During National Poetry Month, I was lucky not only to be able to be one of the first to read Justin Evans' Town for Trees, but to also interview him via e-mail. What follows is the first of a two part interview; this part focuses on Justin's unique background and on his approach to writing in general. The second part will come to you on Friday, when he will talk more specifically about Town for Trees. Between now and then, be sure to go here to order your very own copy. You can read my review here and Sandy Longhorn just reviewed the book here. Justin blogs here, where you can find all sorts of information and links.
I've put my questions in bold type. Justin's answers follow.
1. I'm interested in your military experience and how it's shaped you as a writer. While I know lots of writers and I know lots of military folks (like my Air Force dad), I don't know many writers with military experience.
I joined the army a year and a few months after I graduated from high school, when I was 19. I ended up training at Ft. Dix and Ft. Gordon, serving at Ft. Hood, in Germany, Desert Storm, and then Ft. Bragg. I had been trying to write poetry ever since I was fifteen or so, and I wasn't getting much better at it when I was in the army. However, what I was doing was starting to send out my work to editors. I got a lot of hate mail because I was pretentious and my poetry was simply terrible. A lot of people don't believe I got actual hate mail, because they don't want to believe editors do that sort of thing. I did get one friendly response, but for the most part, the feedback was very negative. You hear stories about how certain submission letters are placed in editorial offices to be made fun of by the staff, and I think I was simply too good a target to pass up.
I said all that to say this: The army made me disciplined, and it made me see through failure. Without that discipline, I would not have been able to stick to my goal of becoming a better poet. Without being able to see through failure, to know there is something on the other side of it, I think I would have given up on writing, or at the very least, given up on the idea that I should take seriously the act of writing and all that comes along with that assumption.
2. I know that you write poetry and that you blog. Do you write other genres? Have you ever?
Fiction eludes me. I would love to write a novel. I have the idea, the characters, basic plot, and I can even see the faces of the people in the story, but I cannot ever get past the first chapter, and the writing I do finish is flat and uninteresting. Because of all the education journals I have had to digest as part of my studies and profession, I enjoy writing the occasional satirical educational research paper, and I review books from time to time. However, for the most part, I am a one-trick pony.
3. Your graduate work was in Literacy Studies, another departure from most of the writing world, which gets an MFA or a PhD in literature. Tell us a bit about what literacy studies encompasses. Has your graduate work shaped your writing?
Literacy studies is all about the process of how people learn to read. All the way from phonemes and decoding to inference and critical thinking. I started my program because as a public school teacher, I need to perform professional development, and it also put me further along in the pay scale. It was not my first choice of study, but it was available, and it was inexpensive. I received my degree in 2004 from the University of Nevada, Reno, which is okay by me. I still snuck poetry into my Master's Project, which is what made a lot of it bearable.
My degree in Literacy studies was a different approach to writing, but it did help in tiny little insights. For example, the way native English speakers speak as toddlers is actually very similar to Anglo-Saxon, which suggests certain genetic elements of language are embedded or hard-wired into our brain. This helped me make a connection with what Richard Hugo said of his own writing in his book, The Triggering Town, on the subject of monosyllabic words and the difference of ending in consonant sounds and vowel sounds. It helped with how we form words as readers and speakers, which is always going to be of use to a writer.
4. You teach in the public school system. In what ways does this teaching enrich you? In what ways does it drain you? What would be your dream job, if you could have anything?
I'd love to give you some fancy answer for this question, but honestly, the greatest benefit for me teaching public school as a writer, is simply the fact that I get to talk about literature most every day. Other than that, it is actually a drain on my energy. Luckily for me I have plenty of other things going on which revitalize me.
5. You've published 3 chapbooks before Town for the Trees. How did your experiences with the chapbooks prepare you for this current publication?
