A Conversation with Jackson Holbert
BY D.S. WALDMAN
Jackson Holbert was born and raised in eastern Washington. His first book, Winter Stranger, won the 2022 Max Ritvo Prize and is out from Milkweed Editions. His work has appeared in Poetry, FIELD, The Nation, Narrative, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Copper Nickel, The Iowa Review, and multiple editions of Best New Poets. He received his MFA in poetry from the Michener Center for Writers and is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford. He has received fellowships from the Michener Center for Writers, The Stadler Center for Poetry, and The Sewanee Writers’ Conference and has been a finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship.
This summer I had the pleasure of sitting with award-winning poet Jackson Holbert to discuss his debut collection Winter Stranger, selected by Henri Cole as winner of the 2022 Max Ritvo Prize from Milkweed Editions. Jackson is a friend of mine, a former workshop-mate, and so our discussion took place on the couch in his living room in Oakland. We talked about his writing process, the evolution of this particular manuscript, and his relationship to landscape. Our recorded conversation lasted nearly an hour, so I’ve excerpted the discussion here.
DS Waldman: Jackson, when did you write the first poem in Winter Stranger? And when did you write the last?
Jackson Holbert: I wrote the first poem in, I think, the spring of 2014. So it would have been just before I turned 20. And the last poem I finished would have been written in mid-March 2023, about two days before the book was to go to print.
DSW: So the writing process for Winter Stranger was almost a decade. How might you describe that experience?
JH: I didn’t feel like I was making a book for most of it, or not with any intentionality. If the first poem was done when I was 20, a book wasn’t even really on my mind. The book didn’t start to form until I was probably 26. At that point, I had enough poems that I thought were competent enough to make up a book I wouldn’t be entirely embarrassed by. And after I got to that sort of critical mass, that gave me instruction on what poems I needed to write to actually finish the book. I could tell that the book sort of looked at rural America in a certain light. But when I looked at those poems, I also knew that certain things were missing. So a lot of that process was finding the things that I thought were missing from the manuscript I had, and then filling in those gaps.
DSW: You mention rural America as a sort of backdrop for the book—in American poetry, we often think of the pastoral as a bucolic space, one fertile with inspiration, but what you’re writing into, your experience in eastern Washington, is the pastoral as an especially haunted space that threatens, feels dangerous, feels unsafe. And in the poems too there is a spookiness to what the landscape is, what it’s doing and how the speaker is interacting with it. And I wonder if you could speak to that dichotomy between the pastoral in your work and the pastoral in the American tradition.
JH: Yeah, no, I think in general—I wonder if this is a generational divide—the Louise Glück generation and the Robert Frost generation, their fundamental relationship with nature is different. The place I grew up in eastern Washington had very few houses until the 1990s. It was an independent-ish small town of 300 people. It had a small town culture. By the mid 2000s it had a population of about 3000, almost all people who commuted into Spokane, which was about 15 miles away. So, in a short period of time, it turned from an independent place into an exurb. So you had this culture that had just started up. And then suddenly, no one actually works there anymore. Everybody works 15 or 20 miles away. So you essentially are living in a place where most people have no long-standing relationship with the landscape. And you’re also surrounded by these incredible things. I mean, I grew up overlooking one of the biggest rivers in eastern Washington. There are hills everywhere, really, I mean hills that would be, like, the biggest thing in Rhode Island if it was in Rhode Island. And you’re essentially looking at the sublime, you’re looking at these things that are reminding you of your own insignificance. And if you have, you know, a small town of 10,000 people, and you have a community there, those hills, those rivers are less terrifying, because you feel like you are experiencing this as a group, you feel like you are part of this landscape. But in a lot of these commuter exurban towns in America, without that sense of community, it feels like you’re experiencing that sublime alone. Which means whenever you go outside, you’re seeing these huge things, and you are having to deal with that. And I am firmly of the belief that if you do that for long enough, part of that gets inside of you. And part of that sort of terrifying distance becomes part of your own experience. And you start feeling almost distant from yourself in the same way you feel distant from the huge elements of the landscape. So I think that, to me, is sort of at the heart of this book. And maybe the creepier nature portrayed in my work and in the work of other people who are my age. It has a lot to do with community. It has a lot to do with how America has sprawled and particularly in the West, how open and huge these landscapes are.
