Interview with Featured Poet
Jesse Breite


[Town Creek Poetry] Can you tell us a bit about how you came to poetry?

[Jesse Breite] I stumbled into writing poetry in college. In high school, I wasn’t particularly curious about reading or writing. It was work—joyless work that I labored through, no different than math homework. But in my freshman comp class in college, I had a brilliant prof who read his own prose reflections aloud. I admired how he seemed to understand or realize his life through writing about it. A few months into the class, we had a long weekend, and I took a train to visit family. I wrote a reflection called, “On Riding the Train to Quincy”. When I got back to school, I showed my prof, and he said that he thought what I wrote looked like poetry. That was my poetic beginning. I think most poets like the idea of being a poet first before they realize what it means. This was true in my case. That is the short story.

The long (yet more concise) story of my coming to poetry has also had a lot to do with living alone for a good number of years after college, reading and rereading, discussion about literature and aesthetics, and the on-going pursuit of self-awareness.

[TCP] It seems that your home state, Arkansas, plays a large role in some of your poems--can you speak to this and why this is the case?

[JB] Arkansas … I have to admit that I spent a good number of years resistant to writing about Arkansas and my relationship with the place. It wasn’t necessarily what I thought I would so whole-heartedly embrace later on. Before I say anything, I should confess that I was actually born in Jefferson City, Missouri, but that town is quite foreign to me. The story I tell is that my mama planted my fetus in Arkansas dirt.

I find Arkansas an incredibly rich subject for poetic endeavors. Its topography is quite manifold. The state is veined with rivers—including the Mississippi as the eastern border of the state. The land also consists of the mountain ranges, forests, valleys, plains, and a big chunk of Mississippi Delta. Any perspective, no matter the emotional attachment, is magnified by the dramatic topographical experience of the place.

Arkansas is also an under-populated state. There are just under three million in the whole state. That is a lot of space for not too many folks. I think there is appeal in Arkansas’s obscurity and the potential that exists in obscurity. I recently wrote a poem reflecting on restlessness of the place called “The Land of Opportunity” which was the state motto for most of the second half of the twentieth century before “The Natural State” was adopted. I always thought “The Land of Opportunity” was perfect for all the right and wrong reasons. In my mind, Arkansas will always be a bit of a territory—too untamed for statehood.

As a southerner recently transplanted in Georgia, I have found that this territorial aspect also applies to the state etiquette. While Arkansas is the South, it is not the proper South. It’s edgier, stupidly daring with a perhaps a greater potential for the mythic. I’ll leave it at that.  

[TCP] Similarly, it seems your family and the memory of adolescence--and the friends associated with that change--stake a claim in many of your works. Do you anticipate these motifs to play a part in your work indefinitely? (In this one, whatever you answer, protract the response a bit by exploring some of your poems and why they depend on these motifs).

[JB] When I left Arkansas, I was trying to get away. In my adolescence, I had a lot of potent emotional experiences that will forever be wedded to the landscape of Arkansas and the geography of Little Rock, the characters I split time with, and my developing physiological/spiritual being. Until about five years ago—eight years after I left, I was scared to put any of it into words. I have spent a lot of time writing about those memories, trying to see what I can find prodding through what I’ve got and revising what’s there. When I reflect, the experiences can be volatile.

My adolescent memories and family stories have never stopped spilling into my present reality no matter where I have lived. For most of the folks I know from home, Arkansas has been physically inescapable. I intentionally missed quite a few funerals, and I think I find ways to reconcile that in my writing. I often find I have written poems about the intersection of my life as a high school English teacher and my prolonged youth. As a result, my poems round into a bittersweet double-vision—an eye ahead and behind.  When I turn to familial subject matter, this actually evolves into a more intense drama. I interject family into characters and voices, beyond possible memory. Through poem sequences, my family becomes immortal and ubiquitous through repetition, allusion, and revision (all three of those as different versions of the same brushstroke).

I think I will write about Arkansas directly as long as I return to Arkansas. And I will probably write about Arkansas indirectly whenever I address a natural landscape. I have several poems about driving into Arkansas—often titled after the highway I was traveling on when I conceived the poem. The drive from Atlanta to Little Rock actually feels like time-travel in my mind. I also have this strange feeling that the land is somehow moving through me. I know driving can be physically exhausting because of the attention it demands, but I feel emotionally beat up after that drive. 

[TCP] Who do you consider your literary forbears, your silent mentors?

[JB] Metaphysical writers have always had a great appeal to me personally. This is all about the meditative riff expanding from detail to universe. In regard to early American influence, I think of Melville and Whitman who riff with a more natural ease than Thoreau who also performs the metaphysical shift. I feel I have recently come to a place in my writing where I can accept Whitman’s influence more readily. Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy have all played roles in how I approach the spiritual, regionalism, and narrative aesthetics.

In regard to contemporary poets, I have been moved to write and imitate the poetry of Marie Howe, Tony Hoagland, Bob Hicok, B.H. Fairchild, Jack Gilbert, Thomas Lux, and David Huddle.
Poems by Robert Haydon, James Dickey, Stephen Dunn, Stephen Dobyns, James Wright, and James Tate have also worked on my writing. I think it takes a while for a poem to work its way into my writing. When I find a good poem, I find I have to work on its ingestion to get it lodged in my mind. Teaching it helps.

[TCP] You're a prolific writer--can you speak to your writing process?

[JB] I do write a lot. I get going late at night when I am done with my other work. This results in a lot of sleep-deprived workdays. Over time, I think I have created inadvertent emotional deadlines for myself. As a result, writing is almost always a desperate act. If I have too much time, I’m much less productive. I also find that I tend to be streaky. If I hit the right words, I can spit three or four poems in a day or two. This is excluding revision, which can take years. I tend to write toward a narrative sequences as well. If I can establish a direction of a poem series, I arrange them on the floor, and then I try to find the holes.
[TCP] Describe the manuscripts you're working on now.

[JB] I’ve got a few that I keep coming back to. Two Rivers is the Arkansas manuscript. Most of my reflections and projections on Arkansas in this interview are as they pertain to that manuscript.

I think A Thousand Twangling Instruments is the chapbook that comes after Two Rivers.
It moves in a different direction. It is more observant, more detached—lots of birds, nocturnal critters, and trees. This is also a result of moving from an apartment in the city to a house in a more wooded neighborhood of Atlanta.

White Flame of the Crackling Register is a more experimental chapbook interested in bachelorhood, economics, allegories/parables of emotion, and the strange rituals that precede a marriage in America. This chapbook is much more sensitive and less block-headed than it sounds.   

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