Poet Jenessa Andrea survived so that she could live

Jenessa Andrea

Jenessa Andrea Jon Dahlin

“You would’ve died in your 30s.”

ING: A Night for Creators

Studio Apparatus
Free with RSVP; $5 at the door

Jenessa Andrea was a 24-year-old dental student at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities) when her gastroenterologist uttered these words to her after diagnosing her with cancer.

“The whole plan that I had of busting my ass until I turned 30, then paying off my loans, and then being free—it never would’ve happened,” Andrea says. “At that moment, I was just so hyper aware of how fragile life is, and how fragile our plans are.”

Facing a full schedule of doctor’s appointments and an uncertain future, Andrea dropped out of dental school and pursued her dream of writing. She survived the cancer, and ended the process with a tome of poems that trace her journey of self-discovery through illness.

These pieces are compiled in Pain & Peace, her debut collection. Andrea will be reading selections at Studio Apparatus’ ING: A Night for Creators series, delivering her hard-wrought poems about cancer, toxic relationships, eating disorders, and self-acceptance to a live audience for the first time ever. 

Ahead of the reading, we talked to Andrea about the tragic opportunity that became Pain & Peace

City Pages: What made you decide to close the door on a dental career and pursue writing?

Jenessa Andrea: At the time, I was like, ‘What makes me happy?’ People are so quick to turn to stone when problems happen, and I’ve always tried to figure out a way to stay soft and learn what I have to learn from it. Life is short and it sucks, but how can I make this work for me and not be mad at the world? Music and writing makes me truly happy.

CP: What is it about writing that sustains you?

JA: The first run-in I had with illness was when I was 15. I had a spine injury from an accident, and I was dealing with neurological issues. I was having problems with communication, and my memory was impaired, so writing it down helped me be less overwhelmed.

CP: Pain & Peace begins with “Transformation” and goes all the way through “Truths.” How did you come up with that structure?

JA: I wanted to start with “Transformation,” because people who are so quick to turn hard toward the world, this is not for them. This is for people who want to learn how to process pain, because you’re not gonna be without it. If you’re gonna keep on going through it, you have to choose to transform through it. Each section was made to be a level of that. I wanted to touch on family and romantic relationships, but I didn’t want the whole book to be about that. Deal with yourself first, and then you can look at your family and relationships more accurately and then come back full circle.

CP: You oscillate between difficult romantic and family relationships in the poems. Are you trying to understand yourself through the lens of those relationships and how they shape each other?

JA: Writing the book was a way for me to confront my pain. People are so afraid of pain that I think we run away from it. It’s funny because I always think about how quick we are to avoid being in pain, and so many of us are walking around not knowing who we are. That’s why we’re not growing. You need to actually be in pain and deal with that.

CP: Why did you make the decision to self-publish, and what advice would you give to someone who wants to do the same thing?

JA: Even though I write and sing and perform, I always have this problem of confidence. There’s always that imposter syndrome. The thought of self-publishing meant I needed to believe enough in something I made to promote it and to reach out to people. Next month, I’ll be passing out books to bookstores, and I need to really believe in what I’ve created to do that. That’s a practice, and I need that growth.

I would 100 percent encourage other people to do this. The internet makes things so much easier. There are so many routes for people. Don’t be afraid to put your own thing out there and really work on something. It’s a little bit expensive, that’s all I would say.

CP: What do you hope people will get from this?

JA: I would hope, most of all, that they don’t feel alone. Understand that you can get through all these things. It’s possible

Jenessa Andrea book release
With Julian Manzara 
Studio Apparatus
7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19
$5; more info