I try to explore every subject equally, and let it hurt me fully: An Interview with Jonathan Penton


The Waves Reading Series will host poet Jonathan Penton on Thursday, October 13, at 7 p.m. at Antenna Gallery (3718 St. Claude Avenue).

Penton’s latest book is Standards of Saddidy (Lit Fest Press, 2016). Of this collection, Carolyn Hembree remarked, “From ‘Fabio-streaked ceilings’ to ‘the darkly plain,’ these poems wildly traverse realms literary and erotic, public and domestic. Jonathan Penton’s book is a love letter to the weird and lonely and restless, every ‘lover flailing on the horizon.'” ROOM 220 had the pleasure of speaking with Penton about his work, the challenges of writing about eroticism, and what’s often problematic in categorizing literary works. This interview was conducted via email on Wednesday, October 12, 2016.

ROOM 220: If I remember correctly from our recent conversations, you’ve moved recently to New Orleans. Can you tell me what’s brought you here?

Jonathan Penton: I’d been living in Acadiana for five years—I love Lafayette—and El Paso, Texas, for a number of years before that. I do contract work on the Internet, and many of my moves have been impulsive. This one was less so. Ma belle and I wanted a bigger city, and since I’m an open-carry [alcohol] activist, we moved here.

Rm220: You’re the editor for Unlikely Stories, which has undergone quite the evolution since its inception. I’d love to hear about how the journal found its current shape.

JP: Our poetry editor, Michelle Greenblatt, and I planned this version before her passing in October 2015. It’s an attempt to adapt to the changing face of the Internet and culture, now that people get most of their reading material, and much of their human interaction, from social media. People’s attention spans are plummeting, which isn’t good for literature, but it’s beyond our ability to address. We made the decision that we wanted the site’s interface to adapt to the cultural changes, without adapting the content.

Specifically, Unlikely has always made space for long-form literature and experiments. We recently published an 11-scene play called La Negrita Chronicles from a young, almost-unpublished author, and we’ll be publishing an experimental, narrative-but-abstract novella later this week. We’re one of the few places where authors, known and unknown, can send work like that, and it’s not something we’re interested in compromising. We never dumb down for the reader: we expect the reader to take pleasure, and education, from the patient, the challenging, and the unexpected.

But we did want to reorganize the site in such a way that it allowed for the immediacy of social media. Unlikely Stories Episode IV was putting out bigger and bigger issues, more and more slowly. We decided to go in the opposite direction and put out a single article a day, several days a week (We do make exceptions for special themed issues, like our recent #BlackArtMatters issue). So we serve up a few poems, three days a week, and various other art forms, one-to-three days a week. They roll down our front page for a while, then go to our archives, in the manner of a news site.

Rm220: Ezra Cappell said that your chapbook Prosthetic Gods followed in the vein of Ginsberg’s rant against the injustices of our culture. Your latest book, Standards of Saddidy, begins with a poem titled, “Charles Bukowski’s Greatest Mistake.” While I’m resistant to categorize Bukowski as a beat because of his own desire to distance himself from the movement, your work does seem to engage in a number of cross-cultural dialogues. What importance do you find in participating in these critical conversations? How do you respond to questions of influence or poetic lineage?

JP: Bukowski was stylistically different from the Beats, which remains relevant, and was extremely removed subculturally, which is cured by death. The commonality was the movement towards direct social commentary that became suddenly and overwhelmingly popular in American poetry in the mid-20th Century (right after it became so in Turkey, probably coincidentally, but check out Orhan Veli anyway). This trend influenced rap music and led to slam poetry. It is all-pervasive in my work, as evidenced by my own opinion and just about every other author who has been attentive enough to speculate on my poetic lineage. I can speak to this more later.

I participate in cross-cultural dialogues in my work because I have and observe them in my life. My mother is Jewish, and my father was raised Independent Baptist in Appalachia. I spent the first five years of my life outside of Sherman, Texas, and developed a very thick east Texas drawl. I moved to a diverse section of Atlanta, where children, even young children, wanted to be more cosmopolitan than they were and affected their own accents in a variety of ways. I’m a bi poly atheist Jewish poet with a map of Manhattan tattooed in my brain. I’m also a southern high-school-dropout dirty-old-man who has lived rurally in Texas, Georgia, and Louisiana. So I guess the “dialogue” aspect of my work is deliberate, but “cross-cultural,” at least in the context of the cultures found in the U.S., simply reflects the dialogues I have.

