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Interview with Jamie Iredell

Jamie Iredell is the author of Prose. Poems. a novel. Evocative, lyrical, and alternately dreamy and corporeal, Iredell’s series of vignettes knit together and form an indelible portrait of a man bumbling into some kind of enlightenment. The Rumpus published my review of the book about two months ago. I had some questions lingering in my mind, so I emailed them to Iredell. He’s answered them below.

Iredell lives in Atlanta, Georgia. He has published widely in many fine journals including Smokelong Quarterly, Abjective, H_ng M_n, Necessary Fiction, Keyhole, JMWW, Robot Melon, The Cortland Review, Thieves Jargon, Weber: The Contemporary West, Pank, decomP, Avatar Review, elimae, Dogzplot, 3:AM, Willows Wept Review, BlazeVOX, Mud Luscious, and many others.

Madera: When I’d first read the title of your book it resonated for me as something generic, that it was a kind of play off of “what you see is what you get.” I also thought that you might have chosen this title at first as a placeholder until you came up with another. Then I read it as if it were an equation. Prose and poems are singular objects (they are unqualified, their ending in a period reinforced their singularity), the sum of which is a novel, or stated more explicitly: prose plus poems equals novel. But while I equated your use of the indefinite article to qualify the word novel I also thought about how it contradicted my initial impression that the title was self-effacing. It is a novel, a novel among many, but also a singularity (the period reinforcing this impression). So would you talk a bit about your title? Were there other title considerations?

Iredell: When I first read this question I felt like writing for an answer: “You’ve pretty much got it.” Then I figured that would be disingenuous. So, in a simple way of talking about the title, I would say that yes, it is a play on genre and on the ridiculousness of categorizing modes of literature that seems almost purely commercial and arbitrary to the art itself. Does it matter if you read a book that you love whether it’s “technically” poetry, fiction, nonfiction, etc.? Also, the title’s poking fun at itself a bit. I did toss around many different titles. At one point it had about five: blah blah blah, or blah blah blah, or blah blah, etc. Finally, as a joke, I said I’d simply call it Prose. A pal with whom I was sucking swill at the time (the poet Mike Dockins) laughed and said, “Prose, colon, poems.” He was making fun of the tendency for titling collections of poetry: I Am a Poet, poems, by Jamie Iredell. We were having a good time and were probably four Millers in, so I responded with, “comma, a novel” again, making fun of that titling convention for fiction. For a long time, that really was just a joke, although I did title the book simply Prose. But, as it happens, that silly title grew on me, and I realized it kind of worked. When I started writing this book I drafted out these brief flashes that I felt were prose poems. And some sections of the book are more prose poems than stories (i.e., the one about the bear in the neighbor’s kitchen, or the one about the fog), while others feel like flash fiction. And, as the book took shape it had an overreaching story arc to it (that really came out in revisions) that felt novel-like. I mean, it’s not truly a “novel”, and I wouldn’t defend it as such. But, as a whole the book has a novel-like quality more than most collections of poems, yet one piece on one page—I think—stands alone, and many of them are more poems than they are anything else.

Madera: Your book is divided into three sections, namely, “Before I Moved to Nevada”, “When I Moved to Nevada”, and “When I Moved to Atlanta”. This suggested to me the classic three-act story structure where everything’s set up in the first, the quest is begun and the action speeds up in the second, and then the third ties up all the loose ends. But you betray those expectations in your book. For instance—and this is a minor deviation—from the way you set the structure up I thought that the third chapter should be titled “When I Left Nevada.”

Iredell: The book is definitely purposely structured that way, that is, as a three-act narrative. That came about organically, but not chronologically. I wrote the middle section (“When I Moved to Nevada”) first. Well, in a certain sense I wrote the first section first. It was originally an essay about a hiking trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. But I completely re-wrote the essay as individual poetic/story-like snippets, after I had already drafted “When I Moved to Nevada.” After I wrote “When I Moved to Nevada,” I realized that the actions of the essay were about Larry, a somewhat younger guy than the Larry of “When I Moved to Nevada” and so I got “Before I Moved to Nevada.” It’s no secret that this is a semi-autobiographical thing, and it just came naturally that Larry ended up moving to Atlanta, which is what I did. So I started writing that section. It seemed natural to call it “When I Moved to Atlanta”, as opposed to “When I Left Nevada”, or “When I Moved from Nevada” (which I did consider). Aurally, it just didn’t have a ring to it. Too much of Nevada. But Nevada, Nevada, Atlanta. That sounds good.

