Jeanne-Marie Osterman

Interview

Jeanne-Marie’s story begins with her father. Born in 1919 in Everett, Washington, he worked in the shipbuilding industry as a young man until he was drafted into the Navy during World War 2, where he served aboard the U.S.S. Nevada. During his military career, he fought in the battle of Okinawa, the second largest battle of the war – a service that he never spoke of to Jeanne-Marie until he was in his mid-nineties. 

The youngest of three girls, Jeanne-Marie also grew up in Everett and went on to study Italian at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Her interest in writing grew during her time at Gonzaga, and then at San Francisco State University, where she received a Masters in Linguistics. After graduating, she sought out teaching jobs at colleges in San Francisco. But those jobs were hard to come by so she moved to New York, where she had a successful thirty-year career as an advertising copywriter. 

“Working in advertising, I learnt not to be afraid of a blank page. There was lots of pressure to come up with new ideas in short periods of time. I learnt to just put down a word and see where that word would take me. Not to wait for some perfect solution until I put any words on the page.” 

Midway through her advertising career, Jeanne-Marie began enrolling in a number of workshops and writing classes so she could flex her creative muscles outside of her advertising work. 

“Short stories didn’t work out for me, but I was hooked by poetry. In the first class I took, someone brought in a poem by Philip Levine. It was about blue-collar workers in Detroit. It moved me so much– it just destroyed me! Ever since, my goal has been to write just a single line as well as Philip Levine wrote. An ambitious goal, but it’s something I strive for.” 

Jeanne-Marie recently won the Slipstream 34th Annual Poetry Chapbook Competition, which is run by a press in Niagara Falls, New York. The chapbook is called All Animals Want the Same Things. 

Jeanne-Marie’s first full-length collection, called Shellback, consists of a collection of poems she wrote about her relationship with her father. It reflects on her childhood interactions with him and relates the stories he told her about his time in the Navy during World War 2. 

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Q: When did you start working on Shellback? Before or after he passed away. 

A: “I started writing the poems before he passed away, and at the time I had no plans of turning them into a book. My father was in his nineties and in an assisted living home in Everett, Washington where I would visit him three times a year. Growing up, he was a quiet man who was hard to get to know. As he began to open up and tell me about the horrors he’d witnessed during the war, I began to wonder if all those years of suppressing those memories, and not talking about what he’d been through, hadn’t affected him psychologically. I mean, how could it not? During those visits he also talked about his childhood in Everett, what it was like to be in assisted living, and how it felt to be facing death as an older man. 

I was motivated to write the poems in Shellback and capture the stories he told me because we’d never spoken like that before. I was taking a poetry writing workshop at the time and for every assignment, I used one of my father’s stories. So the number of poems I had kept building. I had been doing this for about two years when he passed away at age ninety-eight, and by then I had about sixty pages of poems. 

That’s when I decided to try to turn my work into a collection. Within six months, I had a manuscript that I sent out for consideration to a number of publishers but I never heard anything back. So I withdrew it from consideration and made some changes. I changed the title from The Living Will Always Leave You, But The Dead Stay With You Forever to Shellback because I thought the original title was too long and not memorable. Then I read every single poem into a recorder and played them back. That’s really revealing to hear yourself out loud! You’ll immediately know if there’s something you’re less than proud of. As a result of this exercise, I eliminated three of the poems and replaced them with new ones. 

 

Within two months of sending the new version to publishers, I had four acceptances. And I was a finalist or semifinalist in two or three contests.” 

Q: Did you tell your sisters you were writing this anthology ahead of time to see how they felt about the project? 

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A: “One sister, yes. But I didn’t show her the poems ahead of time. My sisters aren’t big poetry fans and I was worried that they would be expecting cheerier poems –you know, sentimental memories about my dad– compared to what I actually wrote. I wanted to be honest in my writing– and show the good as well as the not so good– and I was worried that my sisters would object. But fortunately, they ended up loving the end result.” 

 

Q: Is there a specific reason why your poems are written in a narrative style? 

 

A: “Narrative poetry is my favorite style of poetry. I read a lot of poems and some of them are so abstract that I have to work hard to understand them. I admire poets who write in this way because their words can be so beautiful, but I have no interest in writing like that. I need to be telling a story when I write, so my narrative style is very intentional.” 

We chose three poems from Shellback and asked Jeanne-Marie to talk about the story behind her vision with those poems. Here’s what she had to say. 

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“I was the youngest of three daughters. I always thought that my dad wanted a boy so I became somewhat of a tomboy and would always watch sports with him. Beneath that story is a major theme of the book—that I was trying to get to know a man who wasn’t easy to get to know, and watching sports with him, trying ‘to be his boy,’ was just one I tried to get close to him.” 

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“This was the first poem I wrote in the collection that became Shellback. I took it to a workshop and my teacher thought I was on to something bigger, and recommended that I start writing more poems about my dad and his stories from the war.” 

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“I was visiting my dad – he was ninety-six at the time – and he had a load of vitamins and medications he was taking. One was called Horny Goat Weed, a name that really caught my attention. I didn’t know what it was, so I went into his bathroom so I could look it up on my phone. I discovered it was an herb that was supposed to help with erectile dysfunction. Considering my dad was ninety-six and had been living alone for several years, I thought that was interesting. 

This poem is about shame because when I came out of the bathroom, I discovered he’d thrown the bottle into the trash, hoping perhaps, I hadn’t seen it.” 

Q: What advice would you give to other aspiring poets about the writing process? 

A: “It helps me to think of writing as a physical act. Start putting words on the page and move them around. Use your arm and your hand! That will get your mind going as to what you might want to say, and before you know it, you’ll have a draft. From there, you revise and revise until something takes shape. In other words, rather than star at the sky and say ‘what shall I write,’ JUST WRITE!

Go to workshops. Share your work with others – most often people will be kind and give constructive criticism, or praise where it’s due. If you’re stuck on a poem, put it away –for as long as six months– and come back to it with a fresh mind. Remember that writing poetry can be a slow process.

Read lots of poetry, especially poetry that resonates with you. Two of my favorite poets are Kevin Young and Cornelius Eady – two African-American poets who wrote about their father’s deaths. I love how elegantly and simply they express themselves. Eady in particular. His father was tough but you can read between the lines that Eady loved him just the same, and he was able to get that across without coming right out and saying it. It’s the old “show don’t tell” maxim for writers. 

Lastly, poetry isn’t something you write in order to get noticed or (ha ha) make money. The reward is seeing or hearing your words –on a page or screen or spoken– and feeling that you’ve done your best—that you’ve captured something from your life that might move or affect others and hopefully enrich their lives.”

Q: What advice would you give to other aspiring poets about the publishing process? 

A: “If it’s your first book and you’re submitting it to publishers for review, start with lower profile publishers. With the big-name publishers, you’re competing against hundreds of authors, many of whom are well-known, and have published successful books. You’ll have a better chance with small indie presses.

Recognize that it can take a long time to put together a final manuscript and then get it into print. Shellback was about a year and a half from final manuscript to seeing it in print. And that was a relatively short time. Once a manuscript is accepted, it’s not uncommon to wait two years for a pub date.”