Jay Deshpande is the author of the poetry collection Love the Stranger (YesYes Books), named one of the top debuts of 2015 by Poets & Writers. He has received fellowships or support from Kundiman, Civitella Ranieri, Vermont Studio Center, Saltonstall Arts Colony, and the Key West Literary Seminar, where Billy Collins selected him for the 2015 Scotti Merrill Memorial Award. Poems have appeared in Boston Review, Narrative, The Offing, Prelude, the PEN Poetry Series, Poem-a-Day, and elsewhere. His journalism and essays have been published in Slate, The New Republic, and The Guardian, among others. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn.
Let’s start at the beginning: when (and why) did you begin writing? Did you start with poetry, or another genre? What made you stick with it, at least initially?
JD: I came to poetry late; heartbreak took a little while. As a teenager and in college I was mostly in love with playing jazz piano and studying modernism. But I had great teachers who swayed me in this direction, and over time more and more of my creative impulses were recruited into language. I discovered T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and then things became more earnest. I guess I always hungered after a wisdom that couldn’t be articulated any other way—where do you go with that desire but to poetry? Early on, the draw was that I needed the companion that the page makes, especially when I was alone and saw things and needed words to make them real.
Since Love the Stranger is divided into sections, as I read I wondered how you approached the process of grouping poems. Did you write individual poems and then arrange them, or did you write with a sense that you were shaping a collection of poetry and that certain poems were speaking directly to each other?
JD: The groupings in the book happened sort of sui generis and over a long haul. I didn’t intend them, and I certainly wasn’t bucketing poems into sections as I wrote. Well before most of the poems were written, I did find myself attracted to the idea of diversions within a structure. Like: at the height of tightrope intensity switching the spotlight over to a smaller (and maybe more playful or uncomfortable or lewd) ring of the circus, just for a brief time. I knew the book should have that theater to it. I just didn’t know what the parts would look like. And the middle sections found their own ways of doing that work: that was where I could lay out a dramatis personae, or drop in a Kardashian, or paint weird surreal fantasies, or say my own name.
While I didn’t always think on the macro level, I knew that there were certain pairs or trios of poems that were in league, sometimes cousins, many pages away from each other, speaking in tandem to me in a probably secret language. It’s good to have those when you build a book—little logics you fashion for yourself that no one gets to hear.
The section Inner Ear responds to jazz musician Chet Baker. What fascinates you about Baker and his music, and how did your relationship with his work change as the section of the collection developed?
JD: Chet Baker means a great deal to me and holds an important place in my psyche. But it’s not one I could articulate to my satisfaction before I began to write these poems. Now that I’ve written these poems, it still is a place I can’t articulate. (Which is a relief. If the work had stilled that flutter, I would have lost a crucial part of what inspires me.)
I guess what happened as I wrote these—which I did obsessively over several months, there are maybe 40 or so Chet Baker pieces I’ve stashed away somewhere—is that I made a new mental formula I could use to write poems. It structured my lyric thinking. It’s like a little path these pieces walk over and over. So there’s now this other thing that Chet Baker means to me. And it keeps my love for him abundant, while hopefully not stepping too much on any purist’s toes.
I like people to be aware of Chet Baker when reading these poems—it’s important that the name has a specific referent. But at the same time, these are not poems about Chet Baker and they are not poems for Chet Baker and they are not poems in the voice of Chet Baker. It is simply that he and his music cast a certain shadow inside of me, which takes up space, and I am trying to move some words toward that space. For my eventual betterment. Which is to say heart.
Several of the poems in the collection have Latin titles, which bring an aura of classicism to writing that feels otherwise very contemporary. I don’t read Latin, and when I first read “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” I actually assumed “apologia” meant “apology.” After looking up the word, I realized it’s actually Latin for “defense.” Do you see your writing as a message delivered from you to your audience, created by you and each unique reader, or somewhere in between?
JD: That’s such a great question Emily. I love it, it keeps me mulling and mulling.
Personally, I don’t like thinking of the poem as a message the author can bestow on a reader: that authority seems overblown, and doesn’t account for the beautiful range of experiences different people can have when they read the same poem. For me, a poem is a mostly open field of possibilities; some directions of interpretation will turn out more fruitful than others, but the point is that something fresh happens in the reader’s mind. I’m not sure that it’s even something co-created by author and individual reader. At best, I as author become a nonentity soon as the book gets opened. Shouldn’t reading be a place for the greatest freedom possible?
