What it feels like for writer and poet Jennica Harper
Culture / March 30, 2012
By Vivian Pencz
“What does God think of teenage girls? Spies who know too much and must be punished?” asks Vancouver-based wordsmith Jennica Harper, reading from her books of poetry What It Feels Like For a Girl and The Octopus at Kwantlen’s Surrey campus Thursday, March 1.
You might not expect such incisive poetic depth from the screenwriter of the YTV comedy “Mr. Young,” but — as The Runner’s Vivian Pencz discovered during an interview before the reading — Harper is one of a kind.
Vivian Pencz: You are a poet, but you’ve also written TV and film scripts and a comic book. You’re a teacher, and you’re occasionally a stand-up comic. How do you balance all these projects?
Jennica Harper: The truth is I don’t balance them. Some of those are things I’ve tried over the last several years, but I got to the point where I needed to choose amongst them. The comic book was a fun adventure, and I’m adapting it into a feature screenplay. The stand-up comedy was great for learning to write comedy, which is really what my living is now. And I love teaching, but you can’t do it all at the same time. I’ve just been really lucky to be able to have done several of those things at many times.
VP: What are the differences between writing a poem and a script?
JH: I want to tell stories through images, and that’s what I think is in common between poetry and screenwriting. I’m not somebody who tells a story through the internal monologue. I’m much more external, much more about narrative. So I feel like those two compliment each other, [even] in terms of economy of language. You have to be able to choose the moment, metaphor, or line of dialogue that is nailing everything.
VP: What, more than anything, inspires you to write?
JH: The imperfection of human beings. The lighter side of our humanity, our foibles and mistakes, and also the serious side: how we struggle and try to achieve things and don’t get there. It’s our failings that interest me, and that’s also the basis of comedy, so it makes sense that that would be what I’m drawn to.
VP: A lot of your poetry does focus on awkward moments or stages of life. Are those kinds of [coming-of-age stories] something you’ve always gravitated towards?
JH: I think so. Some of the most recent poetry I’ve been working on is about the push-pull of wanting to be a parent and not having taken that leap yet. So I’m thinking about this as a new coming-of-age for me maybe. For example, [in an as-of-now unpublished manuscript] I’ve written a lot about Houdini’s wife and widow, and also about Pinocchio, and yet somehow these characters I’m exploring come back to parenthood again and again.
VP: Your work has been interpreted as being “edgy” or “controversial” because you talk about teenage sexuality and…
JH: [laughing] Because I use the word “cunt.”
VP: What do you think about that?
JH: I don’t think of myself as an edgy person, but this is the one art form where I don’t have to answer to anybody else, and you have to go where the heat is. The stuff that’s a little scary, too personal or too emotional are exactly the kinds of places you can’t run away from.
VP: Your work has also been heralded for being a significant feminist voice. Is that something that was intentional or surprising?
JH: In What It Feels Like For a Girl, I was writing about young women and sexuality, and I wanted to explore the idea of what women are expected to do and be and how teenage girls learn and twist that and are still ultimately strong. I hoped that the response would be that I am trying to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful and positive way. And I think it has been. There have been teenage girls who have told me, “I really relate to this.” And that is really powerful.
VP: How have you overcome the biggest challenges of your career?
JH: Perseverance. You go through a lot of years where you’re not making very much money, and you just have to not quit. You have to have the heart for it, even though it’s hard, and that’s been true for me. And if 10 years of sticking with it sounds like way too long a haul, there’s no shame in doing something else.
Poetry is never going to pay my bills, but it’s also a really pure art form. To write a poem all you need is a piece of paper and a pen.