Poet and short story writer Jordan Hartt answers our five questions of the week. He will be one of the hosts of our upcoming Kāpiti Writers’ Retreat, teaching a workshop on writing about water and sharing his experiences and learnings about writing.
1. What drew you to writing?
When I was around seven, I think, I was running through the halls of a church building, running around, probably knocking things over. An older man grabbed my arm, gave me an older-person-to-a-younger-person lecture, and let me go. But the grip really hurt, and it bothered me. I felt like his fingers were on my upper arm for a week. So I decided to write a story about the incident, but within a couple of sentences I was writing it from his point of view, seeing it from his perspective. I wrote this whole backstory of him as a kid himself, running around a farm. When the story was finished all my animosity toward him was gone: I felt like I understood and had empathy for him. The story was not “good,” but writing builds empathy regardless of how good it is. And reading works the same way, allowing us to step completely into the the consciousness of another person. When we read “Things Fall Apart,” for instance, we become an Igbo man watching his civilization suffer under the encroachment of the colonizers. When we read “House of the Spirits,” we experience directly the upheaval of the CIA-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government. When we read John Updike, we become white people living in the suburbs in the United States of the twentieth century. Reading allows us to taste what others taste, smell what they smell, hear what they hear, feel on on our skin their feelings, and see things through someone else’s eyes, becoming someone else through all the five senses. I think this is why reading is so incredibly powerful and life-transformational. It builds empathy and understanding, which allows us to make more informed, socially conscious decisions with our lives. Writing is the opposite side of that. When we write, we share our own points of view with others, so that they can see the world through our eyes, hear it through our ears, taste it the way we taste it. Writing is our own personal contribution to the conversation.
2. Your work–fact or fiction–are you bothered about the boundaries?
I write really slowly. It took seven years for my first book, “Leap,” to go from inspiration to finished product. And it’s really a relatively slim book. That book was all about trying to reflect the sound of the Pacific Northwest rain in the form of words and stories. All of the human “events” that take place in the book (a stillbirth, for example, or physical violence) are completely made up, but when I give readings people always come up to me and say things like, I’m so sorry you went through that. I think that’s the power of literary fiction: if we can create characters that are so true to real life, we can move people just as much as if they actually lived. I’m always seeking emotional truth in my work, I think, not literal truth. Similarly, when I read a book, or go to a reading, I want to be moved, as a human. I want to feel something and be transformed. I want to feel all the true, conflicting emotions that we feel. In the words of Ilya Kaminsky, I want to laugh at a story of a funeral, and cry at a story of a wedding.
All of my work is designed to be performed, not read on the page. So the way it looks on the page are notes designed to assist in the spoken performance of the work. I’m very grateful that a publisher took the artistic risk of publishing it on paper.
4. The way you read when you perform is almost percussive. How does rhythm play out in your work?
Because of my family’s Pacific Northwest roots we are deep Seattle Seahawks fans, an American football team. Football is a brutal, dangerous sport that should probably be illegal for what it does to the human body, but it’s also soaked deep into the soil of the Northwest now, and it is what it is. Anyway, the coach of the team, Pete Carroll, was trying to get our former running back, the great Marshawn Lynch, to come out of the backfield a certain way, and Lynch refused. “I just read it,” he kept telling his coach, over and over. “I just read it.” Meaning: I don’t know what I’m going to do until I see the defense and what they are doing. So I think for writers (or any other profession that involves interaction with others) giving a performance is the same way. I never know what I’m going to say until I see the audience, and gauge what they are doing, and putting that together with what I’m doing. Do they want to laugh? Do they want to cry? Or both? So every performance is different, but it’s all about going on a journey together with the audience into my experience of the Pacific Northwest. I challenge myself to give myself completely emotionally to the audience, and hold nothing back, and be completely true. So am completely and utterly empty afterwards. I can’t read publically from that book more than a few times a year, and a few pieces I can’t read out loud anymore at all: the emotion I felt when creating it has now completely passed through my body, and I can’t get emotionally back into certain spaces any more. The percussive elements–thanks for noticing!–come a little bit from the spoken-word rhythms of coffee-house poets in the Bellingham area; a little bit from the way Lummi, Quileute, and Makah storytellers tell their stories; and a little bit from “grunge”-era bands like Nirvana and Blind Melon. But really it’s trying to capture the way the Northwest rain sounds hitting various things like a mossy roof, or rusted trucks, or buoys, or fir trees, or a tarp, or an aluminum boat stored upside-down.
5. Your workshop draws on one of the four elements. What is it about water? And what should participants expect from your workshop?
The book I’m currently working on is a meditation on the Pacific Ocean, and the ocean’s relationship to the insignificance of the islands that dot it and the insignificant continents that surround it, and the ocean’s relationship to those of us fortunate enough to live near its immensity and power. So I’m spending all this year of 2017 reading books, stories, and poems inspired by, or focused around all kinds of water, and writing draft after draft after draft of water-inspired stories. So this workshop is a part of that. I’ll be writing just as much as the workshop participants will be. In the sessions, open to both poets and prose writers, we’ll write new work through the inspiration of water: whether rain, the ocean, a lake, a river, a waterfall, a chlorinated pool. We’ll explore water’s relationship to sand, rock, boat hulls, riverbanks, etc., and how these rhythms shape our own lives, as well as the lives of our characters, narrators, and metaphors. We’ll do a full discussion on this raw draft: participants will leave the workshop with a completed and workshopped piece ready for advanced revision; with new craft tools, connections, and community as a writer; and with writing inspiration to last a long time.