Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Justin Evans

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Justin Evans

is a poet with four full length collections of poetry and four chapbooks. The chapbooks are Four Way Stop (Main Traveled Roads, 2005); Gathering up the Scattered Leaves (Foothills Publishing, 2006); Working in the Birdhouse (Foothills Publishing, 2008); and Friday in the Republic of Me (Foothills Publishing, 2012). The full length collections are Town for the Trees (Foothills Publishing, 2011); Hobble Creek Almanac (Aldrich Press, 2013); and Sailing This Nameless Ship (BlazeVOX, 2014) which was partially funded by the Nevada Arts Council in the form of a Jackpot Grant, and Lake of Fire: Landscape Meditations from the Great Basin Deserts of Nevada (Aldrich Press, 2015)

From 2006 to 2014 Justin edited the on-line journal, Hobble Creek Review.  He has a fifth collection of poems forthcoming this summer from WordTech, written with his friend, poet Jeff Newberry. He has had over a hundred poems published in peer review journals and a poem of his was recently anthologized in 99 Poems for the 99 Percent.

Born and raised in Utah, he joined the army at 19, served in the First Gulf War, returned to Utah, married, and received his education at Utah Valley University, and Southern Utah University, receiving his degree in History and English Education.  He has been a teacher in the small Nevada-Utah border (read gambling) town of West Wendover for twenty years.  He has a master’s degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, in Literacy Studies.  He was the editor the online literary journal, Hobble Creek Review, for its entire six year run.  My wife and I have three sons.


The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I think my initial attempts with poetry came as a result of my trying to address feelings and emotions which were new to me in my adolescence. What I know now that I didn’t then is that I am on the Autism spectrum, what used to be called Asperger’s. I was confronted with a lot of different emotions, which collided with my history as a child, and I think I attempted to write poetry out of a frustration and inability to express/address my emotions as I saw others doing for themselves.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I took to reading the plays of Shakespeare and the collected works of Longfellow, the only poetry books in my house. I had no idea that poetry came in any other form until I started paying attention in my English classes, and even then it was clear that if I wanted to read poetry it would be up to me.

I started writing poetry at the same time. I don’t think there was any thought that I had to learn anything, which was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, not seeking permission was the best thing I could have done for myself. I had made the decision to write, and I didn’t need anyone’s approval. On the other hand, I ended up writing way more than I read, which is a big problem.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I was aware of some very big names, like I had mentioned: Shakespeare, Longfellow, Poe, but as I started to get more serious about reading more as I was writing, I was very fortunate to stumble on some of the right names: Neruda, Pound, Ferlinghetti. I also picked up a habit of being economical with my money by buying poetry anthologies, which probably made me see a much wider scope. In an anthology, I read widely and I was getting some pretty good poems at the same time.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t really have a set routine. I don’t really know how to explain why a set routine doesn’t work for me when most everything in my life is based upon patterns I observed. Perhaps because writing is predominantly a solitary act, I actually never developed my own routine. I like to quote Bob Dylan — “I write ‘em as they come.” What I have learned is to have a pen and notebook handy no matter where I am because I do not know when a poem will come to me, and this I do know: I have to make a choice right then. I will not keep the poem in my mind. I either write it at that moment or I let it go.

When I do draft a poem, I need to do the drafting in one sitting. I can think of maybe half a dozen poems where I was able to write half the poem, quit, then return to it later. When I return to a poem it is for revision. I also draft poems rather quickly. Often a draft will take fifteen or twenty minutes, but there are times when a draft will be finished much faster. In this sense I prescribe to the idea of mysticism (think Rumi and Blake) where the poems are ecstatic expressions. Do I think there is some otherworldly muse whispering in my ear? Probably not, but the poems do come from somewhere, and often complete. I also like to address poetry prompts. I think of them as puzzles, and solving them has its own joy.

Once I have drafted a poem, I need to force myself to leave it alone for a few days so I can come back to it with fresh eyes and revise it with honesty. I love all of my poems and I have a real difficulty distinguishing between my successful and unsuccessful poems because if I finish a draft, I believe it was a worthwhile effort. If I can get a poem past the initial revision phase, I will start to submit it, toying with it if I think it still needs tweaking.

Above all, I do most of my writing with a manuscript in mind. Because of this, I often stop writing while I am working on a manuscript, and will not do any serious writing until I know the fate (whether it be publication or the garbage can) of the current manuscript. This habit used to frighten me, make me think I would never write another poem, but after 25 years and 15 years of having books published, I have come to accept it.

5. What motivates you to write?

My mentor, David Lee, is fond of calling poetry a participation sport, and I agree wholeheartedly. I crave the connections poetry creates, whether they be on a one to one basis with other poets, readers, or people in general. I want to feel that I am a part of something larger, and poetry allows me to feel as if I have contributed something, paid the cover charge, if you will. The act of creating poetry is a fantastic feeling. It is what I imagine weaving a spell must feel like, brining something into existence by sheer willpower and desire.

