I’m a native Texan, having grown up in north central Texas and living my adult life in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, along the Texas-Mexican border. I have been a teacher much of my life, with creative writing and memoir writing my emphasis. In 2012, I was named the Texas Poet Laureate. My writing includes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, biography, and children’s books.
How does your environment affect your writing? I am always acutely aware of living in a verdant subtropical area of the United States, one where two cultures meet and comingle. I have written extensively about the uniqueness of our surroundings, about the ecology of the land and the nature of the people on a frontier such as ours. I was brought to this area by a marriage but have felt for many years that it is my spiritual home.
What is the worst? The worst part is that the genre of poetry is often misunderstood and that it is marginalized and neglected.
What motivates you? My motivations for writing are various: the need to clarify something in my own mind, the need to express something heartfelt, the need to simply play with words.
Early in your career, before you had any real success, what fed your determination to keep trying? Call it obsession. As a small child, I read poems and loved their sound. I can remember at about six years old putting down a book of poems about birds and saying to myself, “I can do that,” and grabbing pencil and paper. As I grew older, writing was just so natural and right that I couldn’t help myself.
What would you tell the teenage you, just starting to write? “Come on, Jan! Even though you’re here in this little central Texas town, where football is king, you have other things to think about and do! Seek out your like-minded friends. Don’t be afraid! It’s okay to read, to write poems, to love books. There’s a wider world out there waiting for you.”
Are there some rituals you follow in your creative process? As for rituals, I don’t meditate or drink or go for a walk before I write. Part of my process is to keep scratch sheets in every room in the house. When I have an idea for writing, even if it seems slight or goofy, I write it down. Later, I gather these notes and file them in folders marked with titles like “Animal Poem Ideas” and “Ancestors” and “Silly stuff.” When I have time, I’ll get out a folder and look at the contents. Sometimes I’m surprised at how the random thoughts fit together.
Other times, I have specific assignments—either self-assigned or requested by editors. I’m quite stubborn about finishing what I start, even if it’s painful or becomes boring.
I accomplish the most when I make daily, weekly, and yearly goals for myself—even if I inevitably have to change the timelines. A daily goal might be to finish one poem I started days before. A weekly might be to finish a chapter of a book I’m writing. A yearly might be to have a complete manuscript ready to send out to a publisher.
How closely do you follow your original idea in the process of writing a new piece (poem or prose)? I almost always veer off in other directions from the original nuggets. That can be the great fun of composition, if I have the liberty to digress. It’s not as if I’m not being true to myself but rather that something, maybe the Universe, is leading me toward an idea that needs to be articulated. In other words, the poem or story is waiting for me to find it.
How do you balance romantic/family life with your writing? I think it’s always a struggle for a woman to be a writer and have a family. Time is such a precious commodity and raising a family is very time consuming. On the other hand, I count becoming a mother as my greatest human experience. My sons have taught me so much and continue to do so in their adult lives. Luckily, I’ve been married to another artist, a musician and composer, for a long time and we don’t have to struggle with our relationship: it’s solid…is what it is…and we’re both very comfortable with the longevity.
How does the internet affect your work? I like the fact that I can look up things so quickly, and that I can communicate with editors and other writers rapidly. I have to guard against the lure of jumping around from site to site because everything is so interesting to me. Sometimes I even say aloud, “Okay, that’s enough. Get to your work.”
How do you deal with writer’s blocks? Well, I’ve had plenty. Every time that I’ve thought, “This is it. No more writing. Too hard. Too bad. Too crazy. I’ll do easier things from now on,” all I have to do is wait until the well fills up again. I’m very philosophical about these cramps now, though at my age I don’t feel compelled to always be writing and I keep open the option that I will draw a line someday and say, “I’m finished.”
How do you deal with the disappointment/despair when your work isn’t getting the attention you desire? How do find the strength to continue? I’ve had so much attention in the last few years that I rarely have a downer. I’m sure there are people out there that my writing doesn’t appeal to but that’s okay and they’re okay. I don’t feel like the world owes me anything but of course I love it when I get a good review or a letter from someone who says what I’ve written appeals to them in a heartfelt way. Occasionally I’ll be drawn up sharply for what I’ve written. At these times, I console myself that I’m working on percentages, not to expect everyone to like or even pay attention to my work, that harsh critics have their own problems. I tell myself just to continue with the work that I’ve been assigned to do on this earth.
What are your vices? I like to procrastinate. I’m great at sharpening pencils, just “reading the headlines” in the morning newspaper. I love to snack while I write and think I do my best writing drinking Dr. Pepper and eating potato chips.
What pets do you have? My favorite pet was a dachshund that grew up alongside (and in the bed with) my sons. I’ve never quite gotten over her. She’s buried in our back yard.
What is the last wild animal you saw? We have lovely American anoles and six lined racerunner lizards in our yard, as well as golden-fronted woodpeckers and great kiskadees.
A Collared Peccary by any other name
would still be a javelina,
would deserve no respect
some say, because
it has borrowed
the shape of pig
hide of wolf
hackles of porcupine
smell of skunk
bark of dog
rattle of snake.