DSW: Which poems from the book took you the longest, and which took you the shortest time to write?
JH: The poem that took me the longest is called “The Water Poem.” That took me probably 80 or 90 hours in total. It started as an assignment for a class I had with Natasha Tretheway. I had been writing a lot of poems about fictional things. And Natasha kept telling me to write a poem that was completely nonfiction, and she wanted me to see if I could tap into this sort of separate power that pure nonfiction can bring to poems. I wrote a draft of it that is close to the current one, on the first try, and I sent it to her and she was really helpful with it. But it ended up just having some kinks in it. And there were four or five stanzas that ended up being cut from it. It was a poem that I initially wanted to sort of be the centerpiece of the book, I wanted it to describe the project. And as I worked on it more and more, I figured out that I was not sure that the poem was capable of doing that. And mainly, I wasn’t sure if I was interested in having a poem that described the whole book. I wanted the poem to be maybe the climax of the book, but not a summary poem. So that was the poem that I finished right before the book went to print. The shortest poem in the book is a poem called “Poem Containing No Pills,” which I wrote in about 30 minutes on my friend, Annelyse Gelman’s, couch, writing with a word processing software called Midst that sets it up so you can see your entire revision while you’re writing. It essentially has a scroll bar at the bottom, and that software only worked on Mac and I only had my little Chromebook. So Annelyse came over to my place with a MacBook she rented from the University of Texas Library and put the laptop in front of me and told me to write a poem. And that was what came out. And I was surprised that I managed to do it. But yeah, that one was one that had a distinct time limit on it, which came out much better than I thought it would.
DSW: So, that’s what the 30 minutes looked like making that poem. What did that 80 to 90 hours look like? Making the other poem? You know, that’s such a long stretch of time, I’m curious what the visual was like, if we were to be in the room watching you toil over that poem.
JH: It would be very, very boring if you were in the room watching me toil over the poem. When I’m doing that kind of long-term editing work, and most of my poems involve that kind of editing work over significant periods of time, it’s just me looking at the poem, reading it in my head, and then reading it out loud over and over and over again. There were some nights when I was working on “The Water Poem,” where I’d spend an hour and a half or two hours just reading it out loud over and over and over again, trying to pick up on any inconsistencies or hiccups in the language. And once the poem doesn’t have any of those hiccups for me anymore, I try to let it sit for a couple of months, and then I’ll come back to it. But in general, there’s really no trick to it that I’ve found so far. It’s just looking at the poem for a very, very, very long time, and respecting it by spending time with it. At some point, the poem has to respect you back if you do that.
DSW: So in that type of revision process, where you’re reading it over and over to yourself out loud, you are—if I understand—scanning the sonic fabric of the poem for something that feels off. Are you also scanning it for opportunities for expansion? Or addition?
JH: I’m definitely scanning it for both at the same time. It depends on what stage of the poem is at. Most of the time I’m scanning for opportunities to generate other things, or even to move things around. But yeah, I’ll read a stanza of the poem. And then pause for a little bit and see if any new words pop into my head. And if they do, I’ll type them in as fast as I can, and then see if I can fit them around the previous stanza and the next stanza. I do spend a lot of time just ironing out the kinks of it. But at some point, in that revision process, it turns from looking for both places to fix and places to enlarge to just looking at the places that are very, very close to done, but are just missing one word, maybe even one line break. I do a lot of free relineating in that process, too. I spend a lot of time making the poem into a prose poem, and then relineating it and seeing if, by relineating, I can highlight any errors or highlight any points where language can be taken out.
DSW: Let’s look at the final lines of “The Water Poem,” which is really beautiful and surprising:
Rivers don’t remember anything.
That’s what makes them rivers.
JH: The poem works through associative leaps. And there was no point at all where everything had come together, where we had gotten a clear theme. And I thought, on that sort of exit route from the poem, it would be good for everybody if there was a clear theme, if you could leave the poem knowing what I had in mind. And yeah, I wrote that probably at like 3:30 a.m. The night before the edits were due for the book, I was staying up all night to finish them because I had procrastinated on doing any of them until 12 hours before they were due.
DSW: At 3:30 a.m. I know you are a night owl. Famously nocturnal. Is that when the majority of your writing happens, while others are sleeping?
