Damien Echols: In addition to being a teacher, you’re also a published author and poet. For those unfamiliar with your work, can you list the titles of your books, as well as a few literary journals you’ve been published in?
David Jauss: I’ve published two collections of poetry-- Improvising River, and You Are Not Here-- as well as two collections of fiction: Crimes of Passion, and Black Maps. I’ve also edited two anthologies: The Best of Crazyhorse: Thirty Years of Poetry and Fiction, and Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms. My poems and stories have appeared in more than a hundred literary journals, including Poetry, The Paris Review, The Nation, The Missouri Review, and The Georgia Review, and in forty-some anthologies, including The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002: Ninety Years of America’s Most Distinguished Verse Magazine, Best American Short Stories, and the O. Henry Prize and Pushcart Prize collections. I’ve also published essays on the craft of writing poetry and fiction in The Writer’s Chronicle, as well as other magazines. If anyone would like more detailed info, they can take a look at my website.
DE: Do you remember how old you were when you wrote your first poem, and what it was about?
DJ: I’ve written stories since I was five or six, but I didn’t write my first poem until I was thirteen. I have to laugh now when I think about its subject matter: old age! What on earth could a thirteen-year-old possibly know about old age? The poem was a piss-poor imitation of Bob Dylan, whose album Another Side of Bob Dylan had just come out in 1964. Even though it was the first poem I ever wrote, I titled it “Ballad of the Old Man No. 10”— an obvious rip-off of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Free No. 10”. I wish I still had the poem. Now that I am old, or getting there—now fifty-five-- it’d be a hoot to read what my thirteen-year-old self thought old age would be like.
DE: Some people believe the poet should be a mystic, while others believe he should be a social gauge. What do you believe the poet’s role is within the modern world?
DJ: I don’t think the poet should play any specific role. I think there are many roles, and we need them all. I’ve taught creative writing for thirty-four years now, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that smart, talented young poets write their worst work when they’re trying to be something they’re not, be it a mystic or a social prophet of Shakespearean fool or-- like me when I was thirteen-- a Dylan-esque, surrealist troubadour. If you believe, as I do, that the best poems come when the poet bears witness to what he most deeply thinks and feels, then the poet’s role is simply to be as fully himself as possible.
DE: Which poet do you believe is most relevant to the current state of human consciousness, and why?
DJ: First off, let me say that I think every poet who is writing honestly and well about his or her own human consciousness is relevant to the current state of human consciousness, and I also think that we can’t get an accurate sense of the current state of human consciousness from any single poet. Consider the scientific phenomenon known as “parallax”. Depending on where on the Earth we’re standing, a star will appear to be in a different place in the sky. If we’re in Canada, the star will seem to be in one place, and if we’re in Mexico, it will appear to be in another. The only way to pinpoint the star’s actual location is to take into account all of the different observers’ perspectives. The same is true of poets, I believe: the more poets we read, the closer we can come to the truth about our human condition and consciousness. So if I had to pick just one poet, I’d pick the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, because he believed that the only way to capture the beautiful complexity of truth was to write from as many different perspectives as possible. Pessoa wrote under more than seventy pseudonyms, each of which had its own style and world-view. He also wrote in three languages-- Portuguese, English, and French-- and in an astonishing variety of genres-- everything from poetry, fiction, and drama to philosophy, linguistic theory, and jokes. Because of this, I believe he’s the one poet who comes closest to capturing the multiplicity of human experience in our time.
DE: Why do you write poetry?
DJ: I write poetry for the same reason that people who go on trips take photographs: to stop time, to remember who and where I was, as well as what I was thinking and feeling at any given moment. A poem, for me at least, is a kind of mental photograph. Some people keep photo albums or scrapbooks; I wrote poems. But I think the impulse is largely the same. Also, I write poems because I want something to be left of me after I die. I’m not a religious person, so I can’t take any comfort in the idea of and afterlife. Nor can I take much comfort from the fact that I will live on in future generations through my children and their children and so on, for as time passes, my contribution to the species will diminish at an astronomical rate. According to the scientist Mark Jerome Walters, “After nine generations fewer than one in every 415 million genes is a direct offshoot of the original parents.” In my opinion, the only way we can survive our own deaths is through art. I don’t know anything about my great-great-grandfather—he’s nothing but a name in the family Bible now—but my great-great-grandchildren will know me, at least a little, because I will have left behind poems and stories and essays, all imprinted with the literary equivalent of my DNA.
DE: When you need to find magic and beauty, where do you look for it?
