Call It the Melodrama of Starting Out: An Interview with Jack Christian

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Most of my favorite booky conversations with Jack Christian took place on a disc golf course connected to a dog park that was a couple miles away from our respective homes in Northampton, MA. The quiet of the woods plus the beers in our backpacks really encouraged the kind discursive arts conversation I can only really enjoy when I’m sure there’s nobody nearby rolling their eyes. These same conditions also allowed for opportunities to pet big friendly dogs, and for the creation of really generous disc golf rules like, If you hit the metal basket at all, you get to retake your shot.

This interview, conducted over email, covers a lot of our pet topics—music, editing anxiety, arrangement anxiety, titling anxiety, Massachusetts, art/work/life balance, what writing is for—but whereas our disc golf conversations were always fraught with the uncertainty that whatever we were working on could collapse, dead, at any moment, this conversation is instead a look back at the fraught creation of Jack’s first book on the occasion of its publication.

Jack’s poetry collection, Family System, was the winner of the 2012 Colorado Prize for Poetry, plucked from a pool of 650+ manuscripts and chosen by final judge Elizabeth Willis, who said of the book, “Jack Christian’s marvelous first collection is as smart and filled with raw wonder as if it were capturing our genetic text from outer space and revealing that what it really looks like is your hand, up close… These poems read like the solution to a problem so old it could only be written in the future, which is now.”

In Family System, I’m interested in the relationship between the wilderness everywhere and the tight line-level control that so dominates the voice of the book. This is such an outdoor book—rivers, bogs, creeks, trees, ivy, deer—and yet these things feel to me remembered/honored from indoors after the fact. An overt example is “You’re Right I Did Enjoy the Excursion to the Bungalow” (“and the experience of the daffodil / where the waterfall was what a surprise”) in which the trip is clearly mediated by the telling, but it persists in subtle ways throughout. How is this register achieved, do you think? And how consciously?

You’re exactly right. The poems, in the moments of their composition, were “recollected in tranquility.” This reminds me of an old joke between Mike Young and I where we imagined giving a reading, and prefacing each poem by saying, “And, I wrote this one in my room, at my desk, looking out the window.” In many ways, that’s the true fact of each poem.

Also, there are several confluences that led me to indulge the wilderness as such a strong, ongoing motif. One was that as a person in my late twenties at the time of writing most of these, I would say I was experiencing a certain wildness of mind that included entering a next-phase of adulthood, the choice to stake my claim as a writer, (which included, to some degree, shirking leftover bread-winner and patriarchal assumptions), moving from the southeast to New England, experiencing what I term the Graduate School Void, and the resultant anxieties, excitements, and terrors implicit in all these things. So, the wilderness was a ready conveyor-belt for all that.

In the time I was writing the poems, I also felt a certain troubling tension regarding the imagination. I’d say that for all my desire to celebrate the imagination, and to do so in the great out of doors, with all its inherent sublime-ness, I was starting to recognize that my imagination was very good at making me feel also, occasionally, like shit. Like, I could construct these whimsical woodsy poems, but what were they really worth? What was their purpose and value? What was mine? Could the poems sustain the thing I was started to feel compelled to think of more terminally as My Life? Call it The Melodrama of Starting Out.

What did you figure out? What can poems sustain?

All of those questions I still have. I’m not sure what poems can sustain. The appropriate cliché would be to say I realized more fully how poems are like love or butterflies, if you trouble them too much, they go away. That’s why I’m glad to be also a teacher, and a husband, and really, a pretty spectacular practitioner of Frisbee golf.

Then, there’s the move to New England. All of the poems in the book were written in Massachusetts—the few that were started in North Carolina (from where I reflected on earlier times in Virginia) were heavily rewritten, and even they were started at a time when I already knew I was fixing to leave—so I guess I did that fairly stereotypical writer-thing: I moved up north and wrote about the landscape down south. But, even insofar as the poems deal in Southern landscapes, they are dealing with the views of the Connecticut River Valley and my daily drive on the little roads from Northampton over to UMass just as much. This enabled me to see the landscape stuff as tools for me to play with, and I didn’t feel I owed anything to any particularly real place.

