An Interview with Jackie Sheeler, Part 1

I met Jackie Sheeler seven years ago when she invited me to New York to read at the Pink Pony series at Cornelia Street Cafe. Jackie and I clicked instantly – over politics, poetry and a deep sense of do-it-yourself energy when it comes to getting our work in front of audiences. While getting to know Jackie as a  friend, I also became a fan.  I loved her debut collection, The Memory Factory, and every time she released an album or single with her band, Talk Engine, it was always on the stereo.

The poems in Jackie's new collection, Earthquake Came to Harlem (NYC Quarterly Books) are a blow to the head and heart; the work is raw, gritty but also finely crafted. She pulls no punches when talking about being raped as a child, her dysfunctional family and descent into heroin abuse. And while those could be conventional tropes in other hands, Jackie wrestles them into compelling, lyrical poetry that grabs you from page one.

The following is part one of a two part feature on Jackie. Today's post is an interview and a live, musical version of "Meeting Patti Smith in Brooklyn." Tomorrow, there will be another live performance and one of my favorite poems from Earthquake Came to Harlem.

Let’s talk about the title of the collection and the title poem; the poem seems like a fantasia, a fever dream and, to me, it reads differently than the other poems in the book. Talk about that poem, the inspiration and why you chose it for the title.

That poem is relatively recent, and was written after a series of earthquakes in various countries around the world. I wondered what it would be like to have an earthquake in NYC, and the poem sprang from that wondering. The final version is part of what was a much longer piece envisioning earthquakes in various neighborhoods – from midtown to Canarsie – with shopkeepers trying to open their stores with roll-gates crashing down behind them, and so forth. The Harlem sequence is the first one, and was one of those pieces that seemed to write itself; the other sections seemed weak in comparison, so I scrapped them. That poem is linked, in a way, to the final poem of the book, “Teenage Roommate,” which is a direct narrative of my vision of impending global collapse. In "Earthquake," rather than making predictions, I simply observe the collapse.

Using Earthquake Came to Harlem as the title was suggested by a friend, the fabulous writer Shelley Stenhouse, and the idea clicked immediately. There’s almost a tongue-in-cheek aspect to it, as if I am the “earthquake” that came to Harlem, and in a certain sense that’s exactly right, exactly how it feels. I’ve lived here for nine years now, longer than I’ve lived any other place in my life (including childhood homes). I keep returning to the neighborhood and my neighbors in poems, many of which appear in the book.

I’m particularly struck by the section called “Diorama” about the abuse from your mother, your absent father, the rape you survived. The typical definition of diorama is to make a model reduced in scale so you can see it all in detail. The poems in the “Diorama” section are so finely observed yet never veer into victimization. How difficult was it to conjure up those details and convey something so intimate but also to remove yourself enough from the poems to allow readers to enter those dark places with you?

The biggest factor in being able to do that is time: many of the events of the “Diorama” poems took place decades ago, long enough to develop a bit of context (and a thicker skin). I don’t often write about events while they’re still “hot” for me, as that writing is usually not very good. I may do it as a personal exercise, to get something off my chest and “out of the pipeline,” but almost invariably those pieces are set aside, unedited – for that matter, they don’t even get typed up.

I’m careful not to conflate the importance of the content with the worth of the poem; and if I can’t tell, I’ll set it aside a bit longer, or just err on the side of caution and put “NT” at the top of the page – Not worth Typing. I’ve discarded far more poems over the years than I’ve completed, and completed far more than I’ve published. Not everything deserves to be published – or performed. I know this may come as a shock to some poets, who seem eager to publish every first draft on Facebook or a personal blog, or who come to open mics and preface the piece with “I just wrote this today and I have no idea if it’s any good.” Honey, if you have no idea whether or not it’s worth reading, then why are you reading it? Do your frigging work first.

Another aspect of being in touch with the dark side, without getting maudlin about it, has to do with my experiences in drug treatment programs and 12-step groups. In those settings, people relate the most horrific stories almost as if they’re telling…not quite a joke, but a story from another planet. I heard one young woman make a statement about her father turning her out as a prostitute at 14 (he was her first customer, to break her in), twisting the narrative until it became a series of wisecracks about what an asshole he was. She had the whole room laughing, but she wasn’t minimizing her suffering, she used humor to make it hers, to take it away from him and create a story she could live with rather than one that would keep her shooting dope in the basements of the Bronx. And it worked.

There’s a way in which writing a poem, a good one (we know when we have a good one, there’s that…click) about an awful event that’s alchemical in nature – literally turning shit to gold. Now, it’s not just a sad old tired old “yet another dysfunctional childhood” story but a piece of art, a work that may communicate strongly with certain others. There’s a satisfaction and joy in that which I haven’t found elsewhere.

Confessional poetry has always been the bane of formalists and old-school poets, but I’ve been hearing a lot more criticism lately that there is too much “I, I, I” and “me, me, me” in poetry – that poetry is becoming more and more like memoir. Your poems are what I call post-confessional or modern confessional because you really do let it all hang out. Do you spurn the confessional label or embrace it? Talk about being a confessional poet in 2010.

