Poet Jay Nebel’s collection “Neighbors” will be released by Saturnalia Books on April 7th. It can be pre-ordered here. Tarn Painter-MacArthur conducted this interview with Nebel in early March.
Tarn Painter-MacArthur: Jay, thanks for joining me to talk about poetry, prose, visual art, and music for Fogged Clarity.
Jay Nebel: Thanks for having me. I’m honored to be able to speak with you.
TPM: First, congratulations. Your manuscript, Neighbors, was chosen by Gerald Stern as winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize and is set to be released in early Spring 2015. Could you tell us a bit about the process of arriving at the final version of the manuscript?
JN: Thank you! It was a surprise and a treat to get a phone call from Henry Israeli on a Friday morning while I was offloading juice from the back of my truck. And then to get a call from Gerald Stern two hours later! What a world! Oh man, my manuscript changed so much from when I first put it together to when it was finally accepted. My closest friends and readers saw many versions of this book (many of them not good). When I started I had about 80 pages of poems. It was titled “Loud Mouth” and it was terrible. I honestly had no idea how long a book was supposed to be because I’d never put one together. My friend Carl was the most helpful at that point. He simply said, “Buddy, you need to drop about 30 pages off this sucker.” So I did. It was freeing to be able to drop all those poems that I had absolutely no confidence in. And from there it got better. Joseph Millar gave me helpful advice too. He said, “Just keep writing and keep filtering in new better poems and taking out the older worse ones.” So I kept writing poems and adding and subtracting and kept fucking with the order and fucking with the individual poems. There was a time when I read through the manuscript and noticed that I had like six or seven poems that started with “when” and it really bugged me. So I went through and changed the beginning of some of those poems. I did things like that hundreds of times. I think you have to be a little OCD to put a book of poems together. This book (versions of it) was a finalist and semifinalist 12 times which was both affirming and depressing. I kind of knew based on how I’d changed it and the results I was getting from these contests that something was working. But I kept tweaking it and trying to make it better. It’s like a giant fucking Rubix cube that you can never quite fix and then one day you kind of solve it, kind of?
TPM: To me, the poems that make up Neighbors are these wild love songs filled with the frenzy of our contemporary moment—-a time where things might seem always dire and on the verge of implosion were it not for those small reprieves granted to us by family, friends, and the natural world. How do you view these oppositions in your work, are they the main stimulants to your writing?
JN: Thank you. I love that description of my poems and I’m honored that you read them that way. I know it’s a cliché but life is fragile. I know that personally. All of us are lucky to be living, to have food on our tables, to have a job, to not be driven bat shit crazy, to be able to write to make sense of things. I get up really early for work everyday. I drive a truck. It’s fucking cold some mornings working in the rain and snow out of a refrigerated cargo hold. But I’m lucky to have a job and at the end of the day I get to come home to two kids and a wife who love me. Bad stuff happens but we go on. I guess that’s kind of what this book is about to me. I had to tell my seven-year-old son that he couldn’t just read through my book without me picking what he could read. His reply, “Why didn’t you write a book with poems that kids could read?” It made me laugh but also made me think about why I chose the material I chose. I chose what I wrote about because I lived it, or a neighbor lived it, or someone who was someone else’s neighbor lived it. And that’s really what stimulates me. It’s “What the living do” as Marie Howe wrote, right?
TPM: Speaking of that precipice, and the ease with which a few false steps or unlucky events can lead us to it, do you think looking into that darkness is something all good art does? Was it what led you to poetry, and is it something you search for in all art?
JN: This is a very hard question for me to answer honestly. If I’m truthful I tell you that I quit drinking over twenty years ago and that I made a mess of my life and did many things that I’m not proud of and that somewhere along the way I started writing poems and the subject of my poems is frequently about some of those not so proud moments. Poetry, for me, is a way of making sense of the mess. I don’t think, though, that you have to make a mess of your life or have to survive something catastrophic to write an honest poem. I think good art is honest but that honesty does not have to be truthful. Does that make sense? Have you ever read a poem and thought, “It’s perfect but it absolutely lacks guts.” You can have all the chops in the world but if your art lacks honesty, if it doesn’t get to the heart of its subject, if it doesn’t take risks, and so on, then it fails. Wasn’t it BB King that said, “It’s not how many notes you play. It’s what notes you play and when you play them.” All that being said I’ll never tell you that my poems live up to these ideals that I’ve set for good poetry. Most of the time, 95% of the time, I think my poems are absolute shit and I have no confidence in them. But honesty is what I try for when I sit down to write.
TPM: I’ve been told by some mutual friends that your path in writing began in prose, and that you wrote some fantastic stories before focusing primarily on poetry. In both individual poems and, even more so, over the pages of Neighbors as a whole, I do sense a narrative progression and the desire of the speaker to not just recount, but to grow through individual and mutual experience. There is an empathetic eye trained on its surroundings, seeking to elevate the lowly or the down-and-out and to be lifted-up with them. As a poet do you still view yourself as a story-teller? Do you view your speaker(s) as something like a protagonist making his way through the world and trying to grow with it?
