Dave Jarecki on Poetry, Steve Carlton’s Slider, and Writing to his Younger Self

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Jarecki for Reading Local, where this interview first appeared. The following is a transcript of our conversation.

Dave Jarecki owns Breakerboy Communications, a writing firm that helps businesses, individuals and non-profit organizations communicate through story. In addition, he facilitates writing workshops for youth and adult writers throughout the greater Portland area. His fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of journals and publications, including Cloudbank Literary Magazine, INUR Magazine, Baseball Savvy, and Reed Magazine. He and his wife Courtney live in NE Portland with their newborn daughter, Lazadae.

Shawna Harch) I often hear students ask you, “What is a poem?” How do you respond to this question?

Dave Jarecki) When I took my first poetry workshop in 1998 at Penn State as an undergrad, Bruce Weigl was teaching. He was a fantastic teacher, and he asked this same question on one of the last days of spring semester. We had to go around the room and answer in one sentence. I remember I compared a poem to Steve Carlton’s slider, which would cut low and inside at the batter’s ankles. Right-hand hitters would swing at that thing and literally spin in a circle.

I know I react to the stuff that hits me viscerally and emotionally first. I think I always will. Hence my comparison to the slider. Even when I’m looking at Peter Sears‘ work or John Morrison’s work (we have an ongoing workshop), I’m doing it from a visceral place. Then I go in and start cracking the shell and looking at the poem from a more academic and mental place, if you will.

With my own work, I want to create the clear image and message. Even when I’m trying to be obscure, I still want there to be a certain level of clarity. The first draft is as much a poem as the last. But the drafting process is key – things shouldn’t be just visceral. I want people to say, “He’s spent some time on this. I see why he chose this form.”

Poetry is a thing people do, but then it’s also this broader essence. You hear people describe a woman’s walk as, “poetry in motion.” But you don’t hear people say, “she has a five-paragraph essay about her.”

SH) You talk about approaching “meaning” in a slightly different way as a workshop facilitator. Can you elaborate on this?

DJ) Meaning is drilled into us way too early on. We’re taught that poetry must rhyme, and instead of asking what a poem means to you, the reader, we often ask what the poet means. There’s no way we can know for sure, and so we’re left dangling.

I remember being in middle school and reading “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell. The language is really esoteric and Dalton-Trumbo-esque. I had no idea what it meant. Now, as an adult, I can see why this piece was so difficult. If you don’t stay with poetry over time (or write regularly on your own or have someone who can help explain it), you can easily get turned off by it.

There is so much more to poetry outside of meaning. Clarity of image helps expand what meaning can be. Matthew Dickman has a poem called “Country Music” that’s about guys sinking back into “guyhood.” Dickman has these hilarious images in the poem.

You can carry your groceries home in your public radio tote bag.

You can organize a book club.

You can date an Indonesian hippie with dread-locks

but you are never far from breaking someone’s jaw.

Reading it makes me think at some point in the drafting process he was just playing with images, and then the greater meaning arrived. I don’t think he sat down and decided he wanted to write about the difficulties of being a sensitive guy. But I guess we’d have to ask him. As for me, I’ve never sat down and tried to write a great, profound poem. I think it’s the small thing that starts the poem. It’s an image or a memory or a smell, etc.

SH) On your site, you’ve integrated audio files of yourself reading (and singing) your work. Can you talk about why you chose to do this?

DJ) My wife used to give me a hard time because I didn’t have anything recorded, so I made a CD for her for our anniversary about seven years ago. When it came time to launch my website, I initially did so in a pretty bare-bones way. I posted a lot of interviews, but I had nothing of me on the internet (apart from Breakerboy Communications). I decided I wanted to get my stuff out there. When I saw the audio player songwriter Nathan Moore was using on his website, I decided to use the same approach. Eventually I added poems to the audio player. I figured since literary journals are becoming stricter about not wanting your work to appear anywhere in print, recording was a safer route.

Also, I interviewed Todd Boss (who wrote “Yellowrocket”) about a year ago. He told me the thing that tipped the scale in his favor when Norton picked up his manuscript was that he had recorded himself reading his work.

I don’t think poetry needs to be heard necessarily, but it should be read out loud because there’s a tremendous amount of music in poetry. Paulann Petersen has so much breath in her work, which you wouldn’t pick up by reading silently to yourself. It’s a whole other experience when you speak a piece of literature. You get to embody the poet, and guess how the poet sounds. You get to hear the slant rhymes and the language. The Oregon Poetic Voices website is a great place to listen to and read work.

SH) What advice would you give someone who is wanting to self-publish and/or get their work published by a press?

DJ) For self-publishers:

  1. Have a website with your work on it – whether that means posting a daily narrative or previously published stuff. Don’t be afraid to put your work out there for free. Make people want more.
  2. Work with someone who is a designer and understands layout. It’s a worthwhile investment. Plus, you’ll have someone to complain to and celebrate with.
  3. Have five people read your manuscript, including a copy editor, someone who’s never read your work, and someone who doesn’t like your work. If you pay out of pocket to get something printed and it comes back with a typo, you’ll feel like shit.
  4. Go small. If you have 84 poems, make a nice book of 30. Just put your best work in.

