Five Questions for... Justin Evans

This regular series of interviews launches with poet, teacher and literary journal editor Justin Evans. Annnnnnd...we're off!

Who the hell do you think you are?
I'd like to say I am a lot of different things like, I'm the Red-Headed Stepchild of the poetry community, or, I was that odd little kid you remember from school who made jokes nobody really understood. I would like to say those sorts of things, but I would be lying. My own negativity and self-doubt wants me to say I am the guy who has a lot of good ideas but has a tough time getting people to listen to me because of my own inability to say things clearly and which reflect my intent. Again, however, that would not be completely accurate. If I was able to suddenly recreate myself, I think I would prefer to build in some distinctive quirky traits into my personality which might serve to set me apart from the crowd, the guy who always knew what to say at the right time. Unfortunately, I'm not really that exciting. I am a simple, straightforward guy who teaches high school and loves poetry. I talk too much and I wear out my welcome at most social functions, but I am trying to learn how not to do that so much.

The poetry in Town for the Trees has an interesting intersection of confessionalism and nature. Explain your motives.
In the book, I try to create both landscape meditation and elegy for the places and lives we no longer have. What I suspect is the confessional aspects of the book come through because I have to take some of the blame for not having those things any longer. My town changed over the years and part of the reason it changed is because I did nothing to stop it from changing. But that is only half of it. The truth is I changed as much as the town has changed and I need to accept my share of the responsibility. Now I am not talking about the time marches on aspect of change. That is the change none of us can do anything about. I am talking about the more subtle changes and shifts we experience over the years. The truth is I let the town get away from me and I let myself get away from my town. We both drifted apart from each other and by letting that happen, returning will always include the bitter pill of knowing I share in the blame. My confession is, in the end just that – acknowledgement of a thing which must be acknowledged.

Your home state of Utah gets a bum rap for being the polygamy capital of the world and full of crazy conservative types, but the Utah of mountains, streams and small towns at twilight in your poems help to counteract that. There's a wild beauty even in the darker poems. Can you talk about how your personal landscape influences your poetry?
First off, thank you for saying my book has "wild beauty." I'm flattered. Utah is a state full of contradictions. It is strange to me that a place so bent on independent political rights and getting government out of their pockets could be so set against civil rights for gays and lesbians. Especially seeing that Brigham Young, the second prophet of the LDS church, once railed against government involvement in defining marriage when it suited his defense of polygamy. I probably do focus more on the landscape of Utah because if I was to try and focus my efforts on the political or social aspects of Utah I would drive myself crazy. Now, to keep at least one foot in the confessional vein, I found out at the age of forty-one, after my mother passed away, that most of what I knew as a child growing up was most likely a lie, that the man I always assumed was my father is in all likelihood not my father. I was raised by his parents but lived only a short fifteen minute ride from him and his second family. Having said all of that, I can also say that my personal landscape was the absolute focus for all of the poetry I wrote between 2008 and 2010. In this book I am now shopping around, I navigated my life and created a manuscript which details the emotional landscape of my life up to that point. And when say navigate, I mean that. The title of my manuscript is Sailing This Nameless Ship, and it is a corruption of The Odyssey. I don't want to say too much about it, but with this book, I shifted from the physical landscape of my youth to the emotional landscape of my life. I am currently returning to the physical landscape of my home, but trying to create more of a narrative based on the actual history of my town. No matter where I go, no matter the perspective I choose, it seems I am tackling the issue of landscape.  

You've self-published and worked with an independent press –  talk to me about the pros and cons of each.
 I self-published Letters to Karl Rove. However, when I was having difficulty finding a press willing to publish Town for the Trees (it having been dropped by a press some months earlier), I was preparing to self-publish that manuscript as well as a collection of other, miscellaneous poems about my home town of Springville. I had everything ready to go, and if Foothills Publishing had not taken it, I am certain I would have put the book out myself before the end of the year. I knew with a certainty that book was meant to be my first full length book. You only get one of those and I knew to my core that book was mine. The issues I have with self-publishing is very much about being a one-man-band. I am not a person at all used to tooting my own horn. Believe me I am shy when it comes to my own work. I am much more comfortable shouting the praise I have for other people's work. The trouble with Letters to Karl Rove, was that nobody was remotely interested. I must have done thirty-five to forty queries at presses and agencies who claimed to be interested in political, humorous, or even political humor, and the consistent answer was they were not interested in my project. I let it sit for a while, and decided I would take the leap into self-publishing. I loved the experience of putting together a manuscript and learning all of the aspects of creating a document. I even enjoyed the control I had with every choice being mine. What I ended up with was a delightful experience and a delightful chapbook of letters. I don't regret for one moment bypassing the so-called traditional route. What's even better is that it will never be out of print because of the wonderful advent of print on demand. Any time I want a few copies all I have to do is order them. That's something the traditional presses just won't have. The downside to self-publication other than learning the system as you go, is really getting past the lump in your throat other people saying you will never have a meaningful experience if you don't put Tab A into Slot B.

Why did you create Hobble Creek Review and what has it done for your own poetry esthetics and creation process? 
I created Hobble Creek Review because I wanted to provide a journal which openly focused on place. I looked around, and I read several statements of aesthetics which spoke of an affinity for place as a theme, but not many which were blatant about it – as blatant as I wanted to be. Now, I am very liberal when I accept poetry and prose. I am not narrow at all in my scope of what qualifies as "place." I am also not above setting aside that restriction of place in favor of poetry I like. I have also been quite up front about my own little version of nepotism. I will publish friends if the writing is good. I will publish my friend and acquaintances without caring whatsoever about what anyone has to say about it. Editing the journal forces me to confront my own prejudices when it comes to poetry, place, and my passion for merging the two. I read the work of dozens of poets for each issue and I get to see how others filter the idea of landscape through their poetry. It is a lot of work but I really do learn something new each and every issue which helps me to be a better poet.

Find out more about Justin Evans at his blog.


I loved this interview...your insightful questions and Justin's candor.

What a beautiful cover on "Town for the Trees."

Rah rah for this series, Collin!
Chuck said…
Thanks for this! Found a poet I wasn't familiar with, and a book or two I must now add to my library.

Wonderful piece!

Kristin said…
I love "Town for the Trees," and this interview makes me resolve to go back and read it again.

Thank you both!
Enjoyed this interview and looking forward to the series.

Enjoy your day! Andrea
Sun Singer said…
Great interview, beinning with that aggressive first question.


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