Monday, February 12, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with JSA Lowe

JSA Lowe’s first book of poetry, Internet Girls, was published in 2023 by Finishing Line Press. Her poems have recently appeared in Biscuit Hill, Laurel Review, Michigan Quarterly Review’s Mixtape, Missouri Review, Screen Door Review, Sinister Wisdom, Southeast Review, and Superstition Review. Her essays recently appeared in Denver Quarterly and Rupture. Her academic articles have appeared in Humanities, Journal of Fandom Studies, and Transformative Works and Cultures. She is an adjunct professor of literature at the University of Houston–Clear Lake, and she lives on Galveston Island with her cat Zoë.

1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I like that book—it’s a chunky little long poem, DOE, that I call “Little House on the Prairie only with fucked-up pronouns.” What was nice about that was feeling that someone was listening, if only the editors. That I wasn’t just talking to myself in my office alone at 2 am to the cat, or at least not only that. Honestly I don’t find anything I’m doing that different now. At 55 I’m pretty set in my poesis, and when Carson says it’s the task of a lifetime to avoid boredom (in the introduction to “Short Talks,” which I have memorized)—you can’t reinvent forms every time utterly, I find I have to operate within the parameters of what I’ve already mastered, to some degree anyway.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I started writing songs when I was a kid, like maybe five or six, and am still a songwriter, and I think it’s pretty much the same lyric instinct. There’s an absence, a lack, and the only thing that even begins to soothe it is the heartbeat, the rhythm, and the arcing melody of plaint. (I’ve also always written fiction in my head, but only had the courage and the technical abilities to start writing it down in maybe the last three years? I’m working on a crime novel now, strangely enough.)

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?

I draft fast these days—again after, what, forty years? of writing poems I work a lot by instinct now, and don’t have to agonize over everything (at least not until revision). I generally start poems in the car/shower/on walks, scrawl down incoherencies, and then develop those phrases/melodies/thoughts later, when I type it up. I used to insist on drafting by hand, thanks to Brodsky and Walcott both being so insistent about it, but now I draft on my laptop, print out, and then revise by hand. I’ll go months only writing fiction and then suddenly switch to poems. Last year an entire 85-page poetry manuscript fell out in a couple of months, and I’m laboriously revising that now.

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?

Both. I have, I don’t know, eight or nine manuscripts that haven’t been published, and some are collections, and others are book-length long poems. So either can happen, and will.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I do love readings and I wish I got to do more of them. I have distinct ways that I hear my poems—usually as kind of sharp and furious—and I love to inflict this reading on others. It’s tons of fun. Certain kinds of poets are scenery-chewers by nature and I guess I’m one, for the same reason that I love lecturing to students, stalking around and expostulating, spittle flying like I’m onstage at the Old Vic. And also—yes, they can help with revision. I’ll revise while I’m reading; the second I hit a word and feel that twinge of dismay like, “oh no, I can’t actually say that aloud, that’s wrong.”

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?

I used to worry about this as a younger writer, what is my matière as the Old French poets used to say. Inevitably one has the same set of concerns, and equally inevitably those change. So now I’m more obsessed with e.g. my aging parents and aging self than my love life, which is no longer as colorful (thank god). I suspect death, who has always been front and center, will continue driving the car. Aren’t we all trying always, though, to answer the conundrum of late capital. The offensive ridiculousness of the carbon age, the excesses of the west, the ongoing cruelties of colonialism.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I suppose this sort of came up in my last answer, but Brodsky used to have a very clear take on this: “A writer is a lonely traveler, and no one is [his] helper.” We can’t set to work with the idea of having a “role” in “culture,” we’ll faceplant. The only thing to attend to are the parts of speech, the slant and near rhymes, the pulse of meter, the felicity of a word or its fecund associations. That’s my only business and if anything endures, that’s up to humanity and time. My role is mostly to shut up and pay attention. Some people just pay more attention than others (cf. Jorie Graham).

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I haven’t had a close first reader for a while now and that’s definitely been a bitterness, and a difficulty. (Although the writer Jael Montellano and I have been swapping drafts and gosh, she’s wicked smart.) I’ve never had an editor pay that kind of close attention; I think I’d enjoy it, though?

