Behind the Words: Jerrod Bohn

Posted by on Jan 13, 2017 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

JB3-2I caught up with Spry issue 3 contributor Jerrod Bohn as he was in the midst of moving back to Fort Collins, Colorado. He sat down with me and unpacked his thoughts on stylistic choices in poetry, the influence of place, and how maybe—just maybe—we should read more and party less. 

Talk to me about the revision process of “we have on display a nascent child.” How did it start? What surprised you through the revision process?  

A few years ago, I read this incredibly fascinating text Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language by Daniel Heller-Roazen. In the first chapter, Heller-Roazen describes how linguist Roman Jakobson observed that “a babbling child” can form the phonemes that belong to all human languages as well as many that don’t—a baby’s birdspeak, its cooing. Curiously, just prior to the initial stages of language acquisition, the infant loses the ability to produce not only the phonemes that fall outside of what will become the infant’s mother tongue but also seems to “forget” the sounds associated with speaking the mother tongue. Jakobson called this passage from pre-linguistic stages to early language acquisition “the apex of babble.” According to Heller-Roazen, during this time the infant “cannot even say ‘I,’ and one hesitates to attribute to him the consciousness of a speaking being.”

“we have on display a nascent child” is a verse rendering (I hate to say poetic since Heller-Roazen’s book often blurs the line between traditional scholarly writing and lyric essay) of the apex of babble and begins my unpublished, book-length manuscript Animal Histories. I had this strange idea of some research body (the poem’s “we”) observing this infant as it moved from making a limitless array of sounds to that moment when the forgetting takes place, which Heller-Roazen insinuates is the substitutionary payment for  full “citizenship in the community of a single tongue.” Hunger plays a role because I looked at language acquisition in terms of survival. The infant can cry when hungry, but infant cry is arbitrary—crying can signal any number of infant discomforts that parents try, often through trial and error, to decode. Being able to say, “I’m hungry” is so much more effective. But being able to assert “I” is outside the infant’s ability at the apex of babble. “we have on display a nascent child” records the infant’s struggle to assert self when that linguistic capacity doesn’t exist; rather, the struggle when the infant has “forgotten” the phoneme I /ai/ and cannot voice itself into being.

There’s more there, to be sure. The “O” (the poem’s only capital letter) is the lyric impulse, and to me lyric poetry since Sappho’s time is about desire. In rereading the poem several times, I think the “we” possess a certain, necessary scientific coldness; if their purpose is to study the infant at the apex of babble, they cannot intervene even if they know the infant is hungry, is suffering, because to do so would taint the research. Anyhow, I think my story of the poem’s inception is turning into an explication, so…

In terms of actual revision, I can’t recall making too many changes between the poem’s initial draft and the published version, which I never view as “final” and see as just another draft. My writing process begins with a journal, a black pen, and some kind of liquid, coffee, beer or wine. I handwrite the first draft, often making some changes in the process. My journals are full of scribbles. About once a week, I transfer my handwritten drafts to the computer. During this time, I make more changes, but unlike the handwritten drafts, there really isn’t a physical record of this process other than what shows up on the screen is sometimes different than what appears on the page. Another round of revision occurs when I print the poem. I reread the poem several times and use a pen to reorder lines, words, stanzas, change the diction, and make additions and deletions. When I write poetry, I tend to view whatever I’m working on as being part of a “project.” I very seldom write a poem that “stands alone,” although I think the hallmark of a well-realized project is that a poem appears to “stand alone” even when it doesn’t. Heller-Roazen’s ideas are too big for just one poem; I always thought of “we have on display a nascent child” as only the beginning.

 

I did some homework and noticed many of your other publications use uppercase letters. Talk to me about the stylized choice to use lowercase letters throughout your poem in Spry

The decision not to use uppercase letters in “we have on display a nascent child” came of out Heller-Roazen as well. While Heller-Roazen focuses on speech, I started thinking about what might happen if punctuation, capitalization, and other rules of written language become “forgotten.” In a later chapter in Echolalias, Heller-Roazen shares a tale of Abū Nuwās, who aspires to be a great poet. In it, an authority tells him to memorize a thousand passages of poetry, a feat he accomplishes after some time. When he returns, ready to compose poetry of his own, the authority orders him to forget everything he just memorized before he starts writing. Of course, when one actively “forgets,” vestiges remain. I think even when language’s written rules aren’t present, we remember enough to fill them in to construct a reading of a text. Or, if you’re part of the rules police, you become really ticked off.

