Poets are known for their skillful economy of words, so it’s not surprising that Olena Jennings culls hers carefully even in casual conversation.
She is forthcoming about the basic facts of her life, but there’s a sense that there’s far more meaning behind her words than she conveys.
Olena, a tall woman with big, beautiful blue eyes, is sitting on a large, overstuffed sofa in her living room.
There’s a significantly sized flat-screen TV tucked into one corner. She says she rarely watches it – the shows don’t relax her.
The spare space also contains a computer desk cramped by bookshelves, which are topped by an assortment of framed photos of her nieces.
Right by the door, there’s a white Brother sewing machine.
When she’s not penning or translating poems, Olena unwinds by making her own outfits, a pursuit that she started only two years ago when she knew nothing of needles and thread.
Today, she’s wearing a dress of her own creation. The fabric, which she bought on Etsy, is printed with definitions from the dictionary. The black and white newspaper-style columns run up and down her torso like toy trains.
Olena formed an affection for words early in life, probably because in her house they flew like flocks of little birds into her ears.
Hers was an extended family all under one roof. Her mother’s parents, who were from the Ukraine, settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during World War II.
Olena’s mother, who was 2 or 3 years old when the family arrived, was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany.
“I don’t know too many details,” Olena says, adding that they were forced to stay there for a couple of years. “My grandparents never talked about this experience.”
They did, however, talk about a lot of other things — in their own language, which Olena picked up like seashells on a beach.
“We went to the Ukrainian church every Sunday,” she says. “It was more social than religious. It gave me an opportunity to speak Ukrainian.”
Given her experiences, Olean fell in love with languages and initially wanted to write fiction.
“I didn’t have many friends,” she says, “so writing was an outlet for expression. I wrote a novel in high school. I joined a writer’s group that was filled with adults. Surprisingly, they accepted me.”
In case you’re wondering, Olena’s novel was about perfume. Some of the chapters were told from the scent’s point of view.
At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Olena earned a bachelor’s degree in French and Russian, the other two languages she speaks.
During that time, she studied abroad in Russia and had an internship in Ukraine. She also attended the Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute, a seven-week immersion course.
“While I was at the institute, I felt I could express myself better in Ukrainian than in English,” she says. “That’s why I’ve continued doing translations — it gives me a great feeling of comfort.”
After earning a master’s degree in Ukrainian literature at the University of Alberta in Canada, she came to New York City in 2004.
It was her studies that brought her here: She earned a master’s degree in fiction from Columbia University, where she works full time as an administrative assistant to a trio of professors.
“I don’t write much fiction now,” she says. “I concentrate on poetry, which still allows me to tell a story but in a way that’s more pleasurable to me. Poetry is filled with images and metaphors. I like the idea of making connections between two disparate things. I love it when they come together.”
Although Olena sometimes writes on the subway or on her lunch break, most of her work is done at night at her living room workstation.
In this cozy spot, she also translates the work of other poets into English, an exercise that she says “allows her to express the voices of many writers.”
She plucks a volume from the bookshelf.
“Pray to the Empty Wells” is the work she and Iryna Shuvalova, the poet who wrote the verses, translated into English together.
“Songs from an Apartment,” another book from her shelves, contains Olena’s own poems.
Olena, the founder of Poets of Queens, an organization that promotes local writers, also does public readings. In 2020, she’ll be publishing a book of the members’ works.
In the meantime, she’s writing a collection of poems that were inspired by her translation work.
Between rhymes, she’s learning embroidery. She’ll employ is to embellish her wardrobe, not her words.
Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020.
Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling