Jason Labbe believes that when encountering writer’s block, a poet should think of three things that he likes and put them together into a poem’s title. This process is exactly what led him to write “A Reception, A Garage, Mountains North and South,” one of the many gritty, yet technical pieces in his latest book, “Spleen Elegy.” Labbe calls himself an “unprecious” poet — “I like my poems to be rough around the edges, a little fucked up,” he says.
Labbe is a Connecticut native, a son of a machinist and a waitress. He finds a way to become a machinist himself, both on and off the page. Many of his pieces in “Spleen Elegy” straddle the line between analog and digital; his words are like the oil in between the gears of past and present. In real life, he restores motorcycles, collects records, plays music and splits his time between Connecticut and Brooklyn.
I sat down to interview Labbe after his reading in the Graduate Poets Reading Series, in which he read pieces from his latest book along with some of his newer work. We talked about his process, his past and his favorite Twin Peaks characters.
Q: You said that with your poetry, and just in general, you’re thinking about the collision of the analog realm with digital technology. Do you remember your first interaction with technology?
A: When I was in, maybe, second grade, my grammar school got some computers, and they were early Apples. Some of the first ones, I imagine, I think they were Apple 2Es. You could type things in them, and you could play very crude games, but they weren’t very impressive. Maybe that and playing my cousin’s Atari — does that count as technology? In some respects, though, I wouldn’t say I’m a technophobe or anything of that nature. Because as a recording engineer, I have to use a great deal of technology, and much of the recording I do is computer-based, as most recording is now. But, you know, I was very late to get a cell phone. I think that I prefer the analog realm. I’m nostalgic for it.
Q: When did you end up getting a cell phone?
A: I got my first cell phone in 2006.
Q: With your background in percussion and music engineering, I was wondering, does that play into your poetry?
A: In a way, yes. Each practice sort of informs the other. And I think my background in playing the drums — in practicing the drums and studying music — I learned a lot about discipline and daily work, and how doing a little bit every day sort of accumulates over time and makes one better at his or her craft. So yeah, music really taught me the value of how to practice and how to write every day. Always readdressing the fundamentals.
Q: You’ve been connected to Walt Whitman — Dan Beachy-Quick wrote, “Jason Labbe well knows … Whitman’s atoms become pixels.” — My question is, who are some poets that impacted you as a writer, or influenced you?
A: You know, that’s always a hard question. It’s like being asked what your favorite band is. And of course you’re afraid to say something uncool. But I think Whitman’s been a big influence, of course Stevens … and Michael Palmer. Others have been mentors of mine, such as Ann Lauterbach. I don’t know her so well personally anymore, but when I was younger she had a big influence on me. I also think it’s the stuff that I’m reading that week that has the biggest influence on me as I’m writing. And whether I realize it or not, I’m responding to that work — somehow, even indirectly, engaging it in a conversation.
Q: Related to that, you taught writing at the University of Virginia, the University of Connecticut, and you still teach at Southern Connecticut State University. What is your teaching process like?
A: We read a lot. We read as much as we write. And I’m always encouraging my students to engage the texts we explore in class in a conversation. And we do a lot of imitation exercises and that sort of thing. I’m always encouraging them to find things that they like in a text and borrow them. That sort of intertextuality, I think, is how many poets learn to write. It’s how a lot of people learn to play a musical instrument, too. They learn some stuff in lessons, but they learn more by listening to a record and trying to play the guitar part on that record. … So, I think in my creative writing classes we do something very similar to that, you know — read this poem, understand how it works as a machine made out of words and then make a machine that’s similar to that machine, but yours.
Q: You mentioned during your reading that Jackie, a name that comes up in several of your poems, is sort of where femme fatale meets Bob from Twin Peaks. I was wondering, who’s your favorite Twin Peaks character?
A: I love all the Twin Peaks characters. The most compelling, I think, and she becomes increasingly interesting as the series progresses, is Audrey Horne. She’s so interesting. And I just love her sense of agency. I love her sense of privacy and almost secrecy. She’s the one — I think, the cinematography of it and the costuming of it — she’s the one most sexualized of all the girls … and all the girls in that show are totally sexualized. But she is the one who is most so and takes on the sort of role of the femme fatale, and then you find out in one of the last episodes that she’s actually a virgin. Right up until the end of the series you’re learning things about her. There’s so much mystery to her. I like all the characters though.
Q: So back to this idea of femme fatale, and of course Jackie. Is Jackie a made-up person?
A: Yeah, it’s totally made up. I think that I write poems better in the second person, and I like to make sort of a composite or character in my head whom I’m going to address in my poem, and I write to them. But I’m really writing poems to myself, I think.
Q: Did you just like the name Jackie?
A: That was just the name. Like I said before, there are some things about the poem that I try not to second-guess or get really precious about. You know? I just try to get past it and not belabor it or sort of obsess, thinking, “Oh, is this perfect?”
Q: Would you say your poems sort of talk to each other? You mentioned that once you collected them all, you had to change the name “Six Poems for Jackie” because the rest of them rejected that name? How would you say your poetry collaborates with itself?
A: The poems are individual in a sense, but they’re all part of “The Poem,” the sort of longer thing that you’re always working on. The whole stack of poems … a lot of it just has to do with how your obsessions and your concerns and your interests play out in your subject matter. So the poems just sort of connect themselves. Because there were just things — I mean, obviously, I had undergone incredible trauma that I needed to process while writing those poems. But I don’t think of myself as a confessional poet or as an autobiographical poet. I did have a lot of trauma to work through as a person, though. And I wasn’t actively trying to work through my trauma, I wasn’t trying to express my feelings or that sort of thing, I was just trying to make things and make poems. And that stuff just kind of all found its way in, you know, and at a certain point, when I realized it was finding its way in, I understood that I needed to get on board and cultivate all of that.
Q: Just to be clear, the trauma was the car accident you were in while you were a graduate student?
A: Okay, so it’s kind of complicated. My second month in graduate school, I was hit by a car while riding my motorcycle in town. And I was very badly injured in that accident. And then six months later, I was up here [in Connecticut] visiting my family and my girlfriend at the time, and I was just starting to get better. I was just starting to walk, and you know, I hadn’t been able to travel or anything for six months. So I was up here for my birthday and my girlfriend and her sister and I were on the Merritt Parkway going between New Haven and New York, and the car spun off the highway at 70 miles an hour. Yeah. So as I’m recovering from this motorcycle accident, I’m in a car accident that’s even worse — in which I broke 22 bones, including my back. I was in a coma, and I had a brain stem injury … all kinds of internal injuries. So in the course of about six months I broke over 30 bones.
A: Yeah. And my friends and family went through just the total nightmare of the possibility that I wouldn’t cognitively recover. You know, needless to say that was an incredibly traumatic year. But the car accident is very strange because, like I said, I was in a coma. You’ll see, in this book, that waking is a theme throughout — this idea of waking from sleep. The car accident was very profound in other ways. The motorcycle accident was just a huge burden and it really sort of disabled me for life — I’ve had a lot of chronic pain associated with those injuries and trouble walking — but the car accident was a different story because it was truly life threatening, whereas the motorcycle accident wasn’t totally life threatening. The car accident happened in May, and I was in the hospital and rehab for a few months. But then by August, after they told my family I wasn’t going to cognitively recover fully, I was back at UVA and finishing my MFA program and starting to teach.
Q: No way.
A: Yeah, which is kind of miraculous in a way, but it was mostly just because I didn’t want to be in bed. I wanted to get back to living my life.
Q: That’s crazy.
A: Yeah, it’s totally crazy. It’s sort of unimaginable, right? That you’d be in such an accident where you almost die, and as you’re recovering from it you’re in another accident that’s even worse, where you come even closer to death. What’re you gonna do after that, except for write poems?
Allison Primak | email@example.com