In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Jenifer Browne Lawrence

by May 7, 2024

Your poem from Volume 26, “Reading Alone in a Square Room,” is a tightly-crafted, highly imagistic piece that leaves readers feeling refreshed. What was the inspiration behind this poem?

This poem began with riffing off of the first line of John Donne’s poem, “The Canonization.” The line reads “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love.” A group of writer friends and I exchanged writing ideas and exercises during the early months of the pandemic, when we were all staying home to avoid spreading the virus. One of the group sent out the Donne line, which I used as a guide of sorts. The concept of holding one’s tongue (being quiet) led me to the image of a woman peacefully spending a day alone.                                                                                 

The beginning, “And do you know the woman,” lends this poem a fairy tale feeling. What was your process to craft the opening? Was the other-worldly feeling intentional?

The opening originally fell about midway into the poem. I realized, a few drafts in, that the poem wanted to emphasize this woman’s experience of solitude. The otherworldly feeling came, I think, from the isolation I felt during the quarantine months of Covid-19. Much of the world’s population was in stasis, and my neighborhood was no exception. It was a surreal time, spent watching the days slide past as the virus brought most activities to a halt. 

I’m particularly interested in the phrase, “radiant coffin,” which weaves the idea of death through this poem that seems, to me, so full of life. Can you talk about how you intentionally chose these images in relation to the story? About the balance of starting with the sun and ending with the rising moon?

The coffin image sprang from the news and the literal sunlight. One spring morning I sat in my living room for hours, paralyzed by the news of rampant Covid-19 infections, with deaths so numerous that refrigerated trucks were staged outside some hospitals to serve as temporary, overflow morgues. As I sat, I saw the sun shining through half opened curtains, casting a golden, rectangular glow. Throughout the morning, that rectangle changed shape and size but kept its basic form, a narrow box of light. I hadn’t ever spent so many months observing the passage of a day—the sun and moon feel like bookends to the experience of both the character in the poem, and also my own experience of isolation during that time. The ending is also an attempt to circle back to the second part of Donne’s line, “and let me love.”

You have written many poems, including the collections, Grayling and One Hundred Steps From Shore. What do you look for when curating a collection of your poetry?

When putting together a collection I look for patterns and themes common to the poems, and for threads that run through the work. In my first book, the work explores the violent death of my sister as a child, and the later death of my father. While the overall themes are love and loss, the  presence of the Alaskan landscape adds to the cohesion of the collection. My second book, Grayling, continues exploring loss, grief, and acceptance. Poems about infertility, miscarriage, and childbirth are enhanced—at least that is my intent—by their immersion in the Pacific Northwest landscape. 

 Do you find that you return to similar themes in your writing process?

Yes, a few themes (obsessions?) keep appearing in my work. The natural world as an expression of human behaviors and conditions is one; the relationship of loss and acceptance as uneasy companions is another. Frequently the two overlap. The landscape of my childhood is present in much of my writing, and helps me to feel grounded as I write.

What books and authors do you keep returning to or learning from? Do you have favorites?

Maya Jewell Zeller, a Washington State poet and essayist, writes poems that make me continually say to myself, with only a tiny bit of envy, “I wish I’d written that.” She’s a seriously talented writer with a gift for connecting the mundane with the surreal, all while somehow incorporating humor and charm into her work. I admire and am inspired by the work of California poet Joseph Stroud, whose poems exemplify close observation of the everyday workings of the world, coupled with a deep study of humanity, with all its attractions and flaws. Another poet I appreciate is Joseph Millar. His work reminds me of Philip Levine, in that they both write about working class experiences, and are rich in detail and mood. Millar’s language and imagery is something I aspire to. Lately I’ve been reading Natalie Diaz and Naomi Shihab Nye, two poets that I hold in deep regard.

What are you writing now?

I’m writing poems that explore human relationships, addiction, and familial trauma. Human interactions with the natural world in the face of climate change is also present in the work. The poems themselves are ultimately about love and loss. The manuscript currently has a working title of “Blue Nights.”


Jenifer Browne Lawrence is the author of two poetry collections: Grayling, winner of the Perugia Press Prize for 2015, and One Hundred Steps from Shore (Blue Begonia Press). Other awards include the Orlando Poetry Prize and the James Hearst Poetry Prize. Her work appears in About Place Journal, The Cincinnati Review, The Coachella Review, Los Angeles Review, Narrative, North American Review, South Florida Poetry Journal, Split Rock Review, and elsewhere. She lives in a small town on Puget Sound in Washington State.

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