DJ: I look for it in nature, literature, art, and music. I grew up in a small town in Minnesota located on the confluence of two rivers and I spent much of my childhood in, on, or around those rivers, so I’ve always been drawn to rivers. I find them incredibly peaceful for some reason. As the title of my first book of poems—Improvising Rivers—might suggest, I’ve written a lot of poems about rivers. I’ve also written a lot of poems about writers, artists, and musicians whose work I love—among them, Anton Chekhov, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Kafka, ad numerous jazz musicians, including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. I think poems often are expressions of gratitude to whatever magic and beauty we find in the world around us. I know many of mine are.
DE: What do you find in poetry that you don’t find in other forms of literature?
DJ: I don’t think there’s anything in poetry that isn’t also in other forms of literature. Every essential element of poetry can also be found in fiction, for example. There are some things you can find in some poems that you won’t find in fiction—line breaks, rhyme, and meter, for example—but those elements aren’t essential to poetry, as free verse and prose poems have shown. The way I see it, poetry differs from other forms of literature in degree more than in kind. Both poetry and fiction contain metaphor, for example, and both pay attention to the sounds and rhythms of language, but poems are far more densely metaphoric and musical. Because poetry uses the techniques of prose in such a heightened way, it offers a more exhilarating and intense experience than is possible in prose. That’s why poetry is the highest form of literature, a fact we acknowledge in the very language we use when talking about poetry and prose: when we call a work of fiction “poetic” we’re praising, it, but when we call a poem “prosy” we’re criticizing it.
DE: What is the single most important piece of advice you can give to young people who want to refine their own poetry?
DJ: Read as many poets as you can. Often, young poets resist this advise because they’re afraid they’ll be influenced by the poets they read and write unoriginally. But the opposite is true: the more you read, the more originally you’ll write, because originality consists of the recombination of what’s come before. The more you read, the more varied you recombination will be, and therefore the more original you will be. As an ancient Chinese poet said, “He who reads 100 poems writes like 100 poets. He who reads 1,000 pomes writes like himself.”
DE: Sometimes I feel a sense of panic, because it seems like poetry is dying out. More young people write poetry than read it, and the stuff they’re writing seems god-awful. Do you believe poetry is in danger of being confined to academic circles, of losing its public appeal?
DJ: It’s very frustrating to those of us who love poetry that so few other people recognize its importance. But this has always been the case: in any given period of literary history, writers have felt the way you (and I) do now. That fact makes me confident that poetry will keep on surviving. Also, as someone who started to read and write poetry because I loved Bob Dylan’s song lyrics, I’m hopeful that some of the young people who listen to their iPods constantly will make the transition form song lyrics to poetry too.
DE: For me personally, poetry seems to be the art form that most readily accepts “stream of consciousness” fluidity. Is it the same for you, or do you approach it with a more controlled and planned state of mind?
DJ: I never plan a poem or story. The worst thing a writer can do is plan a poem because once you’ve done that, the imagination closes up shop and you’ve lost any chance of discovering something you don’t already know. As the art critic Alfred Frankenstein once said, “The creation of a work of art is a voyage of discovery to find out what it is.” If you know in advance what your poem or story will e, you’ll never even begin that voyage of discovery. Robert Frost’s description of the writing process seems dead-on perfect to me: “writing is believing the thing into existence, saying as you go more than you even hoped you were going to be able to say, and coming with surprise to and end that you foreknew only with some sort of emotion.” Notice that he says that writing ends with surprise. If we’ve planned everything out, there’s no room for surprise. And without surprise, there’s no discovery. So it’s best to set out on the voyage of art without a clear idea of where you’re going or why. But please understand: neither Frost nor I am saying that all we have to do to write a poem is to transcribe our stream of consciousness. A poem can start that way, but it can’t end that way. Once we’ve discovered what it is we’re saying, we need to revise the poem as carefully as we can, so that it affects the reader as powerfully as possible. In short, a good poem requires both surrender to the stream of consciousness and controls of it. Edger Allan Poe made this point well when he said that writers should “imitate the Goths, who argued matters of importance to the state twice, once when drunk, and once when sober.”
DE: You’re presently at work on a new book—can you tell us anything about it yet, or is it top secret?
DJ: I think talking about what you’re writing dilutes the urge to write it, so I never talk in any detail about what I’m working on. All I feel able to say right now is that the book I’m working on now is a collection of stories called What We Call the Way, and that the title comes from Kafka, who wrote in his diary, “There is a goal but no way to it. What we call the way is hesitation.” I’ve always found that quote very mysterious, and one of the things I’m trying to do in this collection is investigate that mystery.
DE: The great Zen master Wayne Chinsang likes to test the depth of his students’ understanding by asking the question “Do dogs have dicks?” Seen any dog dicks lately?
DJ: Of course dogs have lips. How could they smile without them?