Wednesday 13 March 2024

An Interview with J. D. Schraffenberger

March’s FTRS featured reader is J. D. Schraffenberger, the author of the recent poetry chapbook, American Sad (Main Street Rag), which Dan O’Brien describes as “deeply moving, unnerving, provocative, darkly comic, and thoroughly recognizable.” His other poetry collections include The Waxen Poor and Saint Joe’s Passion. Schraffenberger is an editor of the North American Review and a professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. Along with reading from American Sad, Schraffenberger will play songs on piano inspired by the poems, accompanied by Michael LeFebvre on vocals and Paul Conditt on saxophone. 

The Final Thursday Reading Series takes place on March 28 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. There will be an open mic at 7:00 p.m. (bring your best five minutes of original creative writing). J. D. Schraffenberger takes the stage at 7:30. The featured reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a link. 

Interview conducted by Tomiisin Ilesanmi. 

Tomiisin Ilesanmi: Many times, it is advised to detach the Artist from the Art to get an uninfluenced opinion. However, learning a little about the Artist can give a whole new translation to his Art. Tell us about your story. How did you first get interested in poetry?
J. D. Scraffenberger: I really like how you frame the question, Tomiisin. You’re right that we’re often cautioned against biographical interpretations of an artist’s work—for good reason. We might tend to conflate certain experiences or ideas with a writer’s own, which is not fair to the artist or to the work of art. Some works, however, can be illuminated by an author’s biography. For instance, the North American Review Press recently published a posthumous book of poems by Jason Bradford called Stellaphasia. Because many of the poems concern living with a disability, knowing that Jason was born with muscular dystrophy helps the reader to understand his remarkable poems. 

In my case, I think I was drawn to writing poetry early on because it allowed me to be playful. I grew up in a working class home. We lived paycheck to paycheck. Playing sports was more important than reading books. And yet, it was also a home in which humor, irony, wordplay, and linguistic cleverness of all kinds was valued. When we learn to write in other modes and genres (namely expository prose), it’s usually for the sake of clearly communicating some pre-existing message. Maybe we want to explain something, argue a point, convince someone you’re right. The virtues in these modes are (usually) clarity, focus, and organization. But poetry sidesteps these imperatives. You can write a poem for the sheer pleasure of the feeling of words in your mouth. Knowing this origin story of my own journey as an artist might not illuminate my work, but perhaps the reader will understand at the very least that my poems look askance at the virtues of expository prose—and sometimes they do much worse than that. 

TI: Poets are very particular about every word, line structure, or punctuation that goes into their work. As an editor yourself, how do you juggle the editorial and poet hat when writing? How has being an editor influenced your writing?
JDS: I’m glad you asked this question because I spend most of my days reading other people’s writing, often with an eye toward what needs to be changed or fixed. If you fetishize that approach to text, it can infect your very ability to enjoy reading! Being an editor, however, has done one very important (and positive) thing for me: it has reminded me that writing is a process, and revision is a vital part of that process. You’re right that as an artist particular words and punctuations are often meticulous, painstaking decisions, but I do always keep in mind that things could be otherwise. Maybe that’s the main lesson to take away from being an editor. If I were the kind of person to have a bumper sticker, it would read: Things could be otherwise. 

TI: You have referred to yourself as a print poet rather than a presentation poet. What do you consider to be the difference between both types of poets? 
JDS: I am so much more comfortable as a poet of the page rather than a poet on the stage. I have tremendous respect for slam and performance poets whose work comes alive in the moment and in their bodies. I am enough of a taciturn midwesterner that this kind of performance does not come very easily to me. I do believe poetry lives in the body (on the lips, on the tongue, in our bellies and lungs), but I tend to carry poetry around with me (my own and others) in less obvious ways. I know it’s a truism that “poetry is meant to be read aloud.” I challenge that notion, however, if “meant to be” means that I cannot be enriched and transformed by a poem in the privacy of my own head. 

TI: “American Sad.” What inspired the title of this collection?
JDS: The poems in this collection admittedly tend toward darkness and sadness. In an early poem in the book called “Time” I wrote the lines, “You can endure almost anything for a few minutes / But there’s a peculiar American sadness that lasts forever.” I am not someone who suffers depression or experiences chronic bouts of sadness in my everyday life. Most people would likely tell you that I’m actually a pretty cheerful person, even in the face of difficult circumstances. But we all experience sadness, usually as something to “get through.” I also believe that there is a sadness that hums in the background as a constant ambience in our lives. We may try to compartmentalize it, to repress it, to distract ourselves from it. Perhaps it is related to mortality, to a recognition and consciousness of the pain and suffering of others, of the various kinds of futility and hopelessness we feel on a planet that often feels doomed. I call this collection “American Sad” as a nod toward the various ideas surrounding the myth of the American dream and the grand promises that most of us eventually realize are lies. We remain tired, poor, huddled masses. 

TI: How do you hope people will benefit from reading this book?
JDS: My only hope for readers of this book is that they open themselves up to the strange, the dark, the dreamlike and nightmarish, not for the sake of wallowing in sadness but for the sake of recognizing its terrible, pathetic beauties and finding something there that is true. As a writer and a thinker, I believe that art is not meant to be simply pretty, merely decorative or pleasing. Art has the capacity to create a rift in our everyday world to reveal—momentarily, through a glass darkly—a sliver of the Real. If American Sad is able even to approach that kind of truth, well, that would make me very happy indeed.

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