I spurn the label because of the epithetical and lopsided way that it is used. Why is it that Sharon Olds is called confessional but Charles Bukowski isn’t? Look at Galway Kinnell’s “When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone” and tell me where that great poem doesn’t fit the definition of confessional – yet he isn’t categorized as such. What about Gregory Orr’s poems about shooting his brother? Or Marie Howe?

Stanley Kunitz wrote that, “The transformation of individual experience – the transpersonalization of the persona, if you will – is work that the imagination has to do, its obligatory task. One of the problems with so much of what was called, in the '60s, confessional poetry was that it relied excessively on the exploitation of self, on the shock effect of raw experience. My conviction is that poetry is a legendary, not an anecdotal, art.” I take this to mean that his definition of confessional poetry is that which uses startling information for its own sake, and does not explore it, give it context or meaning or value through the lens and tools of poetry. That’s a definition I can agree with, but one that takes writers like Plath, Olds, Hoagland et al out of the confessional poet ghetto while placing writers like Bukowski squarely inside it.

I think most of my poems are better characterized as narrative than confessional, and narrative poetry in general is the poetry that touches me most deeply. Poets who don’t engage the “I,” or use an “I” so abstract as to be barely identifiable as human, don’t really interest me, though some of them may be quite adept with language. I’m thinking here of poets like Lucie Brock-Broido and Rae Armantrout, to a lesser extent Jorie Graham. While I can, as a writer, appreciate the dexterity and complexity of the way they shape language, I am rarely moved by their work, and seldom leave that kind of writing with a take-away. Whereas I’ll never forget the first Ellen Bass poem that I read, standing at the Strand Bookstore sale table. “Poem to My Sex at 51,” in Mules of Love. I read it and read it again and read it a third time and proceeded to buy every book of hers that I could find. (At that time, Mules was her most recent book; her latest book, The Human Line, has a poem in it that I still can’t read without weeping, though I’ve read it at least a hundred times, “Gate C51”.) I’ve yet to have that experience with any poet writing in the “language” style.

At risk of being drawn and quartered, I admit that sometimes I think language poetry is a case of the emperor wearing no clothes. Poets saying little or nothing, but saying it so densely and obscurely that readers are convinced they are simply too obtuse to get the point, and to avoid admitting that they jump on the accolade bandwagon.

Talk about your creation process – do you write every day, keep a notebook for thoughts and ideas? I know you’re an early riser – is that your “sweet spot” of the day for getting lines on the page?

I don’t write every day, except for occasional creative spurts, though I always tell myself that I should write every day. I am engaged with the creative process every day, in one way or another – either editing a piece, whether mine or someone else’s, reading a poem or hosting a reading. The last few years I’m doing a lot more songwriting, so guitar practice also plays a part in this process of daily connection with the creative force. I don’t really count blogging as writing, at least not the political blogging that I’ve mostly done – and, interestingly enough, that is the one kind of writing (apart from email) that I do generate using a keyboard rather than a pen and paper and that I can write while I’m still seething over the topic at hand. “Write it Cold” – which sits on a post-it in the middle of my bulletin board – is great advice for all writing other than blogging. When blogging, rant!

I keep a notebook, actually several ongoing notebooks at a time, and usually don’t leave the house without a pocketful of felt-tip pens. I love workshopping, because in that environment some kind of switch turns on. I might start half a dozen new pieces in the course of a weekend, and later find that half of them merit further attention. It’s been quite some time since I’ve been part of a regular critique workshop, though in the past I’ve been a member of two that started in a formal setting and enjoyed several years of life after that course ended. I hope to find another like that, as the weekly deadlines make me more productive, and the input of other writers with very different voices and perspectives can be incredibly helpful in unlocking a poem.

I’m very committed to the editing process; some poems are worked and reworked for a year or two before I consider them final; even then, even after being published, they may still be tweaked a time or two. For me, the concept of “first thought, best thought” does not apply to creative work; sometimes the final draft of a poem has almost nothing in common with the first, and almost invariably the later version is stronger. The rape poem is an interesting example of that – and it’s a poem I had no intention of writing in the first place. A poem from my first book was included in an anthology edited by Carly Sachs, The Why and Later, poems about rape. But I didn’t want to read that piece at the launch event, so I wrote something else, which turned out to be the kernel of “Bensonhurst 1971.” I knew that it wasn’t very strong as written, only strong enough to share at a reading dedicated to that subject. I wrote it, read it and thought that was the end of it until I started putting this book together, and compiled all my drafts and fragments and notes into one huge shitpile from which to choose the poems for the book.

Shelley Stenhouse worked closely with me through this process of selection, revision and ordering. I needed the eyes of a poet that I respected to help me see what I had. She kicked my ass! If not for her demanding but encouraging approach, several poems that are among the strongest in the book would never have achieved their final form or made it into the book at all. She picked “Bensonhurst 1971” from the slush pile as one worth working on, and under Shelley’s guidance (whip!) it went from a rough half-page sketch to what is now the longest poem I’ve ever published.

Read Part 2 at this link.


Anonymous said…
thanks, collin! it was a lot of fun to interview with you -- you definitely gave me things to thing about. hugz & hugz!
Lisa said…
Great poems, wonderful site. Thanks for sharing.

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