Dan Bailey wrote his Drunk Sonnets drunk and edited sober, George Carlin would write his material sober and then punch it up high. How are these poems informed by having written them single and edited them married?

So, single : sober :: married : wasted? Or, is it vice versa? In actuality, I had just met and started dating the woman who became my wife right as I began to put the book together. So, the equation is not so tidy. But, meeting Liane and coming to the end of grad school were some helpful external markers for drawing a ring around the project and working to push the manuscript toward publication.

These questions are making me realize this, Gabe: Without large amounts of existential terror, I’d be content to sit and watch 162 straight baseball games. I dare you to ask me anything to which I can’t honestly reply: FEAR. Now, I’m married, I’m out of school, the book is happening, and I have to get good with the knowledge I’ll never make one that way again. And, that kind of scares me, too.

Early in your collection comes the longer poem, “Marie,” a surreal local gossip “newsletter”/snowball that gobbles up names as it rolls down the mountain. My wife Liz says “Marie” is either one of her favorite poems or, when the mood strikes her, her straight-up favorite poem. So today I asked her why. She said it indulges and toys with her voyeuristic side, that it really gets at a particular kind of small town gossip that is very Southern in nature. It seems to me that the indulgence of our voyeurism is a really reasonable thing to ask of poetry, but what do you think?

Hmm. To answer this, I’m going to transplant “voyeurism” with “obsessiveness,” at least for a moment. Then, I can say: when an obsessive snowballing happens around the themes of local language and people’s names, the result can feel voyeuristic. I like poems that offer a glimpse into a brain at work, or a person navigating a particular place, or particular system, especially when there’s a nod to the absurd in the plain-spoken and/or the seemingly rational.

One thing poetry can do really well is to throw a mirror up to how things are, and that is a very reasonable thing to ask of it. That we are all human, trying to understand how to be human, while seeking confirmation we are like other humans seems a good place to cue Poetry. Maybe that’s how I can bring voyeurism and obsessiveness back together again: that they come from this same dilemma of existence.

There’s also the aspect of Making that happens: there’s a joy in combining and swirling typically mundane fragments of speech. Doesn’t this sort of explain Flarf, and even Family Guy and The Simpsons? We recognize this as readers/viewers, and, in my favorite poems, we feel invited to try it ourselves. Which is a funny invitation, really, because we’re so often already doing it anyway. Maybe then it’s more like a confirmation.

A poem that has faced a radical edit is the one that gave your Magic Helicopter chapbook its title, “Let’s Collaborate.” If you’ll allow it, I’d like to unbury the poem’s excised beginning … 

I was thinking maybe you’d write one for me
and give it to me and I could say it’s mine
and never tell anyone, but always
give you credit in my mind, which, if you look at it
the right way, counts most anyway.
How about it? A guy can always hope
until his fingers can’t uncross, for something
the opposite of
The Old Man and the Sea

where the big one jumps in his boat
when he’s given up fishing – but he’s hungry
but he lacks real bait. When you’re my age you realize
that kind of hope is where presidents come from.

Now that these lines are gone, the poem begins:

Over mud, they walk the plank toward God
who got up again recently, and I rose early to meet Him.

And I think, wow, what a different kind of poem we have here, in which the initial “collaboration” is no longer artistic but spiritual, and it becomes a poem that resists the “one thing follows another” clarity of the original’s line of thought.

It seems to me that another one of the hats that the poet gets to wear is the deliberately haphazard janitor, the dude who sweeps at his footprints as he leaves a room, but only so much. How much does this role animate your editing process? And how does cutting the rational aid self-expression?

It’s funny you brought back those lines from an earlier version of “Let’s Collaborate.” I almost forgot I’d cut them. They still feel to me so much a part of the poem. I felt a pang of disappointment even now that they don’t exist in the book version. But, I’m still glad I got rid of them. They started to seem too loose and too literal, and I couldn’t save them or fix them.

To answer your question: it might be those lines started to make too much sense, and I found myself more interested in making meaning swerve. I feel like rational-thought process can start to demand more rational-thought process, so when I can break out of that, that seems like where the poem starts—at the irrational idea to collaborate with some imaginary God.

