from an interview with Rob McClennan
1 – How did your first book change your life?
My first impulse was to say something pat & self-deprecating: it made me responsible for the death of more trees; it made me tangibly complicit in the grandly entitling & pacifying self-satisfaction of the American left. And while those are both true & things I think, my friend Jake died two days ago & I don’t feel so insistent on my own glibness right now.
Jake wasn’t an easy person for me to get to know deeply, but I have always felt deeply that he was a good guy. He always wanted to help, to support, to instruct, to extend. He was a smart & omnivorous editor, generously supporting writers of a wide variety of aesthetics. His poetry, in my opinion, was the beacon for what Southern narrative could do in the 21st century. It returned to history, but always from the present tense. It demanded presence of history. It demanded scope from a reader. The civil rights movement was present in the moment of reading that poem, not as in a documentary, but as in a scalding. He was devoted to this weird shit we do that so often feels to me like a mass-willful-delusion, as if everyone is publishing their poems, editing their journals while checking out the person next to them from the corner of their eye just to see if she or he is actually joking. Jake was not joking. His work was a moral commitment. I admire his poems & I love many of them. I’m sad & I miss him, not because he was so close to me that the loss of him actively disrupts my life, but because his voice was something I had, without being aware of it, come to count on. He helped me, along with countless others, to invent a sense to endure the inherent senselessness of the fact.
And while I met Jake before I had a book out, I never would have met him if I hadn’t devoted myself to poetry. The publication of my first book did not change my life. Sure, I must have briefly felt more validated to have a tangible product, but it didn’t solve or satisfy anything. It resulted in invitations to read at events to which I wouldn’t have otherwise have been invited, which is awesome & I appreciate. But the joy of these events to me is not the buoying of me or my work, it’s the experiences we share in them. That I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with so many wonderful people, hearing their work, understanding their different-from-my-own vision of the world just a bit more clearly.
Perhaps the most rewarding effect of having books out in the world is that occasionally people will contact me out of the blue & we’ll become friends. Some people often think they’re clever in maligning poetry as a self-satisfying scene of poets writing for other poets., but I write for my friends. I write for Zach & Josh & Noah & Sommer & Heather & Sara & Julia & Danielle & Dave & Oren & Julie & Robert & Jon & others. I presume that anyone who likes my writing would probably be a friend. Recently this writer Eric emailed me out of the blue & we got to chatting & I ended up reading with him in Providence & having an amazing time & immediately thinking of him & me as part of the same team now. It was kind of cool for a while to have a fan, but now it is better to have a new friend. Having my voice out there, connecting to other people in this way, it’s my tourniquet.
Books are a form of capital in our inverted economy, sure, blah-blah-blah. And I can pay what bills I can pay because I’ve published books. Yes. But the books, the poems even, are a means to an end. I don’t care what a poem I write does for me & I don’t care what a poem does for the writer. I don’t give a shit if I’m reading a poem out of the Chicago Review or a hand-stapled chapbook. I am sharing an experience with the world that is objectively outside me, an experience that would not have existed without that act of reading that poem, without that object of the poem. And having a book out allows me to extend this into my daily life. I mean, I am given the honor of working with writers at Universities as they struggle to figure out their own worlds & minds through & with writing, with little bits of toner burnt onto pulped trees, with the expelled pollutants that fuel the servers & batteries of these contaminating computers. I’ve spent the last sixteen weeks with eight of the most interesting, thoughtful, committed writers I’ve ever met. They have allowed me to rethink, to further-think, to test & resist my understanding of not only the product of poetry but the ideological, emotional & ontological process of choosing writing to occupy one’s time while alive. And I feel that the trade-off I made every day with them, the trade-off between me & the world that I fuck up simply by being alive as me, I feel it is somehow worth it. Like, fuck! Christ! Shit! Fuck! Thank you, Michael Dumanis, for publishing my first book & allowing me to do the things I do. This is how I make a meaning of my life.
By which I mean, I wouldn’t have met Zach if not for poetry & he’s exponentially bettered my life simply by being my friend. I wouldn’t have met Julia, who has been the most important person in my life. I wouldn’t have met Jake, Josh & Noah on a weekend in Lincoln, Nebraska when the temperature dropped below negative ten, when the pipes in my shitty apartment froze, when those three came to town & read poems for a bunch of strangers for no money & only because it was a gift & a gift they wanted to give, when about forty people packed into the Tugboat Gallery & had that otherwise-impossible & indelible experience.
By which I mean, I would not miss what I miss now that Jake is dead. And I would not be able to keep his voice with me as I remain alive.