Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Justin Jannise

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 three options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger, or an interview about their latest book, or a combination of these.

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.

How To Be Better By Being Worse by Justin Jannise

Justin Jannise

is the author of How to Be Better by Being Worse, which won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from BOA Editions, Ltd., in April 2021. His writing has appeared in Best New Poets, Best of the Net, Copper Nickel, Yale Review, Poetry Northwest, and New Ohio Review. Recently a recipient of the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry and the Editor-in-Chief of Gulf Coast, Justin lives in Houston, where he is pursuing his Ph.D. 

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

The first poem I wrote, if I’m remembering correctly, was for church when I was 10 years old. Although we didn’t remain in that church for very long, my mother still has the poem framed and hanging up in her living room. Very embarrassing. I don’t recall having much of an interest in poetry between then and high school, when I became obsessed with Sylvia Plath. I don’t think I understood a word of Plath’s poetry, but I studied it, believing that if I read it enough times, eventually its secrets would be revealed to me.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

In college, after flirting with becoming a sociology major, I soon realized that there were no classes I wanted to take more than literature and writing classes. I preferred fiction, however, since poetry seemed so difficult as to be virtually un-makeable. In the last semester of my senior year, I was told I’d have to take one creative writing class outside my fiction concentration, and I ended up in J.D. McClatchy’s introductory class. He was a tough teacher, and a stalwart formalist, but he opened the door to poetry – to understanding it better, as well as to writing it — in a way that nobody else ever had. I never looked back after that.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Personally, as a teenager, I was much more aware, and much more interested, in the classics of literature. Even in high school, I supplemented required reading with even more required reading. For some reason I believed that difficult literature would make me smarter, and what’s more difficult to a 16-year-old than Henry James, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Joyce, and so on? I had no idea that there were living, breathing poets or writers who were producing new literary classics. As far as I knew, back then, Sylvia Plath was the last poet ever to have lived. Very few poets passed through the small town where I grew up. If somebody back then had introduced themselves to me as a poet, I probably would’ve assumed that they wrote children’s literature.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

First, let me suggest that you never ask this question of any writer ever again. The only word in “daily writing routine” that doesn’t immediately make me wince is “writing.” I don’t do anything “daily” except eat and brush my teeth. I find “routine” anathema to the life of an artist.

Now that’s out of the way, I’ll answer the question in the spirit with which I think you meant it. I write by reading, listening, and paying attention. My mind is always doing two things at once: I’m doing my best at being present to the world around me, which usually means the people around me. I’m also tracking my attention, almost like a constantly running EKG scanner. When I get a signal that causes my EKG to spike, I stop what I’m doing immediately, and I write a note on my phone. The rest depends entirely on what is written down.

5. What subjects motivate you to write?

No subject interests me more than language itself – how it works, how it fails, how it is everything and nothing at the same time.

6. What is your work ethic?

I sing for my supper.

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

I think real influence is something much more mysterious and unconscious than we’re used to thinking. When Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize recently (news that I was absolutely ecstatic about, by the way, having long admired her work), I saw many poets on Twitter come forward to describe the specific ways that she had influenced them. I wouldn’t call that influence; I call that teaching. There needs to be a word for what happens when a poem or a book gets so woven into your DNA that you can’t even recognize it on your own anymore. It cannot be seen with the naked eye because it is the eye, the instrument with which things are seen. Anyway, I think T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom have both showed how meaningful influence is often negative. As humans, and especially as artists, we yearn for freedom, and for some of us that means freedom from influence. Every time I get compared to another writer, it’s usually one whose work I did not read when young enough to be influenced by them.

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

I think the word “admire” is interesting because it’s a synonym of “love” but it implies a distance, possibly even something like insincerity. Suffice it to say that I equally admire all today’s writers who swim upstream in a world that’s generally hostile to the kind of authenticity that writing demands.

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

Oh, I do plenty of other things. My friend D.A. Powell puts it this way: “I’m trying not to write.” I think what he means is that, with poetry especially, writing is a more-or-less safe place to act out one’s fantasies. The fantasy that one can live for ever, for example, or the fantasy of blamelessness, that all one’s problems have been created by outside forces. Don’t get me wrong: writing, when it’s going really well, is my number one favourite thing to do. When it’s not going well, which is really quite often, I start wishing I knew how to carve wood, or analyse the stock market, or make blockbuster movies from home.

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

If you can avoid becoming one, consider yourself lucky.  

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

My first book, How to Be Better by Being Worse, is out from BOA Editions, Ltd., in April 2021. You may now pre-order it on Amazon.com. I’m working on a series of epigrams, as well as a collection of craft essays. I’ve done a fair amount of teaching, and I’ve noticed how often I repeat myself about certain things, that I’ve decided to write those things down.

2 thoughts on “Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Justin Jannise

  1. Thank you for interviewing Justin Jannise. He is one of the better writing teachers that I have had. Remain well during this pandemic.

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