Kim Jensen is an associate professor of English at the Community College of Baltimore County. She puts her profession to practice as the author of The Woman I Left Behind, and the collection of poems, Bread Alone. Her writing and poetry have been featured in a spread of anthologies and journals, including The Baltimore Review, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Rain Taxi Review, Al Jadid, and Imagine Peace. Jensen’s newest book The Only Thing That Matters, to be published next month, is another powerful collection of poems derived from the ideas and vocabulary of radical poet and novelist Fanny Howe and transformed into astonishing new formulations.
What is on your nightstand now?
“That’s a loaded question, considering that my iPad/Kindle is sitting on my nightstand, full of all kinds of books! In any case, the nightstand is piled high with paper texts too. Right now: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Gift by the great Persian Mystic poet, Hafiz; The Glance by Rumi, another of the most wonderful Sufi poets; a powerful novel about the Colombian civil war called The Armies by Evelio Rosero; Blood Dazzler by spoken word poet Patricia Smith. Also various books by: Mahmoud Darwish, Louise Erdrich, Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro, Wolfgang Iser, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Two more: The Gun and the Olive Branch by David Hirst and The Palestinians by Rosemary Sayigh—a must read for anyone interested in the Palestinian struggle.”
What was your favorite book as a child?
“This question digs at a mystery that has plagued me for years. Once upon a time, my family had a collection of fairytales with the most wonderful illustrations that I can still picture to this day. I used to stare at those colorful illustrations for hours. The book has since disappeared and I have often wondered what it was and who published it. I long to revisit that book with adult eyes to understand what was so mesmerizing. This is the meaning of childhood—a place full of nameless shadows that you can never quite retrieve.”
Who are your top five authors?
“I am against creating such a limited pantheon, even for fun. These kinds of short lists leave out too many names of poets, playwrights, novelists, fiction writers, philosophers, and theorists who have had a massive impact at various places and times. It’s not fair or even a healthy way of understanding the way literature and poetry move in and out of our lives, arriving, staying, receding, sometimes returning, sometimes not. Great as they are, why should Balzac or Tolstoy or Flaubert be on the list (for me), but not Richard Wright or Mahmoud Darwish? Why should Darwish be on the list, but not Simone Weil? Why should Shakespeare be on the list, but not Achebe, Rumi, Marx, Sophocles, Nietzsche, or Oscar Wilde? And where would Toni Morrison’s Beloved go? Or The Great Gatsby? Or Hemingway? Alice Munro and Louise Erdrich? Or Marquez? And that’s just to name the famous ones, not to mention the unsung poets of the trenches, bars, and streets. Or authors who have written single-hit masterpieces, but who never get to make it into these kinds of “best-of” compilations. Impossible. Is there a place for Emily Dickinson? August Wilson? Raymond Carver? June Jordan? This could go on and on.
So as not to disappoint, I will say this: if I had to put one author at the very tippy top of my own teetering pyramid, it would be Chekhov. His short stories are perfection. Untouchable. The sublime meeting of insight, technique, and compassion make Chekhov unmatched—for me.”
What book have you faked reading?
“I don’t claim to have read books that I haven’t read; however, I may nod with a kind of mock confidence when their names come up in conversation. I’ve never finished Orientalism by Edward Said, but I refer to its ideas without having read more than a few chapters.”
What book are you an evangelist for?
“Before Jennifer Egan won her big Pulitzer Prize last year for A Visit From the Good Squad and rendered all of my evangelizing obsolete, I used to get on the Egan pulpit. I am personally responsible for any number of converts. Four years ago, a friend of mine bought Look at Me for my daughter. I borrowed it and gobbled it up, astonished at Egan’s huge talent.”
Have you ever bought a book for its cover? Which one?
“I have not. For someone who loves reading as much as I do, I find bookstores overwhelming and even depressing at times, especially the big, corporate stores. There is a wonderful radical bookstore in Baltimore called Red Emma’s in which I have the opposite experience—very enlivening. Yet, I still don’t buy a book for its cover, even there. When I step into a book store, it’s usually to buy something I already have on my mind. If it is an impulse purchase, it will be something that I have read a review of, or a classic text that I should finally read, so I can stop just nodding knowingly and get into the conversation!”
What book changed your life?
“The five experimental novels by Fanny Howe that are now compiled one book now called Radical Love (Night Boat Books, 2005) had a huge impact on my life. These are experimental and poetic novels for adventurous readers who are also spiritual seekers. My new collection of poetry (The Only Thing that Matters) is based on my study of her poetry. Readers can read a recent interview that I conducted with Fanny Howe for Bomb Magazine.”
What is your favorite line from a book?
“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.”
What book do you most want to read again for the first time?
“That anonymous book of fairytales with the exquisite drawings that was lost to time and entered the realm of personal myth. I wish I could start all over with that one!”
Kim Jensen’s The Only Thing That Matters makes a great addition to your National Poetry Month reading list. To learn more about this title or pre-order now visit the Syracuse University Press website.
Questions from the popular Shelf Awareness Book Brahmin series.