Jason Morphew on humor, teaching, and readings

You are the author of the chapbook What to deflect when you’re deflecting (Poets Wear Prada, 2017) that explores fatherhood. You write, “love is hilarious/ and immature” in the poem “Baby in a Blender” that takes a humorous approach to the aftermath of a miscarriage. The poem “Acute and Chronic” opens with the lines “My daughter explodes/ when told it’s time for dinner,” then begins to close with the “all I do is usher her into and out of a little cloud of smoke….” Talk about humor and satire. For you, how do the expectations of fatherhood inspire mirth in poetry?

My pre-fatherhood poems are also comprised of dark humor and satire.  A distinguished professor at UCLA once shook his head at me during a PhD literature seminar and said flatly, “Satirist.”  I took that to mean that I’m satirical by nature.  That might be the nicest way of putting it.  But/and because I have no imagination, those pre-fatherhood poems satirize solipsism and isolation.  Fathering children propels the isolated solipsist headlong into society, into the world of others.  And then raising children frogwalks that hermetic fool further into the flood.  Looking back, all the way to 2017, I realize that What to deflect is a kind of selfie of the transition from fathering to raising.

Because of my history with the people who made me, I think I envisioned making my own family as being tantamount to crafting my own society, my own world.  I don’t think I invented that out of whole cloth–something about how I came up must have instilled that insane imperial idea.  I was born into a poor rural white Bible Belt environment.  My teen parents divorced when I was three.  My father wanted nothing to do with me.  He withdrew to law school and became Bill Clinton’s favorite student.  Meanwhile a rednecked financial savior arrived in the form of a bitter drunk St Louis stock broker who looked like a cross between Steve Martin and Burt Reynolds, if those guys misquoted John 3:16 between gulps of Milwaukee’s Best.  He openly hated all blacks because once he was almost mugged by one.  This thing raised me.  My mother was a sucker for handsome cretins.  If she’d been raised in California she might have been in the Manson Family.  Then Charles Manson could be my dad.  Very likely an upgrade.  At least CM wrote good songs.

I waited until I was forty to father my first child.  I didn’t want to be anything like the people who raised me.  I tried very hard to decontaminate myself.  Humor and satire have always been means of decontamination–I’m thinking of Jonathan Swift, whose poems I wrote about in the last chapter of my recent PhD dissertation–and I’m no different in that respect.

But that long decontamination project itself contaminates you.  Now it’s my eyes.  That’s convenient when writing love poems because it prevents you from making the sentimental mistakes that doom other poems about love.  And it disappoints old friends and mentors, who hoped that having children would “make me happy.”  I couldn’t be happy without darkness, satire, or my children.

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere,” writes Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, a text that offers guidance to young writers. You have taught creative writing and literature courses at UC Davis, Mt. St. Mary’s U., and Stanford Online High School. You recently completed your PhD in Renaissance Literature and currently teach English at UCLA. Talk about your work as a teacher of writing. What texts do you bring into the classroom that help students begin to write? How does the intellectual rigor and play of the classroom inform your poetry?

This year at UCLA I had my students read fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch’s letters to ancient authors–Cicero, Seneca, Homer–and then write their own letters, to whichever dead and notorious person they chose.  Five pages, double-spaced, signed “Farewell Forever” and then the student’s name.  They wrote to Jacques Brel, Anna Nicole Smith, Kierkegaard, Old Taylor Swift, Kepler, Dante, Caravaggio, Feng-gen, comparing their addressee’s life and work to the student’s own.  It forced them to think and write about what they value in creativity, scholarship, achievement.  They usually also had to reckon with confidence and humility.  This was a successful assignment, necromancy popping off all over Room 3126 of Rolfe Hall.  Petrarch writes that “many would wonder how I could find more pleasure with the dead than the living.”  I don’t think he could now number my students among those wonderers.

In my creative writing classes I’ve been teaching Claudia Rankine, Tyehimba Jess, Jennifer Chang, and Joe Wenderoth, among the living.  I also used this monster anthology of anti-Trump poems called Resist Much/Obey Little.  I like to pair very recent work with criticism by Barthes, Blanchot, Perloff, Serres, Adorno.  This year I had all four of my UCLA classes read Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, sometimes alongside Book X from Plato’s Republic.  Then we had a mock trial to determine whether the speaker from that book should be exiled from the state.  I always ruled in favor of exile, because it would make for better future poems.  I am a reckless magistrate.

For deadies I like to assign English Petrarchists–Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne, Wyatt, Lady Mary Wroth, usually with Swift’s Stella and Excremental poems thrown in. I teach that poetry as if it were erotic science fiction, more exquisitely expressed than anything else their eyes are likely to light on.  Swift positions me to discuss the rot at the heart of that poetry’s conception of the Human–which is always there, in almost every line.  That heart-rotten conception of the Human is the one that gave us the Humanities, so it’s relevant to everything that happens in a Humanities classroom.  It might even be relevant in the real world.

