A(s) is for Arsenic: An Interview with National Book Award Nominee J.T. Whitehead

J.T. Whitehead’s first published collection of poems, The Table of Elements, has been nominated for the 2015 National Book Award and the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library hosted his poetry reading and book release party on August 7th at 6 p.m.

Other established poets have praised the collection. Julie Kane – winner of the Academy of American Poets Prize (Louise Gluck, Judge) and National Poetry Series Prize (selected by Maxine Kumin) — had this to say: “Whether being lighthearted as a helium balloon or serious as a hydrogen bomb, J. T. Whitehead seeks what is true and elemental about our lives. The spirit of Kurt Vonnegut lives on in this poetic romp through the periodic table by the editor of So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

I recently interviewed J.T., his first interview as a professional creative writer as it were, about the collection, how he became a poet and what the nomination means to him.

Could you talk a little bit about how you got started in creative writing and why?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure what causes someone to write. I’ve thought about this and I wrote about it in the “Letter from the Editor” for Issue Number 3 of “So It Goes: the Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.” I suggested that all of us are meant to be creative and not destructive. I’m not sure about this now but it seemed right at the time.

I’ve been told the first poems I wrote were published in my elementary school anthology in Nebraska. I have a memory of that, or a memory of a memory. I don’t remember writing in junior high school. Weird things happen at those ages. I don’t know if I stopped or if I simply don’t remember doing it. I wrote poetry in high school. I wrote some poetry in college. But as for the “why” I’m still not sure.

Do you have any of those old poems from high school and college?
Only one poem from high school has survived my occasional purge. About once every five years or so I’ll go through the stacks and find works I consider unsalvageable – you know, no amount of editing or revision is going to fix this — and I will shred them. One poem has survived every purge. You have to dump this stuff or you end up with a silverfish farm. I remember hearing about a William Burroughs quote — he said sometimes you write something and think it’s brilliant, and when you read it again you want to shred it and put it in someone else’s trash. It’s hard to destroy your own work, but as I get older, it gets easier, and sometimes you want to.

What is the best writing advice you have received?
I took a poem to Professor Donald Baker, a favorite of mine at Wabash College. He was poet-in-residence. I was looking for advice, and he had almost nothing to say about the poem, and the poem was probably just awful, and in hindsight now I take his silence then as proof of just how bad the poem must have been. But he was kind, and not at all discouraging, and what he said, after staring out his window for some time, was simply, “Read a different poet every month for the rest of your life.”

Well I haven’t done that exactly. But what I have done, I think, is in keeping with the spirit of his advice, which is to make myself read as many different poets as possible, and for the rest of my life. I think all poets should do this, especially with the poetry they think they might not like. If you think all poetry should rhyme and follow a strict metrical form, you should make yourself read Allen Ginsberg or Walt Whitman. If you abhor form and the intentional use of rhyme, make yourself read Frost. Think a poet should avoid politics? Then have some Brecht. You get the idea.

When did you begin taking that advice?
I began right after college, when I also began to write regularly, nightly. I was looking at graduate schools in Philosophy. I was going to be a philosophy professor – don’t ask – and living rent-free at my parents’ house. It was 1987, I was writing in their basement during the night and working at Borders Book Shop during the day. With my 25 percent employee discount, plus the $30 worth of free books they gave us each month, I basically had unlimited access to books. I bought either philosophy titles for graduate school, or literature and poetry that was still new to me, despite my English degree. I found out about all kinds of poets and poetry they never made us study in college.

Talk about your writing process, is it the same place at the same time every day, or do you write when inspiration hits?
I can’t say I have a process. In some respects I’ve been more productive since getting married and becoming a husband and dad, because time is so precious I use it whenever I can. I used to be more of a night-time writer. I would write after work until I went to bed. Now with kids, a full-time job, a wife who works full time, everybody is busy. I do this really whenever I can. I don’t have time to wait for inspiration.

What is the meaning of the title of your first published book, The Table of Elements?
It was originally a “working title” and unlike other projects, I ended up keeping the “working title.”

In the early 1990s I found I had these poems with titles like “Water,” or “Steel,” that sort of thing. I had more than a few of these titles and I thought, “This could be a book.” So it began accidentally. And I started a folder. Then I began to write specific poems with this book in mind, so I would think about the elements and the natural world. Of course, the poems were never about “air” or “water” and so forth. They were always about other things . . .

