Each year, the Writing University conducts interviews with writers while they are in Iowa City participating in the various writing programs on campus. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home.
Today we are speaking with Jacquelyn Bengfort, a poet in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about what brought you to the University of Iowa?
I mulled over the prospect of getting an MFA for, literally, years, while working as a freelance writer and raising my children. Lots of things added up to me finally deciding to apply: my spouse finished his PhD at the University of Maryland, the pandemic upended our day-to-day lives, and I felt a strong desire to return to the Midwest (I grew up in North Dakota but had lived mostly overseas and on the two coasts for almost twenty years).
Once I made the decision to apply, applying to the University of Iowa was an obvious choice. The Writers' Workshop offers such wonderful support and the chance to study with an outstanding faculty. I've also had the opportunity to dip into fiction- and non-fiction-focused seminars, and even took a course in the dance department. You have the chance, really, to customize your education to your specific desires and interests.
2. What is the inspiration for your work right now?
I'm making a concerted effort to break out of my habitual moves in the way I write poems. Oftentimes I try to offer an interpretation of events or, even worse, a little piece of wisdom. And, oftentimes, those poems fail. So at the moment I'm writing a lot of short, "pointless" poems, mostly about memories and fantasies and dreams, trying to capture the textures and the feelings while resisting the urge to draw grand conclusions to tie up each piece of writing.
I'm also very aware of my thesis deadline looming this spring, and starting to ponder how my work fits together as a whole and how to shape a longer series of poems. I've published two chapbooks, but they were significantly shorter than my MFA thesis will be and it felt almost like they structured themselves. I'm excited to see what I can accomplish when looking across my body of work for a shape that communicates something larger than an individual poem can.
3. Do you have a daily writing routine?
My routine varies from day to day and season to season, but is influenced by my class schedule (both as a student and an instructor) and the fact that I have two kids in elementary school. This fall I find myself sitting down after the morning school run and doing a bit of translation before turning to my own work. I have also been experimenting with composing on an old manual typewriter--I like having a scroll of my recent thinking available without opening up a laptop and unleashing all the distractions waiting on the screen, and the speed with which I can type on that sort of machine (slowly!) seems to be just about the right pace for letting my brain make connections. It's somehow about the same speed that I walk, and a lot of ideas come to me when I'm on my feet.
4. What are you reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?
I tend to read a lot of different books at any given time, unless I'm deeply sucked into a novel. I'm reading L'occupation by Annie Ernaux at the galloping pace of about one paragraph a day, since I have to translate as I go. I'm also reading Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris and Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, and dipping into the collected works of Lorine Niedecker, Frank O'Hara, and Wallace Stevens more or less at random. Most nights at bedtime I read a section from Independent People, a hefty Icelandic novel from the 1930s written by Halldór Laxness and translated by J.A. Thompson, which a family member recently surprised me with. I read for pleasure, mainly, and because it's often the best way to shake things loose in my head and get me writing.
5. Tell us about where you are from - what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?
I grew up three miles south of a small town in southeastern North Dakota, in a log house built between the highway and the river. There's a lot of sky there, and a lot of space, and I read voraciously and had plenty of time to think. I love cities--I lived in Washington, DC, for almost a decade--but I'm still a country kid at heart, and I look forward to visiting home every summer to sit on the porch with my parents and trade stories. Being able to see the stars blink on after the sun sets feels right to me.
Jacquelyn Bengfort lives in Iowa City, Iowa. Born in North Dakota, she is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Oxford and a recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship and a Truman Scholarship. She has been awarded writing fellowships from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and was a Rona Jaffe Graduate Fellow for 2021-22 at the University of Iowa. Jacquelyn is the author of the Ghost City Press micro-chapbooks Navy News Service and Suitable for All Methods of Communication. She is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her website is JaciB.com.