An interview with g emil reutter.
Jack Veasey is a Philadelphia native who has been living in Hummelstown, PA for over 20 years. He is the author of ten published collections of poetry, most recently “The Sonnets” and “5-7-5” (both from Small Hours Press, 2007). He is a member of Harrisburg’s Almost uptown Poetry Cartel.
His poems have also appeared in many periodicals including Christopher Street, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Harbinger: A Journal Of Social Ecology, The Philadelphia Daily News, The Painted Bride Quarterly, Fledgling Rag, Oxalis, The Blue Guitar, Bone And Flesh, Zone: A Feminist Journal For Women And Men, Film Library Quarterly (Museum of Modern Art, NYC), Experimental Forest, Tabula Rasa, Wild Onions, Mouth Of The Dragon, Asphodel, Insight, The Irish Edition, The Harrisburg Patriot-News, The Harrisburg Review, The Princeton Spectrum, The Little Word Machine (U.K.), and The Body Politic (Canada), among others. His poems have also appeared in a number of anthologies, including Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets On Pennsylvania (Penn State University Press), Sweet Jesus: Poems About The Ultimate Icon (Anthology Press, Los Angeles), and A Loving Testimony: Remembering Loved Ones Lost To AIDS (The Crossing Press, Freedom, CA) and most recently in Assaracus.
GER: You have a long history both in the Philadelphia and Harrisburg poetry communities. Are there differences and similarities?
JV: Harrisburg doesn’t have nearly as much activity. I think in terms of the degree and range of talent, the two scenes are pretty similar.
GER: What poets inspired you as a young man to become a poet, and did any have a lasting impact on your work?
JV: I started writing seriously as a teenager, and my favorite poet at the time was Sylvia Plath. I still love her work, and reading it has often given me the energy to write.Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets had a big impact on me, and got me interested in writing formal poetry – I’ve done quite a bit of that, though I write free verse a lot, too. Edward Field’s poems opened me up in terms of feeling like I could write about ANY subject matter, including things most people would be embarrassed to write about. Jared Carter got me interested in the narrative aspect. I know Edward and Jared personally, and other poets I’ve known personally have had a big impact on me. I got a lot of encouragement to do readings from Maralyn Lois Polak early on in the Philly scene, and the lateNew York poet Barbara A. Holland was a mentor who was instrumental in getting my first chapbook published when I was twenty. Some poets I’ve studied with had a big impact – Alexandra Grilikhes and Etheridge Knight, particularly, both of whom I studied with in Philly. Sadly, Etheridge, Alexandra and Barbara are no longer with us.
GER: The Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia has greatly changed since you grew up there at a time when it was a working class neighborhood. How did that environment inspire your poetry?
JV: I had plenty to struggle against in Fishtown. The neighborhood’s old atmosphere – when it was industrial, before it became gentrified — still pervades a lot of my work. My poems are often set in gritty urban locales. I was oppressed as a kid in Fishtown – I was a target for bullies – and that gave me an outsider’s perspective, and made me identify with the underdog, which I still do. That colors a lot of my choices of subjects, and the viewpoints from which I write, when they aren’t my own.
Everybody in Fishtown in the old days had a story to tell if you let them – and I went through a period where I re-told a lot of those stories in my poetry, particularly in my book “No Time For Miracles,” which came out at the end of the eighties. The impulse to tell stories in general is still a driving force in a great many of my poems, maybe even most of them.
GER: How would you describe your poetry?
JV: A lot of it is narrative. It tends to be pretty plain-spoken and accessible. I’m usually telling a story, even if I do it in the form of a dramatic first-person monologue, or in a lyrical form. I try to place the reader in a situation that gives them a specific perspective – to make them see things for themselves, to make them have the same epiphany I did. Clarity is important to me, but I’d rather the story led my readers to the same conclusion I reached without my directly coming out and telling them what to think (though I may do that if it suits the viewpoint from which I’m writing). I don’t buy the prevalent notion that “didactic” is always bad, but I do try to provoke a particular experience that will lead to a specific insight rather than to preach at people. I like to have a certain amount of subtlety and resonance, but I also try to avoid vagueness. If a poem fails to hold my attention, it’s usually because it’s vague.
GER: Your career as a poet, journalist and advocate spans four decades. How has your focus changed during this time?
JV: I started out as a teenager writing what most people would call “confessional” poems (I hate that term, by the way– it’s usually used to dismiss all first-person writing from women and other minorities who make the speaker — usually a white male academic — uncomfortable). Then I went through what I would now call my “pretentious” period, when I was strongly influenced by surrealism and Theater Of The Absurd, which didn’t last long. Then journalism got me interested in telling third-person stories about things I’d witnessed, stories about other people. Then I got ”infected” with the impulse to play with forms, which are useful if you need to distance yourself from something in order to free yourself to write about it. Now, depending on what obsesses me currently, I may do any of the above – except I tend to leave the pretentious stuff alone.
GER: Why do you continue to write?
JV: For pretty much the same reason as I continue to breathe. I need to. It’s my primary way of processing my experiences and my perceptions, for one thing. It’s how I make sense of being in the world. It does seem to happen cyclically – sometimes I’m very prolific, other times I write in fragments, on the run, and don’t finish anything for awhile. I don’t like periods like that (I’m in one now). I feel healthier when I’m producing results, though I try to focus on the process rather than on the product. If it’s really inspired, the product has a mind of its own, and it surrenders itself to you when it’s damn good and ready!
GER: What advice do you have for new poets on the scene?
JV: Write and read as much as you can. Pursue what you are genuinely drawn to – don’t subscribe to anything because someone else tells that you “should.“ Originality comes from being true to your own real perspective.
GER: What is the value of publication of work and public performance of poetry?
JV: Largely that they enable you to finish the act of communication. If you write because you have things to say, that’s essential. Otherwise, you’re just talking to yourself.
As far as getting reactions and feedback go – that really isn’t the reason you do it. And you have to be happy with it by your own standards regardless of whatever reaction it gets, or doesn’t get. You don’t do it for the reaction, but you do create the work, most of the time, in order to be able to share it. Then it’s out of your hands.
GER: Are you working on any new projects?
JV: I’ve written the lyrics and book for a musical, and I’m looking for a composer/arranger to work with me on it. It involves a gay man who time-travels back to his youth to fulfill an ambition he never pursued – it’s sort of like a gay “Damn Yankees,” only the ambition is musical rather than having to do with sports. The value of the experience for him, of course, is the new perspective it gives him on his current actual life situation, to which he has to struggle to return. It’s both funny and serious.
I’m also looking for publishers for two full-length book manuscripts. One is a book of fairly straightforward free-verse poems, many of them narrative, dealing with my life as an openly gay man. Another is a large selection of poems written in forms over a period of many years, about a wide variety of subjects.
GER: When all is said and done, how will Jack Veasey be remembered?
JV: I have no idea. I hope people will see me as a person who had empathy and compassion, in spite of the fact that my experience of oppression evoked anger that I had to express. But I’ve often found myself the object of people’s projections – sometimes people will tell me that I’ve said things that I actually haven’t said at all. What other people make of you often has much more to do with them than it does with you. You learn that pretty quickly when you’re a member of a minority that’s the object of prejudices. Maybe I’ll ultimately be understood, from what I leave behind, a lot better than I ever was in life. I hope so.
On May 20th Jack Veasey will read in Fox Chase with poets Christine O’Leary Rockey and Marty Esworthy