Poet Jenny Molberg discusses her new collection The Court of No Record, overcoming rejection, and a dog named Dolly Parton

black and white headshot of a woman

Author Jenny Molberg. // Photo by Jonny Ulasien.

Jenny Molberg is a poet, editor, and professor currently residing in Missouri and teaches creative writing at the University of Central Missouri. She also serves as Co-Editor and Poetry Editor of Pleiades.

Molberg’s third poetry collection, The Court of No Record, is coming out soon from LSU Press. The author sat down with us for a conversation about her process of writing the book, her practice of using poetry to process trauma, and her creative influences—including the inimitable Dolly Parton.

The Pitch: Congrats on the forthcoming release of your new poetry collection, The Court of No Record. I know true crime and living after domestic violence are themes in the book. What was your research and writing process like with such sensitive subjects?book cover

Jenny Molberg: I’ve been calling these poems “docu-confessional,” so like a blend of confessional poetry and documentary poetry. The middle section of the book is a court hearing, and the material that I use for that is a court hearing of my own. So, I have a 400-page court transcript from when my abuser took me to court. And he also took one of his other exes to court. She had spoken out about his abuse against her, and I had written poems about my experience with abuse. And those are his evidence, but it was a backward situation because we were in a southern state, we had to travel there, and the judge was personal friends with his parent, so the court hearing went on for a really long time. And then he appealed, and we kept having to go back. So, it was emotionally and financially exhausting.

I didn’t really know what to do with all of that after it was over. Everything was dismissed. But I’ve read that an abuser often will manipulate the court system in order to continue those cycles of abuse. And so it just kept going on and on, and I didn’t really know what to do with that experience, or how to speak about it. So, I took the court transcripts and made sort of, like, fictionalized poems out of them.

That was one part of the research for the book. The other part was that I found myself in the wake of experiencing violence and abuse, consuming a lot of true crime, podcasts, shows, stories, and things like that. I had been a student at LSU in Baton Rouge when there were two active serial killers. I realized that I had kind of blocked that time out of my life. I think I was going through some trauma then. I kind of went back and studied what was happening with those serial killers. It was also the time of Hurricane Katrina.

And then, I started getting into research on female forensic scientists. One of them that I’m really fascinated with is Francis Glessner Lee, who was one of America’s first female forensic scientists, and she started the first forensic pathology program at Harvard. She made these dioramas, sort of like doll houses of crime scenes that cops would study in training to learn how to read a crime scene. That was a lot of the research that went into it. And then I was interrogating: Why do we have this cultural fascination with violent perpetrators instead of highlighting the lives of victims, and also highlighting the lives of people who work to dedicate their lives to solving crimes and bringing justice?

How can poetry serve to process and talk about trauma?

This is something I think about a lot. I’m actually headed to the writers’ conference AWP tomorrow, in Seattle, and I’m doing a panel on “Poetry, Law and the U.S. “Justice” System.” We put that in quotes intentionally. I think one thing that’s interesting that I’ve recently thought a lot about, especially dealing with this court hearing stuff, is that poetry is categorized under fiction. I think we often read poetry as the personal proclamations of the author. But I also think it’s interesting to think about the possibilities of persona in poetry and metaphor and fictionalized experience because I think that especially for people who are suffering, or who have suffered from trauma that is difficult to speak about, or could possibly be dangerous to speak about, poetry allows that kind of masking in a way to be able to fully explore the emotional experience without publishing journalism or nonfiction that kind of makes the writer more vulnerable.

And then I think another aspect of poetry’s relationship to trauma is that the experience of trauma can sever us from ourselves in a way, or the experience of trauma can create a distance between life and the mind. And I think that metaphor can kind of fill that space or explain that space when language fails in other ways.

How would you describe how your work has evolved over the course of your three books (Marvels of the Invisible in 2017, Refusal in 2020, and The Court of no Record in 2023)? How has it stayed the same?

