It’s difficult to imagine a world where you can “make it” as a poet when everything has turned so technocratic and pragmatic. Between social media, day jobs and the chores of adulthood, sometimes I struggle to remember where poetry fits into my life. It’s an important part of me.
But upon meeting San Antonio poet Jenny Browne it was as if all those worries and doubts were washed away. My very real New-Yorker’s anxiety sends me into a fret at times, but it’s moments like these and poets like Jenny Browne that reaffirm why art – specifically poetry – matters so much.
I told her she would recognize me as the guy wearing a bright red sweater, but I had a last minute outfit change. When I approached her at Local Coffee on Broadway the first thing she said was, “Where’s your red sweater?”
“I lied,” I said, smiling. We shared a laugh and I could immediately sense her spirited enthusiasm for life.
Browne received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for 2012-2013 that has allowed her to take a semester break from regular teaching at Trinity University and focus on her writing. Her third collection of poetry, “Dear Stranger,” was just published and she’s working on a fourth volume that deals more with travel, influenced by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
“You sit alone in a room for a long time and I feel a little relieved. It’s nice to celebrate and it’s exciting to have an actual object,” Browne said of the book.
The “Dear“ in this book title is used as an address in epistolary poems that are literally addressed to someone, and as an adjective indicating the closeness and intimacy reflected in her work.
The launch event will be held Saturday at Sala Diaz Art Gallery. The reception, with music by The New Deal, will be at 6:30 p.m. and the reading at 7:30 p.m. by the fire in Sala Diaz’ backyard.
I was thrilled upon hearing this detail regarding the fire as I recounted one of my first experiences in San Antonio at La Tuna. We stood around the bonfire sharing drinks and conversation with friends.
“I worked as a bartender at La Tuna!” she said. “I like doing readings in places that feel alive,” Browne said. “They give way to conversation instead of me just reading.”
Browne came to San Antonio from the Midwest in 1997 on New Year’s Day. The plan was to stay for a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, but she ended up working as a poet in the schools for six years through the Texas Commission on the Arts. Browne then got a graduate fellowship at the James Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin. Once she completed her MFA, she got a position teaching poetry at Trinity University and has been there for six years now.
I told Browne about my situation as a young poet who just moved to San Antonio from New York and I wondered what advice she had for the new generation.
“Read everything,” she said. “Read poets who affirm what you do and that threaten what you do.” She warned that if poets don’t do this we will “never be able to surprise ourselves … Wasn’t it Robert Frost that said ‘no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader?’ ”
“Keep your day job (and) don’t stop,” she advised.
Poetry demands a certain kind of attention, Browne said, as we talked about how short people’s attention spans have become. “Poetry has the potential to return us to paying a more heightened kind of attention.”
As a young writer and poet it’s inspiring to meet a successful poet who has similar influences – Neruda, Dickinson, Whitman, Tagore, William Carlos Williams to name a few.
“(There is) a sense of history and soulfulness – and you don’t have to work five jobs to support yourself,” she said of falling in love with San Antonio. “There never seemed to be a sense of ‘more for you is less for me’ but always ‘more for you is more for all of us.’”
“(I’m) hugely grateful for the generosity of the (San Antonio) literary community,” Browne said, and she’s excited about the new generation that is doing innovative things such as incorporating technology in how poetry gets out to the public. She pointed to Ben Judson and his wabiStory mobile storytelling application as an example. Naturally, Ms. Browne is a perfect link between the new age and established poetry niche of San Antonio, which makes her a possible candidate for the upcoming poet laureate position.
Her next book will be influenced by her travels to Kenya and Sierra Leone, where she taught poetry sponsored through the U.S. Department of State and The University of Iowa. But I invite you all to join us closer to home this weekend, to listen to her beautiful words around the campfire.
Kevin Pesantez is a writer based in San Antonio. He serves as an editor and contributing writer for 2Leaf Press. Follow him on Twitter @ecuamarica and find his writings on his tumblr page. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org Kevin has worked as a Workshop Facilitator of the Boy’s Town Detention Center, developing spoken word, hip hop and theater workshops in Brooklyn, and as a playwright and actor in cultural programs in Quito, Ecuador. Kevin was a member of The Forum Project, New York’s first ever Theatre of the Oppressed performance troupe and worked as a housing advocate at University Settlement, a social services organization in the Lower East Side.