For those seeking publication by a press:

  1. Send your work out.
  2. Keep your rejections in an envelope. Don’t throw them away but don’t cry over them.
  3. Be organized. Create a spreadsheet and track when and where you submit your work. Just don’t let it become an attractive distraction.
  4. Remember the real work is the writing. Publishing will come.

SH) What makes a piece of literature successful in your mind? Should poets and/or fiction writers identify their “reader audience” before they begin writing?

DJ) Each individual piece has its own definition of success. I’ll give you two different examples.

I was sitting in Random Order in February 2010, thinking about the man who flew into that IRS building in Austin, Texas. One person died, but the story didn’t really make big news. People seemed unconcerned, as if this event wasn’t a big deal compared to 9/11. I thought this was kind of fucked up. At the same time, I was reading the Mercury’s annual sex survey, pondering the term “docking,” which I’d never heard before, having to do with foreskin. This got me thinking of circumcision, which my wife and I had been talking about – we were trying to get pregnant, and decided we wouldn’t circumcise if we had a son. With all of this swirling in my head, I started writing, and tried to get as much of it as possible in a poem (men flying into buildings, docking and circumcision). I was determined to make the poem gel, but not to write a political piece. It was a puzzle, and I felt so relieved and happy when I solved it. I’m not sure if the poem is successful to others, but to me, “Why Men Fly Into Buildings” captures all three things.

There are other times when all I want is to arrive at a powerful image or to create some kind of a relationship. In my “Feeding Emu” poem, I wanted to create a connection between the speaker and the emu. And I wanted something that was weird. For a while I couldn’t move the poem beyond just feeling like a strange monster movie with a cliché ending. Finally I came to a good end image, and when I read the piece out loud in public the first time, I heard a woman in the audience gasp. That was the exact reaction I’d been looking for. I don’t care if no one else ever reacts to the piece again – that one woman’s gasp still makes me feel good about the poem.

Now in terms of identifying an audience, I think it depends on the project. I’m writing a book right now about my life in the writing world. I see the reader as a young writer who is just starting out, and this helps me when I sit down to type. I even had my parents send me a baby picture of myself when I was about an hour old. I put the picture on my desk, and I imagine I am writing to my young self. I usually talk to him too.

When it comes to poetry, I’ve never written with a reader in mind. I feel that I write poems for myself. The challenge is to be able to step away and be open to feedback.

SH) Can you talk about process vs. content? What’s the significance of cultivating a process?

DJ) I think we live in a highly content-driven society and it starts affecting us at a very young age. The focus is on the product, the final grade. When I teach at public schools, I tell students that it’s okay to make a mess. Rather than dictating a word count or a due date or a structure, I emphasize the drafting process. When I work with adults, I tell them they need to write 1,000 words to get 100 good ones.

I had a dream once that Hilary Clinton and I were at a conference and had to write a haiku. She insisted on writing the perfect haiku, and I was trying to convince her to write a mess. We went back and forth with battling philosophies.

I maintain you have to trust the mess and trust that you will work your way out of it. Most people become gifted writers over time, with practice. I think of Malcolm Gladwell’s “ten-thousand hour” rule. You have to put in those ten thousand hours. The more you trust process and the mess that comes, the faster you will arrive at the “right words,” if they even exist.

SH) What is the best untapped resource for poets (or writers in general) in Portland?

DJ) (Cough) My workshops! But seriously, we have a vibrant reading collective here, an unaffiliated confederation of reading events all over the area. On any night of the week, you can either pay $30 and see amazing, internationally acclaimed writers through Literary Arts or you can buy a two-dollar latte and listen to regional writers read for Show and Tell Gallery at Three Friends Coffee House. In Other Words hosts the Figures of Speech readings series, which is great, and the Barnes and Noble in Vancouver brings in wonderful writers every month. Mountain Writer Series hosts readings on the third Wednesday of each month at The Press Club. This is not a shameless plug for Reading Local, but the site does a great job promoting all that is going on in this region.

If you want to experience other people’s work or showcase your own work, you should be going out to readings. It’s good to go to places where reading and writing are appreciated. It gives you a chance to hear some really good stuff, get inspired and evolve your own work. I encourage everyone to go to open mics. It’s okay to try reading something you are not totally settled with – you will hear where it needs work, and you’ll see people’s reactions.

SH) What are you reading right now? What is the most recent book you’ve read by a Portland author and/or publisher?

DJ) Right now I’m reading, “Lucky Life” by Gerald Stern. The most recent book I’ve read by a Portland author is “All-American Poem” by Matthew Dickman. It was one of the few books of poetry I’ve read cover to cover in the order the author intended, and I enjoyed falling into the individual poems as well as the book’s arc.