Interview with Jamie Perez
Everyone who knows Jamie knows of his radiance, and probably, like me, has been eager to find out what his book does. Now, thanks to Mark Cugini and Big Lucks Books, we know—and we are not disappointed. There Were Rivers Before People is a tight and bristling chapbook, one that seems bigger than the word “chapbook” to me (even though I love that word and its size). The 25ish poems interrelate and build off each other. They’re fun to read and invite reflection, which is the true calling of any poetry book with the word “River” in the title. I’ve started calling the book “Rivers B4 People.” It’s one of those page turners the works the way poetry is meant to—we’re not just cruising to the end, we’re flipping back and forth through the poems to see how Jamie got to where he brought us.
If I seem enthusiastic about these pages, it’s because I am. In full disclosure, Jamie was part of the Narrow House collective which published my first book, and he and I were in a band. So we’re tight bros and I’m better for it. We’re even going on tour this month (details below—come hang).
I sent him a bunch of questions and conversation starters last week, or the week before, and he replied with some thoughtful answers about his poems and poetry in general, and about Stephen King, Chris Toll, and math and … And then true to form it took me a while to get them posted. But here are some jewels.
Here’s a ton of questions. Feel free to dance among them.
It’s the bottom of the ninth of a Blue Jays – Orioles game and it’s tied. Chris Davis is batting. Seems like a good time to answer these.
Wow, he just hit a fly out to the warning track.
Were these poems culled from those little notebooks you carry around everywhere?
One or two of them started that way. And a bunch of individual lines were first written in those notebooks.
Mostly they are little improvisations written anywhere and everywhere on my phone. So sometimes the notebook lines come back to me.
The notebooks are mostly for writing while I’m driving (don’t try that at home), but I commute mostly by train now… so the notebooks get used less and less.
How did you revise them?
Honestly, not much. Sometimes it is hard to revise them at all because they feel like little crystalline structures of how my thoughts hopped around during improvising (“Red Line to Takoma, Exhausted Again”). Other times, I can’t remember the mindset at all and I find the sequencing and juxtapositions alien in a good way (“Here You Go Again”), and so then I don’t want to touch those either.
And then other times, I just rip them apart and boil them down. Like “He Meant Access” was twice as long as a poem originally with a bunch of sprawling uselessness (in a bad way). Mark was good about pushing me on that one and getting it to a better place.
There’s a lot about travel in these poems. Where are you going with that?
Did you mean that question to be a pun / dad joke?
It was a good one.
I’m not super-sure… But I think part of it is that I write all my poems on my phone. I’ve been doing that for years now (five maybe?). That started for all kinds of theoretical and pragmatic reasons…
I wanted to make it easier to make time for writing, so now I always had “my writing crap” with me.
I wanted to try and further collapse the space between living (doing) and writing (observing).
I wanted to get closer to “present” and “now.”
I wanted to continue my fascination with how we collaborate with our writing tools (how we write differently in longhand with a pencil vs. a pen, and then different further on a keyboard) — especially “smarter tools” like spell-checking and thesaurus recommendations, being able to take pictures and record sound with the same tool. Now autocorrection available on smartphones. In the same vein I’ve been feeling an emoji streak welling up that I’ve been fighting back.
But back to your question… At some point, writing on my phone started to have this aspect of the actual places I was in. Places where people didn’t typically write or think about writing — like at 10,000 feet on an airplane. Or while eating alone at a bar. Between places on a train or in a cab. And so, soon, I was finding all these little unused moments in transit that became opportunities to think and write and react to what was going on with me and around me.
I guess I end up travelling a lot for work — and so if I was gonna get all write what you know or whatever poetry’s version of the fiction adage is (write what you’re living?) that just the way it started panning out.
And travel is interesting anyway. People always say that in life you’ll spend your time getting from A to B, but reaching B isn’t the point — it’s what happens on the way there. I’m sure I just mangled a whole belief system there, sorry. But that’s what’s going on for me, too.
The poems change quickly from “sensible” lines, like this stanza,
“Some days you have to choose between
The Collected Life’s Simplest Truths and
The Living Under Constant Threat Reader”
to abstraction, like the next stanza:
“This that then which
Ever from when if if forever
Everything even more
Now that this again and again”
What’s your plumb line for what/how poems mean things?
