October 1, 2022

Ask the author | John Thompson

Author Jean Thompson released her fifteenth book, *The Poet’s House*, on July 12. Shortly after, she gave a reading at Prairie Lights in Iowa City and spoke about the novel, which seeks to poke fun at and comment on the culture among writers, particularly the subculture of poets.

Contributed by Stephanie Rene Mendoza, Assistant Director of Publicity.

Jean Thompson published fifteen books during her career. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, has won the Pushcart Prize, has been featured in publications like Best American Short Stories and the new yorker, and was a National Book Award finalist for Who do you Love in 1999. Thompson earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as well as an MFA from Bowling Green State University. Thompson traveled to Iowa City in July to read an excerpt from The poet’s house her most recent novel, to a crowd at Prairie Lights. Additionally, Thompson’s novel titled The year we left home largely takes place in Iowa and Iowa City.

The Iowan Daily: What was the inspiration for La Maison du Poète?

Thompson: You spend most of your life writing and you find you have opinions about it, and the people who do it, so it seemed like a good time to, and I think there’s a lot of comedy in the book. I hope, and think, that I wanted to write something a little more joyful, light-hearted. But this is a coming of age story. There’s a young woman who, she’s just moping. She works for a landscaper she’s sort of happy with, but all her mom and her boyfriend keep saying is “oh, you could do better”. You could do better,” but she has difficulty reading. She struggles with reading, so going to school has been difficult for her. She is about 21 years old and is part of this group of poets. She does landscaping work for this famous elderly woman who is a poetess, sort of a cult figure, but when I say “famous and well-known” I mean among poets. I don’t mean she gave the inaugural speech like Amanda Gorman – but she comes to know some of these people, and she comes to know poetry because she hears it out loud. She doesn’t have to read it on the page, and she gets very involved in this world and finds possibilities for herself. She comes into her own and she’s not necessarily a writer or a poet, but she sees what that other life is like and how she can empower people and how she can empower her. So a lot of poets in the book that I have a lot of fun with because sometimes we’re a little silly. I guess one idea is that you might be some kind of peculiar person. You could be frivolous or eccentric or whatever, and that’s my experience with a lot of poets, but then they’ll get on a stage and they’ll read something and you’ll be like, ‘Oh, my God, what, what -what just came out of your mouth?’ So there’s this difference between our personalities and the work itself.

DI: According to you, what is the particularity of poetry among the different forms of writing?

Thompson: Well, poets aren’t necessarily in it for the money. A lot of fiction writers aren’t either because there’s not a lot of money, but in poetry it’s more pure art for art’s sake. I think you do it because you like it. You do it because you feel called to do it, and that’s true for other fiction writers as well. But I just read poets like, the high priests of writing, sort of. Poetry is truly the purest art one can make of language, and the one that involves the most risk. I think, on the one hand, it’s easier to do. On the other hand, it is really difficult to do it at a very high level. There is a character in the book who is a budding poet. She’s not a very nice character, Barb is her name, but I gave her a speech in which she said “yes, you sit on your butt and you write nonstop day and night and day and night you, some is crap and a lot of bullshit. And then finally there’s something that you think is good and it’s published in a literary magazine, so you can sell three copies at a book fair for nothing, and then you go home and start over. In other words, there’s this kind of agony about it. The same often goes with writing fiction, but there can be rewards. No poet ever never said, “Yeah, I sold the rights to the movie. Not to my poetry book.”

DI: What does your artistic approach look like?

Thompson: Get up, walk the dog, eat breakfast, sit at a computer for two or three hours, take the dog, run errands, do laundry, and if I don’t do anything else, my life can be really boring. I think just putting in the hours is as important as anything. There’s a quote from Joan Didion, I think it’s ‘you can fool around, and you can’t do anything good either, but if you put in hours for two days, then on the third day, something thing will be revealed.’ So work ethic pays off, perseverance pays off, discipline pays off, and work habits pay off. Poets can be a little more irregular; I mean they have to be good, but they can get up in the morning and write a poem that day, or at least a draft. It doesn’t happen [like that] with fiction. It’s very rare that you don’t get up and write a novel or short story for that matter.