In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Jason Tandon
Welcome back to Water~Stone Review, Jason! Your poem “I Came Here” in Volume 23 pays homage to Chinese poet Du Fu. What was the inspiration behind this?
The inspiration was primarily the natural setting at the time I wrote the poem. I was visiting my parents in New Hampshire during the Christmas week back in 2018. They live on a lake, which was frozen at the time, and there was a full moon around the solstice, a rare occurrence.
It is a beautiful place to visit, very quiet as compared to where I live and work, and I always look forward to getting some writing done there. That said, I feel pressure to write something when I am there, which is a challenge because A) writing poems does not often work that way and B) the house is usually full of family during the holidays. For reading material that week, I brought along Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Du Fu poems, as well as those by David Young. I may have also had the Penguin Classics translated by Arthur Cooper. I drafted the poem one morning before Christmas Day, primarily inspired by the image of the moonlight “lying across the lake” and I wrote the final version, the one published in Water-Stone, on New Year’s Eve day.
We often see poems from you that feel like microscopic meditations. I’m thinking of some of your past work in Water~Stone Review (“Between Poems” from Vol. 17, and “The Reminder” from Vol. 18), as well as your latest poetry collection The Actual World. Each time I read your work, I imagine that you must just sit somewhere for hours, listening and wondering! Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
I write first thing in the morning before I am fully awake to, or aware of, the day’s tasks. I have a small desk in the basement next to the furnace, hot water tank, washer/dryer, and I can usually get an hour or so of writing in before there is somewhere to rush off to or, on the weekends, before the house becomes too loud—which for me is just above hearing a pin drop. My mind succumbs quickly to the practical demands of my day, and I rarely get a chance to sit for hours and write.
I teach during the year so I don’t get much writing done consistently, but I find that if I work a little bit on a semi-regular basis I am rewarded with stretches of a few weeks where I might draft three or four pieces. I wrote The Actual World in about three years this way. I enjoy reading poems that are calm, quiet, restrained, and I wanted the poems in The Actual World to convey these states
You have four books published. What advice would you share with poets who are working to pull together work for a manuscript?
Everyone has their own path, their own process, so I would not advise someone as to one way to do it! What I did for the last two books is refrain from sending the manuscript out until I had a critical mass of the poems (say over 80%) that had been published in quality journals, Water~Stone Review being absolutely one of them. Even then, it is not a sure thing that the book will be accepted, and one just has to have patience, be open to revision, and at the same time, realize that a book may never get published given the sheer number of manuscripts and the few presses that publish poetry.
Poetry for me has become more a part of the way I live, or the way I perceive, or receive the world. Writing poems is also something I do for fun! When I am discouraged by writing, it almost always has something to do with the publishing or promotion side of things, rather than the act of writing itself. We will see what happens with my latest manuscript that has been sitting on my desk for months, but unlike, say, ten years ago, I am not frantically thinking about its publication. Does that sound like advice?
This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
I hunger for tiny things every day, and have done so prior to the pandemic! More and more in my life I look for and appreciate small acts of civility and kindness. My family and I have been very fortunate during the pandemic in terms of health, schooling, and work. We miss what I imagine many people miss: visiting family, socializing, traveling. A positive outcome of this past year is how much more time we have been able to spend together as a family during the normally hectic week.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
I am most inspired to write when I have observed something in the natural world. I have also been fortunate to play a large part in raising my two children, which has meant a lot of time at home during the last ten years, and I have learned to allow this material into my poems. If I didn’t do so, I wouldn’t have much to write about! Lately, I find myself writing poems that do not extend beyond my backyard; I like thinking about Dickinson up in her room, or daydreaming at the edge of her garden—incredible the body of work she created within those confines.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
Almost all poetry I read inspires me, or puts me in a poetic frame of mind. I recently finished new collections by Andrea Cohen, Jill Osier, and Mary Ruefle, and all three books made me want to write. When I was writing my most recent book The Actual World, the poets I most often returned to for inspiration and guidance were Robert Bly, Mark Strand, Jane Kenyon, and W.S. Merwin. Most of my reading in the last several years has focused on Zen Buddhism and classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. I am always returning to Emerson, Thoreau, and the Romantic poets.
I took my last writing workshop fourteen years ago with Charles Simic when I was completing my MFA at the University of New Hampshire. Since then, I have neither taken a workshop nor belonged to a writing group. I do not show my poems or manuscripts to anyone besides my wife (and sometimes kids) before sending them out to literary journals or presses. For better or worse, I write my poems myself without input or suggestions, save for the occasional and welcomed comment from an editor.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
The biggest challenge of writing short poems is leaving the reader wanting more, or the form not lending itself to extended meditation or some other rhetorical purpose. While I enjoy reading, teaching, and discussing longer poems, I am not interested in composing them, at least as of this interview! My long poems are typically twenty lines or so, and my average is around eleven. I like the idea of a poem as a brush stroke painting: a few words, lines, fragments, held together by a title that offers some metaphorical suggestion or situational locus. I have thought of my recent book-length manuscripts as one long poem that reflects my inner life from that time period.
What projects are you working on right now?
I have a manuscript of about sixty poems tentatively entitled This Far North, and as I wrote above, I am sending these poems out to journals. So far, I have about 50% of these poems published, and in a year or two, I’ll see whether the book is worth sending out into the world.
Jason Tandon is the author of four books of poetry, including The Actual World (Black Lawrence Press, 2019). His poems have appeared in many journals and magazines, including Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, North American Review, and Esquire. He is a senior lecturer in the Arts & Sciences Writing Program at Boston University. Listen to Jason read “I Came Here” on our YouTube page. You can learn more about Jason and his work at his website.
The featured image for this post is credited to Bob King.