Matt DeBenedictis Interviews Jamie Iredell

When I walked into the bar to chat with Jamie Iredell I was greeted by a Jamie I had never seen. Only a few days before, Jamie did a reading at one of the local colleges (not the one where he teaches). It was there, after getting comfortable in a chair, I saw the Jamie I knew, the one I’m used to seeing, the Jamie that greets you with a smile. When Jamie read that night he took to the front of the room, the makeshift stage where all the remnants of the last play practiced in the room had been pushed away, his smile crept in from under the cover of his goatee. The smile “held it down,” as some say, waited for the perfect moment to show itself off to the crowd, the moment when Jamie’s playful words hit the audience, where delight is undeniable. The smile was let loose.

But Jamie wasn’t smiling when I walked up to him; he was hovering over the bar, lamenting over a tall PBR. The whole bar felt different. It was still loud but something was different, maybe it was because all the TVs were switched to different news stations rather than assorted sports and reruns of The Simpsons. All the screens had the same background—a hospital—but with a different reporter and different headline. The bar felt steamy, like the air conditioner was off, but I could hear it buzzing in a fight against the hot air God throws at Georgia. “I guess Michael Jackson is dead,” he said.

In the last year, Jamie had three chapbooks released: Before I Moved to Nevada (Publishing Genius Press), When I Moved to Nevada (Greying Ghost Press), and Atlanta (Paper Hero Press). These chapbooks all connect as one story, but each section, each tightly woven page, can work on its own as well. Later this year, a full book version entitled Prose: Poems, a Novel, containing all three chapbooks, will be released.

Debenedictis: Where did poetry begin for you?

Iredell: I started writing poetry in earnest when I was a freshman in college; I think because I thought it would be a very cool way to impress chicks. So I began writing these really bad rhyming poems about girls, for girls, stuff like that.

At my undergraduate college there was an introductory creative writing course, which I enrolled in. My professor at that time (Gailmarie Pahmeier, author of The House on Breakaheart Road)—she ended up becoming my first mentor—explained that they had upper division creative writing courses, but at that time at the University of Nevada, in Reno, you had to submit work to even be considered for enrollment in one of those classes. They would only take the best of the undergraduates to even take those classes, so she told us: “If I think any of you may have particular talent as writers, I’ll pull you aside at the end of class and encourage you to take the advance courses.” She did that for me. She told me “You’re a fairly talented poet,” and it was one of those moments where it was the first time someone really tells you you’re good at something. So that’s how I ended up studying poetry.

Debenedictis: Were the chapbooks written all as one piece?

Iredell: No, no. In fact, the chapbook you just pre-ordered, When I Moved to Nevada, was the first group that I wrote and I wrote everything in it as individual pieces. By the time I had written fifteen or so I knew I had at least a chapbook, as they were all related to each other. I was really thinking about it as a section that would go into a book that would also contain line poems.

Of course, in the course of revising that book there were a number of people who read that book (like Mike Dockins and another poet Laura McCullough). They were both like, “You may consider this section that is all prose poems as a book by itself.”

At first, I was resistant to that because I was like, I’ve put together an entire book here. I don’t want to break it into two books. After a couple of people said that, I thought they really must be onto something and I knew I wasn’t done writing in that mode yet, so I kept on writing them. I wrote all the pieces in the chapbooks as individual pieces with individual titles, so when they came out in magazines they came out as individual pieces. But I knew they all worked together, so when I fashioned them into a book that was conscious.

Debenedictis: I know so much of the scenery comes from your own life but where did the idea to start writing this whole book come from?

Iredell: I went to The Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 2007 and at that time I was working on more traditional long length fiction and lineated poems. I had written a few prose poems before but I hadn’t really worked in that mode. But, during the conference, I drafted this poem—that was a lineated poem—but it had this feel to it. It had a hyperbolic metaphorical register, where every single line and every single verb was a metaphor and I just started writing in that mode.

The first one I drafted was from the middle chapbook; it was about cats. The speaker ends up getting a cat, and as you said, many of these poems come from my own life, and I was thinking about when I got my first cat and some of the details related to that and just talking about it in an overly metaphorical way like “the trees are like hands.” I was really trying to heighten certain details to get the sense of a story happening but not really telling you a lot about the story like, the neighbors pounded on the door and I lay free of headaches, and I hadn’t yet scrubbed my teeth with Crest. It just sounded like a far more interesting way to say brush my teeth.