Then I recalled a book I read as an undergraduate, called “News of the Universe,” by Robert Bly. An anthology of poetry showing how the poets recognize consciousness – recognize life – in this ever-expanding horizon or circle – one that comes to include everything, and not just white men with property, then women, then people from the colonies and so on, but ultimately everything, including animal life, trees, even stones — everything.

And I thought, “Why stop there? Why not go further, deeper, and focus on atoms, elements, molecules, the building blocks themselves?”

In my studies in philosophy, the closest thing to the ideas I found in Bly’s wonderful book was a book by Martin Buber, called “I and Thou.” Buber describes two kinds of relationships human beings have with the things and the people around them. One is an “I-Thou” relationship, the other is an “I-It” relationship. We all understand this. We all get it: we know some people who respect nature, they don’t pollute but do more than that. Some people love natural life so much they won’t even eat meat, which would be very difficult for a person like me, because I can’t imagine life without cheeseburgers. Put another way: some people see a tree when they see a tree, but other people see “lumber” instead. And some people even see other people as an “it.” They don’t see a person at all. They see “labor” – “cost” – an “investment.” They don’t see a “thou.” They see an “it.” We also see this in our every-day lives – where sometimes racism or sexism is the reason someone sees another human as an “it” instead of a “thou.” Or maybe a human being commits a crime against a person. That means they saw the other person as an “it” instead of a “thou.”

And of course people go through life living it both ways.

I’m rambling, so to get back to Bly and his book, “News of the Universe,” this book I recalled after I found I had these poems, well I don’t know if I got Bly’s point or not. I don’t know if the poems I was writing for this book would have been a fit for his anthology. But I let my understanding of the book inform my project. I kept it in mind. The way I read his book might have been wrong, but eventually I figured that this would just mean I ended up with a different book.

I put all those poems about this scientific “stuff” into one folder and over time I wrote more work. The folder was still titled “the table of the elements” and by around the year 2005 or so I was up to over 50 pages. None of the poems were meant to be about this or that element. I had Bly’s thesis in mind, even if it was a misunderstanding of it, and I wanted to let the poems say something about us psychologically, emotionally, politically, metaphysically – for lack of a better word – so that I wasn’t writing about scientific stuff at all, not really saying anything scientific, but trying to penetrate the way science labels and uses this stuff. I mean, the big picture idea was that a lot of science does the world in an “I-It” kind of way, after all.  Whereas a lot of poetry sees “Thou” . . .

Did you have to do a lot of research on the subject?
I did. But it was more like many subjects. I learned about different elements or compounds because I wanted to make sure if anything quasi-scientific made its way into the book, I didn’t want to be completely wrong. The joke around my house is that I put the “c” in Science — both of them — a “c” for physics, a “c” for biology. I may have learned more about science writing this book of poetry than I did in my science classes.

And then, as I mentioned earlier, I also revisited Bly’s anthology for a kind of “thesis.”

And last of all I also researched some history . . . but only when and where an “element” or a “compound” had a weird way of impacting human history. I did some research, for example, on the silver rush in Nevada, but that poem ended up not making the book. But historical research about the Zeppelin did make the book, for example, as did research about nuclear weaponry, and a whole lot of other subjects.

Do you edit your own work?
With poetry, I edit my own work, or mostly. As for any kind of writing I do generally, I also married a woman who finished graduate school in Editing at George Washington after studying English as an undergraduate like me. Sometimes I’ll leave what I wrote overnight on the kitchen table in a bowl for Julia to read the next morning.

It used to be difficult to cut lines and words – just like it used to be harder shredding old work.

What was it like when you heard this was nominated for the National Book Award?
Weird. My publisher Jamie Brown told me, and I try not to think about it. It’s already much more than I was expecting. One thing it made me was even more grateful to my publisher, of course. When it comes to the book, I honestly felt that I was onto something that readers might relate to. But I didn’t think anything more than that the work was publishable, maybe special enough to merit a nice review or two, and maybe sell some few hundred copies. I figure if that is all that happens in the end, I’ll be very happy.

I have to ask, what is your interest in Vonnegut, beyond being married to the Director of KVML? Did she inspire an interest in Vonnegut, or was it a mutual connection?
I was a huge Vonnegut fan and I had read nearly everything he published before I met Julia. When I worked at Borders I read Vonnegut book after Vonnegut book. My favorite was Mother Night, probably because I was a philosophy student and that is the most existential and most philosophical book he wrote, I think. I never stopped viewing him as a giant. I have had other favorites in the past like the Beat poets or Henry Miller, and while I still recognize their worth in the history of American literature, they have not remained as important to me in the same way Vonnegut has.

You can now buy Table of Elements through the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library store.

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