12 Winters Blog

Interview with J.D. Schraffenberger: The Waxen Poor

Posted in July 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 19, 2014

I don’t recall the exact year that I met Jeremy Schraffenberger (2005? — give or take), but it was definitely at the University of Louisville during its annual literature and culture conference. I chaired a critical panel on which Jeremy was presenting a paper. As the day progressed and we ran into each other here and there, we discovered that while we both enjoyed academic writing, creative writing was our true passion — mine, specifically, fiction, and his poetry. Over the years we often met up in Louisville, and when my first novel, Men of Winter, came out in 2010, Jeremy was kind enough to help me set up a reading in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as part of Jim O’Laughlin’s Final Thursday Reading Series. By then Jeremy (who publishes and edits under the initials J.D.) was on the tenure track in the English Department at the University of Northern Iowa and part of the editorial masthead of the North American Review. In the summer of 2013 I was able to return the favor and arranged for Jeremy to come to Springfield, Illinois, to be a “Poet in the Parlor” at the historic Vachel Lindsay Home; while he was in town, he also gave a fascinating talk on the history of the North American Review and its fast-approaching bicentennial (in 2015) — the talk was hosted by Adam Nicholson at The Pharmacy Art Center.

In 2012, I established Twelve Winters Press with the intention of using it to bring out my books, or keep them in print, and to bring out the literary work of others. Last winter I contacted Jeremy about possibly working with the Press on some sort of project under his editorial direction — and much to my delight he informed me he had a collection, The Waxen Poor, that he was interested in publishing. He sent me the manuscript, which I was able to read (again, much to my delight) before meeting him in Louisville for the conference this past February. After his reading in the beautiful Bingham Poetry Room in Ekstrom Library, we sat down to cups of coffee in the Library’s Tulip Tree Café and discussed his collection and made plans to bring it out this summer.

I’m happy to report that The Waxen Poor is indeed out. See Twelve Winters Press’s Poetry Titles page for full details.

The Waxen Poor - front cover (1)

I interviewed Jeremy via email about his intriguing collection, which includes poems published in such notable journals as Brevity, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Notre Dame Review, and Prairie Schooner, among many others. What follows are his unedited responses to my questions. When I had the honor of introducing Jeremy at the Vachel Lindsay Home, I said that I always enjoyed his readings because he was the sort of poet that I respected most: one who takes his poetry seriously but not himself. I believe this engaging combination of qualities is apparent here.

Jeremy for The Waxen Poor - 400 (1)

What’s the time span represented by the poems in The Waxen Poor? That is, how early is the earliest poem and how recent the most recent?

The earliest piece in the collection — and the one that really sparked this whole project — is the prose poem “Full Gospel,” which was originally published in the summer of 2006 in Brevity and was later reprinted in Best Creative Nonfiction. I bring this up only because I find the question of genre interesting. I originally wrote “Full Gospel” as a poem, but then as I started to revise, I became less and less interested in lines and line breaks and more and more interested in segmentation or braiding as a way to craft the piece. I can’t say that I was consciously blurring generic boundaries — I was just trying to write something true — but I’m still not quite sure how to categorize it. Is it an essay? A poem? A prose poem? In the end, I suppose, that’s not terribly important, but insofar as it might reveal something about the composition process — in this case, I think, how memory is organized — I think it’s an intriguing question.

Two other early pieces are the first one in the collection, “Brother Tom,” and the last, “Born for Adversity.” It was important, I think, that I knew where I was heading as I wrote and revised. I would certainly not consider The Waxen Poor a novel in verse, but I did feel that there was something of a narrative arc, if not an actual plot — even if it remained subtextual — that guided me along as I worked. I had a clear sense of the beginning and I knew the end, and so the challenge became what to do with the long expansive middle. As Margaret Atwood wrote, “True connoisseurs … are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.”

The most recent poem in the collection is the sequence of “Judas” poems, which came as something of a surprise to me as I wrote them. I hadn’t expected to cast “Brother Tom” as a Judas character, but there it is. Sometimes you can’t — and maybe you shouldn’t — control your characters. You can see that I’m trying to complicate Judas/Tom, though, by calling him “A man of tradition, assassin of the ages, / My translator, my traitor, my Judas, my friend” — the same kind of complication I’m attempting to bring to the entire collection. These “Judas” poems came to me about three years ago, and so The Waxen Poor represents five years of work.

