an interview by Sophie Buonomo with
Janaka Stucky

Janaka Stucky (photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz)

Janaka Stucky is practicing the perfection of effort while working on silent relationships with whiskey, pugilism and the history of tentacles. He is also the publisher of the independent press, Black Ocean, and its literary magazine, Handsome. Some of his poems have appeared in Cannibal, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Free Verse, No Tell Motel, North American Review, redivider and VOLT. His chapbook, Your Name Is The Only Freedom, is available from Brave Men Press.

In April 2010, readers of the Boston Phoenix named Stucky Best Poet in their annual Best of Boston poll. He was a write-in candidate, sweeping a category full of local heavies: Sam Cornish, Robert Pinsky, Louise Gluck, Rosanna Warren, Margo Lockwood and Frank Bidart.

Q: Your proximity to death as a part time undertaker and your ability to interact with it both physically and in writing may appear morbid or macabre to some. How do you feel that death connects to your poetry?
First, I should take this opportunity to clarify that I am no longer a “part-time undertaker,” as the Boston Phoenix recently reported. I did work in the funeral business for seven years, and towards the end I went down to part time, but I stopped that line of work over a year ago. Nonetheless, working in the trade influenced and informed my work a great deal—especially because I started as an apprentice at the same time I started my work on an MFA in poetry. At first the influence was merely in the realm of subject matter; I was processing a lot, burying up to three bodies a day at the city’s largest funeral home, and that process came out in my writing and in my dreams. For the first couple of years I was losing my grip on the “known,” while trying to embrace the “unknown.” However, once I moved past the physicality, the constant contemplation of death began to influence my aesthetic as a whole, and freed me from my fear. My poems opened up, celebrating the ephemeral nature of their own language in a way I had never experienced before.

I came to understand the poem as a ritual, a funeral for the constant death of language. This should only seem macabre and morbid if you’re hung up on “death” as a negative term. Death is inevitable and if you can accept that, soon you learn to embrace it, and then you learn to celebrate it. I mean this in all things, not just the body.

Q: That being said, do you find that people expect a certain element of death in everything you do, and that your roles as an undertaker and in burlesque have made you a character rather than a writer?
I worried about this for a while, and I think for a while that was a legitimate concern because almost every poem I was writing was a death poem. But I wrote poems for years before I started that work, and continue to write now that I’ve stopped. Many of my significant achievements in poetry have either come in recent years, since I stopped writing overtly about death, or—like founding Black Ocean—have nothing to do with that work. I find that many of my colleagues are only vaguely aware of that “other life” as an undertaker / burlesque performer / horror aficionado. Likewise, my colleagues in the performance scene and in the funeral business were only vaguely aware of my involvement in poetry. For a while I was living three or four different lives. This year, that’s started to come together more; I think I’m down to two…

Q: Who do you consider your audience? In our screen era, as people are buying fewer books, how will poetry be consumed?
This is a great question, and one I think any artists need to ask again and again because the answer changes over time. It should change, or else your work isn’t changing and that’s a problem. Sometimes my audience is just one person and sometimes that person is imaginary. When I was younger, my audience was future generations of undergraduate students, unpacking in their classrooms the brilliant and complex allusions I thought my work contained. I once wrote a poem about android hipsters uncovering my words in an archaeological dig… For a long time my audience was my ex-wife, because she rarely read poetry and she was very important to me. Right now I think I mostly write poems for myself. If I can surprise myself in my own poem then I take that as a good sign.
As for the “screen age” and poetry, and the decline in books—it doesn’t bother me that much. Poetry existed before books, and it will continue to exist after them. The art itself will evolve as we evolve and some things will fall away and new elements will emerge to keep it relevant to our lives. I can’t predict what poems will look like in the future but we will always need to express ourselves in a language free from the rules of prose. Maybe if we stop singing then poetry would also disappear. But I can’t imagine that moment coming for quite some time—our understanding of physics might be different then and our bodies might be reduced to light.