So what’s a poor javelina to do
to gain points in personal charm?
These are its favored things:
one elegant necklace of white,
two babies cherubic,
three curious toes on the hind feet,
and numberless prickly pear salads.
Hard to Come By
(Texas Horned Lizard)
Little did we know
chasing each other with you in hand,
or leading you about on a halter of string,
or scaring you, to squirt blood from your eyes,
or stroking your velvet belly,
or keeping you in a box on the porch
little did we know
we’d have to show our grandchildren
pictures of you in a book,
so little do they know
The southeast wind brings the smell of Gulf.
The orchid tree blushes a hundred blooms.
The cactus can’t decide, pink or yellow,
all the while hiding its fruit like a girl.
I walk the circle, where the setting sun
and a cluster of palms plan a postcard.
It’s a street with escape routes
but who would want them?
Someone needs to tell the woodpecker
it’s evening, time to knock off.
A crowd of starlings is making
Susan’s cottonwood shiver.
Homeward, I drag two dried fronds.
In the alley, a dead grackle,
still vain in his amethyst feathers
discovers me and grins.
I fold him in the fronds.
They are two of a kind,
a small funeral mound
against this excess life.
(Black- tailed Jackrabbit)
Light feeds on your ears:
sunsets, seashells, flamingoes,
cameos, tea roses, melons.
Chance plays in your eyes:
great glittery watchful marbles
at high stakes with hawk and coyote.
Olympiads run in your legs:
sprints, distances, high jumps,
and fine exhibitions of scratching.
But why should love stop at the border?
Sunday afternoon, high above the Rio Grande,
we stand on a promontory rare for this delta..
Here riverboats delivered sugar, flour, salt,
returned the venturing settlers to Brownsville.
Today, the river is the only safe swimmer,
lips sealed to the media’s descriptions:
drug, secure, international, illegal.
Across, a picnic family poses against mesquite.
A man tends the fire; others skim rocks.
Women chat, balance babies on hips.
Kids refuse the still life—shout, throw mud.
From the thin woods, like a cunning stray dog,
a huge sow meanders, her five piglets trailing.
The women scream, then laugh, swoop up
their toddlers hard bent on new piglet toys.
Upstream, the father of water-gatherers
has backed his pickup down an old boat landing
where five-gallon buckets form a pallet:
viridian, Dutch pink, cadmium yellow, cream.
The tallest boy, braced waist-high in the eddies,
dips what’s escaped Juarez, Big Bend, Laredo,
hands it to his brothers and cousins.
From the little town on the low horizon
drifts faint accordion,guitarrón, vihuela,
announcement of a futbol game and loteria.
Brueghel the Elder would be thrilled:
gray Gulf clouds, light green of woods,
a distant bridge, Sunday calm.
Not l’art pour l’art,here’s a tableau
the art lover could pause over, arms crossed,
eyes resting from modernity. This canvas
could be auctioned at Southby’s, be precious,
collected, in its genre Rockwellian way.
While the church bell in Miguel Aleman clangs
evening vespers, the surveillance camera
high above us moves robotic, irregular, cunning.
Somewhere we appear on a screen
waving back to the Mexican children as we go.
We will carry this scene behind our eyes
and in coming days suppose families
doing things families do at river’s edge:
drawing water, eating, communing.
We wish them repose. Perhaps,
there will even be harmony, perspective,
light and shade. For now, the old question
of knowing: If a landscape is out of sight…?
Take a good look, we tell ourselves, and send
the same advice across the inscrutable water.
Life may imitate art, but upstream, downstream,
or across, the Great Border Wall of the Rio Grande
will overpaint this riverscape forever.
–First appeared in The Wonder Is: New and Selected Poems 1974-2012, Ink Brush Press
The issue of human migration is always very much on the minds of those of us who make our home along the Texas-Mexican border. One afternoon, after I had visited Roma, a little town upriver on the U.S. side, I thought how we could still see Mexico from there, but how it would eventually be walled from view by the proposed 2,000 mile-long Border Wall being built to deter passage from the south into the United States.
As I began to work on the description, I realized how tranquil the Mexican side looked, and how pretty the green landscape and the various dots of color came across to the eye. I wanted to convey the finality of “blinding” the cultures one to the other by building a wall between. If not carefully done, the message would come across as blatant and preachy. I hit upon the idea of using visual art—various special colors, artists, and techniques—to carry the idea, the two juxtaposed inferring the beauty of landscape art versus the harshness of the deterrent mechanism, that is, the wall.
I worked on the poem for many hours, in various sessions, to get it the way I wanted it.
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A selection of Jan’s books
Note from Irene: Jan is from my hometown, McAllen, Texas; our families have known each other for years. Her poems reconnect me to my roots in the Rio Grande Valley. The photograph at the top of this post was taken on Quince Circle, the street I grew up on. It was taken by Jan’s son Ansen.
I am happy that Jan agreed to be interviewed and was honored that she chose one of my paintings for the cover of her book, Appearances.
Visit Jan’s website for more information and a complete listing of her books: http://www.janseale.com
The highlighted part of the map shows the Rio Grande Valley of Texas ( El Mágico Valle del Río Grande)
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