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Q&A with Poetry Contributor Jacob Sunderlin

Jacob Sunderlin is a writer and musician who received support from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry JournalCincinnati Review, Gulf Coast, Narrative, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Third Coast, and elsewhere. His recordings Death Ranch and Hymnal are available on cassette and for download. He lives in Georgia. His poem “Book of Lazarus” is featured in the Summer 2017 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, July 16, for special savings and discounts.

Do you feel that "Book of Lazarus" aligns with or departs from your usual voice or style?

Probably a little of both. This poem started as the first sentence of an essay about my repeated attempts and failures to read Moby-Dick. I tried to read that book for the first time while I was working as a bricklayer, maybe ten years ago. So it’s a departure in the sense that it began as a prose-thought and retains some degree of essay-ness. Maybe I’ll still write the essay someday, if I can get past the first sentence. In the meantime, I was happy to follow that sentence elsewhere, to this poem, which I would say is close to my wheelhouse in terms of voice and style.

Can you tell us about your choice to make the poem a single stanza? How did you hope it would affect the reader's experience?

Yeah, the big whoosh. I have mixed feelings about it. Some poems I think of as “important”—“Directive” or “I Was Born in Lucerne”—were written in this form, so I probably have some instinctive suspicion of and attraction to it. I like that it emphasizes the line as the unit of the poem. I like that it has a tradition without being particularly tied down. But form is best for me when it’s the most invisible, and the single-stanza whoosh is somehow both almost-invisible in its proximity to prose as well as it is hyper-visible in its looking like a brick wall. It’s the formal equivalent of man-spreading, admitting the reader no space. It’s hard to commit to reading one—sometimes I look at big whoosh poems like this and think, No thanks. So, I guess I hope it might imply something of the monolith that is a single day of manual labor, of being trapped inside of it, if such a thing is possible. I hope it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

If you had to pick one part of the poem to be the "heart" of it, what part would it be?

For me it’s the hand-scouring and the socks full of Vaseline toward the end of the poem. My mother did this for me, so I’m glad it found its way into a poem. And I think the poem turns emotionally on that image.

Is there a particular word that appears in your work regularly? What do you think draws you to it?

For some reason, I used to use the word “Wednesday” compulsively and had to learn to keep it in check. It was in this poem at some point—maybe what is now the word “weekday” was once Wednesday? I’m awful about keeping track of drafts, so I can’t say for sure. To me there’s nothing more mundane/sublime than the word Wednesday. Other words that show up frequently, according to my quick scan: “bullshit” and “being” and “snakes.”

Do you think your poetry and music practices feed into each other? If yes, how so?

I think of them as completely separate, but they look awfully similar in their separateness. In some sense my process of making things is my process of making myself into the maker of the thing I think I’m making. A result of this is that I feel like an amateur most of the time and it takes me a long time to do anything. I just finished a recording that involves a little field recording I made five years ago, but also involves a guitar technique I just tried for the first time in the last couple weeks. In between was a lot of silence. Poems are the same way for me. They’re mostly little piles of nothing for a long time that I’m adding kindling to and trying to make catch so I can disappear the original logs and add new ones. If I make ten good fires in a year, that’s as hot as it gets.

I also make extremely amateur collage art, and I think both my music and my poetry have a lot in common with this collage practice, although I’m not sure either advertises this. Making collage is fun because it feels like cheating, and I don’t have to care whether or not the images I make are good or bad or anything in particular. Most of my music is wordless, but making it involves a lot of revision of my relationship to guitar, which is my main instrument. This takes the form of non-traditional tunings and improvisations, learning new techniques, using a viola bow on an electric guitar, putting myself in a position where I have to discover what I’m doing. I also mean revision in the more traditional sense of recording and layering sounds from various musical and non-musical sources.

Likewise, my poems usually start out as image or language, sometimes just sound-words, and I need to stare at a poem for a long time, juxtaposing, layering, considering the words against my experience and the context of their writing before they become poems. But other times my poems start as essays, as this one did, and end up getting hacked to pieces.