Did you set out to write a collection around the topic of “Brother Tom,” or did the concept of collecting them develop over time? Either way, can you describe the thought process behind the collection?

In my mind The Waxen Poor was always a cohesive project. After “Full Gospel” I began organizing individual pieces around the character of “Brother Tom.” I wanted to explore this fraught relationship between two brothers, each of whom is like the other but also quite different — one a poet, the other struggling with mental illness. The poems are meant to be both personal and more broadly mythological, and I’ve tried to balance (or “harmonize” might be a better word) the experiential with the imagined, the everyday with the elevated. You could also say that the project is in some ways a coping mechanism, like Eliot’s “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” That is, how are we to deal with the pain and suffering in the world but through our art? When trying to understand and contend with something like mental illness, some of us turn to art, to poetry, for answers.

Many of the poems seem to be highly personal in their subject matter. Can you discuss the process of tapping into those emotions via the creative process?

As I said, I see the collection as something of a coping mechanism — but then in some ways, all art functions as a mechanism of this kind, even if you’re not dealing with emotionally fraught subjects. What do we make of this world around us and all of the various experiences we have? How do we give our lives any kind of meaning but by forming it, shaping it? Even the most experimental, appropriative forms of conceptualism in which all subjectivity has been evacuated are ways to cope.

That said, there are some poems in The Waxen Poor I can’t read in public anymore because they’re too emotionally difficult for me to get through, but I think that probably means something important is happening. I try to tell this to my creative writing students, that if something is too painful to write, you should write it, not for the sake of therapy — though that might end up being part of it — but because when a poem is difficult in this way, you’re getting near something that you care deeply about, even if it’s in ways that you can’t quite articulate yet. When we find a form for our pain or confusions, we’re allowing others to identify with it, with us. We’re letting our readers in.

The form of these poems varies considerably, and there are even some prose poems included in the collection. Can you discuss the interplay between subject and form for you as a poet? For example, how much one influences the other?

I’m a formalist insofar as I believe that form is meaning. To sever the two is to do a deep violence to the poem — and to misread it entirely. I think it takes a long time before this insight, which is easy enough to say and understand intellectually, sinks in deeply enough for it to be true as a writer. Or at least this has been the case for me. The prose poem is a perfect example of this fusion between form and meaning. I never set out to write the prose poem sequences you find in this collection. Rather, I discovered that this was the form the poem had to take — especially the somewhat surreal ones in which the thoughts and images and phenomena all seem to tumble forth, like consciousness itself. Likewise, some of the unrhymed sonnets in the collection were discovered. That is, as I began writing, I felt the rhetorical movement of the sonnet happening, the turn, and so I began shaping it accordingly. This means paying attention to more than just the “subject,” more than what the poem is supposedly “about,” and opening yourself up to different ways of knowing.

But there are a handful of exceptions. The poem “Abecedarian Advice” is a received form that I didn’t “discover” but rather imposed on myself as a challenge. And the four “Meds” poems are acrostics that spell out the names of the antipsychotic drugs “Haldol,” “Thorazine,” “Zyprexa,” and “Lithium” down the left margins of the poems. I like the way these formal experiments turned out because I found that I ended up thinking about things I never would have thought about before. The somewhat arbitrary restraint can ironically be very liberating. In fact, I think the acrostic is the most underrated form. With other forms, like the sonnet, for example, you’re dealing not only with external characteristics like rhyme and meter but also an internal rhetorical shape that isn’t always the right fit for the poem. The acrostic, though, can accommodate absolutely anything. It gets a bad rap and seems unsophisticated because we’ve all written them in elementary school. But I think there’s something refreshing about the form’s simplicity.

Several of the poems in the collection had been published individually, but it seemed that you hadn’t been circulating the collection for a while. Can you discuss the history of the collection in terms of your thoughts on its publication as a whole?

Well, I did send this manuscript out into the world for a while, entering it into contests and open reading periods at a handful of presses that I like. But I’m a constant and somewhat obsessive reviser, so I pulled it back and have been working on it periodically for a few years. I’d add a poem, remove a poem, tinker with the chronology, worry over line breaks. Was it Valéry who said that a poem is never finished, it’s only abandoned? I guess that feeling had something to do with it — a desire not to abandon the poems. And because it’s a collection that I care deeply about and is in some ways very personal, I felt it had to be just right — and it had to find the right place, too, that would present it in the way I think it needs to be presented. I’d say it’s finally ready for the world, and so I’m excited now that it’s found a great home with Twelve Winters.

You play with both Christian and Classical allusions (and bring these together in the title and cover illustration, which you found). Why overtly connect these two traditions?  What do you think is the effect of their interplay in the collection?

First, I’d say that even though I am not a Christian, Christian symbols and metaphors are culturally inescapable. And so these stories and images live with us and inform our very identities quite deeply. To deny them is to deny a rich vein of cultural and personal meaning. So, too, with the Greeks. As much as the Christian bible, the Iliad is a foundational text that we should allow to enter and affect our work, even today. In this way, I’d call myself a traditional poet — though that word “tradition” rings vaguely conservative, doesn’t it? What I mean to suggest is that I’m traditional in that I attend to the past — this great gift of literature that has been left to us — and try to make meaning of and from it. I’m reminded of something Barry Lopez wrote: “If art is merely decorative or entertaining, or even just aesthetically brilliant, if it does not elicit hope or a sense of the sacred, if it does not speak to our fear and confusion, or to the capacities for memory and passion that imbue us with our humanity, then the artist has only sent us a letter that requires no answer.” I suppose I’d say that what I’m trying to do is in this collection — and in all of my work, really — is to respond to the letter that’s been sent to us from the past, while writing a letter of my own in the present. Not to mix my metaphors, but I believe artists are not so much influenced by tradition as they exist at a confluence, where the past meets the present, like two rivers meeting.

With your wife Adrianne Finlay being a novelist, you’re a two-writer household. I suspect that creates an interesting dynamic. Can you discuss what that is like, and how it may affect your own creativity?

My wife is always my first reader — and my best. Having another writer in the house is always beneficial for when you want to know if something makes sense or sounds right. But also because there’s a mutual understanding that we each need time to do our work, and so we make time for each other in that way. Of course, a big difference is that she deals with long narratives while I deal with shorter lyrical pieces, and so we’re often trying to accomplish much different things. For Adrianne, I think, clarity is very important — as is plot — whereas I might value strangeness or obscurity in a poem. As a poet, I also think the form is just as important as the meaning — as I said before, it is the meaning — but writers of novels I think tend to be less interested — not uninterested, just less interested in the overt music of language. Or they want to foreground something else. To dwell too decidedly on sound and language might interfere with the story. That said, we both teach fiction and poetry, and so we’re each well enough acquainted with the other’s genre to be good readers. And so, while The Waxen Poor is, indeed, a collection of lyrical poems, I do think that my work slips in and out of narrative and dramatic modes, too. That’s something I think I pay more attention to because of Adrianne.

What projects are you working on now?

What’s been occupying a lot of my creative energies lately is my work as associate editor of the North American Review. The magazine was founded in 1815, so we’re about to celebrate our bicentennial, which is really quite remarkable. I mean, how many things in the United States get to celebrate a bicentennial? It’s exciting but humbling. At any rate, I’m directing a conference to mark the occasion. We have so many great events planned, including keynote readings by Martín Espada, Patricia Hampl, and Steven Schwartz. People can find the call for papers here.

I’m also editing a book called Walt Whitman and the North American Review, which collects the seven essays Whitman published in the NAR in the last decade of his life, along with the many reviews, essays, and articles on him and his work that appeared in the magazine’s pages. Editorial work is challenging but also deeply gratifying.

J.D. Schraffenberger is the associate editor of the North American Review and an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s the author of the collection of poems Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan), and his other work has appeared in Best Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Mid-American Review, Notre Dame Review, Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with his two daughters and his wife, the novelist Adrianne Finlay.

(Author Photo by Adrianne Finlay)

 

 

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