Thursday, October 14, 2010

Writers Talk with Jonah Winter

It’s with great pleasure that I introduce today’s Writers Talk interviewee, Jonah Winter.  I first met Jonah in Charlottesville in 1985 when we were both attending the MFA program at the University of Virginia, & we struck up a friendship “oriented around talking, analyzing, mulling,” as he puts it in this interview (I also hope I am a “good conversationalist.”)  I’ve always held Jonah’s poetry in high esteem, & tho our poetics diverge at some points, we share an enthusiasm for the surreal & for formal experiments, & I can honestly say that his poetry has not only been an inspiration but also an influence over the years.  Jonah also has been one of the best readers of my own poems, something that I value a great deal.

When Jonah & I weren’t mulling—or even sometimes while we were—we engaged in some memorable escapades, including an overnight road trip from Charlottesville to Niagara Falls with a couple of other “poets in their youth,” all intent on proving Wordsworth’s dictum, I fear (I described it in a poem as “No Exit except in a/Motel 6 in Tucumcari/one of those Hope-Crosby Road/extravaganzas gone wrong”)—a tale perhaps too wild & ultimately, too sad to tell—& a cross country road trip in an old Toyota that would keep running even if you pulled the key out of the ignition.  We both lived in San Francisco during the 90s at which point Jonah was yielding clarinet, mandolin, accordion & tin whistle in the band Ed’s Redeeming Qualities.

Jonah Winter’s poetry has been widely published.  In addition to his poems appearing in a number of magazines & in chapbooks, he has also published Maine & Amnesia; the latter book won the 2003 Field Poetry Prize.  Jonah has also published 20 children’s books on  subjects ranging from Roberto Clemente to Hildegard Von Bingen—perhaps my favorite is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude, his children’s book bio of Gertrude Stein!  

Please check out Jonah's dynamite poem "What We Know" on the Writers Talk blog.

Without further ado, Jonah Winter:

When did you first realize your identity as a writer?

It was when I was a sophomore at Oberlin College, just having lost the key to my clarinet case (I’d been a music major at another school with the unrealistic hopes of somehow sneaking in to the Oberlin Conservatory through the back door) – that’s when my identity crisis over musician vs. poet came to an end…, well, uhhh…, for about 10 years at least (I later took up the clarinet again and started making some money as a musician).    I’ve struggled from the beginning over my identity, always inexplicably bewildered over just what the hairy heck I am.   At one point, in the ‘90s, I was making money as a musician, an illustrator, and as a poet and children’s book author.   I’m now in my 19th year of making a living as a children’s book author, so I guess I can safely call myself a children’s book writer, but “poet” – I don’t know.   The word seems fraught with pretension and self-importance.   To think of oneself as a poet seems a bit absurd (almost like seeing oneself as a “visionary”) – that being said, I continue to write things that might be called “poems” (and are certainly intended as such) and have several filing cabinets overflowing with such specimens that I’ve written through the years, and a few books to show for my efforts as well.   Should an artist depend on external validation for her or his identity?  After giving this question much thought, I’d have to answer with an emphatic “NO.”   You are what you are.  And if you don’t know what you are, or you aren’t willing to define yourself with a label, well then, nonetheless, you still are what you are, right?  If a tree falls in an unseen forest….     [Author strokes non-existent chin whiskers…]

Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.
A few years ago, I wrote a sestina based on Anna Karenina.    Before I even chose my end-words, I had decided that I wanted it to be a sort of aural book report spoken by an inarticulate modern youth.   So, if memory serves me, I chose as my end-words “like,” “relationships,” “like,” “so,” “wow,” and “dude.”    It was a lot of fun to write!    I had to actually stop writing at certain points because I was doubled over in laughter – it was that fun!   I love cracking myself up – that’s probably what keeps me writing.   Who needs anti-depressants when you can come up with a poem called “Burt Lancaster’s Big Head”?!

Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)
I have a fairly traditional, old-fashioned relationship to the publishing process.   I publish my books with regular old print-publishers, and for my children’s books, I have an agent.    Proudly “Luddite,” I have eschewed the temptations of turning my kids’ books into e-books thus far, and I am absolutely opposed to pretty much all forms of electronic publication for children, as I believe this is leading to mass-laziness, stupidity, and disconnectedness from reality.   I don’t have a blog, but I do have a website… that is pretty much non-functional!   I’ve published adult poems in online magazines, largely because I’ve been solicited by the editors of these magazines, whose taste is apparently compatible with my own.   Generally, though, I mistrust anything having to do with the internet…, uhhh…, except for this blog!   All of that being said, I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the direction the publishing industry is taking – in both the more lucrative trade publishing sector and the small presses of obscure poetry.   The trade publishers are becoming more crassly mercenary by the second, churning out more and more “celebrity” author books every year (in the hopes that this will somehow protect the industry from the ominous storm clouds of Amazon and electronic books), whilst the small poetry presses are doing nothing more than perpetuating the sickening alienation of poets from any real audience by printing increasingly obscure, hermetic, overly (pseudo-) intellectual garbage written by their grad school chums and intended for an audience mainly of other aspiring poets who’ve submitted their manuscripts to the demoralizing, rigged “contests” which provide the only means of getting one’s poems published nowadays other than self-publishing.  It’s enough to make someone throw up.   (Excuse me for one moment….)

How has being a writer affected your relationships?
Ha ha – that’s an interesting question!   Well, you know, being a writer has definitely helped me to meet some very interesting, creative, passionate people whom I might not have met had I gone into a field other than writing, for instance, plumbing, though of course one never knows.   If one is a writer, there’s a good chance that one will meet other writers, who by their natures generally love language, communication, talk.   Most of the writers I’ve known are good conversationalists, and our friendships or acquaintanceships have generally been oriented around talking, analyzing, mulling – activities for which I have a nearly pathological zeal.    The fact of being a writer, for me, also entails quite a bit of private time.  For 19 years, I’ve been self-employed as a writer.   I work at home – alone.    And I savor the huge chunks of alone time I have to get writing done or even just to daydream or to stare at goldfinches.    Such time helps me to feel more connected to the world around me and also to my own soul.   The sorts of limited-access relationships I have had with other humans, therefore, are not of the sort of daily, constant variety that might happen in a workplace or a communal living situation or any other environment which involves non-stop human interaction.   I suppose, though, that having a lot of alone time does not necessitate being a writer, per se.   But being a writer sure does afford a handy excuse for avoiding people!   The grandfather I never met used to say, apparently, that “the more I see of fish, the more I like bananas.”   The writer in me wants to revise this to “the more I see of humans, the more I like fish.”    Though I do find people “endlessly fascinating,” in general, I also generally find them very exhausting to be around.     Navigating around everyone’s neuroses and egos and opinions and cruelties and “boundaries” can be a fulltime job.   And I, thank God, am a freelancer.

Getting back to the word “relationships,” though:        Might this question also refer to the relationships one has to nature or animals or even inanimate objects?    I lived alone in rural Maine for 2 years, and the relationships I had there were mainly of this variety – and I found myself writing about this realm quite a bit:  moose, chipmunks, ducks, snow.   Writing about these things helped me to feel an even deeper bond with them than I would have experienced had I not been a writer.     So, I’d have to say that being a writer has generally had a positive impact on my relationships, especially my relationship with paper.

As far as humans go, though, I do my best to try and focus on the humans I love and admire and on the relationships which I value, but it’s an effort.   All I have to do is to walk outside my front door and see a couple of shirtless white guys with shaved heads and tattoos, shouting really stupid things in loud voices across the street to each other…, and it takes a full hour of yoga to bring me back to anything resembling peace.   Is my “relationship” to such people “caused” by my being a writer?   I don’t know.   Maybe.

For the most part, I prefer seals to humans.    Though I can’t say that I’ve ever had a relationship with a seal.

How would you describe the community of writers you belong to—if any?  This may be a “real” or “virtual” (in more than one sense) community.

