Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Jen Rouse, Poet & Playwright, Tells Her Story

I have never found writing to be cathartic, but I have always found it to be mine — a form of creating that has never left or been taken from me. And, for that, I am certainly grateful. I did not, however, grow up thinking in words. I grew up thinking in sensory detail —color, texture, light, scent, and sound. I felt everything around me bombarding me with beauty. And, more often than not, pain. 

I was too many times described as overly sensitive. During my childhood and early teens, I created more visual art than written work, but, around the age of 16, I became pretty serious about writing poetry.

The confessional poets inspired me, and learning about Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, reading their work and hearing them speak, transformed my thinking about how being a lesbian and a poet might be a necessary combination in a political realm that needed strong, inclusive voices. It would take almost 30 years for me to write my way into that realization.

I Paint the Flowers

Now, so many years removed from that formative self, I understand that I just pay attention to all that is around me at a frequency to which very few choose access. More often than not, the intensity of writing often sneaks up on me, whips my brain into a frenzy, and tackles me with a kind of force from which I struggle to recover. 

This means I am not able to write all of the time. It also means I am not someone quick to cower in the face of challenging work or relationships. Consequently, my most recent and best-received writing has centered on the exploration of women — specifically Frida Kahlo and Anne Sexton — who led deeply complicated artistic and (rarely) private lives. Both women were unflinching in their highly charged self-portraits, crafting work that turned the personal into the performative, their intimate truths into shared open wounds. Though these women were certainly not always admirable in their behavior, following and studying the trajectory of their creative lives (and early deaths) has inspired a new kind of fierceness — a sharp, engaged, and energized voice — in my own work.

Frida Filter

But let me tell you, if I seem restless about it all, that’s the truth — I am. And I’ve spent most of my life being terrified of this feeling, so I don’t share it lightly. Because being restless means slamming through boundaries, plumbing the depths, flirting with the moon, getting into ridiculous, and possibly delicious, but, most likely only ridiculous, trouble — all of these things that strong women often do to make good art. Right?! Right. I don’t believe we ever really silence this self. Maybe we push her away. Play dead for a while. If one is lucky — and I am quite lucky — one has friends who know to come around every so often and pull this part of us into the light — with some supervision, of course.


Many of these same friends have helped me find a new way of bringing my work forward in the mix. I’ve written poetry for most of my life, but it’s only in the last few years that I have pursued playwriting. Watching other artists shape and breathe a different kind of beauty into the beings of my plays has been a moving experience for me. 

One of those plays — Conjure: A Cycle in Three Parts — will be fully mounted this fall (directed by Janeve West and produced by Jane Pini of SPT Theatre Co). Conjure has deep meaning — to be bound together by an oath, to plot or exorcize, to feel an obligation and connection to memory and spirit.


The women in this play are fierce and loyal creatures. Their interactions embody all of the definitions of conjure — they are bound together (loyalty to the hive in Honey Song), they break and split apart in loss and acts of art/creation (The Three Fridas), they engage in moments of exorcism from suffering (Hummingbird Girl), and they crave a kind of reconnection to the earth, each other, and themselves. How these women grapple with being creators/artists is critical to each part of Conjure. And within these acts of creating, how they embrace and reject the boundaries of love and belief become major themes in each piece. 
In two weeks I will be 44 years old. I am uncertain. I am constantly batting the questions around. I have no idea what comes next. But I am writing a new play — about all kinds of snakes: snakes in churches and sideshow attractions, and, of course, there’s the kind of snake that will stop you in your tracks just when you think you know that path by heart. The kind of snake that will make you catch your breath and pray. These snakes aren’t all so different, are they? I love not knowing how this play will go — but that it will go.


And maybe someone else will need it as much as I needed to write it. Maybe it will somehow make a small but important difference.  Not that it will make us all feel better. But that it will make us think. I’m counting on it.

Acid and Tender

This is Week 16 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Jen’s story today. To connect with her, hear a clip of her poetry, and read more of her work, please visit the following links:

Video Clip of Avaritia
Instagram: jenlrouse

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