Can I just plead the Ashbery there? I mean, my poems are trying to mean anything — even while I hope they help the reader or the listener get to some meaning that is worth something to them — even if it’s just a matter of passing a little time. Sometimes you just have time you need to pass. And connecting with or to something across time and space and culture and whatever is a really fucking comforting thing.
But also, those jumps just make my brain feel good. They’re fun. Like skipping is fun, you know? Do you ever just skip for a few steps in the middle of the day when nobody’s looking? It gets my brain’s blood flowing.
You like hyphens? What’s your punctuation standard for poetry?
Oh man. You mean the double dashes? Sometimes I get caught in a rut with those things.
Here’s the deal. I’m always struggling against narrative and storytelling and whatever the hell the lyric is or is for (in a good way). And for me, once you have regular sentences (subject, verb, object, punctuation) you have story. Sometimes these lines like “This that than which / Ever from when if if forever…” and so on is a rebellious moment against narrative even while being narrative-beyond-narrative.
But often I’m hoping the lack of punctuation will open up the reader to connect the meaning where they want it to be — whether consciously or not… re-arranging the relationships between words into something they need at the moment they are reading. And I want to have all those meanings all at once.
In “There You Have It,” you write, “My skin is singed / but my life is on fire” — Did anyone ever tell you there’s a lot of Chris Toll in these poems?
No! But that’s great. Funny you say that, cuz I was just thinking about Chris today.
With some of my friends that are no longer with us, I see them regularly. Not a ghost, but I mis-see them in a person on a street corner or someone driving a car by me. There is this guy I went to high school with who I’ve mis-seen every 6 weeks or so for years now!
But with Chris, I never see him. Instead, he pops up in my head — lines of his, his particular ways of thinking — so I’m not surprise at all that he’s been sneaking his sneaky little mystic ass into some of these poems.
I remember a night at Metro Gallery reading where I told him all about writing on my phone. I mean, Chris wrote on paper and carried paper drafts around for months that he would continuously revise. That was his jam. But when we talked about writing on his phone, he got this childish-wonder look on his face. It was so awesome that I could be there for that. And then later that night, Margaret got a great picture of him writing away on his phone.
Your day job is to help people figure out and achieve their goals. Does that factor into your poetry?
Honestly? Not at all. Which is amazing.
How is poetry doing in 2016?
I firmly believe more people are writing poetry than ever at any moment in all of history. And that will keep on being the case every day, every year, from now on. And that’s awesome. Poetry is a great place to learn to think and mean and discover new ways of thinking and meaning and connecting.
And, god, I hope more people are reading poetry than ever, but I’m less sure of that.
And there are a shit-ton of great writers out there. Like that piece the other day “30 Poets You Should Check Out” (title paraphrased). And it was totally true. You should read all 30 of them. And it could have been 150 poets you should read, and it also would be totally true. There is more you should read than you’ll ever have time to read. And that’s a beautiful thing if you don’t let it scare you.
You read a ton. I’m used to seeing piles of new books in your house, everything from high lit to sci-fi to pretty much all the indie books I’ve ever noticed on the Internet. But if there is a correlation in any of your poems, it’s subtle. How does your filter work?
I definitely try to keep my reading diverse in all kinds of directions, but if I’m being honest, I’ll confess that I buy way more than I read. And I try NOT to beat myself up about having not read everything. Which, when you say it out loud, seems a lot more obvious.
As for my work? I want my work to grab everything and anything. I love dialect. I love juxtaposing ways of speaking or thinking, meaning or not meaning, times, places, tenses, cultures, voices, structures. I think the “keeping it diverse” rule that guides my reading is at the very least a super-useful tool to my writing. I always need scenery to chew or melodies to improvise over top of.
I don’t need to ask your thoughts on Baltimore, since the book is in two sections, “Not Baltimore,” and “Baltimore.” But can you tell me your thoughts on:
The most important artform of our age. There is a lot of poetry going on in games right now if you look in the right places (Venus Patrol can help guide your way if you’re looking for a guide). And as both making and distribution become more democratized, you’re going to see explosion after explosion of creativity. There is a fucking avalanche of awesome coming.