The community of writers I belong to?   Non-existent!    I have a couple of friends with whom I exchange poems – but that’s different from a community.   In the best of all possible worlds, I would love to be a part of a community, but I simply haven’t found one that is right for me.   It would have to be a community of writers who are generally skeptical of modern writer communities.  This seems… unlikely.    As far as “virtual” communities go, I find them frighteningly alienating – which is not really what you want from a “community”!  I was on facebook for about 6 months, and I would have to agree with a writer friend of mine who summed it up as a “creepy online popularity contest.”   But I’d take that one step farther – it’s a corporation providing a template of sociability and self-definition that basically turns all its users into corporate clones:   Here are my “religious views.”   And here are my “political views.”    And here’s “what I’m doing today.”   And hey, if you like you can be “a Fan of Jonah Winter”…!    But only if you sell your soul to the devil and join, join, join this fun, fun, fun “network”…!    I know a lot of writers and editors who swear by facebook and other online communities as a way of “connecting” with other writers and for “promoting” their books and careers.   But as another writer friend of mine said when I joined facebook for that unfortunate 6-month period, “I hope you’ve now accomplished everything you want to accomplish in this life…, because from here on out all your time will be sucked into the soul-draining black hole which is facebook!”    (Not to put to fine a point on it.)

I wish there were more writer communities these days that revolved around real emotional and aesthetic connections rather than just some particular alma mater or the need to get published.   It must have been fun to be a part of the Beats, to be living out some youthful dream that was verbally in an intense relationship to the Real World (as opposed to some academic credo concocted in an Ivory Tower), something alive and pulsing, rumbling, sweating.   As opposed to hipster networking “book parties.”     To quote Ecclesiastes:  Vanity, vanity, vanity!

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

I really don’t know.   I have a feeling I’m in for some sort of big change on the writing front, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it will be.    Stay tuned.

Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be?

A player piano.


  1. You know that theoretical game where you can invite anyone alive or dead to dinner? Well, Jonah Winter has just made my list!

    I was nodding my head all the way through his responses. (Admittedly, I beg to differ on the social networks front), but in every other respect I was in agreement.

    I am also very keen to read that sestina!


  2. I would also have Jonah Winter for dinner.

  3. I'm now very interested in acquiring some of Jonah Winter's books for my grandchildren. What a wonderful interview. I've always liked the name Jonah and I like it even more, now. Thanks for the introduction!

  4. Hi Kat, Scotty & Nana Jo

    Kat: So glad you enjoyed this. I can tell you that Jonah is an excellent dinner guest, but you might want to get the invite from him, because he's also a fantastic cook!

    Scotty: I'm with you there, my friend. I was lucky to have a couple of dinners with Jonah & Sally when I was back east this spring.

    Nana Jo: That's great! Jonah's children's books are very good.

  5. Jonah Winter for dinner sounds delicious. See if you can get me an invite.

    I have always been a fan.


  6. Hi Ray: Prepositions are important aren't they? Now I see I missed something in Scotty's comment. Anyway, I take your word on such matters, as I know you are sometimes a restaurant reviewer. & you have blogs about food.

  7. A fine interview and the more refreshing for Jonah's assertion of traditional values and media. Like John, I'm temperamentally of the old world but fatally compromised by absorption into the e-world. It's good to know that someone's out there fighting the corner for treeware!

  8. A great interview. I'm a crummy dinner guest so I won't ask for an invitation to feast on or with Jonah, but I will go look for his poems.

  9. Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude
    I need to look this book up.

    And I enjoyed the interview, particularly his sense of humor.

  10. Hi Dick, Mairi & HKatz

    Dick: In all honesty, tho "some of my best friends are luddites," I really rather distrust the impulse myself. But Jonah's A-OK with me--one of the very best poets around.

    Mairi: Now I find it hard to believe that you'd be a crummy dinner guest! But yes, do look up Jonah's poems--they're very good.

    HKatz: So glad you enjoyed it--yes, do look up the Gertrude Stein book!


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