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Jennifer Minniti-Shippey on her new book, teaching craft to youth and what it means to write in America right now.
One of the pivotal poems, in “After the Tour,” the debut full-length collection from San Diego’s Jennifer Minniti-Shippey, is titled “America.” The final stanza goes like this:
“Let me make this accessible:
my brother died in the tar sands. My brother
died in a coal pit in West Virginia. My
Brother died in Afghanistan.
Small caliber breath breaches
beneath bullets, beneath—I
don’t have a brother … ”
When Minniti-Shippey was drafting the poetry that would eventually, a decade later, become this book, her mentor Ilya Kaminsky (SDSU’s MFA program co-director) asked her, “What does it mean to be writing as an American right now?” Her answer was simple: It means to be writing from a time of endless war.
Her book is a stunning and powerful collection of poetry not just about wartime, but her characters also grapple with heartbreak, grief and drinking too much, to name a few.
That’s right: characters. Minniti-Shippey’s poetry toes the line between fiction and nonfiction in a way that short stories or essays often don’t have permission to do.
“One of the things that I have learned as being a person who teaches young or novice readers about poetry is that [they] want poems to be factual, to the experience of the writers,” Minniti-Shippey said. “I do think that great poetry is true. And by true, I think I mean: speaks in a way that is truthful to human experience.”
From “Third Tour”:
“I’ll make tea, pay half the bills,
we’ll census dead birds and marvel
at their eyes still, still
unblinking into us”
Minniti-Shippey does not operate with a daily writing practice, but when an emotional burst hits her, she then processes the work “through a sieve of craft,” ultimately adding repetition to build energy, rhyme, cadence, devices of sound and more, until the poem evolves.
This craft-heavy method applies to the way she teaches students how to read and experience poetry — and all literature — too, to start with how the work is made. Her experience as a writer — and with poetry in general — is intrinsically intertwined with her work as an educator. She teaches poetry at San Diego State, and not only manages “Poetry International,” an annual publication and digital archive produced in conjunction with SDSU, but also founded Poetic Youth, a student-run literary organization that reaches out to specific youth programs and educational institutions to develop programming about creative expression. Poetic Youth currently works with Helix High School, Hoover High School, Dewey Elementary (a school with a significant active-duty military community) and the refugee resettlement community of International Rescue Committee.
“You get a certain number of years out of your MFA as an artist and ask, ‘What am I doing that’s valuable, and bigger than me?’ and this project has been something that helped me answer those questions,” Minniti-Shippey said.
Poetic Youth also hosts an annual literary festival, held in April at SDSU that brings outside educators to host workshops and poetry readings for high school and college students.
The success and prolific nature of Minniti-Shippey’s work as an advocate and educator of poetry is indicative of a thriving San Diego scene as a whole.
“San Diego’s poetry scene is pretty dynamic,” Minniti-Shippey said. “It definitely does not speak with only one voice, which i think is really powerful and exciting.”
With dozens of readings, open mic nights and more throughout the county, Minniti-Shippey feels like there’s always something on.
“I think there are event hosts and curators who work to create reading series or to create poetry opportunities for different kinds of writers or people who enjoy poetry,” she said.
Her book speaks to this broadness as well. “After the Tour” tackles what it means to survive, or not, in an intensely varied American landscape.
To celebrate the launch of her book, Minniti-Shippey reads this Saturday evening at Verbatim Books, with San Diego’s Karla Cordero and Los Angeles poet Sheila McMullin.