On Quietude: Q&A with Poet Jenny Binckes Lee

Jenny Binckes Lee lives, writes, and whispers to growing things in Kensington, Maryland. Stringing words together is how she reminds herself to notice bravery, kindness, and the quicksilver beauty of small things.

Jenny’s poem “Nuns of My Order” appeared in LPR’s Summer 2019 issue. She read this poem at our June issue launch (video below).

Many thanks to Jenny for sharing some insights into her work.

Q: What was the inspiration for your poem “Nuns of My Order”?

JBL: Upon my first visit to a certain Theravada Buddhist monastery, I quietly chose a cushion in the back of the crowded meditation hall, not realizing that I was sitting on the men’s side. After a while, some kind folk helped me see my error, and I blushingly found my way across the aisle to the company of women. In retrospect, I don’t think I was especially careless that day. I simply hadn’t perceived difference.

Some years later, at the same monastery, I attended a women’s retreat led by a newly ordained nun. Investigating spiritual and worldly matters in the company of women felt soothing to me. In the same breath, we would find ourselves discussing the complexities of a sutra and the care of a moss garden. It struck me that there is no true difference in contemplating the two.

“Nuns of My Order” is an attempt to recall what can be understood in gentle, humble, even silent, community. Perhaps that is what poetry is to me, a quietude that reveals how each being, thing, phenomenon contains all others, how each can be an entire language.

Another inspiration for my small poem was an even smaller one by Hui Neng, the sixth patriarch of Zen Buddhism. As an illiterate young caretaker of a monastery, he responded to the poem of an educated monk by speaking aloud a stunning quatrain about mirrors, dust, and emptiness. Hui Neng’s words revealed to the fifth patriarch his clear realization about the nature of all things.

I go back and forth on whether I think the speakers in this poem are liberated or limited. Who are the nuns to you?

In their very simplicity, these sisters find ease of being. Needing nearly nothing, they can offer much to themselves, to each other, and to their guests. For me, their self-sufficiency, generosity, and shared delight in the mundane are enviable.

We recently featured Sara Burnett’s poem “Cherchez la Femme.” I wonder if you see your two pieces talking to each other at all?

Perhaps these two poems are indeed speaking to each other, seeking each other’s company. In such vivid language, “Cherchez la Femme” makes me think of how ill treatment leads to malnourishment, of both individuals and society. In sweet counterpoint, noble relationship and truth invite us to thrive.

The imagery in this poem is striking. How important is imagery to your poetry?

Imagery, light, and color sustain me, both in real life and on the page.

Are there any other themes or poetic devices that you’re drawn to in your work?

I love the colors made by different vowel sounds. Assonance, accidental or intentional, is for me the watercolor wash of a poem.

What is your writing process like?

Everywhere I have little notebooks in which I collect fragments of the world. A poem usually comes when I stumble upon a long-misplaced notebook and rediscover a turn of phrase or image. I write longhand, sometimes all in a rush. Later, I prune.

How did you get involved with the Little Patuxent Review?

I teach English as a Second Language at Howard Community College (HCC). On campus, there exists a beautiful cultivation and celebration of the written word. Early on, HCC introduced me to the treasure trove that is Little Patuxent Review.

Do you have a favorite poem from the latest issue?

Might I mention two? Jalynn Harris’s “Phillis Wheatley questions the quarter” contains such light and keen knowing. Its architecture, lilt, and poignancy stay with me still. Also, Adam Tavel’s “Autumn Scene in Perry County” is so hushed and unadorned. His words help me see unfamiliar life and grief up-close, tenderly.

What are you working on now? Where can readers find your other work?

I am trying to string certain poems together into a longer song of sorts. Most of my poems live at home with me, but I do have a few in HCC’s The Muse as well as on the Nâzim Hikmet Poetry Festival site.

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