Debbie: Jillena, please tell us a little about yourself.
Jillena: My parents moved up to Hancock, Michigan when I was seven . I grew up there and after moving away (1986) for a few years and having a family, I returned to the Sault Sainte Marie area with my then husband and three children in 1997. I did my undergraduate work at LSSU and received my MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina in 2006. I’ve been teaching as full-time faculty since 2009—mostly Freshman Composition and Creative Writing. My colleagues and I founded the Creative Writing Program in 2010 and we have a terrific, talented and diverse faculty. I’m non-fiction Editor for our International Journal, Border Crossing. I write my own work when I can and enjoy more than I can say, growing our writers both on campus and in the community.
Debbie: And, of course, we want to know all about your writing.
Jillena: I write mostly poetry and some creative non-fiction. I’ve been published in several print and online publications. I suppose the poem with the most history is "Taos," which was chosen by former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser to appear in his syndicated column. From there, it was picked up by a Syrian Professor and translated into Arabic and released to papers in Jordan and Iraq—the poem that went around the world. I have one small chapbook of poems, Cedar Cathedral, is available locally.
I was pleased to be part of a community project in St. Ignace three years ago. I participated in nine months of conversations between local Catholic and tribal communities in an effort to re-vise and re-shape the historic Father Marquette Pageant to more accurately reflect the early relationship between the Anishnabe and Jesuit communities in that area. The result of these historic and challenging talks is a small booklet, Walking the Quill of the Feather: a short reflection of the spiritual history of the Anishnabe and the Jesuits at St. Ignace. It represents the beginning of a long overdue healing conversation that continues today.
Debbie: Other publications and projects on the horizon?
Jillena: My chapbook, Light As Sparrows, is forthcoming in 2015 from Aldrich Press. The book is a collection of ekphrastic narrative poems in the voices of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Steiglitz. I’m editing a small cross-genre book, Adoration in Ordinary Times, and am preparing to send it to some small presses. I’m also in the process of translating a wonderful little 19th century handwritten journal from the original French. It’s full of poems and songs and prayers—a treasure picked up by a friend at a dollar a bag book sale at one of our UP Libraries!
Debbie: Upcoming appearances?
Jillena: I have no appearances planned at this time.
Debbie: Do you have a favorite Michigan bookstore? And/or a favorite Michigan library?
Jillena: My favorite Michigan bookstore might surprise you. There’s a tremendously huge consignment shop in Laurium, Michigan called the Yard Sale. It’s in a wonderful old wood and marble bank building. The entire first floor is full, top to bottom, of used books of every kind you can imagine. I spend hours there every time I visit the Keweenaw. My favorite libraries are the ones closest to my home and heart. Bayliss Community Library was willing to work with me to begin a writers group almost ten years ago and a reading series to highlight local and regional poets. Both are still going strong today. Pickford Community Library is relatively new on the scene. They began as a grassroots, from scratch community project, raising money through fall harvest days and hamburger bashes. They are now part of the Superior District Library. Programming for the community at this little library is phenomenal, providing opportunities in a rural area unheard of in most of the UP. The director, Ann Marie Smith, along with her cadre of dedicated volunteers is a powerhouse.
Debbie: How about a favorite place in Michigan?
Jillena: My favorite place in Michigan is the Upper Peninsula. I can’t believe the grace and good fortune that allow me to work at what I love in the place I love. As for the rest, please see the next answer.
Debbie: Do you have a Michigan event or happening that you love to attend?
