

Absurdism has often been dominated by men in the twentieth century, would you be able to talk through the development of absurdism from that male dominated arena to how it is utilised today?

I’ve written 80,000 words on this so it might be difficult to slim my answer down to a soundbite. I think that absurdism was dominated by poets like Russell Edson, and James Tate. In these poets especially Epson you often find a female insanity trope where a women would bring insanity into a man’s life, making him insane and destroy everything in their life. This was replayed over and over again.

However, Jennifer L. Knox blows this out of the park with her poems. She examines class in America, a feminist humour, and de-centres herself as a poet. Knox plays with our expectations of what belongs in a poem through the prism of class. The internet has been really influential in this sense because it’s so easy to share now across continents, your able to see an American influence playing a bigger part in contemporary poetry because of this.

Other poets, like Luke Kennard look to destabilise the female insanity trope and do something very different. We are moving towards a focus on a kind of self-insanity and unilateral uncomfortableness rather than looking around you and finding the world bizarre, poets are looking at themselves and finding their own place in the world bizarre.  Whereas a more traditional absurdism was male-dominated and outward-looking, a modern Absurd is more inward-looking, seeking to destabilise the patriarchy in a different way. This needed poets like Knox to start that, and it is especially evident in her collection A Gringo Like Me.

In your poem Burntwood you describe the place you grew up, and is one of only a few poems which are set in a real location in the collection with other poems set in imagined strange worlds?

Burntwood is a small town in the Staffordshire countryside where the two most interesting aspects of the town are that it has a vinegar factory and it has Britain’s smallest park. It’s one of those places where there is nothing to do especially when you’re a teenager who can’t drive. The world changes when you can drive. I’ve never thought about my poetry in relation to place. I have always focused more on relationships, communication, gender roles, and how we fill certain power dynamics in those relationships. These have always come first for me, this is what drives my poems.  Place is interesting however because it affects how those relationships work, how we communicate, how the power dynamics can be subverted and moved around because of place. I had a job during my Masters working in a corporate office and that really influenced the work I was writing at the time because I found the whole thing quite ridiculous.

The Sea’ in Fortune Cookie is set in a real place. My sister’s partner owns a chalet near a remote beach, which just has a lighthouse, it was the perfect location for a bizarre and creepy poem. The sea comes through a lot during the collection, because growing up in Staffordshire and living in Birmingham I am completely landlocked. I find the sea a calming, wonderful place. When I get to the sea I fell like I’m being healed in some way even though the beach is often used as this site of change and disruption for characters in my poems.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3535DB” class=”” size=””]The prose poem allowed me the space to experiment, I wasn’t thinking about where this or that line break should go.[/perfectpullquote]

In poems such as Cow Whisperer and throughout the collection animals are used, how important are animals to your work, and their interaction with humans?

I really wanted to be a vet when I was younger. In previous poems I was using beats, physical movements to signal how a character felt about something; movement was a metonym for an emotion, but there is only so many things our bodies can do. Animals however have a different body language and we read our body language onto them, we project onto animals in interesting ways. For example, if a cat closes his eyes really slowly, he loves you. I thought I’d throw an animal in the mix so the characters have to re-understand how to communicate again. That’s why there is a red panda in The Exit because these two people aren’t communicating anyway so throw in a red panda who plays a game with them, it makes the whole dynamic more interesting.

How important is the prose-poem to your poetics?

I basically fell out with line breaks. The prose poem allowed me the space to experiment, I wasn’t thinking about where this or that line break should go. It actually allowed me to tell a mini story in a way that poetry with line breaks couldn’t. I received some really great advice that I should write everything as a prose-poems and then decide if it needed line breaks or not after that. Now I know when I sit down to write something whether it’s going to be a prose-poem or a line break poem. It’s a question of what does a prose-poem allow a poet to do compared with what a line break poem does. It allowed me to take more liberties to create something more narrative driven. In a prose- poem you’re asking the reader to play with their expectations of what a poem is. I think you can be more cinematic in a prose-poem such as jumping around scenes like in a film.

I went to a conference recently where there was a panel on the prose poem and all three panelists had different ideas about how their prose-poems worked. In the same way line breaks means different things to different poems similarly with prose-poems.

There is an American tradition of using the prose-poem to subvert expectations which has been really formative for me. I feel the conversations have improved around the prose-poem, and you get less questions about whether it is a poem or not, and more conversations about the mechanics of a prose poem and what you can achieve with them. I always feel more comfortable writing a prose poem, which means I have to work against that and write a sestina or villanelle to challenge my own comfort zone.

How the poems are placed on the page and in sequence is obviously really important to the collection, what was the process in the layout to the collection?

I didn’t think I was going to win. I was a little scared for it to come out, compared with if I had published a pamphlet first which gives you a little breathing space to go away and improve aspects of the work before the main collection comes out. However it was a clean way of publishing my first collection as no one has any pre-conceptions of what my work would bring.

The order of the poems was pretty much all my own choice. For the competition you had to send in a full collection, and my submission was more or less the minimum number of poems you could submit because I didn’t have enough poems I was happy with to fill it out. I think this worked in my favour because I wasn’t overloading the collection with extra stuff. I thought about the themes in the poems in relation to the order of the poems. I knew The Exit had to be the last poem in the collection because of the last image in that poem of the characters going down the elevator. Plus, you can’t slap a twenty-eight section poem in the middle of your collection.

It was the publishers typesetter’s idea to turn the poems horizontal on the page. It especially worked I think, for the Max poems because of the central image in these poems of Max building a tower out of books. So I liked the mirroring of the image in the literal presentation of the poems being stacked on top of each other.

What are you reading at the minute?
  • Isabel Galleymore – Dazzle Ship
  • Sophie Collins – Small White Monkeys
  • Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx
  • Penguin Modern Poets
  • Arthur Bradford – Dog Walker
What next?

There is a quotation from Caroline Bird where she comments on moving on from one collection to another: ‘ I removed some of the layers of the absurd to get closer to reality.’ I’m attempting to take this forward to the writing of my next set of poems. I’m looking at developing some work on eating disorders, a lyric essay on trauma and of course finishing my thesis.

Fortune Cookie can be found on the Eyewear Publishers website

Submissions are open for all HeadStuff poetry categories, including Poem of The Week (Every Friday), Unbound (longer sequence of poems from a single poet), and New Voices (submissions from poets under the age of 30.) We accept both written, audio and video recorded poems as long as the quality of the audio and video is of a high standard.

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Featured photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash