Interview-Jason Whitmarsh

October 23, 2009

Garrett Wilkes: Prior to this interview I looked on the Internet for your biographical information; all I found was simply that, “Jason Whitmarsh lives in Seattle with his wife and children.” Have your wife and children affected your poems any, particularly those published inTomorrow’s Living Room?”

JW: My children not so much, though there are a couple things that are connected to them. A big part of Tomorrow’s Living Room is about relationships, and in some cases, hard times in relationships. There’s some autobiography there that comes out of my relationship with my wife, but in a lot of cases it’s dramatized or otherwise changed. And I think that several of the poems in one of the sequences—the anniversary poems in Tomorrow’s Living Room—as love poems of a kind. It’s a hard kind of love poem, but I definitely think of that as a love poem that’s connected to my marriage.

GW: Reading the anniversary poems seemed to show a sort of burst in the relationship. My favorite from the book were those anniversary poems, especially the one that begins with “happiness is on display—”

JW: That’s one of my favorite poems from the book. I thought of the anniversaries as a narrative arc from marriage to children. Have you ever read Wallace Steven’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird? He has thirteen short little poems that all take a different perspective on a blackbird, or, in some cases, the metaphorical idea of a blackbird. My anniversary poems—while not directly connected to that—are different perspectives. You know, maybe it’s not the same relationship in all cases. I switch the pronouns from he and she to I and you. But they build up in their fragments a kind of unified picture.

GW: Like, nine different ways of looking at a marriage.

JW: Exactly.

GW: You got a BA in math before going into poetry. What caused that switch?

JW: I was always interested in writing. I didn’t read much poetry when I was in college. And I was interested in science, too; my dad’s a biophysicist. So math was, in some ways, an easy choice for me. And then once I was done with that, poetry was in some ways a harder choice because it’s sort of at odds with what society wants you to do. You’re not really rewarded much for [being] a poet. But it felt important to me; it nourished me. I started reading a lot more poetry, and taking it a lot more seriously. I started engaging with poets, particularly Brian Henry, who taught me to take it a lot more seriously. And at some point it became a natural transition.

GW: Was there any big thing that told you, “Math isn’t really for me?”

JW: Well there are a couple of things that happened. One was realizing that I was not a genius, and there were one or two people in my class who are mathematical geniuses. And what took me an hour they could do in a half hour. And that’s a bracing realization. Also, I found math endlessly fascinating—I would work twelve hours straight on a math problem—and it engaged my head, but it didn’t engage my heart. Poetry engages both and that’s really why I switched. I think of math as a language and I think of poetry as a language. Math is a very efficient language that exists in your brain; it has this attractive attribute where you’re working in a box, you have a blank sheet of paper, and you can work out the elements of math. Poetry is a language that is incredibly inefficient. It tries to get at your emotions and has that same aspect of working with a blank sheet of paper.

GW: My high school English teacher said that poetry is like a different language altogether, one you still have to learn. She called it the language of surprise. And that’s what I saw in a lot of your poems: lines that make me think, “Ah, that’s so great!” A lot of lines were funny, but at the same time you couldn’t really laugh out loud because the tone was just so dark and sobering. An example was, “She said he’s not funny anymore. About fifty percent less funny.” If it were taken in a different context it would’ve made me laugh, but it just contrasted so much.

JW: An important part of writing for me was exactly that contrast or that shift in tone. My friend studied this for his Ph.D. thesis piece at the University of Washington. He called it “difficult laughter.” It’s the laughter where you stumble over it and it’s also filled with terror or sadness. John Berryman is a poet who does an amazing job of shifting tones like that, or Phillip Larkin, and I really love that effect. Surprise is a good way of describing a lot of what’s good in poetry. I’m disappointed in poetry that just comforts you in the way you expect to be comforted. I want to be surprised by the poetry I read.

GW: Billy Collins says in the forward of your book, “Jason Whitmarsh has carved out a verbal territory for himself unlike any one else’s.” When I read that, I thought of this dude with a chisel and hammer, sculpting a living room from this giant granite block. It made me think about how your poems have a cold stone feel. Was creating your poetic voice something as meticulous as carving, or was it something that came more naturally for you?