Madera: You have a lyrical style that’s reminiscent to me of Faulkner and a less granitic Cormac McCarthy, and there’s an almost American Transcendentalist vibe to the reveries on nature. At the same time, there’s a gruff, kind of jaded tone that runs counterpoint to this approach. What writers informed this approach? And what has drawn you to the kind of sentences you write.

Iredell: It’s interesting you mention those guys, all writers whom I love and admire. I wrote a story once that was so heavily influenced by McCarthy that when I read it in public an audience member mentioned him, saying, “You could have some copyright issues with that.” I laughed and said, “yeah, that’s true, that’s true—now why don’t you go fuck yourself.” But I ended up re-writing that story because that guy was right—too much McCarthy. For this book, what really got me going on the individual sentences was an extremely high metaphorical register and poetry. I wanted the voice to be hardly capable of describing anything without some kind of comparison, and—this I don’t know how to describe—but I just felt a kind of music as the sentences drew themselves out.

I had just returned from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference when I started drafting this book. I was around a lot of writers and talking about writing while up there in Vermont. I didn’t write hardly at all (you don’t do much of that at Bread Loaf), but I did write a poem, a lined poem, that was a letter to Mike Dockins describing what it was like up there in the mountains of Vermont, and asking him what he was doing back in Atlanta. I couldn’t help but describe the pines covering the mountains as teeth, “piney canines that gnaw the sky”, and wonder if my empty barstool back home was “spawning spider webs” in my absence.

One of the writers whom I met at Bread Loaf, and whose writing I loved then (and still do now) was Matt Hart. His Bread Loaf reading was fucking awesome. Dockins’s poetry has also been influential. It’s impossible not to talk about other writers who were influences, and Jack Kerouac and Denis Johnson are probably the two biggest ones when it comes to the style of this book. That’s probably pretty obvious—Kerouac for his lyricism, and Johnson for the metaphor and structure. The book’s been compared to Jesus’ Son lots of times. But it’s informed by many others: Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Jane Kenyon, Marcel Proust, Carl Sandburg, Franz Kafka, John Steinbeck, Russell Edson, Stuart Dybek, it goes on and on.

Madera: There’s a kind of stuck-on quality to some of the illustrations in your book like the line drawing of the burly man who says, “I love killing shit.” One of the drawings even cuts into the text. Would you talk about why you chose to include illustrations in your book?

Iredell: When I was writing the book I got so into the mode of living and being in the world of the book that I was creating these art pieces that were related to it. I had a sketch of a truck rumbling in to Dog Valley, a place that pops up a number of times in the book; the sketch of Bob, the character who loves “killing shit”; and then I was screwing around with stencil art, and made the stencil of the .357 maximum, Bob’s gun; the part-bitten ear; and what I call my fucked bunny. I had a bunch of other drawings and stencils that I did not put into the book. By the time the book was being designed, I felt that this art was indispensable to the text. I think the text stands alone, certainly, but the book also became an art object itself. I really liked Christy Call’s art pieces, which I had seen around the Internet, and I’d met her at AWP in Chicago, so I contacted her for the cover of the Before I Moved to Nevada chapbook that was in production at the time with Publishing Genius. I commissioned Christy for a few more pieces inspired by the book, and that’s ultimately what happened: a collaboration on the art to coincide with the text.

Madera: A quote from the duel scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the book’s epigraph. What’s the significance of the quote? The prologue is titled “In This Western”. Is this book a western? If so, why?

Iredell: Absolutely, this book’s a western, but in reverse (in some ways). Rather than the characters moving from east to west, from civilization to wilderness, from God to the heathen, from light to dark, etc., the character moves from west to east and moves from debauchery and brutism to sensitivity and—at least by the end there’s hope for—salvation. There’s no dramatic duel, or the characteristic lawlessness that must ultimately be won over by law and order, in the traditional sense. But Larry’s dueling with himself, he is the gang of lawless thieves, and he’s also the antihero who doesn’t fight fairly in order to restore order by the drama’s end. He goes from calling a girl a “slut from the Highlander,” to living with a woman he loves and feeling sadness and remorse for the South’s brutal past and the pain inflicted on black families, and he’s irritated by the racism that persists.

This all came about as an accident in that I was writing the book and then realizing some of the tropes I was working with. So the epigraph seemed appropriate. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly—the whole “Man with No Name” trilogy—is among my favorite movies. And it’s telling that the Western is so American as a genre that even when Italians make the films, it’s hard for them to work without an American actor in the lead role. Also, the epigraph for the book as a whole, and the epigraphs for all the sections, are about digging in some way, and that’s what the narrator of the book’s doing as he tells the story: digging up his past and tossing it away.