I think I’ll start with how it stayed the same. For my first book, I was a student, and part of it was written during my MFA. Most of it was written during my Ph.D. I was a student of poetry, and I was thinking a lot about the relationship between research and poetry. And just because of my amazing professors at the University of North Texas, I got really into early modern medicine. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the time, and my dad is a pathologist. So, I was really fascinated with the evolutions of science and how poetry can be like a scientific process in a way. I think the way that my work stayed the same is that research is definitely a huge part of my writing process. I just enjoy learning things. And I think that I have a little bit of a scientific brain but not enough to have succeeded in any field in that way. But I think a thread that runs through it is deep research, curiosity, and discovery.

Because of what I’ve been through, especially because my second book was actually used as evidence against me in this court hearing situation, I think I’ve been kind of emboldened in my writing to confront difficult subjects more blatantly and openly. I think that I can see that shift, especially in terms between my first book and this book. I think that not being a student anymore allowed me a little bit of freedom to break away from eyes looking over my shoulder, saying like, this is how you write a poem, and maybe letting me get more inventive with form and things like that.

What was your process like for getting the book published? How long did it take to complete the first draft of the first poem to the final manuscript?

This book was also a little bit different in that it was a quicker process. For my first book, I had my MFA thesis. I basically threw it all out and started over. I think two poems survived. And then when I was in my Ph.D. and wrote that book, it was for seven years. I submitted it for several years, then it won a prize. And then it took almost three years for it to come out. So that was like a really long process.

My second book was slightly shorter, but it took me several years to write, and then it found a home at LSU Press. They’re amazing to work with, so I sent them The Court of No Record. I wrote it during the pandemic. I had a lot of time on my hands, so I wrote it really quickly, for me. I’m not a very fast writer. Both the pandemic and just urgency of the subject matter made me write really quickly. It probably took me from 2018 to 2021 to draft the book, and then I sent a finished draft to LSU. Because it’s an academic press, it’s kind of a long process. They have outside readers. They give a description or an analysis of the book, then bring it to the board, and then they choose to accept the book.

During that time, I think I was revising. They assigned me to a copy editor who actually helped me with bigger revisions—structural revisions and poetry revisions and stuff like that. I think I was revising the book up until six months ago.

How did you first get into writing poetry, and who are some of the most influential poets to your own work?

I’ve been writing poetry for as long as I can remember. I have also written essays and fiction. When I was a kid, I had a little secret newspaper, where I would spy on the neighbors and write. I started in school as a journalism major, and—long story—I got fired from the LSU newspaper. I switched my major to creative writing, which I think is what I always wanted to do. It just didn’t seem practical. Then I was writing a lot of fiction and taking mostly fiction classes.

During my senior year in college, I took a poetry workshop, and I just kind of realized that that’s what I wanted to be doing and that it was an actual possibility. It felt like poker for a long time. Poetry felt like something I kept secret. I think that workshop kind of allowed me to recognize it as something I could take more seriously. I went on to my MFA and just kind of dedicated my life to poetry, for better or worse.

I think long-term, big influential poets—definitely Sylvia Plath. What I love about Sylvia Plath is how masterful she is with language and also how funny she is. We often think of her in the context of the trauma of her life. I looked at her as a great master of language. Also, Seamus Heaney for a similar reason. More recently, especially writing this book, Maggie Nelson, whose work I love. Anne Carson. Patricia Smith is one of my favorite poets ever and writes about Hurricane Katrina in such an inventive and amazing way. Muriel Rukeyser. Yeah, there are so many poets that I studied and admired for so long. Adrienne Rich, especially. Her essays as well.

How does working as an editor at Pleaides and teaching creative writing at UCM improve your own writing?

I think it’s really exciting to be always reading new work—the freshest, newest work that’s out there from poets writing all over the world. I’m inspired by them, surprised by them, and awoken. Editing for Pleiades kind of reminds me why I love poetry because you can be reading hundreds of submissions, and then come across something that just wakes you up and shocks you into life. I also just really love the way that editing kind of allows me to do something for the community that I love so much, to in my small way, give back or create platforms for poets that I think are really amazing.

With teaching, I think I learn so much from my students, like watching them encounter a poet who I know really deeply. It’s like when you have a friend who’s reading a book or watching a show that you love for the first time. You have that jealousy of, like, oh, you’re experiencing that for the first time. I love to watch them discover poetry. I love them. I love to watch them also discover their own voice. And I think that’s really moving and refreshing. It kind of does a similar thing to editing. It wakes me back up. And often, I’ll give my students assignments that I’ll also do alongside them and kind of challenge myself to write a poem that I might not write naturally because maybe I’m kind of stuck in my own patterns.