 

Jerrod, your bio mentions that you live in Fort Collins, CO. Do you find your sense of community shapes your poetry at all?  

At the time of the Spry publication I did live in Fort Collins. Currently (at the time of writing this), I live in Seattle, and I’ve been living in Seattle since September 2014. By the time this interview appears in print, I might be living in Fort Collins again.

I do think community and landscape enormously shape my writing regardless of whether my writing consciously addresses such themes. For example, my most recent book-length manuscript, Pulp: A Manifesto, could only have come out of living in a city, particularly a city experiencing gentrification, soaring housing costs, and increasing income disparity/inequality. This is not to say that Fort Collins isn’t experiencing the same thing; in fact, I think Fort Collins does a better job of hiding it, probably because you’re looking at a city of two hundred thousand versus a city whose metro area population is approaching four million. In Fort Collins, because more open space exists (between housing units, between people passing each other on the street), my writing tended toward themes that were more metaphysical and metapoetic. In Seattle, I wrote a great deal about systemic, institutional inequality—issues related to privilege and American-style capitalism that has effectively transformed everything, including human rights, into something consumable.

In terms of community, two Fort Collins friends, Matthew Antonio and Chris Klingbeil, have had an enormous influence on my writing. Several ideas came out of reading our manuscripts over pints at local breweries. I miss those guys—their intelligence, their attention, their observations—and I’m excited to rejoin them in Fort Collins.

 

On a similar note, you attended Colorado State University’s MFA program. It’s been five years since graduating. If you could give your 2010-self advice about your writing life after graduation, what would you say? 

Haha, this is an interesting question. I know what I’d tell my MFA self, which is “write more, read more, drink less, party less.” Actually, I don’t know if I’d say that because I learned a great deal during my MFA and much of that learning occurred after class, shooting pool and sipping beers with my classmates and occasionally the faculty. As far as advice to my 2010 self, the craziest thing I’d say is, “remember that fantasy novel idea you had in middle school? You’re going to take a little break from poetry to write that.”

 

What are your current writing goals? 

I continue to actively submit my poems to various print and online literary magazines and journals. My biggest writing goal is somewhat out of my control. I’m hoping to publish a full-length book. I’ve currently have Animal Histories (where “we have on display a nascent child” appears) to some publishers. Although nobody’s picked it up yet, it was given an honorable mention in one open reading period, so I’m trying to stay confident.

(Editor’s note: He is now under contract to publish Animal Histories, due in July 2017 from Unsolicited Press. Congratulations, Jerrod!)

I’ll start submitting Pulp: A Manifesto soon. I also want to continue working on a chapbook tentatively titled “From ‘Testimony of a Human Being Within an Oppressive System’”inspired by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. My Marxist/anti-capitalist take involves the trial of a nameless employee of an unnamed Corporation that knowingly commits human rights in its quest to earn money. The overarching question is to what extent is someone guilty even if they don’t directly give the orders? The text considers the people who, mostly through complacency and because of their privilege (ignorance of or refusal to acknowledge), go along serving the interests of oppressive systems, i.e., the cogs in the wheel, so to speak. These individuals do not directly make the decisions that exploit and/or discriminate against certain populations, but through their compliance or refusal to speak up, go along with their supervisors’ decisions. The many who don’t speak up to the few. I want to explore how responsible/accountable they are regarding the actions of oppressive systems.

 

What is one online essay/poem/story/YouTube video that you think Spry readers should check out?

This is kind of an older essay now, but I’m quite fond of Reginald Shepherd’s “On Difficulty in Poetry.” The essay originally appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, but John Gallaher posted it to his blogspot. Most Spry readers are probably familiar with the different types of difficulty Shepherd describes in part II of the essay, but the what Shepherd notes about what various camps believe a poem should do is still the subject of much debate. I’d love to discuss these ideas with other poets!


Laura Bernstein

Laura Bernstein’s poetry and essays have been published in Passages North, The Normal School, and (of course) Spry Literary Journal among others.. She currently serves as Director of Communications for a NYTimes bestselling author.

1 Comment

  1. test

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.