I’m not a super-fan, but he’s a definite go-to for me, regularly. And he’s totally underappreciated and should be studied way more. And he’s definitely where I get long strings of words all hyphenated into a mass. You know, as someone who wants to be a writer, you just need to read a lot of different stuff. And when I’m reading Stephen King, or the Dune books, or comic books, or supernatural romances where people go on vampire yoga dates (I’m not making that up — I mean, I’d be fucking rich if I’d made that up) you get to engage this whole other writer gear where you edit things around and rewrite what you’re reading while you read it. I mean, that’s how I want people to read my poetry.
“That sounds right vs. that’s right” —Jamie Perez
I think this is what I’m working on most as a person. The space between rhetoric and right — and trying to move my life to be all about the “right” (which is a personal and relative thing that changes day to day and moment to moment)… So I think it comes up again and again in my writing.
I mean what does it mean for a phrase to sound good and yet be utterly a bad idea? Or for two words to rhyme and have nothing else in common as far as meaning or use? I guess there is some Ezra Pound noodling in there somewhere? I don’t know. It’s just interesting and important.
I haven’t thought about him in a long time. I gotta go read some more of him soon.
Lucy K Shaw
I sometimes say that I have a 16-year old girl in my heart. We all do, don’t we? Mine wants to ride around in an open Jeep blaring Sleigh Bells’ “Rill Rill,” cruising along a beach somewhere. And that 16-year old girl in my heart looks up to people like Lucy K Shaw and Sarah Jean Alexander and Amanda McCormick and Tracy Dimond. They’re the big sisters my inner 16-year old girl wishes she had. Does that make sense? Anyway they-all are just fucking going for it. And I have so much admiration for what they’re up to.
The sun, as it relates to your poetry
I don’t believe in God. So, I guess I have the sun. And at the same time, sun’s are this wicked scientific thing. And they just POUR their energy out for all of us to turn into life. They give and give and give.
Rivers in poetry, traditionally
You know, I thought I had no symbolism in my poetry anymore. But these questions… And Mark called out all the spiders when he was editing the book. Rivers go from place to place. And they are way bigger than human. I mean, you can see a human-scope slice of a river at one point, and then another point. But the river is all those places, all at once. I think that about train tracks and highways all the time… and I guess it was rivers that came before them.
You know I’m a pinko. So… No.
When I first started doing web stuff, making animated GIFs for banner ads was something the designers had to do all the time. So when GIFs made a new-and-different comeback a while back, it was awesome and strange to me. GIFs are great the way photographs are great. And they smear time by looping it… and that’s also really great.
“It’s all math from here.”
That’s one of a my mantras. A number of my closest friends in college were in physics majors. And I was an English major, but I think multi-variable calculus was the most mind-expanding / -blowing class I took in college… But anyway, the physics folks would do all this higher order math stuff. And on exams, they would take a problem to a certain point, and then say, “it’s all math from here.” Like all the thinking and difference and uniqueness was done, now the systems are just gonna play out and y’all know what that’s gonna be like.
You know Stephen King’s Under the Dome? That would’ve been such a better book if he’d just ended it like one hundred and fifty pages in with “It’s all math from here.”
It’s about that moment where you see how everything is going to be. Larry Bird didn’t need to watch the freethrow go through the hoop, he could just turn around and trot back to play D, he felt it, he knew it was going in. Watch Steph Curry, he does that on freakin’ 3-pointers from time to time. He feels it, then knows gravity is going to take care of the rest.
Those postcards Buck Downs sends
I wish I had anything useful to add to this, but I don’t.
Ursula K. LeGuin
I just read The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time. Man, I have to read more of her stuff.
You’re on a desert island and Jeff Mangum can only save Malkmus or Bob Pollard.
Have you heard SOAK?
How do you know when a poem is done?
I just suddenly feel the last line. And sometimes it’s the next one I’m about to write or it’s a few away. I’m starting to distrust that feeling, but I haven’t broken away from it yet.
How do you know when an interview is done?
Now, about that tour…
May 3 TOMORROW!: Philly (w/ Jaime Fountaine, Sarah Rose Etter, and me) at Tattooed Moms (Facebook)
May 4: Baltimore (official release party with Stephen Dixon and Sparkle Psych) at Normals (Facebook)
May 5: Baltimore (Hey You Come Back! series w/ Jenny Xie and me) at The Crown (Facebook)
May 6: Raleigh (So and So Says w/ Adam Good and me) at So and So Says (Facebook)
May 21: Buffalo
May 24: NYC (Cool as F*ck series w/ Steven Thomas, Mark Di Silva, Amanda McCormick and me)