Rm220: I think about what you called the “angry little poems” in Blood and SalsaPainting Rust and the sparsity that infiltrates those works. This exiguousness continues to appear in Standards of Saddidy, and it’s coupled with an immediacy in the tone of many poems that draws reader into the work before what feels like a punch (or series of punches) to the gut. That is, your poems place readers in the throes of irreconcilable emotions that are often at battle in everyday life. How did you arrive at the leanness of form your poems often utilize? You buck convention (punctuation, capitalization, pagination, etc.) in a number of ways, and I’d love to hear you speak to how that’s become a vital part of your work.

JP: Oh, thank you, that’s very high praise and attentive analysis. Painting Rust and Blood and Salsa were edited largely by Michael Rothenberg, who was speaking of advice he received from Philip Whalen, and to a lesser degree Gregory Corso (Rothenberg’s own work reflects Joanne Kyger more). Since then, others have placed me in the heritage of John Weiners, Charles Olson, and, as you point out, various Beats (and I’m left to invoke Jack Spicer my own damn self).

I also believe that it’s important for every American writing poetry about sociopolitical issues to carefully consider Soviet and pre-Soviet protest poetry and film. There’s so much furious beauty to explore, both for one’s own edification, and for many wonderful lessons in how to merge actual poesy into the poetics of protest. This is a well-documented field, so I won’t make personal recommendations other than Marina Tsvetaeva. For more expert recommendations, check out the crew and happenings of Asymptote Journal.

Rm220: Your poetry resists categorization. Whether one tries to situate your poetry within the domain of confessionalism, realism, or romanticism, your work proves these boundaries to be temporary and inorganic. What’s your take on the uselessness of such categories, and how do you consider these artificial delineations when thinking about your own work?

JP: I think that it cripples much of art, and especially American poetry, to consider industry terms necessary for appreciation of the work. Those, to me, are the terms of our trade. It’s like telling someone they need to really, really understand a fuel injection system to derive pleasure from driving a car. Sure, that comprehension enhances pleasure, but public obsession with art criticism feeds into the stereotype that poetry is only inviting to the highly educated.

After the publication of Blood and Salsa/Painting Rust, I was startled to find that people were finding my poems difficult. I consider that a bad thing, though it’s better to be difficult than to lose layers of meaning. And if you find this apparent anti-intellectual streak of mine to be in opposition to my publishing philosophy at Unlikely, I should say I do not find it so, but then I contain multitudes, which is something I learned from Whitman, or possibly Robert Bloch, but most eloquently from FEMINIST HULK.

You shouldn’t have to fully understand where a poet is coming from in order to experience pleasure and edification from their work. As alluded, much of my aesthetic derives from my experiences as a lifelong misfit; statistically speaking, it probably isn’t yours to get, though I greatly hope you enjoy it.

I do consider these artificial delineations during my revision process. After my Blood and Salsa/Painting Rust startlement, I fantasized a school for myself and some of my friends: librettic poetry. This word remains an apt characterization, but you can see that it’s a marketing term, and I really suck at marketing. People who are better at marketing come up with artificial delineations that are not only apt, but also useful to the poet in understanding their own approach, and I do find the three terms you mentioned useful during revising, though probably not during reading.

Rm220: Your work often approaches eroticism in a dynamic way that figures and refigures not only sex but nature and death, as well. Even your titles Painting Rust and Blood and Salsa evoke the sweet-bitter nature of eros, the beloved’s chase and loss of desire once the desire’s fulfilled. Lack of fulfillment seems to be as important as fulfillment or desire. How do you approach writing poems that engage with the erotic? What do you resist when writing poems that engage with the erotic?

JP: I resist reducing any character in my work to an object of desire. This malignant tendency in the human romantic is made more tempting by both the flourishes of poetry and my own short form, so I actively battle it. Standards of Sadiddy is largely about this battle. If it’s less erotic than some of my previous work, it’s an attempt at a more mature romanticism, one that is not dependent on turning a plethora of remembered voices into my own wistfulness. The identity of the narrator in Standards of Sadiddy jumps around a lot, but my hope is that on any given page, the narrator is not the only character of interest.

I do not differentiate my poems that engage with the erotic from my poems that do not. I hold an ideal of open-heartedness in which the boundaries between “erotic partner” and “random stranger” are simple social convention (Note that I am differentiating between eroticism and sexuality, here). This is an unattainable ideal, and I am personally especially far from it. I like to think that I’m more successful in my efforts to fuse the “erotic” with “non-erotic” in verse. I try to assume that every topic deserves the same level of passionate romanticism, along with the same level of cynicism. I try to explore every subject equally, and let it hurt me fully.

When we are very young, we seek the full cornucopia of pain in sexual relationships, and tell ourselves that we are able to do it in the other aspects of our life. As we age, our ability to feel pain grows more refined, and our pains become deeper, and more readily summoned—and we are more capable of developing new ones, besides. Art remains an area in which we can fully embrace these pains without allowing them to destroy us.