Q: You have been very successful in the past with spoken word poetry. How do you find the process of writing poetry to be spoken and poetry to be read different?
I wouldn’t say “very successful,” but for your readers maybe we should supply context. I co-founded a street poetry collective in the late 90s called the Guerilla Poets. It started in Boston with 17 members and grew to 700 people nationwide. Eventually we had an anthology published, which I edited. Nonetheless, I don’t feel that I personally enjoyed much success in the world of “spoken word,” or “slam poetry.” I was never a superstar there—which actually gets back to your question. I do think that writing a slam poem is different than writing a poem for the page. Slam has rules and specific audiences and judges—it’s almost a form unto itself. The Guerilla Poets were interested in taking poems written for the page and finding ways to present them with intensity, even if that intensity is quiet. Poetry has an aural quality and we were celebrating that. When I write and revise poems I often read them out loud to myself, to better hear the poem. In that sense I think every poem should be spoken, though sometimes some poems lose nuances off the page that they contained on it. Certain types of puns, for example, and reflexive allusions; I love the way enjambment can be used to create double meanings. One can do one’s best to affect line breaks and white space in breath, but usually something is lost. Ideally we could read along with the poet to have the fullest experience.

Q: Black Ocean combines print, concerts, exhibitions, as well as other events. What do you think is the benefit of mixing these media?
I can’t say there is a definitive benefit to the poetry by producing live events—or vice versa. I just love putting on shows. Usually the audiences are different for the events and the books, though there is some overlap. My hope would be that by having really cool events under the same umbrella as the books, people could move past the stigma poetry suffers under. It kind of blows my mind how ill-read many artists I know are when it comes to poetry. Perhaps they were exposed to the handful of stale writers shoved down their throats in school and gave up on the art altogether. Imagine if someone judged the entirety of music based on the 20-30 songs their teachers played for them when they were teenagers… To me poetry can be as radical and experimental as any other art. I don’t think the problem is that it’s too inaccessible; I have no populist illusions about poetry. Rather than trying to commercialize it, I want to connect it with its audience—which is not a mainstream audience. There are a lot of people out there that want to be challenged and stimulated and would find the books we publish exciting, but don’t consider themselves “readers of poetry.” So my hope is to subtly connect some of those people with our books by producing events that are exciting, stimulating and sometimes challenging. But even if that connection doesn’t happen everyone has still has a good time. There are so many ways to be happy. A good poem creates a space where anything can happen, and discovering that possibility creates a fissure of uncertainty that cracks open the rest of our lives until finally we can become greater than the simple definitions around us. I like to produce events that do that too—that create what Hakim Bey called a “Temporary Autonomous Zone.” Autonomy—freedom from the known—is essentially radical. It takes that kind of autonomy to live a deliberately beautiful life.

Q: What are you working on now?
I’ve been boxing for about two years now and I’m getting interested in pursuing other physical disciplines as well. Maybe fencing is next, or jujitsu—though I really enjoy boxing. It’s amazing how physical activity clears the mind, and how quickly we forget that. It can be a meditation if you really push past your comfort zone. In that sense, it primes me for writing poems that come from a deeper, more freely associative layer of my brain. I’m really interested in poetry that comes from altered states of consciousness, and I’m constantly pushing myself to do that without the aid of foreign chemicals. Psychedelics have a real place in the creative process but I find it personally impossible to write anything of skill during a trip. I’m training my mind to work in that encrypted archetypal mode, while concurrently operating on a fairly lucid plane alongside it. That’s a dark place to operate in, but I don’t mean that in the Christian sense. There is a lot of light there too, just the imperceptible kind that vibrates within us. My latest poems are filled with non-ironic monsters, or angels, depending on your point of view.

Q: What advice would you give to young writers?
I’m a young writer myself so I don’t think I’m in much of a position to be giving advice. I can share my experience in the second person though… You should always question what you’re doing. If you think that you’ve entirely succeeded then you should either quit or admit that you’re wrong. Spend a lot of time with your mind and enjoy being there. Sometimes the struggle to communicate is so great it can call you, so when you’re not struggling remember to have fun. Lastly I suppose I would say do whatever you can to promote the art, especially when it’s being produced in quality by other people. If you love writing, like any love, you should be able to forget yourself in it and be joyful in the knowledge that it simply exists.

<< Back to Issue 14, 2010

Published by Pen and Anvil Press


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