Hi Jason! Tell us a bit about the residency.
Jason: I’ll be working with Kathryn to think through a number of questions about English Language poetry in the UK and America. We’ll be thinking a lot about form and community.
When did you first start writing poetry? What brought you to it?
Jason: I started writing poetry seriously when I was about sixteen or so. Poetry was the only place where I felt like I made any sense. Prose always made me feel like a liar—I had this hyper awareness of how prose creates all these sins of omission. Poetry let me balance the said with the unsaid.
My attention is also obsessive rather than exploratory. Once I’ve found something that moves me, I want to go back to it over and over, rather than go out and finding everything in that genre or by that author. Poetry rewards obsessive attention.
How would you characterise the ‘voice’ of your work?
Jason: Deceptively plain-spoken.
What do you like in a poem? What don’t you like?
Jason: The truth is that I like to have feelings. If the poem moves me in some way, then I value it. If it doesn’t, I don’t. Everything else is an effort to figure out how I was moved.
Are you a prolific writer? What’s your writing routine like?
Jason: I’ve written two short books (and a handful of essays) in twenty years, so I’ll say that I am not prolific. I don’t really have a routine. Maybe if I did, I’d be prolific. I wish I wrote more. But I also wish other people wrote less.
Do you have any unusual writing habits or superstitions?
Jason: For a while, I was trying to be very systematic about scheduling and process, and I had a particular kind of notebook and pen, and it started to feel limiting. I’m pretty haphazard. I compose in my head sometimes; no one can tell I’m writing.
For you, what are the differences (if any) between American and British poetry being written right now? Historically speaking, how do you think the relationship (and critical debate surrounding the relationship) has changed?
Jason: As Americans, we tell ourselves the story that British poetry was essentially poetry until Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson broke the line in their distinctive ways. By the early 1900’s, it seems like there’s been a lot of crossover—most notably Pound and Eliot setting up shop in Europe and Sylvia Plath marrying Ted Hughes. You’d think the Internet would have merged all Anglophone poetics, but that hardly seems the case at this point.
My sense is that British poetry is a bit more formal, a bit more staid. I think that American accents are flatter, so our sense of rhythm and meter is less developed than yours.
Do you see yourself foremost as a British or American poet? The demarcations can be very interesting. For instance, in this country, many people believe T S Eliot is an honourary Brit. And there’s Frost, a born American but who spent his journeyman years in England and had British ancestory…
Jason: I’m definitely an American poet. The nice thing about the adjective “American” is that it often functions as code for “rule breaking.” So if you want to write small poems, but not be bothered with syllable counting, call them “American haiku.” I think Gerald Stern went a little far with his book “American Sonnets,” but still, the point is that you pretty much slap “American” in front of anything and then do whatever you want.
Eliot’s work seems quite British, because it’s about embracing Britain. I just heard Christopher Ricks lecture on an earlier draft of “The Wasteland” that takes place in the U.S. during prohibition, and it was sort of awful—it ended up being melodramatic, rather than tragic. I think Eliot enjoyed a certain sort of fatalism or stoicism that Americans are usually inoculated against by our culture. Britain let Eliot work in a space that America denied him. Frost, on the other hand, seems to have used Britain to let him see what was quintessentially American about America. Frost does this sort of Yankee drag act—I’ve always found it a bit forced. I think that Eliot and Frost were working in opposite directions, culturally.
Another note on Eliot: I’ve still never quite understood how a person can start his career by writing ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and end up writing the book to an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical.
I know you spent some of your early childhood in England. Could you tell me a little bit about your memories of the UK?
Jason: I lived in England from 7 months to 6 years old. I was born into a military family, and my biological father was stationed in England. My mother divorced him and then took steps to become a British Citizen, before falling in love with my adoptive father (also military, also stationed in England) and then my brother and I were adopted and brought back to the U.S. My mother was very concerned that I not be, what I think you now call a “chav” and would try to remove words like “caw” from my vocabulary. I attended British Schools, and watched Doctor Who (I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true) from behind the sofa. “Well, Jemima, let’s go shopping” was my favorite segment on Blue Peter.
On one hand, I recall an idyllic land of walking home from school through the descending winter gloom, and crossing the stone bridges in Thetford. On the other hand, I recall hating my child-minder, and pouring strawberry milk into her carpet on the sly and waiting for a stench to develop (it never did, so I suspect I was pouring much less than I thought I was). I also remember that the friendly guy down the street who always took the neighborhood kids around and let them hang out at his house turned out to be a pedophile and got arrested.
I liked school, and I remember being quite smart. I loved moving through all the workbooks the fastest—I was very proud that I had made it to the next sequence of math workbooks first. But I also remember being a bit hysterical and out of control. My mother used to tell a story about how I came home crying because I couldn’t fit “Schneiderman” in the allotted space on the cover of one of my workbooks.
When I got to California, I was shocked by the lack of decorum. I think I still have a strong sense of what is proper—or a sense that “proper” exists—from having been a child in England.
On more note: on the move to California I had to re-learn all the inventors of the various machines of the Industrial Revolution. Curiously, in America, everything had been invented by Americans, and in England, everything had been invented by Brits. Also, Samuel Slater got rather different treatment.
I was reading both your collections – Sublimation Point and Striking Surface – and couldn’t help but remark on the deadly, logical precision of how some of your poetic arguments build up. There are many poems that are presented as inquiries, cross-examinations, different points of view counteracting each other, call and response, question and answer – it’s like there’s a Socratic method at work. Do you ever feel like you were a lawyer in a previous life?
