Jeremy Pataky is the author of Overwinter (University of Alaska Press). His poetry and essays have appeared in Colorado Review, Black Warrior Review, The Southeast Review, Cirque, Camas, Ice Floe, Anchorage Press, and many other journals and anthologies. Jeremy earned an MFA at the University of Montana and a BA at Western Washington University. He is a founding former board member and Executive Director of 49 Writers, a literary nonprofit in the 49th state, and publisher of Edible Alaska magazine. He splits his time between Anchorage and McCarthy, Alaska. | jeremypataky.com
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Well, for one, publishing the first book helped me to ask new questions, to move on and stop obsessing over old ones. It probably helped me recognize and quit some ticks of voice or style, too. The book also resulted in opportunities, friendships, residencies, conversations, and collaborations that leave me grateful.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
If experience starts in the womb south of a mother’s iambic heart, then I guess I arrived in the world already exposed to rhythm and meter—and then came nursery rhymes, songs, lullabies, tongue-twisters, rhyme, puns. I spent a lot of time alone as a kid, and both listened to and played music. It’s a bit of a wonder that I took to poetry, since I had to leave home, move 400 miles to a city of strangers, and start college before I met a poet or an admitted poetry reader besides my Frost-familiar grandmother. The influence was probably from bookstores, especially Auntie’s in Spokane, Washington, where I spent inordinate amounts of time, and where I eventually discovered lit journals and collections of poems that I read. I was reading a lot by the time I started college and writing more lines than sentences. Seems terrifically unlikely, though, thinking back to when I was where I am from.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Knee-jerk reaction’s that I’m slow. Though some individual poems happen quickly. It varies.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
My first book is a collection of poems written over a given period of time, but otherwise more or less isolated. They do work better together, I think, but they weren’t all written toward realization as a book. Now, though, I am working on a “book”, and that “project” feels different. I’ve also gathered hordes of fragmentary prose written over years and written more, which I’m starting to conceive of as another book-in-process and to approach with a bit more organization and intent. I catch myself feeling sure my next book will be another book of poetry, and the next will not.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy doing readings, yes. When the situation’s right, there’s no revision hack like reading a definitely-not-done draft to an audience and feeling that self-conscious “whoops” at the weak parts. There’s also no pleasure like reading the right finished work to the right audience and experiencing that synergy between writers and readers/listeners—something kind of conversational, almost collaborative. The trouble with readings is that the audience generally can’t read the poem, or re-read it, or pause in the middle and re-read a single line.... The trouble with poetry is some readers need it read to them in order to receive it fully.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My questions involve responsibility and possibility, and how a writer negotiates craft and subject. How’s it possible to bring craft to bear in best honoring our subjects? How do we avoid dishonoring our subjects and questions by being aesthetically lazy in favor of message or interest? How do we fully deploy language without risking lingual indulgence? Subject-wise, I question who I am and how to incorporate care and concerns I have on social justice topics while worrying who am I to even try? I ask questions about race and social justice—especially as an ally reared in the “whitetopia” of 80s-90s North Idaho. For a long time, “political” was a pejorative descriptor for poems, which seems almost unimaginable in the contemporary moment when political poetry is a snorkel we use to help barely avoid drowning in a miasma of fake news and political sewage.
And there are environmental questions. Of course, the political and the environmental have come to overlap. Even a great deal of social justice is environmental. Language is the only technology we have that comes even close to mirroring ecological complexity, and that’s true, of course, in part since language, and our brains whose wiring engenders it, is a product of ecology (see David Abram). Our oldest phonemes are onomatopoeic and our earliest letters are pictographic. We are hardwired to speak, but not hardwired to avoid shitting the bed and then articulately dismissing ourselves of blame, or outrightly blaming others. So if language is natural and we have pushed nature past unprecedented breakage through a combination of our own unimaginative, unsensate cultural apathy, how can one bring language to bear in aid of the nature (inclusive of people and peoples) we damage?
Just as “political” poetry used to do, the label “nature” writing still functions as a serious cold-water turnoff for a lot of (mostly urban or suburban) readers. “Environmental” writing, on the other hand, has gained ground to the point of trending. That’s good, as long as there’s feeling, there, and as long as feeling spurs responsible action, by someone. Of course, an attentive act of writing itself can count as that action, sometimes. As a poet, though, I would also say the distinction between what we mean when we say “nature writing” and “environmental writing” is an important one, though we would have no environmentalism without the natural historians that wrote their observations down. We would have fewer keen observers of the world (which parleys into carers for the world) without some mediocre writing that passes along some passion and knowledge. We would have damaged nature even more without documenting, in all forms, what’s at stake and what’s lost. Those authors do take more than their own belly buttons as subject.