JN: Ha, I think I have some friends that were very generous in saying my stories were fantastic, but thanks to them and to you for obliging that beginning. I’m always honored when people call me a poet but honestly I’d rather that people just call me a writer. The word “Poet” carries so much responsibility. I don’t know if I honestly deserve that title. Most of the time I’m just trying to figure out a way to make it back to the page to scratch something out of nothing. I stumbled into poetry from prose. That was my beginning. I was in a hybrid workshop of poets and fiction writers and my teacher at the time gave us an assignment to write a poem. So I did. And she said, “You should write more of these.” So I did. And that was it. To the dark side I went. My poems are about people and the strange and mundane things that happen to them so in that way I think I’m a storyteller. I like to write about characters that can’t be redeemed. Maybe I just don’t believe in redemption because I believe that there’s a real beauty in looking at our faults and indiscretions. Most people simply continue to make mistakes and do the same stupid shit over and over. At least that’s how it is for most of the people I come into contact with. I’d much rather make you feel for someone you wouldn’t naturally be inclined to root for.
TPM: While we’re on the subject of influence and your path to poetry, would you talk about some of the poets and prose writers whose work has guided you in your development? Is there an aesthetic or stylistic lineage that you see Neighbors as being a descendant of?
JN: Man, so many: Ai, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Belle Waring, Barry Hannah, Jack Gilbert, Dorianne Laux, Etheridge Knight, Sharon Olds, Gerald Stern, Larry Levis, above all Denis Johnson. I fell in love with writing when I read “Jesus’ Son”. It changed my life. Those were some of the folks that influenced my writing, I think. There were others of course but for the sake of brevity those are the ones that come to mind. I find when I’m having trouble writing that I always return to Denis Johnson. I think we all have that writer that does it for us. I think if you read “Captain Maximus” by Barry Hannah and The “Incognito Lounge” by Denis Johnson and “Dark Blonde” by Belle Waring you might find some parallels with my book, “Neighbors”. Maybe “The Palms” by Charlie Smith, too.
TPM: Outside of writers and books, is there a particular artistic influence to your work? We do run across such a variety of movie and music type references, such as: diving out of an exploding 747, “a television show in which a man died trying to pick up a newspaper”, Mozart, heavy metal guitar, John Wayne… and that’s just in a single poem. There is also the fantastic and gut-wrenching poem, “King Kong”, where the film classic gets re-pitched until it settles on:
What if he wasn’t an ape?
I say. What if he was a child
of fucked up parents? And little Kong
comes downstairs to his father
cooking up above the living
room table, smoke swirling off the spoon
like a scrawny lizard.
Yet, the references to other art seem to push away from the general tendencies of ekphrastic poems. Can you tell us a bit about your interests in other arts, and how you view them shaping your work?
JN: Haha! I forgot how much shit was in that poem! I definitely am influenced by movies and art, music as well for sure. Often I feel most inspired to write after watching a movie. “Trainspotting” gifted me a whole slew of poems as well as “American Beauty” and “Donnie Darko”, “Drug Store Cowboy”. So many. I’m very inspired by other arts because I believe they have the power to inspire us to see in a different way. Christopher Nolan is one of my heroes. I always write to music. Every damn time. For some reason it helps me zone in and for me it creates the mood. The music I listen to varies as well depending on how I’m feeling. I’ve wrote poems to Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, GZA, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Johnny Cash. If music can help me put a pen to paper then I’m into it no matter what kind of music it is. Except Opera. I don’t know how to break into that one, haha. I’ve been taking a break from writing poems recently and taking photos. That’s my new obsession. It’s a lot like writing a poem for me in that once you take a photo there is so much you can do with it. Not only that but the subjects, landscapes, objects you can photograph are limitless. I was really fighting not writing and then one day I decided if I’m not going to be writing right now I might as well be doing something that fulfills that artistic void.
TPM: As I previously mentioned, your first book will be out in a few weeks, but aside from your own, are there any books you’re excited to get your hands on, or anything you’ve been reading recently that you would like to share with us–poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or otherwise?
JN: I’m very excited to read Matthew Siegel’s first book, “Blood Work”. Recently, I’ve found myself returning to Belle Waring and her second book, “Dark Blonde”. I heard that she passed away recently though when I looked her up online I couldn’t find any information to confirm or deny that. If she is gone it’s a real loss to the poetry community because she did the real work. She was the blood and guts I’d say. “Dark Blonde” is such a good book. Everyone should have that book on their shelf.
TM: Well, Jay, thanks for taking the time to talk with me for Fogged Clarity, and we are all looking forward to the release of Neighbors.
JN: Thank you so much for having me. The pleasure has been all mine. Any time that I get to devote to poetry is good time and I view our conversation as a privilege. I can’t wait for the day when it’s your book we’re talking about. I have no doubt that day will come soon.