6. What is your work ethic?

My grandfather was fond of communicating the notion that if you can walk, you can work. I think it’s a holdover of the Puritan tradition in America. Most Americans are far too fond of work, and brag entirely too much about their work habits and I am no different. I am most productive as a poet when I am busy with too many other times. It’s almost as if the poetry leaks out because there is no place for it in my brain. I am driven to create, and once I have what I know is going to be the basis of a manuscript, everything else falls to the side of the road. That being said, when I am not working, I tend to be very lazy in my practical life and my artistic life. I gave up trying to meet the expectations of other writers a long time ago.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I write for them. Every poet has an audience, and I write for them. Of course the act of writing is a personal pleasure, but there are three or four poets I write for in my head, asking myself what they would say about the poem. I continue to read them. I go back to learn new things, which is a wonderful thing when it happens.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Just last night I learned of W.S. Merwin passing away at the age of 91. He will always be an phenomenal influence on my writing. In fact, one of his poems, “Just This” from his book The Shadow of Sirius (2009) inspired my book, Sailing This Nameless Ship. Literally. I mentioned my mentor, David Lee. His is an amazing body of work. Poets my age, or from my generation, who are very influential on me, include, Mary Biddinger, Kelli Russell Agodon, Collin Kelley, John Gallaher, C. Dale Young, Eduardo Corral, Diane Suess, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Brian Turner, Gary McDowell, Al Maginnes, Seth Brady Tucker, Ada Limón, Jenn Givhan, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Matthew Thorburn, and Jeff Newberry. I know that seems like a lot of names, but all of these poets have given me so much of themselves to teach me not just about poetry, but what it is to be a poet. If a person was to read a book from any of these poets, their lives would be enriched substantially. Some of them I only know through their work, but many I know by way of social media (I live quite rurally, and I do not teach college as most poets do) and I am blessed to have that interaction. I could list another hundred names with the same reasoning.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I have no earthly idea why it was poetry which caught my attention. I love the visuals of film, I love music, and I am now teaching myself to play ukulele and tenor guitar, but why poetry is my main focus is a very real mystery. My family have always been readers, but not poetry. Maybe it is as simple as when I was a teenager I wanted attention and poetry seemed to be a way to get it without having to compete with my friends and peers. Nobody I knew was writing poems, so maybe it helped me to stand out and then I fell in love with the process.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Read. You have to read. There are only two things you can do to learn how to be a better writer. The first and most important is to read. Read wide and deep. Read non-fiction, read fiction, read old encyclopaedias. Read poems. Carry a book with you at all times. That one is from Stephen King. He’s right. You never know when you will have a few extra minutes to read. Copy out poems you like by hand. Copy out poems you know are eluding you. Read and re-read. The other thing you need to do is write. Write by hand, write on a computer. Write essays, stories, and poems. Write late at night and early in the morning. Spend a few hours writing to see how it feels. My poem drafts may be quick, but that’s because I have been doing this for more than thirty years, and when I write prose, I can sit in front of a computer for hours and not feel time pass because I am so absorbed in the process. Make writing a tactile expression as much as it is an intellectual process.

Understand that your early efforts are going to be mediocre. It takes a long time to get better, and any writer who tells you they have mastered their craft to their satisfaction is either a liar or is afraid to admit the truth —that it takes a lifetime to be the writer you are supposed to be. I started writing when I was fifteen. My first poem was published in 1994, when I was 25. It was another three years before I had a poem published, then another three years after that before I started to see my poems find regular acceptances in journals. My first chapbook was published in 2005, and in the fifteen years since it was accepted to date, I have had three other chapbooks and four full length books of poetry published.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

Right now, I am going through the proofing phase with my dear friend Jeff Newberry for a book of epistolary poems we wrote over the last three years. It’s coming out this summer from WordTech Press. I have always wanted to collaborate with another poet on a book of poems, and Jeff was very receptive to the idea. Jeff came up with the idea of writing letter poems to each other because we both admire Richard Hugo’s work. We seemed to arrive together in the early stages of the process that the poems we write should take on an aspect of faith and how we see ourselves as fitting in or not fitting in with worldly expectations. Jeff thought when we had enough for a chapbook, we would be finished and I said I had always intended to write a full length book. We kept on writing and ended up with a wonderful manuscript, naming it Cross Country, referencing both the theme of faith and that I live in Nevada and Jeff lives in Georgia. From there, we split the work load. I submitted individual poems to journals, and Jeff fashioned the manuscript and submitted it to presses. The book must have been a bigger hit than I thought because in a relatively short period of time, the book had a home. That is literally what I have going on right now, aside from the aforementioned tenor guitar and ukulele explorations.

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