10 Questions for Jonathan Weinert
- By Sarah Lofstrom
But she was never coming through the snow.
The cottontail’s earth door gapes
And in its cold
Her kitten waits.
-From "Origins of Poetry " Summer 2018 (Volume 59, Issue 2)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I’ve been writing poems, on and off and falteringly, ever since I was about seven years old, so there are countless unremembered poems that I can’t account for, and many of the first poems I wrote when I became serious about it were either never finished or abandoned.
I began writing poems in earnest just after the attacks of September 11, 2001. I heard Stanley Kunitz and W. S. Merwin on NPR talking about what role poetry might play in a world in which such a thing could happen, and although I couldn’t remember exactly what they said I remembered the tone, which was a curious amalgamation of elegy and urgency. Their statements convinced me that if I had it within me to write poems then I’d better go ahead and get on with it—that the impulse was also somehow an obligation. Consequently, I spent many hours walking in the woods with my dog Loretta, writing lines on scraps of paper that I carried in my back pocket without expecting anything to come of it. I wrote in a sort of haunted pastoral mode. I didn’t keep many (any?) of these early poems, but I kept the mode, which eventually turned into something harder and darker.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I think it’s fair to say that every writer I read influences me one way or another. I sometimes think of myself as a cube of literary tofu, taking on the flavor of whatever I happen to be marinating in at the moment.
Certain books, though, have had a particularly significant influence, including William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, James Merrill’s The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, and W. S. Merwin’s The Rain in the Trees. More recently: Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem, and Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s The Guns and Flags Project.
What other professions have you worked in?
Unlike many of my fellow poets, I’m not an academic nor have I ever been a teacher. I’ve worked for years doing marketing writing and other kinds of writing and editing for various software, technology, and publishing companies. I also do some book design on the side for the sheer pleasure of it. I was one of Boston’s first bicycle messengers back in the day, and I’ve waited my share of tables, but I don’t suppose those jobs really rose to the level of “profession.”
What did you want to be when you were young?
I always assumed I would end up as some kind of scientist. I dreamed of becoming an astronomer or an oceanographer, and during my ancient Egyptian phase, circa fourth grade, I wanted to be an archaeologist.
I come from a mathematical family—both my dad and his older brother were math teachers. I’m a little chagrined to say this in a literary journal, but I scored higher on the math SAT than I did on the verbal. I’m still quite interested in the sciences, and the language of science finds its way into my poems fairly frequently.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I wrote “Notes Toward a Future Suicide” in the summer of 2016. I was very much under the influence of the early work of Ted Hughes at the time, which I’d recently discovered. I’d avoided Hughes for decades out of a wrong-headed (and ill-informed) sense of allegiance to Sylvia Plath, who grew up in the same town as I did. This was very silly, because there is something deeply relevant about Hughes’s vision of the violence and power inherent in the natural world, and of how human powers and environmental powers condition and vie with one another. I suppose that my poem here is a more recent version of those first poems that I wrote walking in the woods with my dog, because I had been doing just that as this poem was taking shape.
I have a misgiving about the title since the poem really isn’t about contemplating suicide. Rather, I was thinking about the kind of blissful self-annihilation that can follow in the wake of a furious transcendence.
The woods must be beautiful when they’re empty of human presence. What if you could make yourself disappear?
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I’ve lived in New England my entire life, so it’s fair to say that New England influences my writing, but it’s so much a part of me that I find it difficult to articulate exactly how.
I think all places are imagined places. Or to put it another way, a location on a map becomes a place only when the imagination is brought to bear upon it.
There are places in my dreams that I return to from time to time. I’m sure these places influence me more than I realize, and I wish there was a way to explore them while remaining awake. I’m convinced that those dream places are just as real, in their way, as any coordinate on the surface of the earth.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I listen to many different kinds of music. Often, when I’m working on a poem, I’ll get stuck on a particular piece of music and listen to it over and over again. For “Notes Toward a Future Suicide” it was Morton Feldman’s late-career composition “For Philip Guston,” which is beautiful and quiet and goes on for four and a half hours.
I’ve been listening to Feldman and other minimalist composers quite a bit over the last couple of years because their work creates a sort of sonic environment that I can get inside, a space in which I find it congenial to write. But if the piece of writing I’m working on suggests it, I sometimes have to listen to something activating and sharp, and lately that has tended to mean Cherry Glazerr or U.S. Girls.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
My ritual or tradition is to have no ritual or tradition. I typically do things once in a row, but after that habit shows up in his big black boots and scares the muse away.
When I first started writing regularly, I hoped to establish a routine, so I went out and bought a beautiful oak desk and matching swivel chair. I soon discovered that the only place in the world where I felt completely uninspired, where I couldn’t put two words together to save my life, was sitting at that desk.
Walking or otherwise getting out of the house helps. I often write best in crowded public places—coffee shops, restaurants, airports—where there is human noise and activity going on that doesn’t have anything to do with me.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I was going to be a painter, so I started out as a fine arts major in college, but it didn’t take. I used to be a quite serious classical guitar player, and for a while I toyed with the idea of becoming a professional musician. But I balked at taking a vow of poverty, so I followed the money and became a poet instead. The visual arts and music remain major sources of inspiration, though, and I often think about poems in a painterly or musical way.
What are you reading right now?
If Ottessa Moshfegh had a new book out I’d be reading that, but one must be patient.
I usually have several books going at once. I recently finished Mark Doty’s wonderful memoir Dog Years, and right now I’m in the middle of Brenda Hillman’s new collection, Extra Hidden Life, among the Days. I’m also about two hundred pages into War and Peace, which is one of those books I’ve always felt I should have read but never got around to reading. I’m taken with how psychologically acute the characterizations are. That Tolstoy guy might have been on to something.
JONATHAN WEINERT is the author of In the Mode of Disappearance, winner of the Nightboat Poetry Prize, and Thirteen Small Apostrophes, a chapbook. He is co-editor, with Kevin Prufer, of Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W.S. Merwin. Jonathan received a 2012 poetry fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Recent work appears, or will soon appear, in Plume, Pangyrus, The Southwest Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Louisville Review, and elsewhere.
Photo caption: Jonathan, age 7, having just finished his first poem