Write What You Love: Paulette Jiles Speaks at Point Loma Nazarene University What makes a poet?

By: Milla Kuiper

Poet, author and memoirist Paulette Jiles was invited to speak at the 29th Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea at Point Loma Nazarene University. On Feb. 20, Ben Cater, director of PLNU’s Honors program, interviewed Jiles in front of an audience of students, faculty and the local community at the campus. 

Despite not writing much poetry in recent years, “poet” is always the first epithet in her biographies. The reason for this is that in 1984 and 1985, her book of poetry titled “Celestial Navigation” won the Governor General’s Award for English Poetry, the Pat Lowther Award and the Gerald Lampert Award, making it the first and only book to win all three.

However, regardless of why and when those writing her author biographies decided that “poet” was the most important of her titles, Jiles has called herself a poet since before attaining any accolades for it. “I was a poet long, long, long before that,” she said. 

Jiles brought in some examples of her favorite poems to share with PLNU writers, which included three from Thomas Merton, an American monk and writer. 

She compared two of his pieces, called “Elias — Variations on a Theme: Part II,” and “Night-Flowering Cactus,” discussing how the first is loud, repetitive and demands attention, and the latter is quiet, intentional and the result of lots of editing. She believes writers should learn to write in both of these styles. 

Starting in 1974, Jiles worked in a radio-less, television-less village in Ontario with the Anishinabe people, eventually learning their language and bringing them their first newspaper. 

Due to this unique experience, she felt that she wrote her memoir, “North Spirit: Travels Among The Cree And Ojibway Nations and Their Star Maps,” out of obligation.

Poetry calls to her for a different reason. “It’s very quiet, it’s very private,” Jiles said.

This sentiment holds true for those trying to find her work. Many of her poems were published before the internet age, and Google searches yield almost nothing aside from a poem called “Paper Matches,” which she read aloud for the small crowd of writers. 

Jiles graduated from the University of Missouri–Kansas City in 1968 with a major in Romance languages, the skills from which she has since used to take up translating poetry.

Jiles and a friend spent about a week translating Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera’s poem, “Para Entonces,” into English together, after which Jiles challenged her friend to translate Merton’s “Night-Flowering Cactus” into Spanish.

The poem in question makes use of intentional alliteration to create a certain linguistic environment, as well as invented ideas such as “mineral mirth,” “virginal thirst” and an “all-knowing bird of night.”

“After about a week, she said ‘I give up, I quit,’” Jiles said.

Jiles also discussed her novel writing philosophy. She divides novels into either being about relationships, be it personal relationships or the relationships between social classes, or about action. 

“You have to decide which kind is convenient to you,” Jiles said. “Not which is more socially important, not which will sell best, but which one YOU like.”

Jiles struggled as a young writer, believing that relationship-type novels were the only kind that young, socially aware women wrote, and that they were the only kind that won awards or were considered important.

“When you’re younger, you’re in university, and you’re just starting out, social pressure is enormous, and it took me a long time to figure out that I did not like [writing] novels about relationships,” Jiles said.

Her solution to this was finding a novel that she loved and wanted to emulate, called “All the Pretty Horses” by Cormac McCarthy, and took it as her “mentor.” 

“That’s the kind of novel, if you write, that you should be writing,” Jiles said. “The kind that you love, that you love to read, and try to resist social pressure to do otherwise.”