J A C O B S U N D E R L I N
i n t e r v i e w
COMP: These poems will soon appear in your debut collection, This We in the Back of the House, which won the 2021 Saturnalia Books Editors Prize. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
Jacob Sunderlin: Thanks. Saturnalia makes great books and I’m excited that it will be an object people can hold, and not just this Ship of Theseus in Microsoft Word.
A quick story which is both about and not at all about my book: During the great vaccine summer, I was loading music equipment into a crowded studio. Someone was standing in the path of some heavy amps I was lugging and didn’t see me. I put my hand on this person’s back as gently as I could as I passed. This was to let them know I was passing by with something heavy, and struggling a bit. When I did this I said, “Right behind you.” Turning around, he said, “That man has worked in a kitchen” and then helped me carry the amp.
That is a story about carrying something heavy, not writing poems. But the gestural, even occult working-class thing which passed between us in that moment is something I’m trying to write about in the book. In a personal way, I think the poems came out of missing the back-of-house people I grew up around, who recognize and speak in such gestures. I started working on most of these poems and shaping this book when I was feeling stranded working for a tech company in California (I grew up in Indiana) and then living in Georgia. Distance crystallizes memory, I think. I felt like I could hear these voices and see those gestures better in the poems I was writing when I couldn’t actually hear them or see them. Much of this kind of thinking is in, under, or around the book.
COMP: Your poems are chockfull of blood and spit, dishwater and cigarettes, dead raccoons and 57 Chevy Bel-Airs. How do you come to, or develop, this aesthetic? Are your influences largely non- or even anti-literary?
Jacob Sunderlin: Part of me wanted to just answer this question by writing “Public school” and not saying anything else (I teach tenth grade at one right now). I’ll say more. It’s true that I came to poetry at the same time as I started performing free/vernacular music played at extreme volumes, and so in my mind poems are the subversions of something, are inherently rule-breaking, and political, as well as they are musical, performative, and fun. I’ve tried to abide by Baraka’s directive to read your poems to the construction worker on break and avoid getting bopped on the head, and was disappointed to learn that much of the poetry world privileges a particular kind of well-behaved middle-classness instead. Poems have always seemed to me more about brokenness than beauty. The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry that I borrowed from the
Tippecanoe County Public Library and then didn’t return for something like 6 years is my anthology of choice. At the same time, I can also see poems as something that need to sit gently in a book in a room across from some you. Dionysus goes 2-of-3 falls with Apollo, etc., and anyway part of the lesson of music is about turning it down. I try not to be anti-anything but bullshit. Much love to the TCPL.
COMP: Many of your poems, but especially those with longish sentences (e.g. “Talking to Sugar about the Afterlife”), snake down the page like a Wayne Shorter solo—one senses high degrees of both proficiency and daring. How do you approach the breaking of lines? Is it all intuition, all sound? Do you adhere to any general principles?
Jacob Sunderlin: I’ve never tried to articulate it, but I do feel that I have a unified theory about lines I’ll try to describe: I do think lines, like anything, are about music and have a kind of tension between structure and play. For me the shape of the poem should be a visual music as distinct from the music of the poem out loud. So – and this is where I feel like I might see it differently than some people I hear reading their poems – for me, line breaks are not the same thing as rests. Whenever I read out loud I emphasize the sentence as the musical unit in terms of places to pause, not the lines. The line is more of a pulse. When I’m revising, I try to find the paradigmatic line of the poem and use that as the beat to break against. The idea of this is basically to find whatever I consider the soul of the poem or the this of the poem, and then measure all the other lines against that soul line, against that this. If the lines go longer or shorter than the paradigmatic line, it’s still echoing back and forth across that line, consciously or subconsciously, musically. I like the occult symmetry of a poem with such a coherency of shape but without a pattern. It makes sense to me that if the sentence be long the line be short. You mention Wayne Shorter – another way of thinking of this idea might be drummers like Milford Graves or Rashied Ali who kept time as a pulse free of a time signature. It’s also true that most things I do in a poem are what you would call intuitive, just trying to listen to what the poem is doing and get out of the way.