A Q&A with Jennifer Grotz by Lauren Francis-Sharma

You were awarded a Guggenheim last year! Congrats! In addition to being a poet, you are also a professor and a translator. You've produced four highly acclaimed poetry collections, have been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Cavafy Poetry Prize among other awards, and after twelve years of being an Assistant Director, you’ve accepted the position as Director of Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, which entails not only managing the famed Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, but also Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference, Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference, and Bread Loaf in Sicily Conference. You are busy! What is it about Bread Loaf that you love? 

I love so much about Bread Loaf, and Bread Loaf is so many things. But the two most important things are that it’s a very special place—from its beginning, it was built for people to retreat into a landscape of great natural beauty—and equally importantly, that it’s a very special community. The fiction writer Tiphanie Yanique (who will be back to Bread Loaf this summer on faculty!) was the first person who made me realize this, because she would often use Bread Loaf as a collective noun the summer that she was a work-scholar and working as one of the head waiters in the dining room. She used to make announcements at lunch and dinner and to get our attention, she would yell cheerfully into the microphone: “Hello, Bread Loaf!” or “Hey Bread Loaf, listen up!” I loved that.

Bread Loaf really is a collective noun as much as it is a mountain or anything else. And over its long history as a literary institution, I love the unique and intensive way that it welcomes, supports, and mentors writers at every stage in their development and career. I myself came to Bread Loaf for the first time as a “waiter” work-scholar during the former director Michael Collier’s first year as director. Then I got to come back on staff, and later again as a fellow. So I’ve registered this way that Bread Loaf aims to include and support writers at various stages in their development. I’ve also witnessed this phenomenon with great joy so many times with other writers. There are two faculty members at this summer’s conference, A. Van Jordan and Laura van den Berg, who first came to Bread Loaf as contributors years ago (although not in the same years). Both returned in subsequent years as financial aid winners including finally as fellows and now are on faculty.

It must be wonderful to be a witness to all of this.

Yes, and I love too how we more or less “unplug” (well, some of us perhaps more than others) when we’re on the mountain and concentrate on absorbing the beauty of the Green Mountains but also each others’ company. Many of my most important friendships were made there over the years, and a lot of others have said similar things to me. Those ten days on the mountain are intense and chockful of lectures, readings, classes, and workshops. It’s hard not to leave the mountain feeling both exhausted and deeply inspired, armed with a big stack of books to read, notes from lectures, and a wealth of rich conversation to draw from as you sit at your desk alone with the page for the upcoming year...

I also love the tater tots they serve at breakfast—

Aah...the tater tots.

Maybe too much.

I imagine people know you first as a poet, but you are also an accomplished translator. You've translated from French and Polish into English. Of course, there's a long tradition of great poets undertaking translations and you've said that translation strengthens your poetry. Was there an inherent frustration in your study of poetry that begged for this path or were you drawn in some other way, for some other reason?

Not an inherent frustration, exactly, but I would say more like a voracity. When I fell in love with reading as an adolescent, I wanted to read everything. And when I started studying languages and encountering additional literary traditions to our own, my mind thrilled at how much was out there to read and learn from. I’ve always been really fascinated by the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. I’m interested in the idealized notion of this beforetime when there was only one language and communication was effortless and universal—wishful but beautiful thinking! But I am also fascinated by the world being “broken" into so many different languages and the richnesses of those individual languages—and literary traditions. You’re absolutely right that I believe translating is a great way to apprentice or learn literary craft, as it were, but I think, maybe because I studied languages pretty early on, that I always felt that writing and translating were a lot more similar than they were different. Writers (and all people) are in fact trying to translate experiences and things to each other all the time, even when we’re using the same language! 

Obviously, your love of translation has benefited many through the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference, your brainchild and darling. Every year in June translators from all over the world come to Middlebury to workshop and commune. Tell me how this wonderful idea turned into reality and how it’s been going?

Michael Collier and I talked about the idea of a translation conference off and on for years, and eventually he asked me to design and propose the concept of the conference to Middlebury College. Both of us had deep interest in translation and had delved into it ourselves, but there wasn’t really anything like it so it took awhile to put it together. In addition to my spending time writing and translating in France, I also organized for several years an international poetry seminar headed by Edward Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski that took place in Krakow, and I drew from some of those experiences, as well as what I knew of other conferences such as ALTA, and of course the Bread Loaf model of writing workshops, and sort of mashed it all together. What it came down to in the end is that I truly believed translators deserved to be treated and trained the same as writers, and that’s perhaps the guiding principle behind how the conference is organized. But likewise, I believe that writers really benefit from spending time with translators, and I would love for the August Conference to have more exposure to literary translation in the future. 

That would be fantastic! With an all new line-up of faculty (what a group!), I can already see your mark on the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Tell me more of what you hope to accomplish during your tenure as Director? What will Bread Loaf look like a decade from now?

Because I’ve had the privilege of participating in this community for a long time, I know a fair amount about Bread Loaf’s history and think it’s an invaluable American literary institution. One thing I hope to accomplish as the new director is to identify and preserve the best of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences' history while also making sure that the conferences continue to be relevant and inclusive to new generations of writers. I plan to say more about this in my welcome remarks this August! but the Writers’ Conference from its beginning was an earnest and thoughtful attempt to design a curriculum that would best serve and train developing talented writers when nothing like that existed on the American literary landscape. That impulse and charge will always, I think, be at the core of our endeavors. But going forward, Bread Loaf must also accurately reflect the current American literary landscape and population—starting now—and continuing a decade from now. 

This is an exciting time in the history of Bread Loaf. Tell me if I’m wrong but I presume you were the first woman Assistant Director of Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference? 

Actually, I was not the first woman assistant director; my predecessor, Devon Jersild, was!

Oh! Yet now you are the first woman to lead Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences. I read an interview with Emily Wilson (a special guest presenting at this year’s Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference!) where she said that “a translator’s interpretive framework and social identities affect work in all kinds of ways.” What do you think you being a woman means for Bread Loaf and what does it mean to you? 

It feels—and is—tremendously significant when one of America’s most hallowed literary institutions places a woman at the helm for the first time. It’s kind of a benchmark, isn’t it, for how far our culture has come even in a very fraught time. Personally speaking, since you ask also what it means to me, it’s an incredible honor, especially because of how much I love Bread Loaf and my own long history with the conferences. It has been so edifying to see how the Bread Loaf model of instruction has become useful in new contexts such as literary translation and environmental writing and so on. The truth is that so much of my life (professional and personal) has accrued experiences and skills that I think will enable me to assume this role of responsibility, artistic direction, and service to American letters. It’s a unique pleasure—that one gets all too rarely in life—of feeling like one’s long- and hard-won experience or expertise is given a new way to be harnessed and put to good use.

Brava! Bread Loaf is lucky to have you!

CONTACT INFORMATION

Bread Loaf Conferences
204 College Street
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802-443-5286
Fax: 802-443-2087
Email: blwc@middlebury.edu