Jesse Valentine is an aspiring poet and writer originally from Portland, Maine. Since graduating from the New School University, he has spent his years living and working in various corners of the Northeastern United States. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. His poem Divorce and Astronauts appears in the December issue of Rattle.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?
Jesse Valentine: In junior high school I first became engaged with art in a meaningful way. Like many misanthropic thirteen year olds before me, life had an exciting way of cracking open and becoming new again as I discovered punk rock and independent film. I began writing in verse around the same time, however, because most of my role models came from the world of music, I had convinced myself that I was writing song lyrics. (A curious notion given that I posses no musical ability whatsoever.) It took me a couple years to realize that I was even writing poems.
Geosi Gyasi: Was it a personal choice to become a writer?
Jesse Valentine: Yes, but I am not sure it’s a choice I was ever aware of making. As an undergraduate I pursued a degree in poetry and literature, which in the intervening years I have often joked is like getting a degree in unemployment. But, for all the cynicism and doubt I have about my creative ambitions, I am still not sure what other option I ever had. A few months ago I read Philip Roth’s The Anatomy Lesson – it reinforced that I never would’ve made it in medical school.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific time when you write?
Jesse Valentine: Generally in the afternoons. When I’m not working a nine to five job, I like to dedicate my mornings to errands – coffee, newspaper, post office, bank – and my nights to relaxation and decompression. I feel the most awake and least burdened during the hours after lunch and before sundown.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you start a poem?
Jesse Valentine: For the last couple years my poems have been rooted in a concept or idea. If something strikes me as particularly poetic, I’ll begin taking notes on it, with any luck, those notes will begin to take shape into something meaningful. The goal is always to be as honest as possible.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when a poem you’re writing is going well?
Jesse Valentine: While I hate to sound vague, it is just a feeling. Sometimes poems die halfway across the page, other times I put months of work into them before discovering their fruitlessness. There are other times I’ll finish a sloppy, mess of a draft, but feel such a sense of accomplishment that I’ll declare myself, in the moment, to be a fucking genius. The rarest feeling – and my favorite – is when I feel such a personal sense of accomplishment and expression that quality becomes a secondary concern.
Geosi Gyasi: Can we talk about your poem, “Divorce and Astronauts”? What inspired the poem?
Jesse Valentine: I wrote the earliest draft in January of 2013, after the dissolution of a brief, but to some degree intense, romantic relationship. I was living in my hometown of Portland, Maine, working as a substitute teacher, smoking copious amount of marijuana, and feeling slightly miserable and isolated. Against that gray backdrop, it was easy to let the promise of love color a little too much of my world. When it was over, and I resumed my lonesome daily routine, I was struck by the feeling that the relationship had been a kind of vacation from what was my normal life. The poet John Koethe has a wonderful line about how we live our lives in quick bursts of adequacy and disappointment, and I suppose I wanted to write about what had always been for me the temporary nature of love and contentment. At the same time, I had been attempting to write a poem about Elton John’s recording of Rocket Man, which is how I stumbled upon the astronaut metaphor. I spent nearly a year revising Divorce and Astronauts, until the only remnants of the original were the closing lines.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult to write a poem as compared to novels?
Jesse Valentine: I often describe poetry as my first love, however, and I know some poets won’t like to hear this, I think of the novel as the noblest form of human expression. Part of the reason I feel this way is because I have so dedicated myself to the craft of poetry, that I can’t help but admire anyone with the focus and syntactical ability to see a novel through to completion. I remain committed to poetry, but part of me does hope to someday muster the will required for fiction.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any favorite writer(s)?
Jesse Valentine: For a couple years now I have been drawn to older male writers and what their work perhaps says about dedication to craft. I like the idea of Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth publishing novels in their 80’s. In terms of my poetry, my biggest influence has undoubtedly been the late Jack Gilbert and the incredibly Charlie Smith, their fearless approach to sentimentality and nostalgia continues to be a model for me.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you perform your poems?