And then there’s that idea of the writing being a “message” at all. A message is language with a trajectory to it; it has a target, it’s going somewhere, pop it hits you and it’s arrived. But is that what the poem wants? I really am not sure. I try to think of writing a poem as a kind of husbandry and listening. I want to let it do what it wants to do, with the least authorial interference, so it can have a rich life in the world. Mary Ruefle says, “The lines of a poem are speaking to each other, not you to them or they to you.” I wonder if somewhere there’s actually a fully happy world of poems that don’t give a damn about being read, about meaning being made of them. Maybe they are sufficient in themselves. This sounds super cartoony because how else do we visualize it but by anthropomorphizing; but I do really like the notion of that haven.
Pop culture and archetypal narratives often lead us to think of love—especially romantic love—as the antithesis of both loneliness and aloneness. Many of your poems push back against this notion. In writing Love the Stranger, did you set out to address the nature of loneliness? Do you believe that loneliness is something that can or should be fixed, or is it something we rather learn to live with?
JD: I definitely did not set out with any plans to comprehend or get to the bottom of loneliness. But I know that loneliness, when I accept it, is a great creative engine. (Denis Johnson: “the remedy for loneliness / is in learning to admit / solitude as one admits / the bayonet: gracefully, / now that already / it pierces the heart.”)
I like loneliness as a fundamental tenet of our existence. It’s the human substrate we’d rather not look at. We think acknowledgment will make it worse: we’ll feel more alone if we admit to that sense of deprivation. But then you do look at it and you see that we are bound to each other by that feeling. The disconnect becomes a commonality. We are all participants in these feelings of loss, together. So there’s something about registering loneliness to the extent that it becomes a wholeness rather than a lack, and that wholeness—like love—calls us back to the things of this world.
Love forms a fertile point to head toward, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s a useful formal constraint, like knowing the sonnet will end 14 lines from now, or that the alexandrine’s gonna cut you off in just a minute. The classic novel made marriage a condition by which we know when the plot is over and it’s time to turn away; and, similarly, love—through the absences and desires it shores up—helps me know where I’m headed in a poem. So that I know where to stop. And when I stop, what’s left? Usually I’m alone. Usually I’m returned to solitude—but this time it’s brimming. By that token, the poem (or really, the successful/satisfying act of writing) becomes a place where love is a constraint and a conduit to reach over from a place of lack (read: loneliness) to a place of wholeness (read: aloneness).
What are you reading right now? And, since we have a wide audience of emerging writers, can you give us the name of a poet that they should be reading?
JD: I just got Solmaz Sharif’s Look and I am wild about it. It’s remarkable when a poetry collection so immediately declares itself as necessary. The two books in my bag right now are Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which I’ve been wanting to read for some time, and Eileen Myles’ Inferno, which makes me laugh and gape and vocalize my joy more than any book I’ve read this year. I keep looking for new ways to make my sentences not bore me, and Myles does that more than just about anyone. I’ve also been reading Moira Weigel’s Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, which is a fascinating and hair-raising work of research.
One poet you should be reading? …Can I do three?
Jayson Smith is devastating, sees so much, challenges so richly; watch for him. I am very excited to read House A by Jennifer S. Cheng, which comes out this fall. And Kenji Liu’s Map of an Onion, which has this great polyglot volley in its opening poems—it totally dragged me around by the tongue.
And, finally, what’s next for Jay Deshpande? Where, other than in the Winter 2017 issue of The Adroit Journal (!), will we find you? And what will you be doing?
JD: I’ll be mostly around New York, writing and reading wherever I can! One of the upcoming activities I’m most excited about is a course I’m teaching at Columbia, devoted to first books of poems. The poetry debut is such a weird beast; I think it’s important for developing writers to really consider what it can be and what it’s meant in the past. It’s been fun to immerse myself in the work of poets I love (Robyn Schiff, Morgan Parker, Shane McCrae, Bianca Stone) and I’m excited for the conversations we’ll have as they visit the class.