I knew I was playing with language in such a way that the details felt very surreal, which I think is one of the key elements to prose poems and by virtue of that short short stories, often. They’re often very surreal; you only get a snippet of the story. It’s like that old Hemingway quote: a short story is like the iceberg. You only see the tip of the iceberg because most of it is underneath the water. That’s a traditional short story. The short short story is like an ice cube and only the top of the ice cube is floating on the water while the rest of it is underneath.

But really, I would just think about shit that happened to me. Frankly, I’ve had a lot of crazy shit happen in my life.

Debenedictis: How much is autobiographical?

Iredell: In a certain sense, everything was autobiographical, but I’ve changed a lot of details. Like in one of the pieces the narrator is camping with a friend. They are both on LSD and they are jumping off cliffs into this pond formed by a river in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. That really happened to me. I was tripping with this friend of mine but I reversed the roles of the characters.

There is a character named Smokey, but that’s what a lot of my friends used to call me. I made myself this friend of mine instead of… he’s talking to me essentially. I don’t know, when I was on this weird acid trip I said, “Hey man! Wouldn’t it be really cool if I got real obese. You could just hang out at the house and make me peanut butter banana sandwiches and I’ll just lie in bed and see how fat I can get, and then try to lose all the weight.” And he said, “Yeah. That’s a great idea.” Then I broke my finger that night. Shit like that happens and it makes for a good story.

At this point in the conversation my phone went off, a text lit up the screen, hiding the clever wallpaper I had cleverly cropped onto it. “Looks like it’s official,” I said, “Michael Jackson is dead.” Jamie then said, “We are watching the literal end of the analog era. TV just converted over to full digital and the icons of the analog era of music are dying faster than we can record them.” Jamie took a quick shot of his tequila. “But writing itself is still pretty goddamned analog,” Jamie’s face lit up, “I don’t care if you have a computer, you still have to make words that function in space and time, in our case with English (words), from left to right and from up to down. A story is still linear in its own space…that’s one of the fantastic things about literature. It’s always going to be multidimensional.”

Debenedictis: One of my favorite elements in these chapbooks is the bitterness that kind of sneaks into recollections and stories.

Iredell: The book—I’m talking about the book as a whole—lends itself to a retrospective point of view because the speaker is looking back on how he got to the point where he is now. At one point, there is a line where the speaker actually says, “Looking back, it’s only now that I realize what kind of idiot that I’ve become.” Which calls attention to that tone you were talking about.

I crafted that sentence on purpose. Looking back, right. I’m retrospectively looking back on the past, it’s only now in the present tense. But I can see what kind of idiot I’ve become. So he’s become this kind of idiot, but as we read the story we know this guy was doing stupid shit back then, so it’s an ironic sentence. The guy has the distance to look back on his past and say, “Oh I did a bunch of stupid shit, but I didn’t do anything to stop that. I’m still stupid now.” So that one sentence has a kind of wisdom to it, which I think only the retrospective point of view can produce.

This is another point where the pieces of all these chapbooks cross over from just prose poetry into fiction. I really was paying attention to point of view, which is probably the most complicated and important tool of the fiction writer. Poets, not all poets at least, really pay that much attention to it. You have the speaker of the poem, you don’t usually refer to speaker as the narrator even though the term is interchangeable… I don’t want to generalize. I would just say that many poets are not thinking about that first and foremost; they are thinking about language. But I was consciously thinking about point of view in the crafting of all these pieces. I think that’s where the story of these prose poems, or flash fiction, or whatever the fuck you want to call them, comes out.

Debenedictis: The line about the character Ike needing a beating is that point of view.

Iredell: That’s the one way to sum that up.

Debenedictis: The bitterness just jumps in all of a sudden.

Iredell: Yeah, exactly! The speaker says, “I wanted to beat him like anyone named Ike deserves to be pummeled.” And then I forgot about it. Period. “Until now”. It’s obvious the narrator hasn’t forgotten about it since he’s telling you the story. Wait a minute, since I’m thinking about it, I’m still pissed.  And then again, I’m a real big fan of irony, and that’s an ironic moment in the story, or prose poem.

You were asking earlier about the autobiographical nature of these pieces and I literally went to high school with a guy named Ike. My sister literally did date this guy. You can’t make this shit up. It really does work. Ike really was a fucking asshole; he still is. This guy is one of the biggest self-centered pieces of shit I have ever known in my life. It wrote itself that his name is Ike. Everybody’s whose name is Ike is doomed to be an asshole. I’ll bet you President Eisenhower was a fucking cocksucker.

Debenedictis: All three of the chapbooks have very different art and style to them, what’s going on with the art for the full book version?

