Poet, scholar, teacher, community activist, and feminist Jenna Goldsmith ’08, M.A. ’10, graduated from Illinois State University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. She then went on to receive her Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky in 2016. Currently working as a senior instructor of writing at Oregon State University-Cascades, she has also served as the interim director and interim mentor of their M.F.A. program in creative writing. In 2020 she was one of three recipients of Illinois State’s Outstanding Young Alumni Award—an award that recognizes the contributions of outstanding young alumni to society, their profession, or Illinois State University.
Adding to her accomplishments, Goldsmith’s third book—a chapbook-length collection of poetry, Suppose the room just got brighter—is due out in February 2021 and currently available for preorder through Finishing Line Press. I had a chance to read an excerpt from this lyrical poetry book and talk with her about her poetry and her experiences since moving from Illinois State. I discuss some of the things we talked about below and later include excerpts from the interview itself.
Goldsmith considers her new book to be “highly autobiographical.” And, while she supposes “all poetry is autobiographical, in a sense,” Suppose the room just got brighter is deliberately autobiographical. Goldsmith describes it as “a snapshot of a similar time in my life” as her first chapbook, Genesis near the river (blush books, 2019). The two books have different trajectories but similar styles and themes. One poem that appears in Suppose the room just got brighter is actually an evolved version of a poem that appeared in Genesis near the river. The poem, “Unsuredly,” was originally denser and left little white space on the page. In this new version, much like the relationship she was writing about, the poem is sparser. She used the form of the poem to help convey the feelings and ideas about the current status of the relationship.
Even in works that she doesn’t consider autobiographical, she believes “the significance of identity is always front and center in my work, even when it’s not at the forefront of my own thinking during the writing process.” Regardless of what her project is, Goldsmith considers the question “Why is this happening?” or “Why did this happen?” to be central to her work whether she is asking that question of her own life or of history and current events in the world.
Goldsmith points to Illinois State’s WGS program, now WGSS (women’s, gender, and sexuality studies), as being “germinal in my development as a feminist, particularly as it relates to my understanding of history.” As an undergraduate, she minored in WGSS and had to take two women’s history courses. During her time as a graduate student at Illinois State, she also completed her certificate in women’s and gender studies. Goldsmith says she “always tell[s] my students to take a women’s history class, if they can” because “women’s history explains and contextualizes so much of what we experience now.” In fact, Goldsmith says she “often cite[s] a historical event I first learned about in one of Kyle Ciani’s classes!”
Currently working on two research-based projects, Goldsmith’s recent work focuses less on her own personal histories. One of these projects is an oral history on the park district pool in the town where she grew up. For this project, she asks of you, our readers: “if you are from the Northern Illinois region and spent any amount of time at the William Grady Pool in Belvidere, hit me up!” She has enjoyed this shift in her work, saying she “love[s] learning new things and attempting to translate that research into poetry so that others may learn through the process of reading my poetry.”
I got to ask Goldsmith a lot of questions about her work as an instructor, as a poet, and as a community member. In the following interview, Goldsmith expands on some of those questions and discusses her experiences of the publication process, as part of an arts collective, and as a writer in the midst of a global health pandemic.
You’re very involved in the community beyond the academe. How do you see that work? Has this shifted since the pandemic?
My involvement in the community—whether it’s volunteering for the library or serving on the board of directors of an arts collective—is very important for me. It’s been hard to sustain this work in the pandemic, not because there is no need for community arts and writing programming (one could argue there has never been a more significant time for this work), but because this work has shifted to the screen. I could not have anticipated the effect of screen time on my emotional well-being, but I am certainly feeling it now. As a community leader, it’s important for me to be up front about these things—I recently had to resign a role I was in that was very meaningful to me, but I couldn’t sustain, because it required yet more hours of looking at the screen or picking up my phone. It has never felt better to put the computer away and pick up a pen and put it to paper to write and revise poems.
How have you been getting along and writing during the pandemic? Many folks have found it incredibly difficult to find energy and inspiration for their creative and scholarly work. Have you had that same difficulty? If so, how have you worked around/with it?
Like many, my productivity has ebbed and flowed during the pandemic. In the early weeks of the pandemic—mid- and late March—I was really sick (I exhibited symptoms of COVID-19, but at that time it was nearly impossible to secure a test in Oregon where I live). It took weeks to recover, and I was not writing at all during that time. When I felt better, however, I started two new writing projects and would say I had a lot of energy for these writing projects. Over the summer, my worked ebbed, in part because of a family health crisis. I’ve since returned to my writing projects and am finding solace in the revision process. I’ve also used this time to catch up on reading poetry books and getting to know new poets through a service I signed up for—a literary journal of the month club—which has been very exciting. Also (and this was really unexpected), I’ve been able to attend so many readings because of the pandemic since readings had to move to Zoom. This is, of course, not the same as real-life, in-person readings, and I know writers are not selling books at the same rate because of these online Zoom readings, but it’s been so energizing. I’ve “attended” phenomenal readings by Joy Priest, Evie Shockley, T Kira Madden, Curtis Sittenfield, and many more, all of which would have been geographically prohibitive in “the before times.”
You work with a collective—Danger Punch—in Bend. How has that changed your writing? What is it like working with an arts collective as opposed to the perceived solitude of writing poetry?
Being a member of Danger Punch has been hugely inspiring, and also highly motivating. The way we work as a collective involves a lot of responding—one member will make a painting, the next member will take up the painting and make a collage, and so on and so forth. Our book, The Landscape (Publication Studio Hudson, 2019), which is a critical meditation on John Muir and Oregon, is the best example of this process. If folks are interested in taking a look at the book, there is actually a copy of it in the WGSS Resource Room over in Rachel Cooper on the ISU campus! I’m not sure the Resource Room is open right now, but it’s there (shout out to WGSS for welcoming the book into their space).
You’ve worked with a few different presses now. How has that shaped your submission process? Do you find yourself looking for more specific things in the presses and journals you submit to?
I’ve had wonderful experiences with both presses. These presses could not be more different, though they are both small presses. blush books is a “two-hands” press (visual artist Cecilia Mignon runs the whole shebang with just her two hands), whereas Finishing Line is a bit bigger (but still definitely a small endeavor with just a few paid staff members). I was very lucky to work with Cecilia at blush books because she doesn’t take up most projects. Her process of book making is time consuming because each of her books are stitched by hand. They are gorgeous. In regards to journal submissions, there are a few journals that I submit to over and over because they are my dream journals, but I’m really drawn to journals attached to colleges and universities (like SRPR and Obsidian!). I’ve served as an editor at every institution I’ve gone to (VOICES at Rock Valley College; Euphemism at ISU; Limestone [now New Limestone Review] at the University of Kentucky) so I think I’m partial to submitting to journals I know students are working for. Working as an editor for a literary journal is an amazing experience, if you have the opportunity: 10/10 highly recommend.
Suppose the room just got brighter is available now for preorder through Finishing Line Press and is set to release on February 12, 2021.
For additional information about the undergraduate or graduate programs in the Department of English visit the website here. To contact Jenna Goldsmith, follow her on Twitter @goldcutta or visit her website.