Jacob Victorine: National Poetry Month

Jacob VictorineAuthor: Jacob Victorine

We would love to hear more about your life and interests. What is your day to day life like?  What amazing thing has happened to you recently? Do you have any other passions outside of poetry?

I live in the Logan Square, a neighborhood in northwest Chicago, with my girlfriend and fellow poet, Sarah Tarkany, and our two cats. I currently teach as a Part-time Instructor in the Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago; this semester I’m working on a Directed Study with an undergraduate poetry student. I also teach a poetry class after school at Schurz High School through one of Columbia’s non-profits. Additionally, I work as the manager at MEYVN, a menswear boutique in the neighborhood, and write poetry reviews for Publishers Weekly and Muzzle Magazine, which is all to say I juggle a lot of different commitments.

I won’t pretend to live a brilliantly interesting life. I love craft and processes, which is a throughway between my love for poetry and my love for design. I have an Associate’s Degree in Menswear Design from the Fashion Institute of Technology that I’ve never put to use as a full-time fashion designer, but what I learned during my time in school has been instrumental in the way I view aesthetics, fashion, and clothing. Working at MEYVN—a store that focuses on smaller, well-designed, well-made menswear brands—gives me space to maintain a connection to clothing and design.

Sarah and I do occasional indigo dyeing in our spare time and I also, occasionally, sew her or myself a garment. I read a lot—especially for teaching and my book review jobs. I play and watch basketball—another one of my passions—as much as possible; I played point guard through high school and was recruited to play DIII in college and love watching the best play, especially Steph Curry (I’ve been a fan since he was at Davidson, i.e. I’m not a bandwagoner!). Otherwise, I try to make it back to New York City as often as possible, since my parents still live on the Upper West Side and my brother and sister-in-law live in Brooklyn with their two girls.

How much truth and invention is there in your poems?

I don’t believe in the idea of singular truth, but I hope there are truths in my poems, especially in terms of the way my book, Flammable Matter explores how many of us experience distance through the Internet when consuming reportage. I hope the poems feel human in the way they engage with the voices of people who have self-immolated.

I think my poems are inventive in that they have an active imagination—they engage with language and ideas surrounding reportage, mythology, and protest in ways that are complex and surprising—but I don’t think they produce anything that wholly comes from my imagination. Most of the poems appropriate ideas and text from a range of news, pop culture, and mythological sources, which is why there is quite a long “Notes” section at the end of the collection. Without these sources, the poems would not exist. Although Flammable Matter appropriates more often, and perhaps more directly, than some other books of poetry, I firmly believe that all art is appropriative in some way, even if the artist isn’t aware of it. To think you can create something that does not take from the world around you—whether it’s a conversation you’ve heard, a song you’ve listened to, a book you’ve read, etc.—is quite arrogant, in my opinion.

What do you enjoy more – revising or writing poems?

I love the way writing a poem can act as a process for exploration and discovery, both of the self and the surrounding world. In The Triggering Town, a brilliant book on writing process, Richard Hugo discusses how, while writing, the poet must trust that each line they write is there for a reason. By putting faith in their subconscious and the act of the writing, a poet enables themself to engage with language in ways that find meaning beyond standard syntax and definition, thereby giving it new life. I can’t imagine living without the forms of questioning and understanding that writing allows me.

Although I don’t often get the same in-the-moment, mind-expanding experience from revision, I do feel it’s equally important to writing. Revision helps me make sense of what I’ve put down on the page and to make sure the poem is communicating affectively/effectively with the reader. I don’t think about my audience during the initial writing process, but I do during revision. I want my poems to say something, even if that something is multifaceted, fragmented, or a question.

You have a book, Flammable Matter, published from Elixir Press earlier this year. What can you tell us about this book? Did you have a process for assembling poems for this collection?

The collection focuses on self-immolation: a form of personal and political protest in which a person lights themself on fire. Around four years ago, I became aware of the many self-immolations happening in Tibet, Morocco, India, Afghanistan, and the US, among other places. I was struck by the callousness with which these acts were often received and by the resolve that those who self-immolated—in particular, the many Buddhist monks in Tibet and India—showed in order to make themselves and their people visible in the face of seemingly insurmountable oppression. I began writing poems as a form of outward and inward exploration, and these poems ultimately led to Flammable Matter.