My first chapbook was just that. I knew it was going to be a chapbook, so I made that my goal. My second book was a separate project. I wanted to do what I had done in my first book, but with the town of Springville as the central character. My third chapbook was an exercise in ars poetica. Each book had its challenges, but all three were exercises in the narrative arc. I am a huge believer in what I call the invisible narrative, a hidden story only the poet knows, which serves as the framework of the book. Constructing those books helped me to construct Town for the Trees (which is a marriage between my first two chapbooks) and my recently completed, but as of yet unaccepted second full length manuscript.
6. Have you always lived in the U.S. West? Do you want to continue to do so? Do you worry about dwindling water resources?
I have only been out of the West when I was in the military. I have no real desire to live anywhere else, but not out of any particular loyalty to the West, but because this is where my family is, where the terrain, both physical and emotional, is familiar to me.
I would say I am trying to be environmentally aware, but I am not in a part of the West where water is scarce. There is more water in the desert than people think, it's just not as easily seen as in other places.
7. What advice would you have for poets who are just beginning their careers?
First and foremost, do what I failed to do. Read every day, and by read, I mean do more than decode text. I mean actively engage with that text. Think about what you are reading. Read for at least an hour a day. If you read just one book on your own each month while you are in college, outside what your classes require, you will double your knowledge base. Read what you like. Read what you hear about. Read what someone says is good. 50 books doesn't sound like an appealing way to start, but it is the start you should be looking for. I neglected to read early on, and now I am paying for it in all sorts of ways. Read.
After you have read, read some more. You cannot be a good writer without reading. Read craft books and novels. Read comics, and read journals. Read what your friends write. Read the classics. There is a reason we still read Homer and the Pearl Poet.
8. What advice would you have for people interested in teaching?
Not very much That is a matter for which there is not much valid advice to be given at this time. It is a dangerous time to be an educator, and though I love it dearly, it is not a career to be entered into based solely upon the advice of others. The good news is that no career really is the kind to be entered into lightly.
9. Do you think today's adolescents are more self-centered than previous generations? Do they think too highly of themselves? When you look at the next generation of students whom you're teaching, what do you advice would you give the rest of us?
I just got back from an education conference, so my mind is swimming about this sort of thing right now. I think there are some unrealistic entitlement based expectations in our youth culture today, but I think they are based more in the ease of locating information. Nobody actually has to do any real research. They look it up, and instead of asking whether or not information is correct, those sites are taken at face value with no skepticism. That then translates into a certainty of knowledge. Coupled with the "My darling child is the absolute star of the universe" is unsettling to say the least. It's not universal by any means, but like any phenomenon, there are enough young people out there who are too certain in their knowledge and have no way of coping with failure when they encounter irrefutable evidence their pre-suppositions were wrong.
My advice? Help your child understand that failure is not always a bad thing. No, we do not want a generation of people who think failure is okay or the norm, or who give up, but we need to point out that failure is an essential part of growth, learning, and maturity. Being accountable has gone out of style, and I think it's time we bring sexy back.
10. If you're comfortable talking about your family, I'm sure we'd love to hear about them. Do you wrestle with work/family/creative life balance? Any secrets?
I am married and I have three boys, and I am fortunate that the more busy I am in my everyday life, the more productive I am in my creative life. That has not been absolutely true with my book being so close to coming out and now being released. My pattern is that I have to be completely finished with the various aspects of a project for me to move on and start something new. I wrote an entire manuscript at a point when I believed my current book was going nowhere. October 2008 through February 2010 was an amazingly productive time for me. It was huge.
As soon as I found a publisher for my book, my creativity went down the drain. I needed to finish that. When my book was dropped and then picked up again, my mind went into survival mode and devoted all of its energy into making the book happen. I think it will take me a couple more months of having my book out before I get back into the swing of writing again. I will begin writing new poems and getting my thoughts out there. If I am lucky enough to get my second book picked up, all of that will slow down and eventually stop until I have resolved all of the issues relating to the book.
I am lucky in that I am rarely a prolific poet, so going months at a time without writing any poetry doesn't get to me like it did when I was a younger poet, before I recognized and learned to live with my creative pattern.
What I Did On My Summer Vacation
1 month ago