Are you there, gods? It’s me, Jennifer. (Apologies to Judy Blume)
The first book I remember owning, for myself, was a poetry anthology called Listen, Children, Listen, which was illustrated beautifully by Trina Schart Hyman. Sadly, I lent it out and it was eaten by a Great Dane. Sic transit gloria mundi, and all that.
The second – and this explains why I write about myth so much – was a book of Graeco-Roman myths. Maybe Roger Lancelyn Green? It had an orangish colour, and Bellerophon and Pegasus flying over the green land by, I think, sunrise. I fell in love with the gods. This is never not dangerous. I used to go outside in the autumn and talk to them, staring up at the relevant constellations, which I'd learned. I thought this was worship. I may not have been wrong. I wrote on my calendar "Worship Diana. Worship Apollo."
My calendar was confiscated, quietly. Probably before my Catholic grandparents visited.
I'm told I was taught to read with the help of Richard Scarrey and Dr. Seuss, particularly Green Eggs and Ham. But I don't remember sitting in the middle of the floor in Seattle at the age of four, looking, reading and turning pages, like I remember doing with Listen, Children, Listen. Staring at the nymph and the goblin in "Overheard on a Saltmarsh". Waiting for it to happen. Realising Jane in "Bunches of Grapes" looked like me, but wanting Elaine's silvery wings.
At the age of two I started reading a children's encyclopaedia; mostly the pages with big colour plates showing different species of dogs, fish and horses. It was mine, but I thought it was my parents'. If they needed me to go away so that they could discuss something they'd say "Jen, go and read the encyclopaedia". I was an obedient child. At the age of five I got my first rejection letter, for a story I'd written and illustrated about rabbits, which my mother insisted on sending to a children's magazine. Like the rabbits, it bounced.
I graduated to the dictionary when I started playing Scrabble. We had a house rule where you had to know the meaning of a word to play it. I think this was very clever of my parents, frankly. Fortunately, we had an unabridged, three-volume, bigger-than-A4 Encyclopaedia Britannica dictionary. I read it voraciously, and at the cost of the Britannica itself, which was relegated to schoolwork factoids. My parents were not surprised when as an adult I went to work for the OED.
During school I continued writing; mostly poetry. There was little time for short stories. It was a long school day and I was acquiring languages at a rate of knots: Latin, French, three different sign languages and Greek. I became editor of the school magazine; something I repeated in my residential college at uni. I had fantastic teachers, bar one or two, who kept me both interested and working.
The summer holidays brought summer programs and, the year I was 16, months of active scientific research which saw me sitting out on a salt marsh for twelve hours taking hourly samples of the water and soil from the sites I'd been cultivating. I'd brought a notebook. I started in a flood tide and kept writing, with my feet sopping wet. I was in love with Eugène Ionesco and the ridiculous. I colour-coded my poetry. 'Nuff said. At university I thought I'd rather be hanged for a sheep than a lamb: I joined Infinity Limited, the fantasy and sci-fi club, and began writing fantasy short stories. Often these were short shorts. We'd workshop them with visiting writers of note. I also passed them round for peer review (one friend commented, "It's lovely. But it's an eight-page poem.") Then I did a creative thesis for my degree. That thesis contained a thirty-plus page fairy tale and just about stopped me writing stories. I flipped (word used advisedly) into poetry.
Margaret, Hilda, Sandra, Elaine and me, Jennifer (Apologies to EL Konigsburg)
University. Dear gods. I was so fortunate: was taught by Elaine Showalter (The New Feminist Criticism) and Sandra Gilbert (with Susan Gubar, author of The Madwoman in the Attic and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women). Sandra had just brought out the first edition of the Norton and the waves it made, both in class and in the world outside, cannot be overstated. It was the main text for the course. The course brought in Carolyn Kizer among other guests. Kizer read her "Pro Femina". She was a big, bold, brassy woman who was an unabashed delight. (Anne McCaffrey was in the same mould, I later learned.)
My mother, also a university professor, had always kept me supplied with good books, and I knew many of the women who used the Women's Centre she founded and was director of. She primed me with Nor Hall's The Moon & the Virgin and Charlene Spretnak's Lost Goddesses of Ancient Greece, but that didn't prepare me for having my mind blown wide open by H.D.'s poem "Eurydice" and Margaret Atwood's "Circe/Mud Poems" in Elaine and Sandra's women's lit course. Suddenly women in the stories I'd loved since the age of four or five were central. They had voices. They were validated. They were accessible. I was an immediate convert. My collection With Paper for Feet (Arachne Press, 2017), has in it all my myths (to that date); all my dramatic monologues; all my poetic fairy tales and origin stories. I was trained in the 1980s, so Joseph Campbell and the heroic cycle also influenced me; but my heroes are generally women and, since university, I have read mostly women's poetry.
