Friday, November 21, 2008
Poet Jason Tandon: From High School English Teacher to Charles Simic and The Paris Review.
Jason Tandon was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1975. He is the author of Give Over the Heckler and Everyone Gets Hurt, and the winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. He is also the author of two chapbooks, Rumble Strip (also from sunnyoutside) and Flight, both of which were nominated for the 2008 Massachusetts Book Award. His poems were twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2007 and have appeared in many journals, including New York Quarterly, Notre Dame Review, Columbia Poetry Review, The Laurel Review, Poetry International, Poet Lore, and Fugue. Tandon holds a BA and MA in English from Middlebury College and an MFA from the University of New Hampshire. His recently released the poetry collection: “Wee Hour Martyrdom” (sunnyoutside). I spoke with Tandon on my Somerville Community Access TV show: “ Poet to Poet Writer to Writer”
Doug Holder: You studied with Charles Simic, the former U.S. Poet Laureate at the University of New Hampshire. Describe that experience?
Jason Tandon: Simic was a wealth of information. He’s been around forever. He’s met everyone, every contemporary American poet that you can think of. One thing that he always stressed about the lyrical poem was economy. He wanted you to write something that could be read forty or fifty times, and have it still give you something back each time you read it.
I was very, very excited to work with him, naturally. He was “the poet,” if I could have chosen a poet, to have worked with. He certainly delivered. He was very forthcoming with his time. He is such a global figure in poetry. I was worried that he wouldn’t be approachable or reachable. But his office was always open. He responded to emails very quickly. He had a very distinct style of leading a workshop. He was very critical and very forthcoming—he didn’t hold back. He told me what he liked and what he didn’t like. I really appreciated it.
DH: Was he brutal?
JT: He was brutal for all intents and purposes. But I thought it was great. It balanced well with the other professor there who took a very different approach.
I love Simic’s poetry… I love his style, so for me it worked out very well. I love his economy and compression.
DH: In your poem from your recent collection: “ The Room of Absence,” dedicated to Simic, absence speaks very loudly. Why?
JT: The funny thing is I was reading an interview with Simic from the 70’s. He was talking about absence in his poetry. It was a very complicated passage. He was trying to explain how he felt present in the poem but at the same time absent. I really didn’t understand what he was talking about. So I brought it to him in his office and asked him to explain it to me. He reread it and said, “What the bleep does that mean?” He playfully just cast this passage aside. So this was something he talked about in an interview and he had no idea what it meant. “The Room of Absence” was a phrase he used and the rest I suppose is poetry history. I am not sure what the poem means, but they were a series of images that were kicking around in me.
DH: You have published with “sunnyoutside” a small press headed by Dave McNamara, that was once located in Somerville, but now is located in Buffalo, NY. How did you hook up?
JT: I knew one of Dave’s writers at the University of New Hampshire, Nate Graziano. He is a fiction writer and a poet who publishes with sunnyoutside. I gave Nate a few of my poems. He seemed to like them. When I got my first chapbook manuscript together, I was thinking of how to get it published. I was thinking of sunnyoutside. I wrote them a big, long query letter. I told Dave McNamara what I liked about his authors and how my work might fit in. He told me at the time that he was booked up (which is the case with most publishers), and told me to give him a query back in six months. I wrote down the date and sent him the manuscript. Three months later he said he would do it. I started with a chapbook “Rumble Strip,” later my collection “Wee Hour Martyrdom” came out. I couldn’t be happier with the work David does. He is a great editor too.
DH: You had a stint at “The Paris Review” right?
JT: As soon as Charles Simic became editor, (which was in the summer of 2005), he called me up and asked me if I wanted to be an intern reading through the slush pile. We had a little office in the basement of the English Dept. I read through literally thousands of submissions per issue.
DH: Out of those thousands of poems how many were selected?
JT: Maybe 10 to 15 poems…total. But I submit to journals so I know what it is like to be on the other side. And of course I was reading for The Paris Review that has a significant history and standards. Of course it was not the New York office of The Paris Review. It wasn’t glamorous. The office had a desk, chair, a computer, and a phone that didn’t work.
DH: You grew up in Hartford; Conn. Has that city influenced your work at all?
JT: Actually most of what’s in “Wee Hour…” comes from my time living in Malden and Medford. “Rumble Strip,” was taken from living in rural areas like Vermont. Still, I am very influenced by place and people. I don’t know that Hartford influenced me.
DH: You have a minimalist style. Are you of the school of thought that less says more?
JT: Yes. Absolutely. If you have a phrase or image—if you have a few lines that just open up a variety of doors for the reader, you are doing a good thing. I want people to come in contact with my work with their own ideas. I like this better than narrative…I am trying to trigger the imagination of the reader. If you do too much you overdo it.
DH: You presently teach at Boston University. How does that fit with your writing?
JT: I have always enjoyed teaching. I taught before I really decided to write. I taught junior high right after college. I went back to get my MFA. I teach Contemporary American Poetry so I am constantly thinking about and discussing American poets. The students are great.
Breakfast in My Twenties
I'd brew coffee from a can of TV blend,
pull my radio from the wall as far
as it could go, and tune in blues or strings
with luck, that luminous refrain and echo.
Crawl onto my roof, light a smoke and sit
for five or ten to watch a violet cannon or
a carpet gray unroll, while Baba prepared
for the lunch rush in his deli below.
Grilled tahini chicken, falafel and kebob,
I'd bury my nose in my clothes—
O smoke that poured from the vent!
My lungs breathed blood, raw, fresh, my teeth gleamed white.
I could've run five miles each day,
but there was too much to do and see at night.