Madera: What are you working on now?

Iredell: The Book of Freaks; Our Lady of Refuge; Maybe Burning Man Wasn’t Such a Good Idea; Bigger Badder Faster Louder; and Metal Penelope.

These are five books that are in varying stages of development. Metal Penelope, a collection of lined poems, is finished and I’m looking for a publisher. I’ve had a couple “almosts” with that one. Our Lady of Refuge—a novel-in-stories—is finished, although I feel I might mess with it more, or add onto it. The Book of Freaks is an encyclopedic collection of prose poems/short short stories about, well, freaks. I’ve been working on that book most intently in recent months. Bigger Badder Faster Louder is a collection of longer length stories. Some of the stories need some serious revision, and some are pretty much finished, and most of those have been published in literary magazines. Maybe Burning Man Wasn’t Such a Good Idea is a novel that I’ve written I don’t know how many times and am re-writing yet again. The re-write’s got a ways to go.

I’m pretty schizophrenic as a writer, hence the number of projects. So things get finished slowly, but I’m never at a loss for work to do.

Madera: What and who inspired you to write? Who have been and are your favorite writers? What made you decide to be a writer?

Iredell: I started writing poetry because I thought it would be a good way to score chicks. No shit. Then I felt pretty romantically disturbed about it, like I was a very different kind of human, which I also thought would result in chicks. Then I read On the Road and simultaneously took my first creative writing class and my teacher said I was good at it. And that was it; I got hooked. I had toyed with being an athlete (and wasn’t very good—not that bad, but not good enough to make a living), then a sports doctor (but I’m no good at math), then a political theorist, but I gave up the millions of political theory dollars for the billions of poetry bucks. That first creative writing professor—Gailmarie Pahmeier, who still teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno—was the first person to say with sincerity that I was good at something. Thanks, Gailmarie, my first teacher: you showed me that I didn’t have to rhyme.

So, favorite writers: it started with the Beats. Obviously, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. But I also love Ferlinghetti, Corso, Snyder, di Prima, Kyger.

As a kid I loved Steinbeck, and once I became a writer that love grew. We’re from the same hometown—or region: Monterey County in California. So I actually knew nearly the exact spot he’s describing at the beginning to Of Mice and Men. Cannery Row is a big favorite—a very weird, and very good book.

I graduated to Faulkner and Hemingway—natural offshoots of Steinbeck.

You realize, of course, that the answer to this question is potentially inexhaustible.

Franz Kafka, Guillome Appollinaire, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kharms, Akmatova, Tsvetayeva—all the Russians, really—Sexton, Man Martin, Christopher Bundy, Plath, O’Hara, Koch, Walt Whitman, Stuart Dybek, Denis Johnson, Stanley Kunitz, Ted Kooser, Dean Young, Bob Hicok, Dara Wier, Russell Edson, Toni Morison, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Mike Dockins, Blake Butler, Matt Bell, Heather Christle . . .

I mean, the list goes on forever, but these are all writers who—when I read them—they make me want to write.

Madera: How would you describe yourself as a reader? Are you slow or fast? Do you read things that are closely linked to what you’re writing at the time? How has your reading habits changed over the years?

Iredell: Compared to some of my friends I read very slowly. I learned how to speed read when I was in college, and I realized how much is lost when you’re just trying to gloss over things and get “the big picture”, at least for me. I just can’t do it. Hats off to those who can. My wife reads really fast, but she went to private school, where I think she learned this skill early enough that she can zoom through books and not miss much. I went to public school, and am kind of an idiot, so I have to read slowly or I miss things. I like to relish what I’m reading. I’m still old fashioned like that. I want to fall into the story and live it. I can be a fan of John Gardner’s POV when it comes to writing: that vivid and continuous dream stuff. I also like writers like Gary Lutz who are just so beautiful linguistically that I don’t need to have an actual story (in the traditional narrative sense) taking place. I was a poet first anyway. I like to read writing that’s similar to what I’m doing or trying to do. I used to not want to read very much when I was deep in a project, because I was worried I might start to sound too much like whomever it was I was reading. That fear’s gone away. I think I feel more comfortable with my own voice now, more like I’ve settled into it. Despite my desire to fall into whatever it is I’m reading and attempt to truly enjoy it, graduate school destroyed my childhood ability to simply love a story. I can’t read now without looking at a text critically, and that’s kind of sad. When I was a kid I ate up stuff like the Narnia books and, well, there are many books I do not remember the titles or authors of, but I loved survival narratives. Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell was a big childhood favorite. But I didn’t think about them very carefully; I simply enjoyed the stories.