JH: Yes, I very rarely write when anyone is awake. I tend to need absolute silence when I write. My best writing, I feel, needs both long periods of time in which I won’t be interrupted by my own things, and also in which other people will not interrupt me so late at night. In the middle of nowhere during the day sometimes, every now and then at a park or something, I’ll write. My phone will be on airplane mode, and no one knows who I am and no one’s gonna come say “Hey” to me. But in general, that solitude is really, really important to me, and I do all of the art that I do—fiction, the comic stuff I do, even the YouTube stuff—it all happens at night and never ever during the day. The day I spend reading, I try to read all day, every day as much as I can. And maybe that’s preparation for writing during the night. Maybe it’s not, I don’t know, I don’t particularly care. But I think that the most important element of my work is that I am not interrupted and the night is the time in which I have the least ability to be interrupted, at least by things that aren’t actual emergencies.
DSW: So Winter Stranger in some ways is a book born of the night. Would you say that?
JH: Yeah, that sounds nice. Yeah, yeah, it is. Probably 90% of poems from the book were written in the middle of the night, which might explain why some of the poems probably seem a little lonely. They’re all written in actual physical isolation.
DSW: Writing the book over the course of almost a decade means that, to some degree, you, the poet, changed over the course of those years, and I imagine the poet’s voice changed over the course of those years. How might you describe that progression, or that process, or that evolution, in the book and in yourself over those nine years?
JH: Yeah. So I first started writing it very seriously in high school. And from the ages of 17 to 19, I was really, really interested in classic landscape shit, just old school stuff that bores the hell out of me now. And I didn’t really start doing something that felt my own until I went off to college and was away from home. I grew up in Washington, I went to college in Boston, so I was 2200 miles away from home or something. And when I started trying to write poems about home, when I was very far away from it, that’s when interesting things started to happen for me. And that’s where I started to be able to make observations about that landscape that I couldn’t before. I think, essentially, for me, most if not all poems are made out of startling observations, seeing things that other people can’t see and sort of making those things visible to other people. And that started being my big goal, from the age of 20 onward—trying to really get down what this place I came from looks like. As I grew older, I started getting interested more in history and surrealism. The third section of the book has a lot of historical poems, and particularly poems about World War I. And I started to get really interested in how logic works in poems. I don’t really care about form, per se, but I care about the way poems play tricks on us, and how poems can toy with you in an ethical manner. There are sometimes poems that toy with you in a way where it feels like you’re being played with and it feels bad and mean. But they are also the poems that blow your mind. Because they’ve set up a scheme and fulfilled it without you knowing until the very end. So I became more interested in essentially how logic works in poems, and also how speed works in poems as well. So I spent a long time, probably between 22 and 25, working on that stuff. And after that I sort of settled and was trying to unify those two interests—in looking at rural America and history, and also dealing with some more formal concerns. And the most recent poems in the book are the ones that I hope manage to unify those two interests without making any one of them too prominent.
DSW: How would you describe yourself as a poet? Or how would you describe your poems now, on the other side of this first project, on the other side of that evolution in your poethood?
JH: Yeah, right now I’m looking into history. And I guess I’m looking into history and myth, and how the reader can be implicated in a poem. And how guilt works in poems, and how poems can make their stakes either higher or lower, depending on their subject matter. And I’m also looking at funny poems. Yeah. Sometimes trying to unify those things.
DSW: It might be a good time to look at the epigraph of the book, by René Char, which you’ve told me you discovered ten years ago: “The earth loved us a little I remember.”
JH: Ten years ago, I was reading through the French poetry section of the library, which is probably as annoying as it sounds. And I was reading through them, and I wasn’t totally impressed by what I was reading. But there was this one line from the Mary Ann Caws translation. And it just said, The earth loved us a little I remember. And it felt like it summed up entirely my relationship with landscape growing up, which is that the earth cares about you, but not that much. It doesn’t really think about you, but it does a little. So much of living in those places is thinking the Earth is about you, that the Earth belongs to you. It’s where a lot of this hunting stuff comes from, it’s what a lot of America is founded on as well. And that epigraph seems to me to be the first time I ever heard someone say, “We walk in the same direction as the Earth. But it thinks of us less than we think of it.” And it’s also just the phrase, the fact of our remembering the earth’s love, which implies that there’s probably some incorrect things going on there too, that maybe the earth didn’t love you at all. But you remember that it does. You have to remember that.