Jason: A lot it comes from feeling very misunderstood, and feeling like there was no way to get my point across. Many of the poems consider a lot of questions that I felt I couldn’t work out in prose. I needed more voices and perspectives than just my own.
Good call on the lawyerly thinking! I’m from a family of lawyers, but I could never be a lawyer because I am so averse to conflict. I literally can’t sleep if I think that someone is angry with me. I like to be in charge, but I can’t tolerate discord, which is a terrible combination. I think that I manage my anxiety by writing out all the positions so I can be in control of the conflict and have the final word.
Reading Striking Surface, there’s this amazingly powerful sense of a keen yet conflicted awareness about personal identity and individuality, such as in ‘The Book of the Boy’, which conveys the inherent selfishness of parenthood, the sublimated narcissism of bringing a version of yourself into existence, whether it likes it or not. Or ‘First Mouse’, which really succinctly acts out the conflict about the specific sense of ourselves versus deeper ontological truths about interchangeability. Or even ‘Pedophile’, which touches upon the continuums of healthy/abnormal, or the elegies for your mother, which cover the relational aspects of loss in ways I’ve not seen before. It’s a self-awareness I found incredibly intelligent, quite melancholy and generally unresolved. Does this come from understanding too much, or too little? Philosophy and contentedness aren’t always the best of bedfellows…
Jason: Thank you! That’s a really generous reading of my work.
I often feel like a person caught between places—I’m a sophist with a passion or philosophy; a structuralist at heart who believes that the post-structuralists are right.
Kurt Vonnegut said something to the effect that his therapist regarded writers as the healthiest people because they spent all day treating their neuroses; I disagree. I feel like the last part of your question is really asking if I’ve found a way to be happy. I thought I had when I wrote the first book. The second book really started when I found out that I had not.
I think I understand too much and too little all at once. I wish my knowledge were more practical. It never protects me the way I think it will.
I read a recent poem of yours – ‘The Turing Test’ – in the Lambda Literary Review. It’s quite something. Could you talk a little bit more about the poem?
Jason: Oh yes! I’ve been referring to that as my “meta-kink” poem. I’m hoping I’ve invented a new genre. For those who haven’t read the poem, it’s about a high school student who has found out about the abuses inflicted on Alan Turing by the British Government, and finds that in addition to being furious, he’s also turned on.
The origin of the poem was that I was listening to a gay poet read a terribly sentimental poem about Alan Turing’s suffering. I was bothered on a lot of levels. 1) It was easy—of course what was done to Alan Turing was wrong—you hardly need a poem to work out what was wrong with the way he was driven out of his own body to the point of suicide. 2) It was self-righteous, which I hate because I’m prone to that particular mode. 3) It seemed an awful way to remember Alan Turing. I thought about what it is that gay men want, and it’s usually to be sexy. Or at least, I wish I were a bit more Liz Taylor and a bit less Carol Burnett. Still, it seemed like the least we could do for Alan Turing was to make him sexy. Think of the lip prints that cover the statue at Oscar Wilde’s grave. I wanted to make a monument to Alan Turing that gave him an afterlife of desire in addition to martyrdom.
What have been some of the standout moments in your career?
Jason: I’ve been really lucky to receive a lot of support, but if I had to pick one moment, it would be Robert Pinsky reviewing my book in his Poet’s Corner column for the Washington Post. The review was amazing. I felt completely understood and celebrated.
I suppose the other standout would be the time that my entire audience of four walked out in the middle of my reading because they were so offended. It was a bit like a thought experiment: do you continue your reading even if there’s no more audience? Fortunately, there were a few staffers in the room, so I read to them.
What’s been the biggest surprise or discovery you’ve made in your own writing?
Jason: I used to think that writing would keep me safe—it felt like a repository of wisdom in the face of a difficult world. Now I know that writing can’t do very much in the face of immediate grief or trauma. I thought that I could write my out of suffering. I was wrong.
What do you admire about Kathryn’s work?
Jason: Kathryn has a very wry sense of humor, and the ability to sneak up on a topic. Kathryn’s speakers often seem a bit detached and objective, which makes me trust them, and as the poem goes on, I come to understand that the calm is the speaker’s way to manage the depth of feeling and Kathryn’s way of revealing that emotional turmoil that roils her speakers. I think Kathryn and I have a fairly similar sense of decorum that informs our work.
What are you working on at the moment?
Jason: A book of poems about last things, a book of essays about poetry, and an anthology of essays that touch on sexuality.
Apart from poetry what else do you like to read?
Jason: I like novels, though I don’t have enough time for them. I love plays, and I’ve been on a Tom Stoppard binge lately. I love literary criticism and queer theory. I’m editing an anthology of Queer texts, which has given me a lot of excuse to read about in the field.
I also seem to read any publication with “New York” in the title. The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine. It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. Reading the New Yorker during my commute is one of the great pleasures of my week.
What’s a good question and what is its answer?
Jason: Q: Doesn’t that hurt? A: Yes.
What advice would you give to a young poet writing today?
Jason: Have a sense of history. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there’s just “good writing” and it’s a sort of universal/transhistorical category that you can learn to recognize. But the truth is that need and taste change. Shakespeare was performed with happy endings in the 19th century. The bits of Chaucer we like now are not the bits that used to be popular. Just because it seems like good writing now, doesn’t mean it will still seem like good writing in the next decades or centuries.