The Bookshelf: In Debut Memoir, Jennifer Militello Upends Time

Aug 16, 2019

In Jennifer Militello's debut memoir, Knock Wood, time moves in more than one direction. The relationship between cause and effect is upended as Militello explores her memories of illicit love, domestic violence and dangerous influences. Militello, is the author of several books of poetry, and she teaches at New England College. She sat down with All Things Considered host Peter Biello to talk about her new book.

Read Jennifer Militello's Top 5 Reading Recomendations:

1.   Come Closer and Listen by Charles Simic.  "Simic was one of my first teachers, and his innovative and tender work continues to wow."

2.   Beloved by Toni Morrison. "There's no need to remind people of Morrison's vast talent, but this is a book of such richness, such beauty, such depth.

3.   Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot. "A heartbreaking and brave story of adversity and survival."

4.   The Tradition by Jericho Brown. "Go and hear Jericho Brown read the poems from this book if you get the chance."

5.   In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell. "I continue to return to this favorite of mine and journey through the incredible risks it takes."

The Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

So this book is built on the premise of superstitions, on the idea that knocking on wood can help you avoid bad consequences. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in superstitions?

Sure. I guess the thing that I'm most fascinated by and it is reflected in this book is the way that cause and effect happen and the way that time plays a role in that. We're all aware that Einstein believed that all time happened at once. So I'm very much interested in the idea that doing something superstitious like knocking on wood could potentially change things that happened in the past as well as in the future. There's this idea that we can behave in superstitious ways in order to keep things from happening in the future or fix things that might be in our karma in some way. But I'm interested in the way that the arrow can point both ways potentially. So that's the premise behind the three threads that I develop in the book.

What you're talking about sounds like it's completely up ending the notion of plot- cause and effect. Things happen in a linear fashion in almost every other book. Not this one.

Absolutely. And I think that's the reason that the book is set up the way it is. It is a book that is woven with these three threads that that sort of interchange and interact in unusual ways. It's not a linear book in terms of plot, though it does develop a narrative. And I think once readers get to the end, they see that narrative line and all of those threads are resolved. But there is a lot of weaving that happens before that.

Yeah, you've got three strong storylines here. There's your teenage relationship with the boy who's something of a troublemaker, you've got a passionate extramarital affair here and your memories of your Aunt Kathy and her troubled marriage. So why did you feel like you wanted these particular threads together in one book?

They feel like things that are powerful influences on my life. They have each felt like really powerful stories individually, but also they felt like they were connected in this exact theme that we're talking about; this sense of having a lot of power over your circumstances, but also maybe having no power over your circumstances and the way that things happen and that fate interferes and that you behave in ways that you hope are going to have certain outcomes. And you don't always know what will happen as a result.

I wanted to ask about your nomination as a poet laureate, which has not been taken up by the governor. At this point, we're not sure where that stands. But I wanted to ask you if you were to be confirmed as poet laureate of New Hampshire, what would you do with that position?

It would be a real honor. One of the things that I feel really strongly about is my relationship to New Hampshire as a state that is directly related to my writing from the time I was a child. I've wanted to live here. I don't know if that's the usual sort of attitude about New Hampshire.

Why did you want to live here?

I've always associated it with writers and writing partially because it's a more rural state. And I've always imagined I could hide away and get a lot of work done. New Hampshire has a really rich literary tradition and I've always been very much aware of that. Robert Frost's poems were really dear to me when I was young, and I always imagined myself in the woods in New Hampshire writing poems when I was a child. That said, it is very much a service position and that is one of the fantastic things about it. It's about poetry in the state and enriching the state's poetry community.

I think also I might focus on schools. I think seeding young poets is a really important role for anybody who really cares about the poetry community. I already go into schools fairly frequently, but I think I’d formalize that and perhaps create an electronic environment where poets from New Hampshire could connect with younger poet from New Hampshire and feel like there was a larger community where everyone could benefit. That might be a terrific next step for poetry in the state.