Breath and Silence: Poet Janaka Stucky On Striving for the Apex of His Art

Janaka Stucky (Photo credit:   Adrianne Mathiowetz)

Janaka Stucky (Photo credit: Adrianne Mathiowetz)

By Daniel Ford

I didn’t know much about modern poets before National Poetry Month started, but thanks to Quan Barry and now Janaka Stucky, I’m much more educated about today’s poetry market.

Stucky, whose new collection The Truth Is We Are Perfect was published earlier in April and is a true pleasure to read, recently answered some of my questions about his early influences, his writing process, and his literary magazine Handsome.

For those of you in the Boston area hankering for a good poetry reading after the snowy winter, plan a night out around Stucky’s book release party at The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., at 9:00 p.m. on May 2.

Daniel Ford: What made you decide to become a poet?

Janaka Stucky: This is a funny question because I never thought of it as a decision before. At some point one simply starts writing poems. If you feel it’s necessary to share them with others you seek an audience. If you’re lucky, and you’re any good, you’re encouraged to write more. After years of dedication you hopefully feel competent enough to call yourself a poet—if that has become how you primarily present yourself to the world. I still feel a little sheepish saying, “I am a poet” though, despite having spent the majority of my life practicing the art of it, obtaining two degrees in poetry, and getting paid on occasion to be one. I wonder why that is? I think, maybe, because it presumes some criteria of success—or arrival. I don’t feel like I’ve arrived. I don’t mean that in the canonical sense; I mean I haven’t arrived at the apex of my art. I think that kind of arrival would mean an end to writing, for me anyway. The poems are the struggle, or the document of the struggle, to attain a certain pure consciousness. If I were able to maintain that altered state—if I were to become enlightened—then I’d feel good about saying, “I am a poet.” But then I wouldn’t need to keep writing. So maybe I am only a poet once I no longer need to write poetry…

DF: Which poets influenced you and what’s your favorite poem of all time?

JS: It would be difficult to define a narrow set of influences, let alone limit the influences to poets. I’m probably just as (if not more) influenced by other elements—music, meditation, sculpture, the occult imagination—as I am by other poets. That said, the strongest influences on me have probably been the French surrealists, the German romantics, a handful of Russian poets, a couple of ancient Japanese poets, and two American poets: Bill Knott and Frank Stanford. Similarly I can’t name a favorite poem of all time—each moment has its own poem—but an important poem to me is “Nocturnally Pouting” by Paul Celan, a line of which is tattooed on my upper right pectoral.

A word—you know:
a corpse

I read this poem during grad school, while I was also working in the funeral business, and it really resonated with me. I ended up writing a long paper on the poem as funeral, a ritual to illuminate the always-already death of language, and titled my lecture after this same line from the Paul Celan poem.

DF: When you sit down to write a poem, is there a set number of words you’re aiming for each time you sit at the keyboard, or does it depend on the type of poetry you’re writing?

JS: When I sit down to write a poem, I simply sit down to write that one poem. I work in increments of time rather than numbers of words, so I sit for 30 or 60 minutes and whatever I have created in that time is the new poem. It’s important to note here that I write from a kind of trance state, which I enter through an intentional ritual. The creative act for me is a kind of waking meditation; the goal is to become empty, not to write something in particular. Whatever exists on the page at the end of the meditation is the poem.

DF: Each of your poems is structured a little differently. Does the process for deciding the form of the poem occur during the writing or editing process?

JS: Neither, really. The form is an organic expression of the breath and silence in the poem. Michelangelo talked about how every block of stone has a statue inside of it, and that it is the sculptor’s job to find that statue. Similarly every poem for me has its own form that gets expressed as the poem materializes. I may refine the form as I edit, but the form is inherent to that poem.

DF: I may be stepping on your random fact with this, but you’re a two-time National Haiku Champion and you were voted “Boston’s Best Poet” in the Boston Phoenix in 2010. What kind of street cred does that give you among poets and what were those experiences like?

JS: I might start by asking: what kind of street cred even exists among poets to have? Which maybe gives you a little bit of an idea how much cred those titles give me… I’m actually a little embarrassed by them because I think they’re false superlatives, but of course they make for good publicity angles so my publisher likes to include them in press releases. The Haiku competitions are really just for fun—I think they’re more about one’s ability to improvise and perform under pressure than they are about the craft itself. After I won the second competition I invented the Haiku Death Match, which I thought was more interesting. Instead of judges each round one poet has to concede to the other, and then take a shot of sake. In this way the competition is more about humility, and the loser is the winner by virtue. As for the Boston Phoenix title, I actually won through a grassroots write-in campaign. Each year, it was always the same old candidate group—comprised of tenured university faculty, poet laureates, etc. The year I won, the official nominees were: Sam Cornish, Robert Pinsky, Louise Gluck, Rosanna Warren, Margo Lockwood, and Frank Bidart. I think people just wanted to see younger options and fresh names on the ballot, so my win was really an act of protest. But it worked! After that, each year the Phoenix started digging a little deeper into the pool of local talent to find the names.

DF: Can you tell me a little background on your literary magazine Handsome and explain what you look for in contributor’s work?

JS: A lot of indie presses start as magazines and then graduate to books; I started Black Ocean and then decided to publish a journal a couple of years later. I’ve come to learn they’re really entirely different endeavors, with their own set of challenges and processes. To run Handsome, I enlisted two incredibly talented poets and writers: Allison Titus and Paige Ackerson-Kiely. It’s really their aesthetic that drives the selection, which is different from the books that Black Ocean publishes. The best way to understand it is to either read their work, or read Handsome. In that sense, we look for contributors who are interested in what we’re doing.

DF: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

JS: Read. Read books in translation; read contemporary and classical work; read works from different genders and different races; read work from writers much younger than you and writers much older than you; read fiction and non-fiction not just poetry; read comic books; read photography books; read in between the lines and the white spaces in the margins; read with your breath as well as your eyes; read until you fall asleep then read what’s on the inside of your eyelids; read in your dreams; read until you wake up.

DF: Can you name one random fact about you?

JS: When I was a young child I had an invisible friend named Buggy. Whenever I would get caught having done something I shouldn’t have I would say, “Buggy did it.” As I got older Buggy stopped appearing for me, and so I stopped blaming things on him. I stopped drawing Buggy, and the intricacies of Buggy’s personal life faded from my consciousness. But Buggy was very real to me at one point; I don’t think it’s fair to call one’s friends at that age “imaginary.” He was part of the story I told myself to understand the world around me. The random fact here isn’t that I was friends with a scapegoat no one else could see, named Buggy; the random fact is that I’ve come to realize Buggy actually exists.

To learn more about Janaka Stucky, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @janaka_stucky