The book also makes connections to my personal and familial history as a native New Yorker who was a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School at the time of 9/11 and is the son of a Vietnam Veteran. The poems often focus on the role distance plays in our ability to feel empathy, especially for people whose lives are reduced, for better or worse, into news stories. The book does not pretend to be a history or record—although I did significant research in writing it, not everything within it is one hundred percent factual—but strives to open new positions of empathy toward the many people who have self-immolated.

In many ways, the process for compiling the collection happened organically. Many of the poems began with text I appropriated from news articles, pop culture documents, or mythologies. I was lucky in that I had faculty at Columbia College Chicago, such as Tony Trigilio, Jill Magi, and CM Burroughs who offered resources and support in shaping the collection, along with a brilliant and diligent cohort.

With that said, identifying specific forms (such as reportage, persona, mythology, and process poems) gave me directions to write in, as well as an initial structure to the manuscript. At some point, Tony and I also realized that I could use material I had collected from the comments sections of news articles as an escalating refrain that ties together the aforementioned forms. I’ve never been a fan of section breaks in a books of poetry, and the comment threads allow for contemplative pauses while also, hopefully, propelling the reader forward.

What is one of your favorite poems from Flammable Matter? Why?

I can’t say I have a favorite poem, but three of the poems in the collection—“Morocco,” “Flammable Matter,” and “Waist Deep” are particularly important to me because they acted as catalysts for many of the other poems in the manuscript. “Morocco” was the first poem I wrote that attempted to explore self-immolation; it was inspired by an appropriation-based prompt given by Tony Trigilio in a class he teaches on appropriative techniques in poetry; the prompt asks the writer to use the raw material of a news story as the foundation for a poem. I didn’t want to focus on a news story that was widely covered, and so, after much searching, I stumbled upon an article focused on a political protest in Morocco in which a man set himself on fire after he and other protesters were denied food by the police. The article led me to a YouTube video of the man self-immolating and, although I was hesitant to watch it, I eventually did. I was so disturbed afterward—not by the man setting himself on fire, but by the desperation a person must feel to do so—that I felt compelled to write a poem of witness. Now, I don’t think all of this was so well thought out during the act of writing, but my best teachers (including Sarah) have taught me to trust my subconscious.

When I brought the poem into class the next week a lot of the feedback I got was to write more (poems), so I did. I was already feeling drawn to the phenomenon of self-immolation and I’ve also learned from my teachers (in particular, CM Burroughs and Jill Magi) to follow my obsessions. As I wrote more and more poems I kept finding threads that connected to my life and familial history that I wanted to explore.

“Flammable Matter” and “Waist Deep” are also meaningful because those are the two poems that, in many ways, taught me how to write the rest of the book. The poems mix mythology, reportage, and self-reflexivity while also engaging subconscious thought and the sound of language. These forms and techniques gave me a number of ways to approach the writing process, as well as a glimpse into the voices that would eventually emerge in the collection.

What are the worst and best parts of having your book published?

The best part of having the book published is being able to share it with other writers and readers through a press that supports and believes in my poetry.

The worst part is worrying about “getting it right.” Because of my position as a white male author, and because the book explores the lives of oppressed peoples and communities, I often stress, sometimes obsessively, about the possibility that the poems might do more harm than good. I wouldn’t have put the book out there if I didn’t believe in its ability to offer empathy toward people who have self-immolated, and I don’t think that, based on its track record, Elixir Press would have published it, but I also understand that poetry leaves space for interpretation and I want to be open and sensitive to reactions and experiences that are different from my own. And I also want to acknowledge that even this type of stress is a privilege. There are so many more dangerous forms of stress people have to deal with on a daily basis.

How long have you been doing slam poetry? In what ways does performance affect your writing?

