The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Jonathan Travelstead

By

I get an email from Cobalt Press. The publisher I work with there is super excited about the new poetry collection they’re editing. The collection is titled How We Bury Our Dead and the poems are the work of a firefighter from downstate Illinois. The poet has also served overseas and lost his mother and the resulting poems weave together his experience with loss and grieving. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read, the publisher tells me. He then asks me to help arrange a reading for the poet, whose name is Jonathan Travelstead. My first thought is what a great name for a poet—so evocative of movement and adventure. My second thought is of course, but now I better read these poems. The poems are amazing—and as advertised—thoughtful and moving ruminations on grieving and loss. But so is Travelstead himself. And in meeting him, and listening to him read, I want to know more, and so I ask him to talk about his work, and over the course of several weeks, we email one another, and the resulting conversation about death, writing, and exercise, is—no surprise—amazing and moving as well.

***

The Rumpus: How do we bury our dead?

Jonathan Travelstead: The attitude of North American culture towards burial and grief is a grotesque one. I remember at eighteen—over-stimulated with too many classes and too many jobs to pay for them—I took a Death and Dying course and read some of the most fascinating books on how our culture deals with—or doesn’t deal with—death. The year or so it took to finish How We Bury Our Dead’s title poem, I revisited those works to inform the speaker’s anger when he goes to his mother’s funeral (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying; Mary Roach, Stiff; James Agee, A Death in the Family). Finishing the poem, I only realized then it was more a commentary on our antiseptic attitude towards not only death, but grieving, and a lashing out at the funeral industry’s part in prolonging that grief.

We are still a fairly repressed culture. The funeral industry has become such a behemoth presence that they have wormed their way into our values system over many generations and reshaped our attitudes towards how we interact with the dead. I remember trying to wash my mother’s body and the men from the funeral home in their dollar stiff suits telling me not to worry, they would take care of that. Surely there is value in preparing your own deceased at home? Outsourcing the disposal of our deceased may actually be a missed opportunity for the most intimate stage of the grieving process, acceptance.

Rumpus: Your answer reminds me of my father’s death and how one of his friends wanted to build the coffin. The funeral home wasn’t thrilled about it, but it was his way of grieving the loss. How do you think writing this collection, and writing in general, helped you with the grieving process?

Travelstead: Writing the first draft was a necessary first step in processing just what it is to lose the only person that would still hug you if you didn’t call for three months, or if they found out you’d once kicked a puppy. Throughout multiple revisions, however, I was hopefully able to distance myself enough from “writing-as-grieving”—that crying in the dark—to crafting something that moves artfully through a process as well as other landlocked geographies, honoring denial as much as acceptance.

I can’t locate or remember who first said it, but the process of distancing one’s self enough from emotion to begin crafting a work suitable for print reminds me of a quote I’ll paraphrase, poorly: “To write the blues you have to stand outside the blues.” Or maybe William Wordsworth said it better: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Writing for me is a mapping of previously unknown tributaries, or, as in Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck,” discovery through writing. Stephen King says the act is like going down the river to drink. Writing allows me to interact with my feelings and intentions in a kind of feedback loop, or phatic dialogue between my heart and mind that’s reminiscent of seeing what your head looks like when placed between two funhouse mirrors.

Like any writer, most of my heavy lifting is done in isolation. Mornings not at work, the phone and my accessibility to the world are cut off to everyone except my fiancé and the fire department. Afternoons, like my dog or a mental soundtrack, whatever poem I’m working on usually comes with as I go on a run or to the gym or out to the woodshop. 

Rumpus: There’s a lot of amazing stuff to unpack here, and yet, I want start by picking up on this last thread, and ask you to comment on the intersection—for you anyway—between exercise and writing and possibly even grieving itself.

JT Typographic cover full drop.inddTravelstead: Physical activity has a relationship with everything I do. I grew up believing the diagnoses that I had both Attention Deficit Disorder, and ADHD (just add hyperactivity)—two popular conditions sold easily to parents of indomitable children in the 80s by doctors who sometimes received the rough equivalent of a commission for giving them. As a child I remember feeling as if I owed my accomplishments—or when they were lacking—to a condition that is still as poorly understood as its meds.

However, I wanted to escape the victim narrative of allowing it to own both my failures and successes, and so I spent hours bicycling between Southern Illinois’ corn fields, Shawnee National Forest, and old coal mine roads, and soon found that structuring my day with long periods of moderate-to-intense activity allowed me to manage scattershot thoughts. Today, whether it’s the act of setting out and my foot padding against concrete as the miles slip behind me, or the attention demanded by sets of arm-leadening pull-ups, I find a sense of presence in physical activity that releases the dross of anxieties.

I think what I’m talking about is “zen,” or inhabiting a moment, completely. I feel like an open window, vulnerable to whatever feeling blows in when cycling, running, or lifting, depending upon the season. When taking a break from writing, oftentimes I listen to an audiobook, the story-laden music of Josh Ritter or Gillian Welch, or sometimes just listen to myself breathe between footfalls. I remember re-listening to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as I ran around the back nine of a golf course in Olney, Illinois—home of the white, albino squirrels—and a few tears leaked out between strained breaths and the court scene in which Atticus Finch delivers his summation, thinking how odd a crying runner must have looked to any golfers.