I kind of wish I could’ve saved them though. There are writers out there who are frequently great at taking kind of ephemeral lines and making whole poems or stories out of them. I find it extremely difficult to do that. Generally, if I get headed in that direction, I’ll get kind of neurotic and go around shoring everything up. I’d like to learn whatever that patience and subtlety is. It’d probably be like learning to paint in watercolors when you started in oils.

To me, it seemed like the book itself was probably resisting those lines you cut. There’s an austerity to the voice in Family System that, when you do it over and over, becomes a kind of contract with the reader. I could imagine, though, another book of your poems that employs much more of the buddy-buddy “direct address to the reader” kind of voice. Which, come to think of it, is a lot closer to the voice of the personal essays you’ve begun to publish this year.

You’re right. The way I was teaching myself to write and practice poetry was resisting those lines. Part of what you generously call “austerity,” I recognize as an uncertainty regarding just what I can get away with in a poem, and a desire to quit while I’m ahead, to add by subtraction. So, yes, the obvious direction for a next project is to track back to the stuff I didn’t let myself keep the last time, and that’s what I’m mired in now with my current manuscript, the “Apartment on Market Street”—the question of what’s going to stay in the basket?

Yeah, it can be dangerous, those late nights of revising when the internal editor dial is set way too high and starts whispering, “Burn it all down! The basket too,” and every now and then you read somebody whose greatest editorial influence seems to be the way time has eroded ancient parchments. How does that internal wilderness change from a poem’s inception to personal edit to workshop edit to magazine edit to book edit?

I’ve always been partial to thinking of the poem as a container. The poem has to be solid enough to contain whatever wildness or energy or idea it has animating it. It’s the basket holding what made it. So, in editing I’m trying to make it a better basket. For these poems, each is kind of a one-off. This was influenced heavily by my participating in workshops, which offered a valuable pace-setting routine, and often allowed each poem to be presented and valued as an entity, so that after each meeting I could kind of hit the reset button and face the blank page again.

For editing the book, I found it very hard to get my head around presenting 30-40 poems together. For the last however many years, I’d been attempting just to write one good poem at a time, which had amounted my feeling that I’d basically written 30 of the same poem (each momentarily disguised to me as so totally different). It felt like I had 30 guests that refused to sit at the same dinner table. Or 30 lead-singers. Or 30 community organizers.

In this period, I did crazy things. I made them all into prose poems. I took all the titles off. I tried making them all use the same pronouns in the weird hope I might magically end up with an ongoing, book-length serial poem. With each of these drastic edits, I was hoping for some silver bullet. What ultimately happened was that I put the poems back roughly the same way they each started, but with with a few small changes that over time started to accumulate.

Maybe this is a good example of the conundrum of self-editing: you are with this thing that you made, you are attempting to make it better, as you do so you come across increasing evidence that you have no real idea of what makes it good, or what it’s even about. Then, (and this is the real kicker), in response to this realization, you don’t make the rational choice. The rational choice would be to stop. But what do you do? You keep going, you get obsessed with it, you think maybe you can fix it by arranging the poems in some cockamamie way. Like: “by season.” You brag to your friends and your family that you have had a breakthrough. And then, about a week later, you take it all apart again. You start thinking things like, “Damn, if I only had more summer poems.”

Before I started putting my own book-length manuscripts together, I would look at a book’s organizing principle as this sacrosanct thing—the only way the book could be organized. Now I know that it’s usually wildly arbitrary, that it’s always one of the last things done to a book, and that it’s vital for a manuscript’s survival. Without the cockamamie arrangement, we’re toast. And that said, it still feels like a holy moment, turning the page and seeing a 2 but in a fashion invented by the Romans and as sturdy as their columns themselves, and thinking, “Ah. Here comes Part II. As it must.” So what did you settle on? Was the key the dopplegangers? The seasons? The rivers? The family?

That’s just the thing. I never exactly settled on anything. At least consciously. I think you can relate to this in Fun Camp, Gabe. You described this well to me once as a process of “trying to keep things away from each other.” This was something I wanted to do, but I actually required a lot of help. I couldn’t do it on my own for whatever reason, the biggest of which was likely The Pervasive Nature of Narrative.

