Jay Ritchie is the author of Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie (Coach House Books, 2017) and is currently pursuing an MFA at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Follow him on Twitter @jaywritchie.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My most recent work feels different in that I can look at it and not want to set it on fire. It's been a couple weeks since I've seen it in print and I'm still glowing, so that's positive.
My first book didn't change my life, but learning that small presses and literary magazines existed did. I didn't know someone could just be "a writer" and pursue that exclusively, or that and its affiliated jobs (teaching, editing, publishing)–I thought all writing was done in secret before and after a day job, in the middle of the night or before the sun came up.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I probably came to poetry sideways, through a fourth dimension. So there was no "first," there were just books and what I found in them. I've been writing poetry next to fiction and non-fiction since I started writing in earnest.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Copious notes and scraps, false starts for novels, diary entries, it all goes into the poetry grinder. Occasionally I'll write something "first try" that sticks, and I'll usually build around that until I get another good first try. I like to believe those successful first tries are little gifts from another place/mind, something that should be treated with respect.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I find it very intimidating to work on a "book" so I engage in fun game of self-deception where I work on individual pieces, pretending I'm not trying to put them into manuscript format at a later date. It helps me focus on small details without being dwarfed by the presence of a larger project.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. Sometimes you're in a community centre with fluorescent lighting and children's dance studio above you and an adjacent washroom with a supersonic toilet flush mechanism, and those are less fun, but overall, I seize the opportunity to make something happen. Readings aren't part of my creative process, but they definitely help speed the process along.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Artists and writers can sometimes give the impression that they are outside of reality, or even worse, above it, and I think that's a bad attitude. I'm concerned with how artists and writers interact with their moment in time, how their preoccupations manifest in literature. Is that theory?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think the role of the writer is to articulate an insight that requires a great deal of time to reach. One variable writing seems to deal with more than other art forms, overall, is time. Writing a book takes time. If that book is giving you the same response as as TV show, why read it?
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Do this! Do that! Too short! Too fat! I like an editor who's in your corner as a friend that is equally committed to your work. Someone to bounce ideas and iterations off of.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"Literary problems have literary solutions." David McGimpsey told my poetry workshop and probably many others that little tidbit. Basically, I took it as, it's not your lifestyle/personality/whatever that is holding back your writing–it's technical. Dive into the work, break it apart, analyze it. It has helped me feel less shitty about myself and work with more focus.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It's been extremely difficult to move between genres. I would love to write a short story soon.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I love routines. I wish I could keep one. I haven't had a typical day for months, so I can't really say. I try to write every morning, even if only for 30 minutes. I do a lot of garbage writing then sift through it like a magpie for gems. My routine also involves a lot of changing my routine as soon as it gets settled. If I'm writing in the morning and it's going really well I'll usually sabotage it and start writing at night, just to see if it's different.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Other writers, usually. I just dive into a book. I also go for walks and try not to think anything at all.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My family had this cedar chest that held phone books, and whenever I opened it the smell would woosh out. So, cedar.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I almost always listen to music while I write, so I suppose that's the most accurate answer. Though of course everything is an influence, it all leaves an impression.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Cecilia Pavón's poem "Billet Doux."
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Watch The Sopranos.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I love physics, I think it would be fascinating to understand them.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
At the end of all the hangovers, heartbreaks, mistakes, self-hating, and sadness is a book. I wanted to write one.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Giovanni's Room reminded me of what books are for, what they can do. I read that for the first time this year, after continuously being recommended it. And I recently saw this film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes that was really moving. Poetic, political, understated; a lot of the visuals have stayed with me.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Fitting different forms into the same long poem.
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