JW: (laughing) I didn’t think of the chisel and the stone connection when I read what Billy Collins said; I like that you made that connection with the coldness. When I write poetry, I focus mainly on the poem that I’m writing, and then I just add poem to poem to poem, and it accumulates. I feel that the poetic voice—what I have of one—came about fairly naturally by writing poem after poem, day after day. I actually had a hard time thinking of my poems as a book for a long time. It’s not how I read a book of poems. I’ll just open it up, find a poem, read it, ruffle through ten pages and then read another poem. I won’t read it front to back. So it was hard for me to think of my manuscript that way; it took me several years actually to really start thinking of it as a thread. I don’t need people to read it front to back; obviously people can read it like I would read it.
I didn’t have a conscious sense of developing a poetic voice; it feels more natural. I think that there’s certainly sense of apprentice where I was writing a lot like the poets I love, and I still feel that; you can still find traces of them in my poetry. Being able to stake out a territory that’s distinct from those poets just comes with time in my experience, and it’s an ongoing project.

GW: When I write poems, I like exploring around. I’ll say, “Oh, e.e. cummings; this is cool!” and then I’ll write like e.e. cummings for a month. And then, “Oh, John Keats; I actually get what he’s saying!” and then I’ll write like John Keats for a while.

JW: I think that’s a great way to write and a great way to learn. One of the assignments I give in classes is to take a poem, cut off the last couple lines, and then ask the students to write the ending without knowing what the ending is. They all submit their answers, you add back in the original, mix them up, and people have to vote on what the original is. And you get points for guessing correctly, and points for beating the author. And you can do it with poets you don’t know, less well known poets, or you can do it with Shakespeare and Keats and it’s a great way to really be forced to pay deep attention to how the poet is working in a poem. There’s no harm in directly copying a poet. You could copy as much as possible. It’s a great way to learn different poetic techniques…. Part of poetry is just hanging in there, and sticking with it, and you really do see your own voice coming through as you spend years on it. Poetry is an art form worth giving your life to. It won’t disappoint.

Robin Johnson: What is your method when you write a poem?

JW: I write a lot—I mean I don’t write for a lot of time, I write for an hour a day, or a couple hours a day if I’m lucky—and what I’m trying to get to is a sentence or a phrase that’s interesting to me. Robert Frost has this idea he calls “sentence-sound,” which is not just the content of the sentence, but the tone of it. It should really jump out and grab you. I look for that in my sentences, but it’s something I have to write toward. I’ll write two pages that I throw away just to get to a single sentence. I’ll write for a month and end up with nothing. How much you have to throw away is one of the painful parts of poetry. Not just how much you can’t get published but the stuff you don’t even turn into a poem. But once I have that sentence it often governs or inspires the rest of the poem rather quickly.

RJ: Do you go through a lot of revisions once you’ve crafted your first draft of the poem?

JW: I do, though there are certainly poets who go through a lot more revising than I do. But I’m careful not to lose that original impulse. I think it can be easy to revise away your sense of surprise in a poem. But certainly I revise. It’s actually a nice way to work on your writing without the pain of trying to come up with something totally new, so you can feel like you’re doing good work without having to be directly inspired by the muse. Someone wrote that the muse gives you one line in a poem and you’re job is to create the rest of the lines so that a reader can’t tell the difference.

RJ: You said you’d write two pages and only keep one sentence. Do you do that with subsequent sentences, or do those not go through as much drafting?

JW: There are poems that I have written quite quickly. There are poems in the book that I wrote in ten minutes once I had that original sentence guiding me through it.

RJ: Who are some of your favorite poets? Who has influenced you?

JW: The two questions are different for me. I have favorite poets who I wish influenced me more directly, and I have poets who influence me. My favorite poets: Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, John Berryman. Poets that have influenced me—to some degree all of them have. There are also more contemporary poets, who I love, who have been a strong influence: James Tate, Russell Edson. There are writers I work with who are great poets, who have been a strong influence on me, friends of mine: Cody Walker, Richard Kenney.
RJ: When Billy Collins read your work, he gave it a pretty glowing review—he called it the “bass leaping out of the water after a long stillness.” How did it make you feel to have someone as renowned as Billy Collins say that about your work?

JW: It felt really good, really good. When you want to have a public presence as a poet, the first thing that you think about is being published in a journal. You send out your poems and think, “I want to get published in a journal. I want to get published in a journal,” and then that happens, and it’s really fun. You get to call your mom, and you get to call your sister and your friends, but the good feeling goes away pretty quickly, strangely enough. The second time it happens it goes away pretty quickly. I thought this would happen with the book, that it would be a superficial joy, but it has felt more exciting to me than that. What Billy Collins wrote was very sweet and it meant a lot to me. When I thanked Billy Collins by email, I told him that he made my mother cry.

RJ: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?

JW: I think reading is really important, but everyone always says that. And being as playful as possible. Poetry can be taken so seriously. We need to remember to enjoy ourselves when creating poetry, to play games with it, to work in form, to try and be interesting. I think this governs poets who are just learning, poets who have had several successful books, and great poets. They’re all remaining playful.