My goal was to subvert a narrative accumulation that took place between the poems. This would seem easy, since the poems were written with no larger narrative framework in mind, but in fact, narrative is so damn creepy and hegemonic, that it became difficult. What kept happening is, as I put the poems together, they started making weird plots in my mind, and, if I wasn’t careful, then I started using those frames for making choices about the poems. This was not good. It invited the idea that I was going to bake some bread, but then, of course, I could only fail in terms of the expectation that I make the bread rise. What I needed was 30 individual pieces of sushi: self-contained, making no promises to each other, but still resolutely on the same plate.

Eventually I went to my MFA thesis defense and took away the critique that whatever the merits of the poems themselves, I seemed to have no real clue how to put them together. In fact, that was the only comment one of my readers made. Perhaps it was the most valuable comment. What came of this was that another of my readers offered to help me reorganize the manuscript. So, one afternoon, we laid the poems all out on a long dining room table, and without a lot of discussion, put them basically into what is now the present order. It took about 20 minutes.

Around this time too was when the manuscript became titled Family System. It was rejected well over 50 times before that, and rejected a few more times afterward, too—so it may be that it was due to get picked up and these changes are of little consequence. But I believe they probably had a lot to do with it. Crazy that there’s a possible book out there with a totally different order of poems, under the title New Revised Standard (my penultimate title) which both is and is not an entirely different book.

To me the problem with the title New Revised Standard is that even though on the 4th pass it registers in my memory banks as a Bible translation, a wire crossed on times 1-3 and I thought you were naming the book after a font. I mentally shrank your ambitious title into one referencing the way letters look.

Your reaction to New Revised Standard is I think why ultimately the book didn’t get called that. I still like that phrase, especially when I imagine it as simultaneously the name of a Bible translation, and this wonderfully contradictory but bold-sounding phrase. It refers to a spiritual text, but sounds completely bureaucratic. Ultimately, it’s too fraught. It throws another level of obfuscation onto a collection that probably always needed to begin to strive toward clarity and cohesion. Like one of my readers told me: “Family System is weird enough.”

So how come Liane said it had to be called Family System? What secrets did she know?

At some point Liane said, “You have to call is Family System.” She said this as if exasperated that the book was not already called Family System. She knew the whole thing needed to be simpler and more direct than I thought it could/should be. She took the title that was staring me in the face and made me consider it.

It’s so satisfying to be able to submit to advice when so much of the time you just can’t. A few weeks ago I was talking to Liz about my nonfiction book about a day that happened a year ago, and she said, real casual and confident, “What you’ve gotta do is just not mention the date at all—because nobody cares.” And I knew she was right. And then she went on to say other things I should do and I had to say, “Stop, stop, I don’t need to hear that!” So quickly after this breakthrough, my wall went right back up.

What you’re talking about strikes me as a useful balance. You’ve got to know when to listen and know when to be stubborn. Know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.

One poem that really feels like it’s talking to the title poem is “Poem of My Hope,” which is concerned with how the Family operates during and after life:

What’s crazy is how a family is its own school of painting,
how in mine the men carve the hedges
and the women carve their dresses
and when they get together their favorite color is skin.

This poem also strikes me as a sort of bridge to the voice and concerns of your nonfiction for its somewhat more plainspoken concern with the ways a family/domestic life is both unique and universal.

The major anxiety at the heart of Family System, to my mind (and not that I knew this while writing) was the dual anxiety of being from a family and of moving toward starting a family. That’s also present in “The Apartment on Market Street.” Those lines you reference come from the idea that families speak their own languages, or, really, that they are their own languages. Both Family and Language are omnipresent and idiosyncratic. You can never be outside of language and you can never be outside your family.

And, really, you wouldn’t want to be. Even in opposition, they define you. They are two terms of existence. And they make no sense, or they make a very weird sort of sense, and they make it mostly by repeating. Good stories involve recursion. Where does recursion happen more often than in a family?

***

Gabe Durham is the author of the novel Fun Camp (Publishing Genius, 2013) and the editor of Boss Fight Books, a series of books about video games. He and his projects have been featured in The Onion A.V. Club, Nylon Guys Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Kotaku, Largehearted Boy, and Julie Klausner’s “How Was Your Week” podcast. He lives in Los Angeles.

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