Jenna Wysong Filbrun has said that she writes poetry as a form of prayer and to connect with other writers and readers in the search for meaning and truth. In the wake of her new collection, Away, we reached out to her to find out more about her motivations and process.
Why do you write?
I ask myself that question often, especially after a particularly devastating rejection, or when I’m frustrated and overwhelmed by my inadequacies and naiveté. I first want to be honest about that for all of us that become overwhelmed and struggle with the setbacks in the writing process.
I press forward because for me, poetry is a way to inch closer to the Deeper Reality that is always beyond words. It is a way not just to pray, but to keep praying when other forms of prayer run dry – to notice and process my experiences and the intricacies of life, even when prayer eludes me. Most of the poems in this new book were written through a season of intense disorder, when I could not pray. But I could write about not praying, and that, I now realize, was still prayer.
Writing and publishing builds connections with other writers and readers. It opens lines of communication to people with whom I would very much like to be in connection – those searching for meaning and truth among the mysteries.
When I hit an impasse in life, there are always writers who show me a way toward a deeper faith and the possibility of hope, like markers on a trail. They have sustained me through difficult terrain. If something I write helps anyone feel less alone in pain and bewilderment, or a little more able to celebrate wonder and connection, I hope it is worthwhile.
I hope, too, in my writing to connect readers with a love for our beautiful Earth. When I fall into the rhythms of the seasons, the days and nights, the moon, the trees, the mountains, the waters, the animals, I learn deep truths and find I belong. In order to be truly alive, I must be alive with the Earth. This is important. Ultimately, science reveals we can’t survive without this understanding, beginning with the most vulnerable among us, both human and non-human. The call to love must be a call to love all creation.
How do you write?
New words come mostly during my morning reading/reflection/coffee and go in my handwritten journal. Things I want to develop go from there into a document on the computer where they are scrutinized, pulverized, re-thought, rearranged, and eventually, discarded or submitted somewhere.
How did your collection, Away, come about?
It really began when my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother passed away within a year of each other, along with both of my husband’s remaining grandparents. These were the first losses in a series of losses that brought about big questions and a lot of unlearning in my life. The pandemic and the death of my paternal grandmother in 2020 propelled the questioning and unlearning into high gear, and writing was my way to process it. Most of the poems in Away stem from the early pandemic years as I was processing not only the death of my grandmother, but also the losses of faith and community that the pandemic brought about in my life.
What are the fundamental themes of the collection?
Loss, change, and growth via anger, surrender, grief, and renewal. The original title was, The Other Side of Loss. I was noticing a pattern – loss brings change, which can lead to growth if I am willing to engage with the loss/change and the deeper reality it invites me to gaze into. Not that loss is good, or for the best, or worth it. But good doesn’t have to be separate from what comes about because of it.
I have always found solace and truth in the natural world, and nature taught me a great deal about how to navigate this process, along with many wise writers and teachers. Wild things are all through this book.
What aspects of your own life contributed to the poems in Away?
I have weakened immunity due to medication I take to treat a chronic condition. When the pandemic began, we didn’t know if I was at high risk for serious illness or death. Later, we learned my risks are more indirect, especially once I could be vaccinated, but I have always viewed the pandemic from the perspective of the vulnerable. It really changed the way I see reality. Love means something different to me now. It is not a feeling or an idea, but a way of being that seeks to right injustice and protect the vulnerable. This is true regarding love for all who suffer harm, especially those on the margins. Somehow, I have to believe, love is going to outlast everything else. I hope all of that is woven among the poems in Away.
Which themes do you find yourself coming back to?
Through my season of disorder, I struggled to pray because I no longer knew who or what God was. I needed to be in that place for a while, not knowing, not praying. As I continue to unlearn and see things differently, I still don’t know what God is in any kind of explainable way, but I think I might be coming to know in a more heart-led kind of way. So, I am still writing about things like struggle, loss, prayer, belonging, and faith but from the perspective of this deeper plunge into the unknowable, which keeps leading me toward Love.
Who has inspired you?
I love reading, listening, and learning, so I could never make a comprehensive list of all my inspirations. I will name a few writers and leaders that are front of mind from the past three years, in no particular order – Mary Oliver, Ada Limón, Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, Jacqui Lewis, Kate Bowler, Diana Butler Bass, Jemar Tisby, Shane Claiborne, Valarie Kaur, and Desmond Tutu.
My husband, Mike, and our two dogs, Oliver and Lewis, are my pack. Belonging with them as a unit keeps me alive and shapes everything I do. That is not an exaggeration.
Do you share your work in progress with people who are close to you?
Only my husband and only on occasion. He is a math teacher and tends to think whatever I write is fabulous. Sometimes when I’m alone with the dogs, I read something out loud to see how it is to pronounce. The dogs usually move away from me and do that flat-eared, statuesque, blinky thing to communicate their displeasure. I adore them.
What is the most difficult thing to write about?
Happiness. I am an Enneagram One, so I always put happiness through the wringer. I do feel bad that my writing is so full of struggle. It isn’t that I don’t experience happiness. It just doesn’t inspire my writing as often, for whatever reason. Linda Pastan has a great poem about this – Why Are Your Poems so Dark? If it was ok for Linda Pastan, I guess it can be ok for me, too.
If you could engrave one poem on your tombstone?
It would have to be a Mary Oliver. Something from Thirst. Probably “More Beautiful than the Honey Locust Tree Are the Words of the Lord.” Because it is long and because every bit of it is as true as anything can be.