Iredell: I designed this one (Atlanta). Christie Call designed this one (Before I Moved to Atlanta). In the full-length book there is going to be artwork scattered through the book. I had created a series of pieces that are related to this book on my own. Some of them are stencil art, some of them are pen and ink drawings and Christie Call, since I asked her to do the cover art for Before I Moved to Nevada, I asked her if she would be interested in doing some more art pieces for the full-length work to kind of compliment it.

The way it’s looking like what’s going to happen is on certain pages throughout there will be full color drawings, and in some cases black ink sketches, and there will be stencil art scattered throughout the book. What I’m doing right now, as I’m designing the book—I do design for C&R Press so I’m designing my own book—I’m pairing those up with bizarre little anecdotal inserts, like in one case there is a picture of an ear with a bite taken out of it, ‘cause I have a story called “Tyson,” which is not directly about Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear but it’s alluded to in the story. The caption for the ear is about the inner parts of the ear taken from a medical textbook.

Debenedictis: A couple of nights ago at the bbq at your house I noticed a copy of Before I Moved to Nevada that had maps of Nevada spread throughout the chapbook’s layout. Was that an idea for that chapbook?

Iredell: Actually, I think Adam Robinson from Publishing Genius Press sent me a couple of author copies and I think he specially made that one to be mine because none of the other chapbooks included that. I really like that one because it had the map in it, so I was like, I’m keeping that one. If I could find reproductions of maps that are really good and have the printer put them into different sections of the full-length work I’d love to do that. Already we’re at the point where the book is going to be prohibitively expensive by having full color insert art. FUCK! If only money was made out of cotton and wood pulp and pressed into a paper form that had letters and numbers and pictures of presidents on it. If only that were to happen, well shit, I could afford to do whatever I wanted.

Debenedictis: You mentioned this on your blog, but didn’t you get a harsh rejection because of the drug usage?

Iredell: When I was sending out the full book I got one rejection from a publisher who was like, I really love this but I don’t glorify drugs. There have been far too many lives, my own and others I know, that have been affected by drugs in terrible ways. I could not condone a book that romanticizes them.

The immediate thing that I thought when I read that rejection was that the editor didn’t read too far into it. She might have read the first couple of sections but obviously didn’t read the full thing as an arch, because the book is about a character’s salvation from drugs.

Debenedictis: By the time you get to Atlanta, the character has a totally different attitude towards those things.

Iredell: Oh yeah. In Atlanta the character is still kind of bumbling along, still making stupid mistakes, still doing drugs, but almost in a poem or a short short story itself you get to climax and resolution. It is implied because there is no time to get to it. In a novel like War and Peace you got lots of time to talk about how things resolve themselves, but in these pieces I could not do that.

In Atlanta the character decides “I don’t want this kind of life anymore,” and is working hard to change his way of life so he can live with the woman he eventually falls in love with. That’s why I felt this editor certainly didn’t read the whole book. I think probably all of us know, even if you’ve only seen some stupid fucked Hollywood movie, that a drug lifestyle only leads to a fucked lifestyle. It isn’t a healthy situation.

I don’t condone that. I lived through it and I got better and I think other people can too. It enriched my life in many ways.

Debenedictis: As a professor have you had to deal with the same type of criticism among other teachers for the drug content?

Iredell: It’s no secret that the academy tends to be stodgy and professors of creative writing are in a kind of weird position in that we are both professors and artists at the same time. You’re an artist while we have a responsibility to meeting the obligations of the department or the university, and meeting the responsibilities of teaching our students and advising them.

One of the weird things is that in most cases in the academy the creative writing program is part of the English Department. There are a few places where the creative writing program is part of the Art Department. Most art departments in colleges have artists that are teaching art and then you have the art history professors who are critics and scholars of art history. But in the English Department the vast majority of the faculty and graduate students are scholars of composition and rhetoric or lit criticism. And then you have your handful of literary artists.

There has always been the superficial stupid idea that the creative writers don’t like the scholars and the scholars and critics don’t like the creative writers, which of course is nonsense. However, to use a Nietzschean term, the creative writers tend to be Nietzsche’s idea of free spirits, they’re just like, I don’t give a fuck what the academy thinks of me, I write my stories. I certainly know my discipline better than anyone else, aside from those who do the same thing.

I would never tell a literary critic how to discuss new historicism in a novel. That’s not my job. It’s also likewise not my job to tell a new historian that they shouldn’t have gone to the department party and drank  sherry and tea because it destroys their rep as a professor. Likewise, I don’t think anyone should look at a creative person and say, “Oh my god! You smoked pot! You shouldn’t be a part of the academy.” I’m not running for fucking president. I’m a professor. And I’m an artist. If you want to criticize me, then make me into a politician.


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