Kynna Lovin had the opportunity to interview Jay Ponteri about his new book, Someone Told Me, (Widow+Orphan House) a collection of essays that bridge the gaps between memoir, lyric essay, self-portraiture, and literary criticism. Via a shared Google Doc, the two discuss how this collection came to be born, how it found its body, and much more.
Read Jay Ponteri’s essay, On Richard Linklater’s Boyhood
Someone Told Me was written over a span of nine years, but the course of these essays is distinctly non-linear; we’re sitting with you in a coffee shop when your teenage son runs past, lying in the incubator that kept you alive for your first two months, crouched beside college-age you, hiding in your childhood toy chest. Yet the edges of these moments blend together in a way that seems natural, inherent. How did you decide on the organization of this book?
The structure just seemed to emerge over time. After the fact, I describe the arrangement of Someone Told Me as a dwelling built in layers. As time passes, the dwelling changes. Some of the first layers continue to stand while others are altered, removed and rebuilt, or just removed to make room for new construction, additional rooms, wings, floors, whatever’s emerging in subsequent layers. Second and third layers might get added before the first layer is even complete. This particular dwelling might have 15 to 20 layers. There are two places in the book in which I made timestamps, a kind of record of the passage of time to track these layers. The book shows its seams in ways that writers often, for good reason too, cloak. You pick up a book, and it’s just this polished thing. My devotion is always to the present moment of composition, which is to say, to stay with this metaphor, I’m building within/through/around whatever language is transmitting me on the page. With any given sentence, the reader is in touch with many years of a lived life: a marriage and its divorce, the decline and the death and the afterlife, my son’s childhood rising into young adulthood, nine years of my reading life, all the various selves.
In regards to the particular evolution of these layers, the very first section I wrote—which still remains the first section of the book—was made under the spell of two books. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait, two VERY DIFFERENT books making use of similar strategies, kind of, not exactly. I gave myself the exercise of writing self-portraiture that shifted mode, mood, style, and content with every sentence. I would write these pieces, two-to-three page sections, some longer—I came to call them LOBES in homage to a phrase from Hejinian’s My Life, “Lobes of Autobiography….”—over the course of a couple writing sessions, sometimes within a single writing session. I was very interested in making associative prose, wanting to feel with all of my sensory receptors where a more lyrical prose might take me. I never intended to make a whole book. I just kept writing them. I amassed 60-70 pages of these LOBES. I came to understand that I was experimenting with the form of self-portraiture, trying to describe as much as myself as I could while also feeling in my body how the language transmitting me linked to the beings and non-beings around and beyond me, there and not there. It became a way of being here-there-beyond while being in touch with, feeling the traces of, nowhere. I’m not sure what I even mean there.
Eventually I felt too restricted by this need to begin a new instance of self-portraiture with each new sentence, so I allowed myself to stay within a single line of inquiry over the course of many sentences. This allowance gave way to actual essays and memory-based prose, often mixing. Even within these longer pieces, I continued to work with language fragments within short and long sentences that resisted completion, that tested the bounds of incompletion. And making longer sentences allowed me to pass through space-time differently, to slow it up and stretch it out—in the face of things ending, always ending. The elegy about Mr. G the Pug (RIP), the essays about toxic masculinity, the male gaze, my notes on race—all of this emerged in the draft, and then I’d return to the first form, making another LOBE, as if it were a home space. The first draft culminated with a six-hour writing session in which I stayed within the same sentence. My intention actually had been to make a single sentence for 24 hours straight—this inspired by the Flaming Lips who’d just released a 24-hour recording—but I only lasted six. I think this initial draft was finished sometime in 2015, maybe a year after I’d begun making these LOBES, and from that point till June 2021, I continued to add and remove layers.
I’d remove parts of sections, entire sections, or I’d add sections. I wrote a meditation in response to Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood. After visiting Minneapolis for the annual AWP conference, I wrote my own version of an Ars Poetica describing my glorious experience of discovering then walking through the skyways (instead of attending the conference). Around 2016-17, I became interested in the materiality of writing, e.g.: using my IBM Selectric II typewriter (Big Blue!), pens and pencils, many kinds of paper. At one point, I printed out the entire draft, double-spaced, and using colored pencils, I wrote LOBES, along with little drawings, in the blank space between lines and in the margins. Without knowing it, I was slowing down the process, reveling in the mess of making. I found a bunch of old music sheets at school—Marylhurst, at this time—and wrote LOBES by hand in any blank space those music sheets offered. Most of that writing didn’t make it in the final draft. I think of those pieces as LOST LOBES. The writing on the music sheets includes a LOBE that lists every location I inhabited in the town in which I grew up, Mishawaka, Indiana, over the course of the 14 years I lived there. At some point I began adding digital images of the Polaroid photos that have become an integral part of my art practice.