Rumpus: This reminds me of the time I was on a long run and a PSA came on the radio with Phil Jackson talking about breast cancer and I thought about my mom—who is a survivor—and I started crying profusely. But that’s not a question; my question is about anxiety and whether you think there are any benefits to struggling with anxiety when you’re a writer or artist?

Travelstead: In my case, absolutely. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I try to borrow the same motivations from my career as a firefighter and consider the writing process as seriously as I do entering a house with black smoke puffing from its eaves. In a poem any unconsidered line, word, or break can have toxic consequences to the speaker’s authenticity, or intent. Which is not to say I emerge from writing in the same state as I do after a structure fire—I just may feel like it, emotionally.

With any craft, or work in which someone takes pride and makes a living, I can’t imagine anxiety not being a functional tool for producing their best work. However, I consider it to be the best tool only when confined to the final stages of the writing process, and stifling in the early, creative stages to the point of analysis paralysis—that condition where the writer smothers the poem by over-thinking it, or planning too much. As a work is revisited and crafted I find anxiety to be helpful, necessary even.

I write for an imaginary audience that has ADD but that is also shrewd and discerning, and whose attention I will lose if it intuits a writer’s lack of authenticity—both in terms of my own struggle with the underlying tensions, and also of the speaker’s within the narrative. As writers, if we’re minding our craft—and a little lucky—then that struggle is passed along to the reader. It’s not only a motivator, it’s also a defense mechanism for combing out a word choice or movement that can throw off a poem’s voice, or identifying whether a risky line inches too far towards sentimentality.

Rumpus: I love this response, and though I generally shudder at asking a writer about their writing process, any answer that compares writing poems to putting out fires may well demand it. So, what is your process?

Travelstead: I don’t consider myself one of those magnificent bastards that sits down and ball-peens a poem out in a week or two. In fact, I find the act of writing even a single poem to be a tremendously difficult and months-long process, one that involves as much reading (fiction and nonfiction, mostly) as it does being planted in the saddle of my desk chair.

Because I find writing so difficult, quiet and solitude are as necessary as being singular. Most mornings I read for a few minutes, then let my dog take me for a walk before eating a full breakfast, trying not to do any two things at once. I usually write for an hour or two, and then spend fifteen or twenty minutes submitting finished work. When I feel satisfied that something is finished, I put it aside for a number of weeks before reading it aloud, then deciding whether it’s ready for sending out.

What I don’t mention—but is just as much a part of my process—is having meditative, physical distractions. I think my most effective composition is often done when I’m changing the brake fluid on my motorcycle, or cleaning the house—and my partner enthusiastically agrees. In the finishing stages I find that scanning my lines, more research into specific language, and asking for comments to be more helpful. Rereading the Elements of Style never hurts, either. 

Rumpus: Sorry, I got stuck on the phrase “balls-peens” for a minute. Very embarrassing that. That said, I am struck that even as we talk about meditation, exercise, housecleaning, and walking your dog, there is a real structure to how you think about all of this, and I am wondering if you might take a moment to talk about the value of structure to the artistic life and creativity?

Travelstead: I’d wager that the most talented, prolific writers tend towards structured lifestyles where they know “this is the thing I do at this time,” essentially “going dark” to the world for awhile. Trust me, the dishes and Twitter will still be there at 1400.

Sure, creativity doesn’t always thrive on daily structure, but I think being habituated to a daily schedule actually increases the reception of good ideas and prevents them from bottlenecking. I do my best writing long after that creative burst, and try to keep the pathway between inspiration and execution clear.

Rumpus: Speaking of pathways, we may be just about done, but before all of that, can you talk about what’s next and what you hope to work on after that? And if I left anything out, this is your chance to correct that, so please do feel free to run with this.

Travelstead: I’m still doing readings for How We Bury Our Dead, but have also just begun sending out a manuscript with the working title Conflict Tours. In it, the speaker moves from his time as a medic on the Mexican/US border to the Appalachian Trail, to touring Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone. Besides an addiction to traveling to places of internal or recent conflict, the speaker is dealing with what he considers to be an addiction Adderall, or Ritalin—something I haven’t yet seen in poetry.

Most of what I’ve been working on lately has been set in the “near future” sub-genre of science fiction, many of which have been picked up such as “God Particle” (Gyroscope Review), “Church of the Civil Engineer” (Panoply), “Cloud Fables” (Rose Red Review), “A Motorcycle Salesman Looks Back” (The Freeman), and “Nocturne With Light Cyclist” (The Citron Review), among others. I’m not sure yet if they’ll eventually form up into a longer work, but I’d love to hear from anyone who cares to check them out.


Ben Tanzer is the author of the books Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/Paranormal and a Bronze medal in the Science Fiction category at the 2015 IPPY Awards, Lost in Space, which received an Honorable Mention in the Chicago Writers Association 2014 Book Awards Traditional Non-Fiction category, and now The New York Stories, among others. He has also contributed to Punk Planet, Clamor, and Men's Health, serves as Senior Director, Acquisitions for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at This Blog Will Change Your Life. More from this author →