Jason Tandon: Poet Interview

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Jason Tandon

Jason Tandon

Please welcome Jason Tandon to the Poetic Asides blog!

Jason Tandon is the author of three collections of poetry including, Quality of Life (Black Lawrence, 2013) and Give over the Heckler and Everyone Gets Hurt (Black Lawrence, 2009), winner of the 2006 St. Lawrence Book Award.

His poetry and reviews have appeared in AGNI Online, Boston Review, Esquire, Harvard Review Online, Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner, Spoon River Poetry Review, and on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac.

You can learn more about his work at: http://jasontandon.com/

Here's a favorite poem of mine from Quality of Life:

Newlywed, by Jason Tandon

After the petals have settled
between the emerald filaments of the field,

after our pause on the macadam path
to watch a horse touch its muzzle

to a pond's pewter sheen,
after the horns have been polished

and packed in velvet,
after the dawn, when the windows ignite

and we melt cubes of ice
along the scorched valleys of our skin,

will I begin to fail you.

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What are you currently up to?

I’m working on a new collection of poetry, which will be my fourth, and I’ve begun to send these poems out to journals to test their mettle. I’ve also been trying, when work and life permit, to promote my last book, Quality of Life.

Quality of Life, by Jason Tandon

Quality of Life, by Jason Tandon

In your most recent collection, Quality of Life (Black Lawrence Press), I was struck by how your subjects often start somewhere familiar and then kind of spin off into interesting directions. How do most of your poems begin?

Often my poems begin with a line, a phrase, or an image, ideally something with a little grit and texture. I look through my notebooks and desktop folders where I keep all my fragments. These products of what seemed like frustrating mornings at the desk have yielded bits and pieces of almost all of my poems. There are times, too, when my poems begin in the midst of reading someone else’s poems, and the poem becomes in conversation with that work.

I also noticed most of the poems are in the first person narrative voice. I know poets who feel narrative poems should be 100% truth, poets who think the truth doesn't matter at all, and others, of course, who are somewhere in the middle. What are your thoughts on telling the truth in narrative poems?

At a recent reading, a woman asked me afterwards, “Did you really work for NASA?” referring to a line in the book’s title poem. In Quality of Life, I was consciously trying to practice what I call the “poetics of verisimilitude,” a poem that gives the impression that it was written in real-time, faithfully recording the events as they happened. In actuality the poem was written over several years of observed images or felt experiences, which provide the spine of the poem; then my imagination and my following of figurative and rhetorical possibilities provide the flesh. If a reader assumes that the “I” in my poems is me or at least a real person, then they can move on to the real business of the poem: does the experience or the emotions presented resonate with them? Move them in some way? Have I written the poem successfully enough to make it worth re-reading?

If I were to write a poem in which I notated an experience from beginning to end, attempting to re-create its “truth,” I wouldn’t be writing something that has a re-readable quality for me and for my readers. This quality comes from my authentic discovery, from my being surprised at what actually gets written. In some sense I am after poems that make me feel as if I hadn’t written them.

When my poems have narrative qualities, I hope they possess equal if not superior lyrical ones. I want a reader to experience the pleasures of sound, image, and the occasional figure of speech. I’m not trying to leave a reader with a satisfactory resolution, aphoristic or epigrammatic wisdom, ironic or otherwise. My intention is not to frustrate a reader, but to present a kind of truth: that despite my best intentions to arrange, order, and recreate my subjective experiences of the world, disorder and disbelief often dominate. In this way I’m one step behind Frost: he writes momentary stays against confusion; oftentimes in Quality of Life, these poems are attempts at momentary stays against confusion.

You write reviews of poetry collections—some are even shared on your website. What do you appreciate the most about a collection of poetry?

I was recently re-reading Mark Strand’s interview in the Paris Review in which he talks about the “beyondness,” a quality that he works toward in his poems, and that he looks for in the poetry of others. He goes on to say, “I like to be mystified. Because it’s really that place which is unreachable, or mysterious, at which the poem becomes ours, finally, becomes the possession of the reader. I mean, in the act of figuring it out, of pursuing meaning, the reader is absorbing the poem, even though there’s an absence in the poem. But he just has to live with that. And eventually, it becomes essential that it exists in the poem, so that something beyond his understanding, or beyond his experience, or something that doesn’t quite match up with his experience, becomes more and more his.”

These are the qualities I most admire about Strand, Charles Simic, and Robert Bly—three of my favorite American poets. But I like a lot of different styles and approaches. I also crave the concreteness and societal engagement of Gwendolyn Brooks and Seamus Heaney, and the humor of Ron Padgett.

Which do you enjoy more: the writing, revising, or sharing of a poem?

I enjoy revising the most, because I get to attend to the poetry of the poem. The words on the page have some control and I can either submit to their possibilities or explore the alternatives.

I enjoy sharing, or performing a poem in front of an audience, the least. I find the reconciliation between sharing what I created in solitude, which is what gives me the most pleasure, and then reading it aloud for the public, difficult. I would rather have people read my poems to themselves, or listen to a recording than see me read them aloud. I would characterize myself, at least in this book and in my current project, as a poet of quietude.

One poet most people don't know but should—who is it?

I don’t know about “should” (and I don’t know what most people know!), but a recent collection I enjoyed very much is Jill Osier’s should our undoing come down upon us white. I imagine she will be well known, if she isn’t already, very soon.

Who (or what) are you currently reading?

Right now on my writing desk are the following books: Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology; Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets; Bob Hicok’s Insomnia Diary, Novalis’s Hymns to the Night, Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems, and Dan O’Brien’s War Reporter.

If you could pass along only one piece of advice for fellow poets, what would it be?

I would only pass on advice to beginning poets! I would advise them to read and study the poets who write the poems they wish they had; then read the poets those poets admire; and finally read the poets whose poetics differ completely from the two previous groups. Repeat.

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Great advice!

Also, just want to note that this interview was conducted back in March, 2014. So if any of it is even the least bit dated, well, there's a reason for that.

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Robert Lee Brewer is the author of Solving the World’s Problems and an editor with the Writer’s Digest Writing Community. He loves reading poetry by and interviews with contemporary poets. Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.

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