By this time—around 2016, 2017—I understood that the work had expanded way beyond anything discernible. I began the long and lovely process of removing layers to get the work to a place where I could share with others. This coincided with my divorce and to the larger process of my family reforming into its present state. It was a profound experience of loss, of humility, of revision, of love, among other things. I wanted to make my life small and I wanted to make this book small. I pared down half of what was there. It’s around this time I began talking to Trevor and Matt from Widow+Orphan House about publishing the book, and thankfully none of us were in a hurry.
It’s worth noting that I also spent pockets of time, sometimes months, not working on this book but writing other stuff or just not writing. Life happened. The school I taught at for nearly 20 years closed, and that just took a giant chunk out of me. The faculty and staff who worked there till the end fought so hard against the abusive administrative practices that eventually led to the school’s closure. And while I have moved on to the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), now a part of Willamette University, to great students and colleagues and while I know the visionary Sisters of Holy Names who created Marylhurst nearly 100 years ago wanted us all to move on in continued service, it’s hard to still not feel the residue of such an unnecessary, destructive collapse.
During the last couple years of making the book, 2018-19, I spent most of that time revising the pieces about race and gender. I received source guidance from Portland State University faculty Walidah Imarisha and from Martina Clemmons, a wonderful librarian at the PSU Library’s Special Collections.
The pandemic hit. Oscar, my son, was suddenly in high school, and I could see, both Amy and I could see that our time together, our family shape, was shifting. I spent so much time in the book’s final sentence, revising solely through sound and rhythm, through that rich stream of voice, that it became a spiritual space, a space in which so many births and deaths occur, a space that made space for what lies beyond life and death. That churning stream flowing beneath all of us. A second ending suddenly emerged. A coda. A letter to Oscar. The final layer. Well, not exactly the final layer. For most of this period, the book’s title was LOBE, and in the ninth hour (last May, I think), in collaboration with Matt and Trevor from Widow+Orphan House, we chose a different title: Someone Told Me, an English translation of the title of French artist Carla Bruni’s song “Quelqu’un m’a dit.” I like to think that this book has an internal title—LOBE—and a title for external use, Someone Told Me. Again, the layers. I don’t think what I have done to make this book is unusual, or maybe it’s totally unusual and ridiculous!
In a similar vein, the book combines memoir, lyrical essay, actual song lyrics, and honest investigations into some of the most fraught subjects of our current moment – toxic masculinity and racial inequality being just a couple examples. As a maker, how do you balance these different modes and moods?
I don’t try to make writings that achieve balance but that reveal themselves to be human—the shapely-unshapely, imperfect, flawed, weird, so full of contradictions rising up from my particular body and ways of being in the world. I was very fortunate to have a press that wasn’t looking for a work that attempts balance either. For me, staying committed to the present moment of composition eventually led me to putting something in the water that, I think, I hope, stays afloat, which is to say, I needed to be okay with the mess of any given moment, needed to engage the process of writing over time, the accretion of thousands of writing sessions, to make something that I could never fathom till long after it has kicked me out of it. The essays about race and gender in particular encouraged me to step out (of the incubator) into the entangled world, to reflect on my own complicity, to my own relationship to the violence that is hurting and killing so many people globally. There’s nothing groundbreaking in those writings that other brilliant thinkers/dreamers like bell hooks, Fred Moten, Dionne Brand, Claudia Rankine, and James Baldwin (among others) haven’t already discovered in their prose first. My writing just shows my process, imperfectly so, of reflection, and the book couldn’t exist without those reflections just as in this moment I can’t exist without being engaged in the fight against racism, against homophobia and transphobia.
One of the major through lines of Someone Told Me is connection, or lack thereof. Connection to our inner selves, to the outer world, to our body, to others and their bodies. From where I sit, in October of 2021, this theme feels apropos. You write, “This book is a bridge from me to you to me to you to me to you.” and “My last name translates as bridge builder.” Can you say more about bridge-building? Is art always a bridge?
The word “Ponteri” translates loosely to “bridge builder,” so I likely come from ancestors living in or around Reggio, Calabria who literally constructed bridges so others could make crossings where they had not before crossed. Closer to my own lifetime, I have had the great fortune to witness both of my parents, in different ways, build different kinds of bridges, in social work, in industry, and within our family—making these relational crossings happen. Recently I have had the immense pleasure of witnessing my 17-year-old son building relational bridges. My brothers and sister do this. We are still a family of bridge builders. And I have the fortune to live within this moment during which my body forms a bridge across generations, witnessing my son’s relationships, beautiful relationships, to his grandparents, my parents.
