The Alchemist Review

Interview with Professor Jennifer Whalen


Professor Whalen is an instructor in the English and Modern Languages Department at UIS. Her works have appeared in Gulf Coast, Southern Indiana Review, Fugue and others.


If you could have lunch with an author, who would you choose and why?

I mean really, when I first started with poems I fell in love with this poet Frank O’Hara, so I don’t think I could pass that up. And I don’t know, maybe just like a lunch counter on a New York street, that’d be cool.


What is your favorite thing you’ve written and why?

That’s hard. I think, my favorite thing I’ve written and why. I guess I should say the thing I’m currently working on, right, that seems like it might want the muse to keep speaking to me, and all that. So I am working on a project that’s based off the letters between Vincent Van Gogh and his younger brother Theo Van Gogh, and it’s been really cool. It’s taken a very, very long time, but I’ve enjoyed it cause it’s kind of surprised me, where it would go, I originally thought it was something I was going to spend a couple of months on and it would be a chapbook, and now I’ve been working on it for years, and it’s an 85 page manuscript, so it’s kind of shown me a lot of  the things I love about poetry- that it can take many forms, and that it can tackle many things, and take many shapes. So yeah, probably that.


Why is literature and writing important to you?

I think– I mean, human expression is of course important right, and that takes many different forms and then what we do in writing is just one way of expression. I particularly liked it when I first started doing it because there was something about the relationship between the writer and the reader that I found really compelling and very intimate and close, you know, like we were even talking about in Brit Lit today, having this idea where it’s like characters turn away from each other but turn to you, and tell you what’s going on, right, something about that interiority, I’ve always found compelling. Yeah, I like that and, of course, reading, right, reading and studying literature, you know, is great because you learn about people and of course, it increases empathy, and you kind of get to go places you don’t normally get to go, and yeah, so it’s important for that.


What genre do you most enjoy and why?

So I mostly write poetry. I enjoy it cause it’s kind of free and wild and it’s a place where there aren’t a lot of rules or parameters. And again, when I was a young writer I thought poetry was like the thing you do when you don’t have time to do other things, you know, like, I can’t write a novel, I’m an undergrad, so I’ll write poems, you know, and then I fell in love with it, and I think part of that was again, that relationship with the reader, I felt like I could kind of expect more from the reader, if that makes sense, that I could kind of make more leaps, and they could go stranger places with me, that I hadn’t experienced in other genres. So I think that’s a cool thing about poetry and I think it really breaks down these ideas we have about like the mind and the heart being two separate things; I think poetry kind of continually teaches us that you know, thinking and feeling is the same thing and you know, like the beauty of that.


Who would you want to write your biography?

I don’t know. I don’t think I know a lot of biographers, uh, that’s a good question. Has anyone else answered these yet? No? Yeah, I’m not sure, you know, I’m totally not sure. I also kind of am like, the idea of even having a biography makes me cringe a little, like ugh someone’s going to go through my stuff, yeah, but that’s just me. I guess maybe if I’m not around anymore then yeah, but yeah, I don’t know.


Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Yeah, I think I would say, pretty cliche, read a lot, but also read kind of diversely, and to seek out things that are different than your aesthetic sensibilities or what you normally gravitate to and to kind of challenge that. And then maybe a second bit of advice would be to just kind of trust yourself. I think when you’re first learning to write and you’re in a workshop and there’s kind of a lot of rules and people talk a lot about what you can’t do or you know, what isn’t working and I think that can be a little limiting sometimes so just, if you have an idea, trust that it’s a good one and see it through.