Madera: Now talk about your writing habits. Do you write longhand? Straight to computer? Keep a journal, notebook, or diary? Where do you write? What time of day? Do you need silence, or can you work to music, and if you listen to music, what are your favorites to listen to while writing?

Iredell: Generally, I do like to draft longhand, but recently I’ve been writing a lot on my fucking iPhone. Some of my friends make fun of me about this because in some ways my wife and I are luddites: we don’t have cable television or vehicle navigation devices (we prefer maps). But the iPhone truly has become a useful tool for me. I can be pretty much anywhere and write or research something quickly on the Internet.

I don’t have some of the typical quirks like some writers. I have a friend who has to write longhand, must use a certain kind of pen (Pilot Precise Rolling Ball, extra fine), writes on a clipboard, etc. Another friend always writes in the morning and sets a word minimum for each day. I work randomly. Sometimes I’m walking to class to teach and I have an idea (yay for the iPhone), or I’ll start going over sentences when I’m jogging. I do a lot of writing in my head before things actually get onto the page. I always have a notebook, real or digital, and even when I draft in the Notes app on my phone, I re-write that a few times in longhand in the notebook, then eventually re-write it into Word, and then I continue revising from there. While I don’t have any trouble working in public places (in fact, one of my favorite things to do is take my computer to a bar or restaurant and sit there and work, and I’m even responding to this question while sitting in a bar) I don’t listen to music while I write. Some bullshit by Dave Matthews was just trotting out from this bar’s speakers. I can’t stand Dave Matthews.

Madera: How do you edit your work? Do you read your drafts out loud?

Iredell: I only sometimes read out loud—especially before I have a reading. But when I read to myself I imagine my out loud voice, if that makes sense. This is akin to hearing yourself on an answering machine. I have to come back to drafts multiple times after letting them sit for a number of days or weeks without looking at them. I typically work on many projects at once, in varying stages, and so this way I’m never working on one thing for an extended period of time. It takes a long time for me to finish any one thing, but I’ll often have many things ready to go, or near ready at about the same time because I’ve been working on all of them, variably, for a long time. When I draft or revise I’m good for about five hundred words at a pop. I can put something out there, and then I have to let it sit. I can re-write or revise for about the same length. So it’s no wonder that the Prose book worked out the way it did, with each “chapter” being a short burst of prose.

Madera: Let’s talk about the economics of writing. How do you reconcile your art with commerce? What kind of remuneration, if any, do you expect/hope for your work?

Iredell: For money, I teach at a community college. I really enjoy teaching. Many of my students shouldn’t be going to school. They’re not stupid or anything like that, they’re just ill-prepared for college-level classes. Unfortunately, there’s virtually no admissions standards. I taught at another school for a period of time—Georgia Military College in Fairburn, Georgia—that was morally bankrupt. They were taking advantage of the fact that their students were not prepared to pass their classes, but the school was more than happy to take their tuition money, and also not advise them when students had been failing classes. I had one guy—a boy really, twenty years old—show up in my office for advisement. This guy’s telling me that he’s ready to graduate because he’s taken so many classes, and I look up his file and with his nearly 200 credits his GPA was a 1.3. I was the first and only person to break it to this kid that he was not graduating anytime soon, nor would he ever get in to a four-year school. People need to know about this sort of crap, especially with the profusion of for-profit colleges like GMC out there.

All this is to say that it certainly would be nice to be able to support myself solely as a writer. However, I think at this point I would miss the classroom no matter how much I was getting paid to write. So many writers these days, out of necessity, are teachers of creative writing, and I’ve been teaching now for nine years. My favorite thing to do, hands down, is write, but I really do love it when I see the spark of discovery in a student’s eyes. And that gratification is amplified when I’m teaching in the crappy conditions that I am now. My students need good teachers more than the students at a college like UGA.

My wife and I met on eHarmony and in the profile one of the questions she asked me was what I wanted most out of my career: financial success, fame, or respect. So—and this is not just because I wanted to meet a wife; it’s true—I said respect. I still feel that way. What I’m most interested in is when, say for instance, a guy like you writes a review of my book in The Rumpus that is just awesome, that says my book is worthwhile, deserving of respect.

Madera: What are some things you would say to a fledgling writer?

