When I bumped into Jen Bervin outside the Austin Museum of Art awhile ago, she was kind enough to ask what I’d been up to lately, and I told her about the Five Aarons reading I’d recently hosted. I’d considered it a small triumph: bringing five poets with a relatively uncommon first name to St. Louis for one crazy night. I told her that plans were under way for a Five Robins reading, that Ekiss, Schaer, Schiff, Becker, and Behn had been invited.
Jen jokingly mentioned that it would be fun to hold a Jens reading. She introduced me to Jen Hofer and Genya Turovskaya, who were standing nearby. “We’d have to invite ten,” I said. “Ten Jens. But I’m not sure ‘Genya’ counts.” Genya said she’d prefer to be in a Genyas reading anyway, and Bervin and Hofer began rattling off other Jens they knew—Coleman, Currin, Benka, Tynes, Chang, and more. Expanding to Jennifers, we immediately thought of Knox and Moxley. We realized that such a reading was not only possible but practically inevitable.
After ten months of e-mails, phone calls, sweet-talking, and logistical arrangements, 11 Jens ended up taking part in the Ten Jens reading. Held at the Schlafly Bottleworks in St. Louis, it featured Jens Hofer, Bervin, Chapis, Coleman, Robinson, Mueller, MacKenzie, Woods, Gaby, Scappettone, and Lyons. I’d received heartfelt regrets from Benka, Tynes, Chang, Currin, Knox, and McCreary. I’d also invited artist Jen Brown and St. Louis arts advocate Jen Meyer to participate in some way. My sister Jane and her friend Katy, who are cellists, played Hindemith and Glière as some 70 St. Louisans crowded into the room.
“I can honestly say,” Jen Hofer began, “that this is the weirdest reading I’ve ever been part of.” Of course it was weird. If the Five Aarons was a harmless practical joke, the Ten Jens was a cruel prank, a kind of hazing ritual. The participating Jens had, in essence, allowed themselves to be reduced to their first names. They knew that they had been invited at least partly due to a decision made by their parents, and that this reading was at least as much a celebration of that decision as it was a showcase for their creative work.
At dinner before the reading, several of the poets had lamented having gone through life with the name “Jen,” referring to it as “neutral” and “generic.” But one, Jen Scappettone, whose grandparents were Italian immigrants, was glad for the neutrality: “My parents were planning to name me Gina Marie. Luckily, they went the route of American assimilation.” One, Jennifer MacKenzie, had never felt lost in a flood of Jens—older than the rest, she remembered the late ’60s and early ’70s as a time when there were “suddenly countless Jennifers at my feet.” “Why the sudden popularity of the name?” I’d asked, believing I’d done my homework. “Have you not seen Love Story?” I had not. “It was a novel by Erich Segal that was made into a movie in the late ’60s [actually 1970]. It was a best seller like, uh . . .” I interrupted, “The Da Vinci Code?” “Yes, like that,” she continued. “The heroine is a girl from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ who falls in love with a boy from a family of social climbers. His family disapproves, but he marries her anyway. She eventually dies of cancer. Of course, her name was Jennifer. . . .”
When I heard that, the results of my afternoon’s research on the Social Security Administration’s Web site (www.ssa.gov) made sense. “Jennifer” dominated as the most popular name for a baby girl in America from 1970 to 1984—a 15-year period. Before that, it was almost unheard of, with the most popular names being “Lisa” or “Mary.” Beginning in 1985, “Jessica” took over for a decade (interrupted briefly by “Ashley”). It was followed by “Emily,” which remains the most popular female name today. None of these have rivaled “Jennifer” for popularity in the last 50 years, however, resulting in nearly 1 percent of American females—or 1.5 million women—having the name.
Suddenly I blamed not the Jens’ parents but Erich Segal for blanketing our country with Jens. He was also indirectly to blame for the VHI special The Top 9 Jens, a contest to determine which “one Jen” would “lord over the Jen-dom,” choosing from Aniston, Lopez, Jameson, and others. He was to blame for words like “Jeneration” and “Jencyclopedia.”
As the evening wore on, what took the spotlight was the poetry itself. Maybe at first we all thought of the organizing principle as a joke—as though, simply because all these women were named Jen, they were somehow interchangeable. This notion quickly fell away. The Jens, each reading for five to seven minutes, bore no resemblance to one another in how they looked, spoke, engaged language, or imagined the world.
Some of them bordered on comic—Jen Chapis’s "The Bison and the Edible Undies,” for example. Jen Coleman’s “Pluto” brought down the house with couplets like, “The people are sad for the guy that’s demoted / the people are sad for celestial change” and “Astronomers are human and heliocentric, / astronomers are much more like Pluto than not.” Jen Bervin struck a more meditative, dreamlike tone: “Write to get lost in the day—get the time from friends—make them a memorable meal—and forget what you made.” Jen Scappettone stunned the crowd with vivid yet elusive lines such as:
If Half-Dead Bob would only end down at Fresh Kills backwardation could be contangoIn the end, I conclude that Gertrude Stein was right about the name “George.” It is the very use of a certain name, the having-of-a-name, that makes it recognizable—not the character of those who share that name. In other words, having a name is inherently circular. When it comes right down to it, I am Aaron because I am Aaron, and for no other reason.
And us could get on with tadance. He’s up in Guantanamo, with the hum-hoers’ though
Mastering the sacks. Natch.