With regards to my own experience of bridge building, I don’t cultivate any illusions that I’m making writings for a large audience or for an audience beyond my lifetime. My writing practice cannot be separated from my teaching practice, and at best, as a teacher of writing, of art, I’m trying to design, build, and arrange bridges for others to cross into connection, into collaboration, into an awareness of our interdependence. Language itself is one of many materials that help us make connections to one another. And of course we live in a moment, not new by any means, in which so many people are using language to push away, to hurt, to isolate from one another. So building a bridge might mean, in this moment, attempting to bring together people who are purposefully and/or inadvertently pushing themselves away from one another, isolating themselves from one another. Teaching can feel like that, but it feels like so many things. I just marked 25 years of teaching, and I love it, and even though there’s a part of me that’s starting to move out of the way to hold space for younger teachers, smarter teachers, I continue to feel invigorated by working with my students and colleagues.
You name some of your favorite writers in this book. Who are you reading right now?
So I will first repeat something that Brandon Shimoda, my colleague at PNCA at Willamette’s Low Residency Creative Writing program, and I discuss with each other and with our students, that we are readers who write, not writers who read, which is to say, my best energy or the majority of my art-practice energy goes into reading. I’m working right now on a talk called “Creative Reading.” At any given moment, I am reading at least six books, usually more. Here’s the shortlist. Names for Light: A Family History by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint. PMS: A Journal of Verse by Dot Devota. River by Esther Kinsky (trans. Iain Galbraith). No Name In The Street by James Baldwin (a reread). Janice Lee’s Imagine a Death. Vi Khi Nao’s The Vegas Dilemma. (Read everything by Vi Khi Nao!) Lovability by Emily Kendal Frey (Emily, I believe, wins “the most mentioned/quoted” in my book). Jennifer Scappettone’s translations of Amelia Rosselli’s poems, Locomotrix. Cedar Sigo’s new book All This Time. Rajiv Mohabir’s Antiman. Modern Nature by Derek Jarman (I’m in a Derek Jarman book club with a couple PNCA colleagues). Rereading The Blue Clerk and A Map to The Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging by Dionne Brand. I’m never too far from Jenny Boully’s Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life. Because I mentioned in my answer to your first question, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, I have pulled that book off the shelf and put it atop the pile closest to me. (I have book piles all over my apartment.) And there’s always one artist whom I’m reading again and again, everything they’ve written, returning to them when I cannot sleep or when I feel myself slipping into despair, and for the last four years that person has been Etel Adnan. Litmus Press is about to reissue her INCREDIBLE BOOK, The Journey to Mount Tamalpais, a meditation on Mount Tam (Bay Area), on writing and drawing and painting, on being an observer of that mountain for years and years, on being in community with other artists. Adnan is in her late 90s, still making books and paintings. Nightboat last year published her latest book, Shifting the Silence, one of her BEST books while the Guggenheim Museum at this very moment is exhibiting a large show of her paintings called Light’s New Measure. I’m really into the paintings of Alma Thomas and just saw this incredible show at the Art Institute of Chicago by Barbara Kruger, and walking around the streets of Chicago, I had a spiritual experience listening through my Beats to the band Low’s new record, Hey What.
You’ve characterized Someone Told Me as a book in which things are being born, whereas in your previous two books, Wedlocked and Darkmouth Strikes Again, things were being put to rest. The Jaybird in the incubator has been born, in a sense, but there’s a second birth in his emergence from that touchless box. What other things would you say are being born here? What is being born again?
I think a different kind of writer has been born. A writer who writes more actively in collaboration with the beings around him. My commitment to being a father lies at the center of my life, and this book, in a way I couldn’t have fathomed as I was making it, enacts that. I used to say, Literature saved my life, and now I add to that, fatherhood. Being Oscar’s dad has saved my life. There is a part of me—tearing up now—grieving the loss of Oscar’s childhood, which is now over, and that grief experience is part of the great gift that parenting has been for me, will be for me. Another part of me, at the same time, is SO excited for Oscar’s young adulthood, for his making a new center apart from his parents. I have gotten to witness him grow up into this caring, passionate young man. Jay the witness has been born. When I began writing this book, I still believed that language came from within, and now I know, crediting my great art guides Brandon Shimoda, Kevin McIlvoy, Cecilia Vicuña, and Etel Adnan, that language is beyond me. Language doesn’t rise from me, language transmits me, us, these very words, they’re ours.
You’re the director of the PNCA’s low-residency MFA program. What do you wish someone had told you when you were undertaking your MFA?
Spend more time on your writing practice and reading practice than on whatever drama might be happening in the creative writing workshop. Take risks in your work, experiment with language, write multiple genres, try out other mediums and materials aside from language. Cultivate a habit of listening to your own sense of how you are making things, another habit of reading aloud what you put on the page without judgement but wonder. Be grateful to those who offer you the gift of their feedback to your work even if it doesn’t resonate for you. Don’t be afraid to make art failures or, to quote my colleague, Vi Khi Nao, make an art of failure. Commit. Commit. Commit. Commit to sharing, to quote a phrase from interdisciplinary artist/poet Danielle Vogel, the communal lung.
Image: Photo of Jay Ponteri courtesy of Justin Duyao.