Jason Schossler’s first book of poetry, Mud Cakes, is due out from Bona Fide Books in 2011. He is the inaugural recipient of Bona Fide’s Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize, and the 2009 winner of Reed Magazine’s Edwin Markham Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in The Sun, North American Review, and The Antioch Review.
[Grist]: Many earlier poets held professional careers outside academia–Williams the doctor or Stevens the insurance VP, for example. But that trend has changed in the last fifty or sixty years as poets have more commonly embraced the academy. You yourself work as a freelance legal journalist. What are the advantages of working in a field separate from poetry, the academy, and how does your professional experience inform your writing?
[Schossler]: Freelance writing doesn’t really inform my poetry. But the lifestyle does. It frees me up to make my own writing a priority. After college I worked full-time as an editor for a legal news publisher and I remember how drained I felt trying to write creatively after an eight-hour day at the office. All I wanted to do was fall asleep in front of The Simpsons. So after two years there I decided I’d had enough. I took the bull by the horns. I stepped down from my office with a window and negotiated a deal to freelance for the company while earning my M.F.A. in Fiction Writing at Temple University. Things went well, and here I am, years later, doing pretty much the same thing for money that I did during graduate school. I also have kept my foot in the door of academia by working as an adjunct professor at Temple. That’s where I see a correlation to my own work. There’s a troubleshooting component to analyzing a piece of writing by a student. You often need to access where the language or structure is breaking down and figure out how it can be reworked. So it goes with poetry. I always tell my students that writing is all about revision. The better ones are often aware of that or quick to accept it. Guiding and encouraging promising young writers is a great gig. Plus it gets me out of the house and talking so I don’t become that guy in a robe who grunts and half nods at his neighbors when fetching the morning newspaper off the porch. The obvious drawback to freelancing and adjunct teaching is that money can get tight as jobs come and go. I’ve eaten a lot of spaghetti. But right now I wouldn’t have it any other way.
[Grist]: Your work covers some diverse ground. Many poems speak in the personal mode, telling what might be considered “autobiographical” stories about family/childhood. Others, such as “For Wile E. Coyote,” engage an imaginary persona. Throughout it all, your work demonstrates a fondness for pop culture—Wonder Woman, Wile E. Coyote, The Karate Kid, and Star Wars (in particular). Would you begin by speaking to your aesthetics in terms of this diversity? What do you feel is gained by this engagement? How does pop culture contribute to your aesthetics–to what you hope to accomplish via poetry?
[Schossler]: Drawing on pop culture is something I’ve done for years now with increasing frequency. Back when I was an undergraduate I held a secret desire to write about the Millennium Falcon or Gene Simmons. But I also wanted to be taken seriously and felt that a five-stanza meditation on the moon of Endor could be the kiss of death with literary editors. So I just carefully picked my places–a child narrator glancing at his Darth Vader wristwatch in a short story; an allusion to Superman in a poem. It wasn’t until around 2004 that I started taking my fandom seriously after talking with poet Daniel Nester when we were both artists-in-residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Dan had just published God Save My Queen: a Tribute, and I really admired how he had taken his fanaticism with the band and turned it into a suitable topic for poetry. I also found it very encouraging that he had found success coming from a similar aesthetic. Nostalgia is a very strong emotion in art. It can serve as a kind of backstage pass to a collective generational memory. But in my case I think it’s more than that. I don’t think there is a way for me to accurately evoke my childhood without bringing pop culture into the mix because it was such a big part of my experience growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We were the MTV and Atari generation. The death of Mr. Hooper in 1982 was something of a cultural touchstone for us. In those days cable television was still considered a novelty. And I’m willing to bet I wasn’t the only teenage boy in America who tiptoed downstairs after midnight to catch a pair of boobs on Cinemax. Of course the trick to writing about these common experiences is not to assume too much. For every reader out there who knows Kashyyyk is the name of Chewbacca’s home planet, there is another who doesn’t know Han Solo from a ham sandwich and couldn’t care less. So in the end the poem still has to work on its own accord and not depend on nostalgia in order for it to have emotional resonance.
[Grist]: Nostalgia can be a tricky emotion in art, and not just because of a reader’s lack of familiarity with a reference. As you note, it can’t be depended on as the core emotion of a poem. However, its use seems advantageous to your project, so what can nostalgia add to a poem? How can it be advantageous to the emotional resonance and, simultaneously, how do you avoid the obvious pitfall of sentimentality?