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose.” So much goodness in there: “You’re a genius all the time”; “Like Proust be an old teahead of time.” And then, my beloved old Zen teacher used to say, “Just show up.” That’s pretty good advice. Show up for your life.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

I started writing proper academic papers in media studies about ten years ago when I finally realized I didn’t have much to add to maybe, say, Dickinson scholarship, but I was unshutuppable about Tumblr memes of Marvel characters. After a decade of conference presentations, a couple of peer-reviewed articles, a book chapter, etc., however, I no longer feel I have very much to contribute there. These kinds of writing/thinking use completely different parts of the brain, and while it was fun, with the limited time I have left on our planet I’d like to prioritize fiction and poems.

Also, I was twice a semifinalist for the Fulbright to Taiwan and both times didn’t make the cut. It kind of knocked the stuffing out of me, and I think someone else who’s better qualified can write about the queer girls and their queer fanfiction, and why it’s so crucially and culturally important.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Shower, coffee, feed the cat, take my meds, check Discord and Twitter because I’m hopeless, then lately I’ve been revising one poem a day. My spring semester has included new courses and 70 students and feeling like my hair is on fire, so I generally spend the morning doing schoolwork (although do not get me wrong, I’m happy as a pig in mud teaching film and literature; I always say it’s like the crack cocaine of teaching). Fiction tends to happen, if it happens, in the afternoons, but during the summer—the catnip used to lure academics—I write all day, gloriously, joyously.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Art museums and galleries are good, also films in languages I don’t speak. I call this filling the well. Long walks, and drinking a lot of water. Writing letters to friends.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Fresh hay.

14 - 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?

Just off the top of my head: botany, Lou Rhodes, Chopin, medicine, Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

The usual suspects, especially during my long education; but lately I only read Chinese webnovels called danmei, which are queer genre stories. My favorite author is pseudonymously known as Priest, and someday people will read her alongside Dostoyevsky, I think. Sha Po Lang (Stars of Chaos) and Mo Du (Silent Reading) are my two favorites at present. They almost tempt me to write papers again.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Actually finish a novel! I keep starting them and then panicking halfway through. I also have a secret list of places to visit, even though I can’t afford them and will never get to go there. I’ll tell you three: Hangzhou, Dakar, Oaxaca. I had some idea I would learn to surf at fifty, but that…hasn’t happened. I love to watch surf videos, though. Maybe that’s close enough.

17 - 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?

I had an ex who used to claim that every single artist had wanted to be some other kind of artist, at first, and had failed—something about Ornette Coleman wanting to be a painter, maybe? I definitely wanted to be a singer-songwriter throughout college, and an actress in my teens. Those things are still there in me, just rearranged. I still rehearse lines in my car, for no clear reason. The body/face/voice just want to be shaping words, projecting them into the world. I come from a family of musicians and will sing and play until I die, probably. You can’t stop the signal, Mal.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

It was cheap and I had no money. And a few people made the mistake of praising me, early on.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

In my mythology class we just read Anouilh’s Antigone, and in my film studies course we watched Ousmane Sembène’s La noire de…/Black Girl. Not bad. On my own? I got to see Chen Kaige’s restored director’s cut of Farewell, My Concubine in the theatre and sobbed for hours afterwards. What a horrifying speedrun through the worst parts of China’s twentieth century, and also the heartbreak of being queer and cut off from the one you love, your people, your place, your own soul.

20 - What are you currently working on?

This crime novel, Beacon to Nowhere: harried New England women’s college dean (who just wants to be left alone to write her book) has to cope with an unfolding scandal involving a Title IX complaint and what’s starting to look like a sex cult, and also she might be falling for her dependable campus safety officer. Sort of dark academia/queer romance/cosy mystery? Heavily influenced by Robert B. Parker, because I devoured the Spenser books in high school like it was my job to do so. And, the new collection of poems, I don’t know what it will be called yet—maybe Alpenglow? Maybe Sins of Old Age? Maybe Not Again, because I’m just immature enough to think that’d be really funny.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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