A Virtual Poetorium Interview With Poet Jonathan Andersen

Poet Jonathan Andersen

The Virtual Poetorium interview with James R. Scrimgeour, which I reblogged here on this blog in August, was so well-received that I decided to follow it up today with the interview Ron Whittle and I did with the poet Jonathan Andersen that originally appeared in the very first Virtual Poetorium published on March 31, 2020 (I hope you will enjoy reading it)

Jonathan Andersen is the author of Augur (Red Dragonfly Press, 2018), which was the recipient of the 2017 David Martinson-Meadowhawk Poetry Prize and a finalist for the 2019 Connecticut Book Award in Poetry. Other books include The Burden Note, (Meridian Prize, 2014), an English/Serbo-Croatian chapbook, and Stomp and Sing (Curbstone Press/Northwestern University Press, 2005). He is the editor of the anthology Seeds of Fire: Contemporary Poetry from the Other U.S.A. (Smokestack Books, 2008). He has been a featured reader throughout the eastern United States, the United Kingdom, and Serbia, including at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, the 49th International Festival of Literature in Belgrade, and the 42nd Smederevo Poetry Autumn. His poems have appeared in print and online publications, including Blue Collar Review, The Café Review, Chiron Review, Connecticut Review, Counterpunch, Exposition Review, Freshwater, HeART, Here, North American Review, The Progressive, Rattle, The Worcester Review, and others. For 12 years he was a high school English and special education teacher, and since 2008 has been a professor of English at Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson and Willimantic, Connecticut. He and his wife, fellow writer and educator Denise Abercrombie, live in Storrs, Connecticut with their two sons. Jonathan’s books Augur, Stomp and Sing, and Seeds of Fire: Contemporary Poetry from the Other U.S.A. can be purchased online at his website Jonathan Andersen — Teacher/Poet by clicking here.

A Virtual Poetorium Interview With Poet Jonathan Andersen

RON: Thank you once again, Jonathan, for agreeing to do this! My first question is what or who got you involved in poetry?

JONATHAN: Before poetry, or necessarily bound up in poetry, is a love of language and its possibilities, so I’d have to say my parents were the people first responsible for my involvement in poetry, even if a little indirectly, because they read to me and my twin brother every night, or almost every night, when we were very young. I can remember, vividly, lying in my bed, listening to the summer night sounds from the open bedroom window, thinking about Stuart Little out there in the dark somewhere, searching, motivated by love. I always tell my students at the college, with all the urgency I can muster, to read to their children.

Public education also got me into poetry. In sixth grade, Mr. Novinski did a poetry unit which culminated in every kid in the class publishing her or his own collection of poems. And when I was an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut, I was fortunate enough to meet a few professors — especially James Scully and Joan Joffe Hall — who saw something in my writing to encourage. Even more importantly they kept sending me to the library stacks to read. They introduced me to poets such as Jim Daniels, a Detroit poet who was writing powerfully spare poems that had forklifts and time clocks and economic struggle. That poetry could so fully admit my reality was absolutely a revelation.

RON: Who is your favorite poet and why?

JONATHAN: I can never really answer this question because there are so many. Here’s a sampling:

William Blake is a major influence, for his energy, and profoundly human vision (even in his supernatural excesses).

Langston Hughes should be important to everybody for his combination of tenderness and fearlessness, qualities which are gathered together in “A Dream Deferred,” but run throughout his work.

I always come back to the Polish poet Tadeus Różewicz’s book The Survivor and Other Poems for its spare, defiant humanity.

I am an enormous admirer of June Jordan. Her work had such wide emotional range and she kept putting poetry into community, into life, seamlessly blending her art with her teaching.

I admire poets who are ambitious. I don’t mean ambitious in a careerist or entrepreneurial sense; I mean that they are always trying to get at something deeper, bigger, more true, in terms of craft and content. You can’t always swing for the fences, but I gravitate to those poets who try to take on in some way the big questions about what it means to be human, and try to develop or expand the ways poems can be up to the task.

RON: Does your poetry hold any secrets that you would care to share with us?

JONATHAN: I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Kidding, obviously. I think actually that some of the secrets I haven’t found out yet, and some of the secrets won’t be mine, but will belong to the reader or listener. I don’t mean to mystify — I don’t admire mystification — it’s just that there’s more to find out, and often there’s more to what we’re writing than we realize at the time. We find out what that is if we’re lucky.

RON: If you had to describe your writing in one word, what would that word be?

JONATHAN: “Sublime.” No — kidding again. “Genuine” is my real answer.

RON: So, Paul, do you have any questions you’d like to ask Jonathan?

PAUL: Thanks, Ron! Yes, I do! Jonathan, do you have a writing routine, and if so, can you describe it to us?

JONATHAN: I try to catch time when I can. I’d like to say I have a more disciplined routine, but I don’t.

There’s still hope, though — I’m only fifty. I want to be better at following the advice I and all writing teachers give to our students: regardless of your exact writing strategy, your first process should always be to just let go of the inner censors, the ghostly voices of past English teachers or critics or whatever and just write.

Two other aspects of my process that are really essential for me: I meet with a writers’ group. I am fortunate to have been able to be in long-running groups with writers I admire and trust.

Finally, my wife is a poet and writer, and we read each other’s work, we admire each other’s work, and we critique each other’s work. Even more importantly, we navigate this life together, and the writing comes out of life.

PAUL: There are so many things I’d like to ask you, but to keep this interview relatively short, I just have one more question. What advice would you have for someone who is just starting to write poetry?

JONATHAN: Be curious. Read widely. Be open to critique. I also like the advice at the end of Gary Snyder’s poem “For the Children”: Stay together. / Learn the flowers. / Go light.

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