Iredell: My guess is that what you’re thinking a lot about when you’re a beginning writer is publication; at least that’s how I was. What I needed to be doing (and fortunately I did) was writing, and not focusing so much on trying to get published in journals. I know I sent out some premature submissions. I would say to a beginning writer that if you put in the time writing, then eventually the publications will come. Oh, and read a lot. And if you want to publish, read the publications you want to publish in, and the writers whose work you admire. This all is nothing new, but it does work. What most people who are not writers do not realize is that writers actually write, and they spend a lot of time doing it. There is no writing a draft, sending it in to the publisher, and shebang. It also doesn’t hurt to associate yourself with like-minded people. It’s good to go to readings and hear/meet the people whose books you like, or to discover someone’s writing. It’s happened before where I was on a panel at AWP, and someone from the audience made a comment about all the people on the panel having known each other long before this moment, and the person suggested a kind of nepotism amongst published authors. This I thought was kind of ridiculous for not only was the question coming at AWP—a conference for writers, i.e., the person asking the question or making the comment likely knew other writers at that conference also—but it was like saying that there’s something fishy about Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan knowing each other. It was like saying that two mechanics from different shops who meet at a bar ought not to have something in common and talk about their profession and thus become pals. Anyway, meet other writers.

Madera: How about giving a writing prompt or constraint?

Iredell: I could probably think of a million different things, but here’s a few that might be fun:

Write a daydream, a fantasy, a nightmare—whatever—exactly as you imagine it in your mind. Disregard any conventions that a creative writing workshop leader might tell you to adhere to, like verisimilitude. For example, I wrote a short short story/prose poem kind of thing called “Mountain Lion” that was a fantasy about getting into a fight with a homeless guy who got pissed at me because I wouldn’t give him any change one night. This was not something that I ever seriously would have done, but I imagined what I might do if the guy were to attempt to hold me up at knifepoint for my money. Just write whatever crazy shit comes to your mind sometimes, and write it just the way you think it.

This one will work with a fresh new draft, or as you’re re-writing/revising something you’ve already written: Try writing anything, a poem, story, essay—whatever—but at the language level, write every single sentence as some kind of metaphor. Use as many different metaphorical tropes as you can: hyperbole, allusion, understatement, synaesthesia, etc. Be as creative—yet apt—with these metaphors as you possibly can. Call a school a cave, or a pen a pen. That last one’s kind of not a joke. Go so far as to even write non-metaphors, what I call “notaphors.” The sky was exactly like a field of blue suspended overhead, or like something romantic.

Here’s a series of rather simple constraints to look out for, but came about as a result of problems I see all the time in student writing: don’t be redundant, or use unnecessary words. Don’t write I was thinking to myself that . . . Even worse: I was thinking to myself in my head that . . . Or, he nodded his head. What other part of your body do you nod? There’s no need to say he stood up, or she sat down. Just write he stood or she sat. Of course, though, those are pretty lame sentences in the first place. My students often wonder about the importance of punctuation and so I use this sentence (which I stole): “Take your life seriously.” Now add a comma after “life”. That’s one example of why one little piece of punctuation is immensely important.

Madera: Would you ask a question to the readers of this interview?

Iredell: Why do you read interviews? Do you like it when Jerry Seinfeld asks rhetorical questions? Why do people like rhetorical questions? What they should do is not like rhetorical questions.

Madera: What would you say to someone who says, “I hate poetry.”

Iredell: I’d say, “I, too, dislike it.” Then I’d ask if they’d ever read Marianne Moore.

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

7 thoughts on “Interview with Jamie Iredell

  1. great interview, guys…and thanks Jamie for speaking about how the college system can sometimes do a disservice to students. it does much good too, and it’s inspiring to hear that you’re invested in teaching.

  2. great & awesome. loved this:
    ‘Go so far as to even write non-metaphors, what I call “notaphors.” The sky was exactly like a field of blue suspended overhead, or like something romantic.’

  3. Thanks guys, yes, Edward: I really do love teaching. Are you a teacher/professor. I know you’re an editor.

    And Josh: dude, the notaphors are some of the funnest writing to do for sure.

    1. hi Jamie – I have taught, and I like it mostly. It’s troubling though to think that some schools don’t have much in the way of admissions requirements. I can see how it might mean opportunities for more people to attend college, and that might be a good thing, I don’t know. But then there’s the problem, as you allude to, of some students arriving, sort of floating through, and just losing money.

  4. Hey Edward, yes. I think that the $$ is one of the problems. Along with that is the idea that everyone in this country have can–and ought to have–a white collar job. That, of course, isn’t true, and frankly we need mechanics and plumbers and HVAC people. There aren’t enough tradespeople in the US. Not everyone should be a lawyer.

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