Jesse Valentine: As a teenager I was very attracted to slam poetry, however, I always made a clear distinction between “literary poems” and “performance poems.” My performance poems never worked on the page, and so by college I had committed myself to the literary track. I continue to be amazed by poets like Anis Mojgani, and Buddy Wakefield, and Andrea Gibson, whose work translates seamlessly between book and stage. Lately, in a similar vein, I have been slightly fixated on the close relationship between stand-up comedy and poetry – both of which seem to rely on an emotionally charged economy of language. Marc Maron and Louis C.K. may be the most significant poets of our time.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not writing?
Jesse Valentine: Sometimes, if I am feeling particularly depressed or bored about the circumstances of my life, I will have trouble mustering the will to write. I’ve taken months off at a time. Somewhat ironically, these periods frequently end when I begin to get depressed about the fact that I haven’t been writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you receive mails from fans who read your poems?
Jesse Valentine: Here and there, I’ve received a kind of e-mail, or generous words of encouragement. Like many who nurse dreams of artistic success, I have no trouble fantasizing about the adulation of the crowd and hoards of adoring fans, yet I still feel embarrassed whenever someone compliments my work.
Geosi Gyasi: How long does it take you to write a single poem?
Jesse Valentine: My poems have a long gestation period. I heed the advice of Truman Capote that most writing is re-writing. I can hammer out a draft of a poem in a couple hours, but then will likely spend up to a year revising it.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it appropriate to describe you as a poet rather than a writer?
Jesse Valentine: I get very uncomfortable using either of those terms to describe myself, and I wish others would exercise the same caution. I personally believe these are titles that should be earned and not ones we ascribe to ourselves. Advocates of arts education often rightfully point out that art just as much a necessity to society as hospitals. I frankly think we should have a metric for calling individuals “writers,” that is as strict as the metric by which we call people “doctors.”
Geosi Gyasi: What are your plans for the future?
Jesse Valentine: I’ve never been one for long-term goals. I’m thinking I’ll have Pad Thai for dinner.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently reading?
Jesse Valentine: For Christmas my father got me the collected Rabbit Angstrom novels by John Updike. I’m a couple pages deep into Rabbit is Rich.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you think about the future of poetry?
Jesse Valentine: I recently heard Dave Ghrol on Howard Stern discuss his impression that rock music was going the way of jazz. My personal feeling is that we’ve gotten to a place with poetry where most of the people reading it are also the ones writing it. If publishing is in its twilight, then poetry was the first to go. There are of course some benefits to this phenomenon, like a development of an intimate, close-knit community. At the same time, it is near impossible for me to imagine a poet, let alone a single poem, having some sort of mainstream appeal or impact on the contemporary zeitgeist, and that does make me a little sad.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you do to relax when not writing?
Jesse Valentine: I am a politics junkie, consuming a near-unhealthy amount of Washington media and cable news. I get nothing but pure enjoyment out of it. I have never written a single poem about politics, and can’t imagine that I ever will.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most difficult part of writing?
Jesse Valentine: The self-doubt. It’s very easy for me to sit down, write a couple sentences, and then immediately slip into a despairing of pattern of asking myself “why am I doing this?” and “what’s this point?”
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most boring part of writing?
Jesse Valentine: It could be that I have a slightly high boredom threshold, but I don’t really find any part of writing boring. If it’s going well, I’m exhilarated and excited and even overzealous. If it’s going poorly, I am gloomy, and fickle, and brooding, but never bored.
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?
Jesse Valentine: My parents have always been incredibly supportive of my creative pursuits, even if they haven’t always understood why I would choose such an uncertain and fantastical path. They let me live in their house when I was broke, they congratulate me whenever I have a piece published, and they never tried to push me into anything I didn’t want to do.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you earn a living from writing?
Jesse Valentine: No. I’ve had several different jobs, all of which I’ve had trouble drumming up passion for, as I inevitably spend my half the time daydreaming about things I want to write.