All of this informs my writing by constantly educating me.  From workshopping students’ poems I learn to challenge my own instincts and tendencies, to explore unfamiliar rhythms and points of view.  To discard unproductive prejudices.  Discussing the reading constantly inspires me, too.  I don’t make these classes easy for myself.  I dance close to the cliff.  I find that students are by and large fans of that kind of dancing, as long as they can hear the music.

You’ve given readings with poets such as Claudia Rankine, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Joe Wenderoth. Talk about the art of giving a good reading. What have other poets taught you about stage presence, delivery, and audience engagement? What makes for a memorable reading?

Each of those three powerful poets has a starkly different reading style—Claudia is arch and distant, Michael is brave Buddha, and Joe is nihilistically experimental.  Of course we all do better when we read to smart and sympathetic audiences.  As Orlando says, “I pray you mar no more of my verses with reading them ill-favoredly.”

I’ve recently given two successful readings, in a new manner for me.  I see everything, professional-creativity and performance-wise, through the prism of music, which I did as a job for about ten years after college.  I was always accompanied by the technology of my guitar, and often by the added technology of my band.  Not to mention the technology of the arrangement, reverb, distortion, persona, etc.  A thousand mirrored masks.

Lecturing at UCLA, standing in front of thirty students and talking for two hours at a time, has forced me to develop new masks, new mirrors.  When I give readings now I have no guitar but I have this slim black book in my hand and I have my obsessions.  Sometimes I have a microphone.  I always liked it when I was heckled as a singer and never understood why anyone without a mic would heckle someone with one.  It’s like bringing a Bic to a volcano.

The key to becoming a good performer or public speaker is finding your most impenetrable technology.  I remember once I saw John Fogerty at the Greek in Griffith Park, LA.  His apple cheeked positivity was his armor, sort of like how Ringo reflexively says, “Peace and love.”  There are so many middle fingers.

How do you define chapbook? I always thought it was short for “chapter book,” which must be wrong?  I’ve recently discovered that a chapter book is, like, Matilda by Roald Dahl.

What makes a good chapbook? An elegant untidiness.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Not so dear Jenny by Jennifer Tseng and Kill the Dogs by Heather Bell.  Though it’s not extremely new, one of my favorite chapbooks remains From the Mortality Sessions by Gabrielle Calvocoressi (Floating Wolf Quarterly, 2011).

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Miller Williams.  

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? A unifying obsession–though a fragmentizing obsession would be more impressive.  Maybe that’s what Petrarch is.  Sorry, I’m always trying to figure out what Petrarch is.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? I’m always trying to write shorter poems, closer to silence.

What’s next for you? I’ve got about forty-five pages of a new poetry manuscript together now, called The end of men.  My father died in February and a dear old male friend’s career was detonated by #MeToo a few weeks before that.  Lyric poetry should live where the personal and public touch.  My friend’s firing put me in the mind of Eileen Myles’ 2016 interview with The NY Times Magazine, in which she called for a five-year moratorium on men publishing books.  Why stop there?  Why stop anywhere?  Our species has developed the means to survive without men.  Are men being kept around to indulge an ironic nostalgia?  Perhaps it’s my louche Thanatos speaking, but Myles’ idea appeals to me very much.  A new excuse for leaving!  Most of my poems have orbited this problem lately.  It’s one thing to be the last guest at a party and quite another not to have a means of going home.

Current chapbook reading list: I generally read the winning chapbooks of contests which I entered and lost.  I’m all caught up at the moment.  If I weren’t always entering contests and losing them, I’d devise a different strategy.

Number of chapbooks you own: 50?

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 250?

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I’m glad to be a part of any community that will admit me by way of my weird poems.  I might always see poetry chapbooks through the prism of punk zines, where I published my first poems when I was in high school in Little Rock.    

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I email them praise and ask how they do things.

Your chapbook credo: Spell em tell em and sell em. 

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: I’m working up the nerve to ask my wife to go to a T shirt island in a mall and make me one that says, “Powered by Prosecco.”  For Father’s Day or our anniversary.  I recently bought her a pre-made one that says, “Netflix and Chill.” 

Your chapbook wish: In that NY Times book review feature “By the Book”–know the one?–when they ask, like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling the question, “If you could have the President read one book, what would it be?”–I would like to see someone recommend a very obscure experimental poetry chapbook.  And then I’d like that chapbook to eat the face of the current President.

Residence: Laurel Canyon, Hollywood Hills.

Job: English Lecturer, UCLA. 

Chapbook education: Miller Williams, giving me his and many others’ books when I was eighteen.  This moment was my education in other fields, also.

Chapbook Bio: Jason Morphew started life in a mobile home in Pike County, Arkansas; he holds a PhD in English Renaissance Literature from UCLA.  The Jan. 31, 2018 Washington Post reviewed Morphew’s first full-length collection of poems, dead boy, as one of the three “best poetry collections to read this month.” He’s published the chapbooks In Order to Commit Suicide (2012) and What to deflect when you’re deflecting (2017). He’s shared stages with renowned poets Claudia Rankine, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Joe Wenderoth. As a singer-songwriter Morphew has released albums on the labels Brassland, Ba Da Bing, Max, and Unread. He lives in Laurel Canyon and teaches English at UCLA.


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