Jillena: I attend the shore of Lake Superior year round to watch the changes in the shoreline, the rising and setting of the sun, the passage of seasons over the waters and storms with winds and waves singing louder than any symphony ever could. I attend the silent woods in winter, the busy woods in Spring, and the brilliant woods in Autumn. I sit or stand perfectly still until a snowy owl or a soaring hawk appears in a flash, swoops down then disappears up into the sky. I frequent the parks along the St. Mary’s River in summer and listen to the tourists shout the names of the freighters up-bound or down and guess at what they’re carrying. I drive through Blaney Park every chance I get. It’s a vintage resort from the 20’s and 30’s, now almost a ghost town. You can almost hear an old wind-up victrola playing from the old dining hall when you drive through. I return to the Keweenaw at least once a year to walk among the ruins of copper mines, eat at the Suomi Bakery and seek out the old outdoor rinks where my sisters and I skated in winter, heedless of the cold. I attend the backyards of friends on long summer nights to sing and listen to them play music while crickets chirp, bats flit overhead and a fire burns in an old stove to hold-back the inevitable chill. Once a year, just before school starts again, I travel to Whitefish Point and stand at what I thought of when I was a little girl as the tip of real world. I would find it on the map and cover it with my finger and close my eyes. Now I got to that sacred place, the place where we commemorate the hard working freighter crews of the Great Lakes and beyond. I think back over the past year and cast my hopes for the new one out into the lake.
Debbie: A few fun Michigan people we should all know about?
Jillena: To be honest, the interesting people I know in the UP would rather I talk about what they give to our communities than who they are themselves, because these people, more than any others, make a community rich in opportunities and resources so young families and artists want to stay and make this their home. I think there is a misperception that the UP is a wasteland devoid of culture and “good things” that enrich life elsewhere. This just isn’t so. Here are a few things you should know: We have breweries like Soo Brew, Upper Hand Brewery and the Keweenaw Brewing Company that provide not only terrific ale, but are also venues for live entertainment. We have wineries producing award winning estate grown wine like Northern Sun Winery in Bark River. We have locally owned restaurants that try to use locally grown produce and meat like Bobaloon’s in Escanaba and Upper Crust Pizza in Sault Sainte Marie. Most larger towns have farmer’s markets that run summer and winter. We have terrific musicians in the area who often run a circuit of free to the public music in the park events during the summer months. The Errant Late Night Gardeners are a terrific early Jazz trio. No Strings Attached is an all female trio that plays lovely country music and ballads. Lise White and friends play everything from jazz to Bob Dylan to traditional French Canadian folksongs. Finally, a nod to Places Like the Vertin’s Gallery in Calumet, and Sault Realism and the Alberta House Art gallery in Sault Sainte Marie for highlighting local art, and non-profit ventures like the Sault Theater Arts Project (STARS) which is training and inspiring a whole new generation of fine and performing artists here in the UP.
Debbie: Something you'd like a non-Michigander to know about Michigan?
Jillena: Since I know the Upper Peninsula best, I think I’ll respond strictly about this area. I want those who’ve never been here, or those who pass through too quickly on their way to somewhere else, to know that it’s a wild treasure not quickly uncovered or easily categorized. It’s a rich store of history to be both proud of and a little embarrassed about (the Anishnabe culture is rich in wisdom and art and needs to be foregrounded more so those of us who aren’t first nation can learn how to interact with the world around us in more genuine ways). It’s a gift of largely untouched pristine nature highly valued and fiercely protected by those who’ve taken the time to know it well. The people of the Upper Peninsula are warm, thoughtful and often come here determined to lead an authentic life away from distractions. Very often this life includes some form of art or expression that enriches the communities in which they find themselves. We don’t have a lot of instant entertainment here, so we make our own—and from music, to photography, to visual art, writing, traditional native ceremony and fiber arts, the results are stunningly, simply beautiful. Knowing the UP takes time; it takes slowing down; it takes getting quiet, but this place and the people who choose it for their home are well worth the effort. It will take your breath away.
Debbie: Last question. Some folks in Michigan refer to themselves as Michiganders, others as Michiganians. For our ongoing vote tally: are you a Michigander or a Michiganian?
Jillena: I fall firmly into the “Michigander” camp.
Debbie: Jillena, we'll add you to the Michigander column! Thank you so much for joining us today for Michigander Monday.