That said, I mostly relate to the crowd that’s had enough nature writing. I have not had my fill of environmental writing, though, especially now that lit has finally woken to the shared Shit Creek we might as well paddle with poems. And since there’s still an incredible amount to learn about the world and we’re discovering that we didn’t learn (or apply our learning) fast enough, we need those observers who not only experience or learn but describe and share. We also need people to temper that pure phenomenological input with poetics, to make something durable and original that is not mimetic but moves us into a space of caring for more than the words on the page or, conversely, the subject of those words. Of course I might not care about your subject if you don’t care for the words you’re dishing it up with. All this is to say that I’m especially interested in ecopoems that gather some knowing about them, some science and experience, some care for some level of detail, as opposed to impression and speculation or regurgitation. Or belly buttons. I like a poem that doesn’t just purport to be in dialog with the social and physical world but that has inherently accepted something from it and entreated the page to engage. A good poem proffers something that matters more than itself, even as it does that thing that people observe good poems do—they say more than they should seemingly be able to say, superseding language’s potential by way of language, slipping into that hyperlingual place where language gives us more than we should seemingly be able to use words to say.
How can one do that over and over again while folding in a care and responsibility for the billions of “others” on the planet, and for the planet itself?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think writers can lend eyes, ears, and dreams to a culture, all of which are essential to safe navigation, including course correction when the vessel veers. A writer can attend to truths and meanings to which the self is secondary, without ever failing to bring the self to bear in the pursuit. The writer also stirs the paint bucket of language, preventing settling or separation, enabling us all to keep dipping and brushing the stuff in our world-making pursuits. This stirring, this charting and navigation, requires at least as much discipline and work as it does attentiveness.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)? It’s a lucky and useful intimacy.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Write every day, read a lot, read everything, read anything. Also—spend time alone. Solitude is necessary.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I usually start by making coffee; sometimes, if I’m up unusually early, I’ll write for a while first, but those are rare days. I don’t start every day out writing, anymore; someday I probably will again, but for now I’m usually aiming to get day-jobbing out of the way. Dance the gig jig. I’m a catch as catch can writer, but one incapable of disabling at least a passive/receptive research mode, and I always have a notebook to collect in or folders on the computer to squirrel away morsels to return to. I usually start poems by hand, finally typing them up when they’re too scribbled to remain legible, and then I continue drafting on a printout, etc.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read and re-read, watch films, hike and get outside, listen to music or podcasts and make things with my hands, call writer and artist friends, go to readings and lectures, click back through old photographs, waiting for forgotten shards to surface, waiting for new connections between known points. Work on my cabin or do projects on my land. Cook. Depends on where I’m at, what time of year, what kind of stalled it is.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Woodsmoke, coffee, Labrador tea. The pungent aroma of cottonwood buds in spring. The odor of ripe highbush cranberries in late fall. Fresh-baked salmon. Chainsaw exhaust and bar oil. Hot laser printer toner. Stovetop popcorn with cheap parmesan (olive oil and cast iron, preferably), with nutritional yeast and Bragg’s. Blueberry sourdough pancakes. The smell of tent nylon (or whatever it’s made of).
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music has always been an influence — both lyrically and tonally. I’ve become increasingly moved by visual art and feel like I’ve borrowed framing techniques or processes from artists, as well as a broader notion of collaboration.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
W.S. Merwin (rest in peace). Gary Geddes, a mentor and friend, has had a terrific influence in many ways, including introducing me to Daphne Marlatt, Tim Lilburn, Don McKay, each important in different ways. Deep respect for indigenous poets Joan Naviyuk Kane and Cathy Tagnak Rexford. Many more, too.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Transit the Northwest Passage. And/or go by sailboat… or any ship that’d take me… to Antarctica.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Couldn’t help it/didn’t think about it till after its going on was a foregone conclusion.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Micrograms by Nicole Walker. And probably The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by the Cohen brothers.
19 - What are you currently working on?
For poems, I’m writing from my home in the north about the lyric and scientific properties of glacier ice, sea ice, permafrost, glaciated and deglaciated landscapes, and their shifting cultural significance in a time of political and environmental upheaval. I’ve been writing sentences and paragraphs and maybe even essays, too, but I don’t want to spook them by talking about them.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;