[Schossler]: I never use nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Sure, it’d be nice to find a way to work my old rope swing or my grandfather’s hunting dog Gretchen into every poem that I write. But that isn’t very interesting, per se. Instead nostalgia is better utilized when it evokes a particular time and place, not only to add texture to the poem, but also to put things into a larger emotional or thematic context. I know for a fact I wasn’t the only kid on the block who heard Budweiser’s “bring out your best” jingle echoing in my ears every time I ran with the football. On one hand that’s just a fun and quirky coincidence. But on the other, an argument could be made that it reveals maybe a larger pattern in our culture, how, even at an early age, we are encouraged more and more to construct our identities through entertainment and consumption. I never start off thinking about these kinds of connections. I start with a memory or idea, toy with it every which way, and then go from there. I might recognize that a nostalgic element is ripe with cultural significance, and sometimes I will exploit it if it enhances what I’m trying to achieve with the poem.
[Grist]: You began your writing career publishing fiction. How does that preparation in narrative inform your work, and how does the act of story-telling involve your sense of nostalgia?
[Schossler]: My roots in fiction probably have a lot to do with why my poems are so often driven by narrative. Though I do sometimes break away from it, I’m generally a creature of story. I think that’s why I’m such a big fan of the poetry of Raymond Carver. That same accessible narrative voice in his prose is very much alive in his verse. More important I think studying writers like Carver and learning to craft my own stories taught me an appreciation for the economy of language. I’ve always been a stickler for details, and as I developed as a fiction writer I found myself becoming increasingly interested in getting every word precisely right. It was this kind of intense focus, a meditation of sorts, that made poetry very appealing to me. I wanted to start breaking down the littlest moments. It wasn’t enough anymore to simply write that the evening was “thick with fat mosquitoes.” In Northeastern Ohio we called them “Canadian Soldiers.” And how could I possibly talk about Canadian Soldiers without mentioning the way they made Rickey Henderson crazy in left field when the Athletics were in town to play the Indians? These kinds of things are rich with possibility, and sometimes significance, but they clog up a story. So I started giving them their own stage away from the traditional demands and expectations of storytelling. I soon learned, of course, that poetry comes with plenty of rules and demands all of its own. But I still find it incredibly liberating in its immediacy and intimacy. I have a hard time believing I could ever write an entire story about mosquitoes. Plus, seriously, who would want to read that, other than my mom? A poem is another matter. It lets you dive right into things and get out before you overstay your welcome.
[Grist]: Speaking of narrative and nostalgia, would you be willing to speak about your experiences at writing colonies? How do they fit into your practice as a writer, and how have they shaped what and how you write?
[Schossler]: My process tends to stay the same when I’m at a colony. Because I am able to write nearly daily at home, I keep my regular hours while I’m in residence and take advantage of the rest of the time by getting to know some of the other fellows. Being at a place like the Ragdale Foundation or the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts is a tremendously enriching experience. It gives you the rare opportunity to meet writers and artists and composers at various stages in their careers who are just as serious about their craft as you are. Fellow residents also tend to be very warm and supportive regardless of their level of accomplishment and are eager to provide feedback on each other’s work. Then there’s fellows who don’t want to talk shop at all, but are very happy to sit down to a game of Scrabble after dinner. I’ve now been to VCCA on four different occasions and can say with some authority that the visual artists tend to be ruthless when it comes to board games. Talk about pressure. One evening I caught a pretty famous novelist–who will go nameless–hide the “Q” under her leg because she didnÕt want to get stuck with it at the end of the game. Considering I had just turned over an E tile to use it as a blank, I didn’t rat her out. We were playing against two painters. It’s a writer thing.
[Grist]: Jason, thank you for sharing your poems and your thoughts with us. What might we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
[Schossler]: I’m happy to say I am the winner of the 2010 Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize. The award includes the publication of my first book of poetry, Mud Cakes, due out in 2011 from the award’s sponsor, Bona Fide Books. It also comes with a free trip to Lake Tahoe for a reading to kick off the book’s publication. The Editor and Publisher, Kim Wyatt, notified me only a few weeks ago about the prize, and I am still trying to get my mind around it. For years I dreamed of writing a collection of short stories or maybe a novel. The fact that my process transformed me into a poet, and has now brought me here, is surreal. One of the things I’m most thankful for, in addition to all of my family and friends who have supported me over the years, is that I had the time to go through this change, which, early on, was a real creative struggle. It also helped me find my voice. The six years it took me to write Mud Cakes wasn’t just about poetry for me. It was about finding the right balance between autobiography and nostalgia and good old fashioned white lies. That artistic symmetry I now enjoy so much is something that may lend itself to other projects in the future. Which, of course, will go undisclosed.