Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Q&A with author Jane Satterfield

Jane Satterfield is the author of Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond (Demeter Press, 2009) and two books of poetry: Assignation at Vanishing Point (Elixir, 2003) and Shepherdess with an Automatic (WWPH, 2000). I recently interviewed Jane for the launch issue of Poets’ Quarterly and thought it’d be great to share an excerpt of that Q&A here.

Why a memoir? Why Daughters of Empire?
I'm probably what you'd call an "accidental" memoirist. Although I've always loved reading memoir and have been drawn magnetically to any work of nonfiction by poets, I didn't initially "set out" to write one. I started writing essays in response to questions other women writers asked about my experience of pregnancy and birth in the UK and because Jamaica Kincaid's essay "On Seeing England for the First Time" struck me so forcefully: like it or not, I was a "daughter of empire" and I'd given birth to one.

I also found prose to be a welcome break from the lyric intensity and narrative compression of poetry. To my delight, people enjoyed reading them and wanted to publish them. So the book grew organically out of conversations I had, out of interests and subjects I wanted to think through. The essays, of course, differed in length and form, but were linked by a unifying ambition to make sense of the cultural forces that shape women’s identities and lives. I've looked to find intersections between my own family history and that of the larger culture and to tell the truth of my experience. Along the way, I lingered a bit in guilty pleasures, hoping to offer readers a lighter glimpse of mid-'90's Britain with an eye toward its music (the skiffle rock of my mother’s youth, Oasis vs. Blur!), popular culture (football, stone circles!), along with literary detours on the Brontes, Sylvia Plath, as well as the late Angela Carter (for whom I served as babysitter in my Iowa grad school days). The current popularity of memoir, I feel, is less about a writer's desire to "tell all" or the reader's desire to "know all" than it is about discovery and engagement: tracking the journey toward a changed consciousness.

You explore the concept of 'home' within Daughters of Empire. How significant is a sense of place for one's identity? For the identity of a poet?
Place is crucial--there's the visible reality a writer seeks to honor and the less visible histories that inform and shape both place and inhabitants. Place is the source of our remembering, the site of our witness. As a person with "transatlantic" roots, I've often felt pulled between multiple places and definitions of home. It's easy to think that this is simply a "new world" condition, but it isn't. At the end of the book's title essay, I reflect on a colleague's well-meaning statement: if you've lived in America your whole life, isn't the "exile" metaphor contrived, little more than a "romanticized longing" that should be put aside? Marina Tsvetaeva wrote that "One's homeland is not a geographical convention, but an insistence of memory and blood." In some ways, the book's a meditation on that observation.

How would you describe your involvement in the literary community as a whole? What activities do you participate in and how would you recommend emerging writers find a sense of place within the writing community?
Aside from teaching and mentoring students, I've enjoyed working as a reviewer for Antioch Review for many years--a great way to think through my own ideas about craft and bring attention to the work of other poets. It's something I think that's well worth doing to help create and extend the literary community. Recently, I've taken over Rishma Dunlop's slot as literary editor for Journal for the Association for Research on Mothering. I'm enjoying the chance to discover vibrant work about all aspects of mothering. I think literary conferences are wonderful to help build community. I had terrific experiences as a scholar at Bread Loaf and as a fellow at the Sewanee Writers' Conference--the conversations, workshops, and friendships that took place were absolutely integral to my growth as a writer.

What are you reading now?
Since I've started practicing hot vinyasa, I've been enjoying Elizabeth Kadetsky's First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance. Also, Kate Moses' Wintering, Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin, Paul Muldoon's The End of the Poem, and a terrific gift from my husband, Peter Terzian's Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed Their Lives.

For the full interview with Jane Satterfield, visit

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