Mayor Ivy Taylor invested local poet Jenny Browne as San Antonio’s poet laureate for 2016-2018 on Monday night in City Council Chambers. San Antonio is the first major Texas city to appoint a poet laureate, and Browne is the third to hold the post, following in the footsteps of Carmen Tafolla and Laurie Ann Guerrero.
Ancient Greece proffered the laurel crown to its poet laureates. The position in San Antonio includes an annual $3,500 honorarium. Writing seldom pays well, and among all classes of writers, poets might be the lowest paid. The position does convey prestige and recognition. Browne’s official job is to “generate public interest in and preserve the art of poetry, while celebrating the culture and history of San Antonio,” and as part of those duties, she will create poetry projects in honor of San Antonio’s Tricentennial. Browne was selected by a national panel of writers, a process coordinated by outgoing Department for Culture and Creative Development Director Felix Padrón and his staff.
At her investiture, Browne read three of her poems that offered a range of her style. In Like The Universe, observations turn to metaphors that bestow small epiphanies: “disappointment a clear sky with too much/dead light below to name the stars.” Her understated humor blends with clever storytelling in The Man Who Gives Bad Directions in Downtown San Antonio: “The first time I realized that I had said keep going/through three lights not two I tried to catch/the couple with out-of-state plates but they were/already turning left from the middle lane without/signaling, slowly making their way towards my mistake.”
After receiving the James Michener Fellowship from the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her MFA in poetry, Browne became assistant professor of English at Trinity University. Since 2007, she has taught creative writing, as well as interdisciplinary programs with science and environmental studies. She also co-directs the Women and Gender Studies program. Browne has published two chapbooks and three full collections of poems: Glass (2000), At Once (2003), The Second Reason (2008), Dear Stranger (2013), and Welcome to Freetown (2016). Her writing has been featured in publications including the New York Times, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, PEN Poetry Series and others.
A few days before her investiture, I spoke with Browne at her office. Browne, 44, is an authority on the subject of poetry, empowered by her years of dedication, study and teaching. Her walls may be lined with books, but there’s a breeziness to her presence that makes it seem like she just came in from yoga or a hike. She teaches class in red western boots and her conversations are peppered with her rambunctious laugh.
“It’s been a crazy day,” Browne said as she lifted a box of National Poetry Month pamphlets off of her desk to clear off some space. She had just finished teaching a class and was fine-tuning the itinerary for a visiting artist. Behind her, a framed illustration by Richard Scarry teased, “What Do People Do All Day?”
Browne is a mother of two who begins her day by reading from a stack of poets who have become her circle: Emily Dickinson, Robert Hass, CD Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks and Pablo Neruda. These are the poems she returns to, Browne said, like “taking a familiar walk.
“I think reading is writing, so I’m always trying to read myself toward what I want to be doing next,” said Browne. “I’m looking for people who have figured out how to say something in a way that I aspire.”
After growing up in the Midwest, Browne began writing poetry to find her way out of confusion when she landed in Sierra Leone, West Africa, as an undergraduate student.
“Like any good 19-year-old, I was going to go save the world, and I was useless. At the time it was the official least developed country in the world,” she said. “That year I had all these important ideas about what I was going to do and learn and it was all I could do to figure out how to get a glass of water. (So I) began just trying to describe this new world.”
Her first work was in community development, both in Central America and when she first arrived in Texas in 1997. She spent several years tending bar, working as a visiting poet, and traveling around Texas. While teaching poetry in afterschool programs, like Urban Smarts, she “got hooked on what happened when you open the door to a poem in a classroom. Poems provided a way for kids to talk about their lives. … I think poems are places where it’s safe to make mistakes. You can lie, in terms of – you can say something’s like something else and it’s not and discover something new.”
Browne’s voice shifts, like it always does when she approaches her passion.
“I think a poem’s a place where you can ask questions you don’t know the answer to, so to actually get paid to help students learn to write through doing that, it was the most fun I’d ever had.”
Voice is everything to a poet, both actual and stylistic. The intangible quality of Browne’s subject matter, the poet’s world of thoughts, observations, and ideas, could get lost on the wind. But not with Browne, who is fun to listen to; her voice travels up and down and registers with wonder. She is as studied in speaking poetry aloud as she is in reading and writing it.
“Someone asked me recently, ‘Do you consider yourself an interpreter or an ambassador?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’” Browne laughed.
When she reads poetry aloud, Browne’s voice changes from conversational to formal, what any English student may recognize as the poetry voice. Like an aural frame, this change in diction symbolizes the transition from language as communication to language as art.
Browne moved into this voice as she read a found poem that she discovered on her way to work:
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“I felt excited by the contradictions, and the juxtapositions and the secrets,” she said. “These single words put together make something new. One of (Samuel) Coleridge’s definitions of poetry is ‘choosing the right words in the right order.’ And that was it.”
As Browne described the process, her voice changed again; when she touches on the transformational power of poetry, her tone gets softer, lighter, almost spiritual in its reverence.
At her investiture, Browne recalled her visit to the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya, where she was selected by the University of Iowa International Writers Program and the U.S. State Department to teach poetry. She found herself in a room with Somalian and Congalese girls who were covered in headscarves and realized her bio was useless as a means of connecting, so she began in the simplest of ways.
“My name is Jenny and I’m a poet and a writer and reader and a professor. I’m also a wife and a mother and a sister and a daughter. I’m an American and I’m a Texan and I live by a river in a city called San Antonio.
“These girls had never seen evidence that a girl could be more than one thing in the world,” continued Browne, but “in the poems we wrote that dusty morning, poems that at once named the difficult limitations of their lives, as well as their dreams, their unanswered questions, their wild metaphors and quiet, sad songs, in the space of that one morning I was able to witness that, in the words of (Walt) Whitman, they ‘contained multitudes.’”
Poetry is an inquisitive practice, which asks the definition of oneself and one’s surroundings and the implications of both. There is something fundamentally existential about being a poet – the job is to attempt to ascribe meaning to life, yet this activity is inherently paradoxical.
“I think I’m interested in paradigm shifts as a rule and I think that actually, for better and worse, San Antonio is a place that’s full of paradigm shifts,” she said. “It’s so big but feels so small in some ways. People live in this city and I believe they could have no overlapping experience whatsoever. And so there are…real downsides to that. There are divisions of class, among racial lines There are all kinds of ways that that’s not a good thing, but I also think that’s an interesting thing, in that as one who’s interested in it, there’s an opportunity to move between a lot of different worlds and I’ve always been interested in that. And it’s uncomfortable, not being sure where you’re going, either in a poem or in life.”
Lucky San Antonio; to have Browne help to lead us through.
Top image: Local author and educator Jenny Browne will serve as San Antonio’s third poet laureate for a two-year term from 2016-2018. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone