Interview with Jack Powers



Jack Powers Interview

By Aura Martin


Jack Powers remembers being dismissive of poetry back in high school; he avoided taking poetry classes and engaging with poets. Then he read David Wagoner’s “My Physics Teacher”--a satiric look at a teacher who botched all his classroom demonstrations--and found it  really funny. “My early attraction to poems was reading funny poetry,” Powers says. “After reading Wagoner, I thought, ‘You are allowed to write funny poems?’ I’d love to do that.” So he started.  Powers’ first full collection, Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar, will be released on December 3 by Golden Antelope Press.  Its features funny poems about his parents, his kids, himself, and his students, growing up in New England--and more serious pieces too--about dealing with grief, living with a “forgetful” parent, defying gravity.  “Bonehead,” for example, shows how humorous nicknames can help a family cope with Alzheimers.

His wit has served him well at Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Connecticut, where he teaches and directs the writing center.  Though he started out in special ed, he soon added other areas--English and math--because they interested him. In fact, his creative writing classes read Wagoner’s “My Physics Teacher,” along with Powers’ own “To My Trigonometry Teacher,” a whimsical apology for mocking his math teacher’s insistence on order.  (Powers’ math classes now begin with two-minute meditations.)

Nowadays Jack Powers is recognized as a poet, but he says teaching is “the perfect job for my interests.”  His honors include “Poet of the Year” for the New England Association of Teachers of English in 2008--though he doesn’t mention that in our interview.  Rather, he laughs about “collect[ing] rejection slips for years,” before eventually getting more and more acceptance letters.

In our interview, he outlined processes which eventually led to Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar.  He talked about poets who influenced him,  about efficiency, persistence, writing groups, and the challenges of structuring a book of poems which had been written over a period of decades.    

Besides Wagoner, he especially enjoys  Billy Collins’ droll wit, Anne Sexton’s intensity, Denise Duhamel’s double-edged wordplay, and Kim Dower’s wise and wickedly precise details.  David Kirk and the late Tony Hoagland, he says, taught him to make room for both funny and serious poetry. Frank O'Hara was also a major influence – especially his tiny Lunch Poems.  

But enjoying poetry doesn’t make one a poet.  “If you want to be a writer, then you have to write,” he emphasizes. “You shouldn’t wait for inspiration; you should sit down and write.”  He recommends recruiting a writing buddy. “With a writing buddy, you can swap poems,” he says. “Even if you just exchange one sentence, it’s something; it can keep you going.”  

Powers habitually puts himself into situations where he has to write.  Besides writing alongside his students and respecting their feedback, he continues taking classes and participates in two active writing groups. The first group, which he’s been part of since coming to Joel Barrow 35 years ago, consists mainly of teacher colleagues; its members started out writing personal essays, but lately do more with poetry.  His second writing group is more professional/ professorial: published poets he’s come to know and trust as he earned his two MFA degrees at Sarah Lawrence and honed his craft at poetry workshops around New England.  Powers says his sons Zak and Will are also good readers. Since so many of his poems are about family and teens, their feedback has been uniquely useful.

So how does Jack Powers operate?    

Many of his poems grapple with aging; they have helped him cope with his father’s dementia and his grandmother’s, with the death of a student, his wife’s miscarriage.  Many also celebrate--a “shaft of afternoon sunlight,” or “the joy of swearing,” or the way the world didn’t end on December 21, 2012.      

On the level of the individual poem, he says that he tends to write everything in the first draft and then go back and see what he can pull out.  For instance, “Smokin’ A Real Cool Brand,” which recounts his history as a pre-teen, teen, and adult smoker, is still the longest poem in Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar, but it was originally a full page longer.  Now, without redundancies, it’s one of his favorites.  Another favorite, “Bonehead,” he says, “wrote itself.”    

Powers claims to be a terrible judge of his own poems because he judges based on how much he enjoyed writing a poem, and he loves writing each one.  Still, most of the time, when something is pointed out as not working, he takes advice and makes changes. The title poem, “Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar,” for example, used to be part of a longer piece called “Being a Dick.” Powers liked it, “but no one else did.” He finally figured out the problem--dueling complexities--and split the text into two poems.  “And then they worked.” Each carried its own message without overburdening the other.

Organizing a Poetry Book

Long ago, Jack Powers says,  he figured that if he wrote enough good poems he could bundle them together to make a book.  Seven years ago, he figured he’d done it. He had the first draft of a full-length book, which he started revising and bringing to workshops.  “It has been a long process,” he says. “I tried to revise it from beginning to end rather than just [stuff] a bunch of poems into a book.” Distance, he says, gave him perspective, especially on redundancies.  Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar is now about a quarter of the size of the draft he started with seven years ago.

He revised the book by putting things in different orders and trying different ways of organizing it and seeing how each of his planned three sections could relate to the others. There was a lot of trial and error, but he finally found the form he wanted by using two poems in the collection as cornerstones.

He’d written “In Praise of Heart Attacks” while reacting to his parents’ declining health. But as soon as he finished it, he’d felt like it was bad luck or karma to praise something which he actually feared.   So he wrote its partner poem, “In Fear of Heart Attacks.”  “They completely contradicted each other, but they were both truths at the time I wrote them,” Powers said. Those two poems eventually helped him structure the book. Though written as a pair, he split them up, using “In Praise of Heart Attacks” near the book’s opening, and saving “In Fear of Heart Attacks” to anchor Section III with its small celebrations of beautiful moments experienced even in relatively awful circumstances. Powers said that being a parent changed his perspective, and helped him create something like order out of the chaos.

Back when he began submitting poems to journals one at a time, Powers was sometimes asked to use pseudonyms:  “Peters” instead of “Powers, ” for example.  In Everybody's Vaguely Familiar, he reclaims the personal voice.  It’s Jackie Powers, not Jackie Peters, that his Irish Granny scolds.

For his next writing project, however, he has been deliberately writing persona poems,  getting out of his own head and using someone else’s voice. He plans to keep writing persona poems, and figuring out where this new direction will take him.