Here he is, the man himself, a travelling troubadour following a tradition of St. Louis men settling in the cultural miasma of Great Britain. With three chapbooks of poetry published and another intriguing project on the way, Interrobang‽ catch up with JT Welsch to talk shop.
‽: When did you begin writing?
JT: I don’t remember. But I played music early on for a very long time. I would write songs and poems, and not be able to tell the difference. Like most people, there came a time with relationships and teen angst when it got serious, so fourteen or fifteen? Actually that’s a lie! I remember specifically, the first serious poem I wrote, I was thirteen when my dog died, my dog Maggie, my Golden Retriever. For whatever reason the only way I could respond to that was a serious poem. Which I am sure is really embarrassing now. That is a specific point in time.
‽: Is that totally dissimilar to what you write about now?
JT: I would like to think it is more mature subjects but really I guess it is the same things: the big moments in your life.
‽: Why express through poetry?
JT: I always sang, played piano and guitar but there was always a performance to do or a recording studio to go to. That required something beyond the writing which is the same for drama. I’ve had screen and stage plays produced which is really exciting to see but it’s all away from you. If that makes sense? Really I am trying to find a way of saying [with poetry] ‘You can be a control freak’. Poetry was always really tempting because it always started and ended with me. The performance was completely contained within the page. I like to perform poetry but in a way that supplements it. It is not necessary to the writing.
‽: Do you ever write a poem with a melody in your head or an idea of musicality behind the composition?
JT: I would say it is more often the opposite. I can’t listen to music while I write because I end up writing to the melody, or I’ll rhyme with the words in the songs. I have to keep them separate. I have taken other people’s poems and written music to them and have had my poems set to music by other composers. That always felt like a translation process.
‽: Do you consider yourself first and foremost a poet. If not, can you define yourself?
JT: It’s one of those awful things that you hate telling people. I was at the chiropractor the other day, a new one, and he asked ‘what did I do?’, and I had to say I’m a poet. It never sounds serious.
‽: Similar to ‘I’m a comedian’ followed by ‘tell me a joke’?
JT: People expect you to know what your favourite book is and what you write about. Things that you should be able to answer! I realise that I haven’t answered your question. I like to use whatever the project needs. Most often its poetry but within that I think poetry is a broad enough category with as many possibilities. It feels as though each project is a totally different thing. ‘Writer’ has so much baggage.
‽: A reviewer of Orchids described your style as ‘micro precision in macro uncertainty’, which is an attractive phrase. Does it ring true to you/ can you define your style?
JT: I like that phrase too. When people say good things about your work, it’s assumed that they know exactly what they’re talking about. They must be a great critic if they see your genius (laughs). Micro and macro is similar to the old thing of finding both the universal and the particular. It’s like any personal experience that has happened to everybody else. It’s to let go and then focus on the particular details that make it an experience that is relatable but not in an absolute sense. They picture their dog, not mine and fill in their own details. The word ‘uncertainty’ – it seems they are using it in a positive way. When you write a lot, ‘uncertainty’ is often the negative. Coming across as open ended means that people can fill in the gaps with their own stories.
‽: How do you construct meaning with ‘gaps’?
JT: I enjoy dramatic monologues like Robert Browning, the classics. But I’m also influenced by folk songs and pop songs. It is always that ‘I’ singing to the ‘you’, whether it’s really the singer or not. That kind of triangulation when a reader is listening while also standing in the position of that ‘you’. As was said, it is like hearing only half a conversation. Except you are not just hearing it, you are stepping into it and it is letting you stand in that role by coming out. It plays out like a game. A pet peeve of mine with poetry is when people do the ‘I and you’ thing but then the ‘I’ tells ‘you’ things that they will already know. For example, ‘we were at the beach’ then it seems like a fake conversation. Why not let the reader take the place of that uncertainty.
‽: No exposition in poetry at all?
JT: In anything. I like the suggestive. It should be open for the reader to fill in their own material.
‽: Given your transatlantic experience, how does expatriate life inspire you?
JT: It definitely does, or I want it to. It is an identity that I don’t mind having. May be because of the tradition, T.S Eliot coming over from St. Louis where I come from and Ezra Pound, all of that generation. That is the narcissistic way of thinking about it. I like the feeling of being a foreigner, of being out of your element. That does not necessarily have to mean going to a foreign country. Being self-conscious about your language. I have been here ten years now, but I am aware of my accent. I am aware I have different words for the same things. Those kind of slippages are nice, they are productive in writing because you are aware of small things being culturally determined.