Which is not to say I don't write about men. My most popular performance poem, "Bearing Witness", is written from the point of view of one of the ten thousand men Odysseus took from Ithaca and lost either in Troy or on the way home. He lost every single one. Of ten thousand men. That's a hell of an attrition rate. I've also rewritten bits of the Odyssey to feature Penelope as a Blitz widow, and, mostly recently, a poetic series on the princess Nausicaä, who frames the Homerian epic, and whom some Victorians allege was the true writer, not Homer. Another thing I took from women's lit and, later, Elaine Showalter's fin de siècle course, was the important of giving voice to the liminal, those people and themes caught in the shadows and on the thresholds of different states. I nearly wrote "stars" there. That works, too.
I graduated with honours, no thanks to my disability, which saw me bedridden for six months as bits of my back fused and my muscles started to calcify. My health pulled me out of a master's degree. I got a job as a secretary. I did not feel like word processing every day and then going home and writing. I wrote very little apart from fairy tales as prose poems for a few years. However, as my partner at that time and his best friend were highly skilled singers, I trained osmotically, and soon I was belting out musicals and madrigals. Tori Amos, Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry and Twin Peaks happened to us all. I started writing and recording both music and lyrics, mostly for "filk". Filk started at the Philadelphia SF convention one year. There was supposed to be a folk singing circle one night. There was a typo. Filk singing was born. The most widely-known filks are one set of lyrics sung to the song of another. But very often both songs and lyrics are original, and about fantasy and science fiction. (Then another fan filks the original song, and it goes on like that.) It largely has a folk-y feel but there have been huge blues hits like Kathy Mar's Vapour Angels, country (Catatonia County Rag by Julia Ecklar), and so forth. Music was my sanity for a good few years. I hit the filk con circle. I also started re-enacting in earnest. But nine to five sucked, to put it briefly. I became a postgrad again, having had surgery to correct the health problem that ended my first postgrad career, and started writing intermittently – mostly fantasy, still. Character pieces. I started publishing in the real world.
When I was told to write my PhD abstract, overnight I wrote a poem about my dissertation. My supervisor was not amused. That poem was sort of accepted by The London Magazine: the editor loved it, but he said he had no room to print it. I was printed in Poetry Wales, Rustic Rub, Connecticut Review and others.
In 2014 the poet Jo Bell initiated the 52 project. Each week, she posted a poetry prompt, and poets would write a poem to that prompt and post it in a closed, private Facebook group, where she and others would comment. This was excellent. People started to write, and write – one week saw one poet write twenty-two poems to a theme. (The most I ever wrote was nine.) Norman Hadley took over daily admin, bless him, whilst Jo did the prompts and tried hard not to be driven mad by hundreds of poets clamouring for her permission to write.
Jo referred to us as an ecology of poets. Strong, strong bonds were formed. Many of us, including me, got book contracts out of it (The Weight of Coming Home: Indigo Dreams, 2015, available from me). Even now, nearly ten years later, we are glad to encounter our many selves together in workshops and performances. Jo revised and upped the ante in November 2020, with Try to Praise the Mutilated World, where she posted a prompt a day during the November lockdown. We swarmed. (You can access the free month of prompts here. The FB group has been archived.)
Between the two Jo Bell prompt projects, the Brexit referendum happened, and I went quietly mad. I wrote nothing for over two years. I did calligraphy and manuscript illumination, but nothing wordy. Or music-y. It knocked the words out of me. Someone helped me out of that, whom I don't have permission to name, and I started to write, in a rush. I discovered Wendy Pratt's prompt a day courses. In the beginning I found a poem a day difficult. But after two solid years of writing something every day with and for Wendy, even during holidays, it became second nature. I didn't publish everything because there was too much, and, inevitably, some of the stuff was mediocre. I'm still submitting the good stuff to journals and 'zines. And I'm still writing. Thank you, Wendy.
In 2020 I won the Prole pamphlet prize, and my fifth collection, a wee pamphlet, was published: Still Lives with Apocalypse. You can get it, signed, along with my other books, from me via my website, www.jenniferamcgowan.com, or https://prolebooks.co.uk/shop.html. Hey, daily practice means you get better and the skill becomes easier. Who knew?
Jennifer A. McGowan’s latest pamphlet, Still Lives with Apocalypse, won the Prole Pamphlet Competition. She’s a professional calligrapher and illuminator, is disabled, and prefers the fifteenth century to the twenty-first.