I’ve been competing in poetry slams for about eight or nine years, although my experience as an audience member goes further back. I went to my first slam during my senior year at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. I was taking a poetry class with a superb teacher and poet, Emily Moore, and I was particularly absorbed in our unit focusing on performed poetry. If I remember correctly, Dr. Moore mentioned to me that one of my classmates, Ed Chen, slammed at the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe (one of the two most famous performance poetry venues in the country, along with The Green Mill in Chicago). I ended up talking to Ed and then going to see him perform in a Friday night slam, in which he read a poem for his ex-girlfriend. I didn’t slam myself that year, but the experience of seeing Ed perform stayed with me, and I continued to write poetry during my freshman year at Bard College. When I decided to transfer to the Fashion Institute of Technology back in New York City, I began reading at the open mic after the Friday Night Slam at the Nuyorican, eventually gaining enough confidence to start slamming at the Wednesday Night Slam a few years later.

Competing in poetry slams, as well as listening to Hip Hop and performed poetry for so many years, has made me more aware of the sonic qualities of language. I often follow the sound of words during the writing process, and I almost always whisper or read poems aloud to myself during the revision process. As a reader and performer, competing in slams has taught me to value my audience; it’s extremely important to me to engage with people through voice, intonation, and body language when I read. The context a poem exists within changes how the poem enacts itself on the reader or listener, and it’s important to me to use my voice and body to communicate—even translate—my poems from the page to the stage.

What has been your best experience with slam poetry?

One of the most meaningful experiences of my life was being a member of the 2011 Jersey City National Slam Team. It was my first, and, so far, only time competing in the National Poetry Slam, and preparing for the competition allowed me to be involved in weekly writing and performance critiques that were instrumental to my growth as a poet and performer. Even though, looking back, I’m critical of my writing and performance from that time period, I believe it gave me confidence and perspective that was invaluable going into grad school at Columbia College Chicago that same year. I’ve also been lucky to continue to develop a close friendship with one of my former teammates, Justin Woo, despite the fact that we’ve lived in different cities for almost five years now.

If you could only share one piece of advice related to performance poetry, what would it be?

Don’t fall into “slam voice” in your writing or your performance. “Slam voice” is similar to “poetry voice,” except it is a bit louder and, often, more singsong. Both voices are affectations that avoid connection with the self and the audience instead of engaging with them. I’ve been guilty of slam voice in the past, and it hinders the many unique ways poetry can communicate.

What else are you working on? What else do readers have to look forward to? 

I currently have a manuscript that I submitted to a handful of contests that explores (my) Jewish identity, whiteness, and racism in America through a series of epistolary poems I’ve written to Sarah, Anne Frank, and Melita Maschmann (a German memoirist who published a book, Account Rendered, explaining her involvement in the girl’s branch of the Hitler Youth to her half-Jewish, childhood friend, L).

I’m also working on a series of poems that explore the idea of vessels, especially in relation to the body and police brutality in America, especially against people of color.

I understand that as a white, Jewish man who questions and explores race, protest, and oppression, among other subjects in his poetry, I often inhabit potentially problematic, if not painful, space, especially for people and communities of color. I often engage with self-reflexive voices in my poems as a way to acknowledge this, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to missteps. This is not meant as an excuse, but as a declaration that I must constantly strive to do better, especially because I think it is vital for white people to use their voices against oppression, since we are the ones who benefit from it and, therefore, hold the majority of the power. I hope that my writing challenges readers to think critically about power structures and positionality—that it serves as a small act of protest, understanding that words are never enough on their own.

 

Jacob Victorine was born and raised in New York City. He earned his MFA in Poetry from Columbia College Chicago, where he teaches a class on performance poetry. His poems appear in places such as Columbia Poetry Review, Vinyl Poetry, Matter, DIALOGIST, Phantom Books, and PANK, which nominated him for a Pushcart Prize in 2013. He has published essays in Publishers Weekly and Poets Quarterly, and serves as a Book Reviewer for Publishers Weekly and Muzzle Magazine. As a competitive slam poet, he has twice been a Grand Slam Finalist at the Mental Graffiti slam in Chicago and was a member of the 2011 Jersey City National Poetry Slam Team. He currently lives in Chicago with his girlfriend and their cats, Gilgamesh and Sita. Flammable Matter (Elixir Press, 2016) is his first book.