‽: You parallel the use of high modernist ‘classical languages’ with contemporary references in work like ‘He do the Star Wars in different voices’, do you find that crosses more barriers than it puts up?
JT: I am mindful of it and wary of it. If I let myself use it I would run away with it. My life as an academic: my research is on their work. It is tempting to use that approach. I would never want to isolate a reader with ‘inside jokes’. A ‘nudge, nudge’ to the people who know what ‘this’ means. Keeping people out that way. At the same time it acknowledges that all language comes from somewhere. That may be Star Wars or T.S Eliot, even for him it is from somewhere else. Through the layers of people and history you are still just a filter for language.
‽: Having said that, would you rather be Sherlock Holmes or a late Cary Grant?
JT: Within the scope of that poem, I wouldn’t want to be Cary Grant. In either case there is an element of playing with masks and disguises which I enjoy writing those kinds of poems. I like the idea that you can be yourself and someone else. This doubling that happens, but at the same time it is a sad Cary Grant in that poem, of having to keep a certain part of life secret and the tragic effects of that. That isn’t an answer to either. So, Sherlock Holmes is my definitive answer! So you could play around with characters.
‽: James Dean or Sal Mineo?
JT: It’s the same problem with them. They were both tragic and had to keep a part of themselves under wraps. It’s talking about sexual identities in different ways. It is a more general point, that everyone has a private life and a public life. Everybody has their twitter and Facebook persona, and that is different again to how they talk to their parents. Yeah, it is back to the idea of the dramatic monologue and playing a role which can be freeing.
‽: What draws you toward impossible hypothetical situations as subject matter?
JT: I think you can have a conversation with James Dean. I doubt I use impossible situations because when you are playing with other peoples’ words (like the Screen Test poems) you use specific quotations from things. In a way, that is the material person; you are taking some part of that person and using them. You are speaking through them with their words. There is something seemingly impossible when merging two people. That kind of impossibility is very cool. But it is something that can be done with language that can’t be done in real life. In the same way, if you were mistaken for someone else you could get away with disguises but that is a con. Whereas in this poem it is actually happening.
‽: How did you conceive the concept for Waterloo?
JT: To put myself in the position of the student, I was doing my PhD and trying to write poems for a book of poetry and I had some devastating feedback. It wasn’t just negative it was derailing for all the things I was working on at the time. I don’t know whether students have had this with a mentor when you feel ‘my only options are to write what I know they would like me write’ or rebel and do the complete opposite. Both of those feel as though you are conforming. So that is the long answer. They are different to any other poems I had written before or since. They were written quickly in a specific period of time as a coping mechanism. Later I came back afresh. I have since done it many times, conceived a project and returned to it later. I sat in my writing shed in Manchester and bashed them out one after the other on my typewriter, these poems in a specific form with ten lines. Somehow that made it possible to keep writing when part of my soul had been crushed by a response to my other work.
‽: Was there not a hint of smugness when it went to print?
JT: It was years later that I had gotten this particular publisher interested. I enjoy pamphlets that are self-contained, more like a concept album than a compilation of hits and filler. To have this thing that you sit down and read in half an hour that tells you a little story. It is best when you can click with a publisher who is as excited about the project as you are. So yeah, it was good to publish.
‽: Given Waterloo’s autobiographical nature, are the accompanying images from a personal collection?
JT: It was the digital equivalent of a microfilm library. Some of it was stuff of my own, like the photo of my grandparents. Other things are from relatives I contacted. Though I felt very anxious using their images, the same as using other people’s voices. I had to be careful and cover peoples’ faces and redact things because it felt too personal. The collages were the first time I had ever put together images and poetry. I am working on a book right now with an illustrator where we are collaborating on a fully integrated text/ image work. The images on page with text in Waterloo are relevant to the work but I would avoid saying that they illustrate it. I don’t what the visuals to tell the reader that ‘this’ is what these people looked like and so on.
‽: Can we look forward to a future collection?
JT: The one with the illustrator I’m excited about in a childish way, because it is all about dinosaurs. A couple of those poems will be in journals coming out soon. I’m really into my projects that involve intense research first. That one I wrote the text months ago and is now with the illustrator. What I am working on at the moment is about a Norwegian painter from the late 19th century. I really like the work so I am writing poetry to go with the paintings. There is a tendency in modern poetry to treat what people call ‘the full collection’ as the be all and end all. Whereas, I prefer sequences and specific projects as opposed to: ‘Here is a Bunch of Stuff That’s Been in a Bunch of Magazines Over the Years’. People use a theme a lot of the time, for me it is the only way of getting work done.
We recommend viewing JT Welsch’s readings.
‘A group of owls is called a parliament’