You’re originally from Texas and got your degrees in Louisiana, Washington D.C., and Texas. How did you end up in Missouri?

The job. I was in the last year of my Ph.D. and on the job market, and I had one interview. It was at UCM. I got the job, and I’ve been here ever since. I think what really drew me to the job was Pleiades. Knowing the journal and seeing the amazing legacy of poets that have been editing the journal, like Kevin Prufer, Wayne Miller, and Kathryn Nuernberger. I love that aspect of the job. I think it’s really cool. And I also really enjoy teaching undergraduates and getting to work with them to send them off to MFA programs. A lot of my students in recent years have been going to really great MFA programs, and it’s exciting to see. And I also work with McNair Scholars Program. It’s a program for first-generation college students that takes them step-by-step through a research project and applying to graduate school. That’s really rewarding and exciting to see.

What advice would you give to writers who are hoping to break into publishing their own poetry?

That’s a hard question. I think that there’s messaging out there that’s just, like, work hard. Keep going. Don’t worry. If you work really hard, and you keep submitting, it’ll pay off. And I think that messaging ignores privilege, and I think it can be difficult. Rejection can be difficult. I think as an editor, I would say that rejection happens all the time in the writing world. And it’s not because your work’s not good. I think we have to reject things all the time because maybe it’s not a right fit. Or maybe the work just needs six more months of revision or something like that. So in that way, I definitely think that I would encourage people to keep sending out. But it can be really hard to find the right publisher for your work.

With poetry especially, there’s a system set up where you almost have to win a prize to break into publishing. And every time there’s a winner of a prize, that means there are at least 10 books that don’t get accepted that are eminently publishable and wonderful and would change the world. I don’t love that about the system. I’ve seen that as the editor of Pleiades, too. I’m always like, “There are 20 books here that I want to publish.” It has to do with funding and accessibility.

I would say that my biggest piece of advice—and this is the advice I give my students in my publishing class—is to find community. Finding your readers and finding that one person—and it might be someone who is your pen pal, who you’ll never meet (I have a friend in the Philippines, and we write back and forth, and we read each other’s work). That connection, having written something that one person reads that means something to them, is so much more important than monetary success or visible success.

There are so many ways to fund things, there are scholarships, and there are fellowships. You know, things like that. Ask people, ask your mentors, ask your community about those things, and then figure out how you can find that community first. Small communities of writers encourage each other, inspire each other, and all that stuff. And I think that’s a great way to kind of break into publishing.

What can you tell us about your March 31 book launch event in KC?

March 31 at Wise Blood Booksellers. It’s going to be hosted by the Bear Review. And it will be a book launch from myself and Erin Adair-Hodges, whose book Every Form of Ruin is just out with the University of Pittsburgh Press. We’re also going to have three Kansas City poets read before us: Courtney Faye Taylor, Hadara Bar-Nadav, and Bridget Lowe. So that’ll be fun. I’m reading in Lawrence the night before that (March 30) at The Raven with Erin Adair-Hodges and Melissa Fite Johnson, and then April 21 with Erin Adair-Hodges and Adam Vines at The Writers Place in Kansas City.

You’re reading at AWP this weekend for Madville Publishing’s Let Me Say This: Dolly Parton Anthology. What can you tell us about your work in this anthology?

My dog is named Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton has been a hero of mine since I was a kid for so many reasons. I think that she brings attention to feminism in such an interesting way and defies all the stereotypes. Also, she’s just such an amazing human being, you know, donating a million dollars for vaccines and her program for kids to receive books. When I saw this call for submissions, I was so excited. And I wrote a poem just for that, like, I didn’t already necessarily have a Dolly Parton poem.

So, my poem in the anthology is about breasts. My grandmother who’s about to be 88 is like my best friend and the reason I’m a writer, She has breast cancer, my mom had breast cancer, and my sister and I both had breast reductions. So boobs in our family are a big topic. The poem is called, “Is it all You,” and it was when Barbara Walters interviewed Dolly Parton, and she’s just focusing on her breasts and not her career. So, the poem’s kind of in response to that.

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