Conversation with J.D. Isip

J.D. Isip is originally from Long Beach, California, but has lived the last decade or so in Plano, Texas. He received his MA from California State University, Fullerton, and his PhD from Texas A&M University-Commerce. He is a Professor of English at Collin College in North Texas, and he serves as an editor for The Blue Mountain Review. His poetry, plays, short fiction, and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and magazines. His first full-length collection, Pocketing Feathers, was published by Sadie Girl Press (2015). His new collection, Kissing the Wound, was published earlier this year by Moon Tide Press. In Kissing the Wound, J.D. asks readers to look through a multiversal lens to consider how our lives and our loves, our traumas and our triumphs, fold in on one another. J.D. was kind enough to answer some questions about Kissing the Wound, as well as to offer advice about how to approach writing about trauma, and how to mix forms—including fragments—to inform a larger narrative.

DL: I love the title of your newest collection, Kissing the Wound, and how it speaks to the ways our most traumatic experiences shape us. I’m thinking too of the beautiful opening lines from your poem Tornado Radio, “Nostalgia, defined, is a scar in your mind, / that pulled at or picked, bleeds across time…” Do you have advice for writing about trauma, particularly the difficult task of stepping outside of yourself to craft personal experience into art?

JI: Thank you so much, Denton. The story behind this title, but also behind a lot of things I’ve written and revised over the years is that we (the writers) are sometimes too laser focused on a particular idea. This can be useful, and I personally love many poets who would fall into this category (Victoria Chang, Richie Hofmann, and Patrick Phillips come to mind) of being meticulous almost to the point of obsession. With this book, I had picked the title Number Our Days early on. There’s a lot of Bible in much of what I write, so it seemed a good choice. Plus, the fragmented nature of the book seemed to pair well with this idea of trying to count or recount the days we live, have lived, and will live. Well, very late into the editing process, my publisher calls me and says, “We have a problem, J.D. Neil Hilborn has a book and a poem called Our Numbered Days, and, man, I just don’t feel comfortable doing something that sounds so much like that title.” I kinda panicked, but I had just finished a poem that I moved to the front of the book – “Kissing the Wound.” I suggested it as an alternative, and my publisher, Eric, was like, “Oh man! That’s perfect! It’s better!” That was that.

See, in my mind the book was about recounting, about “memoir-izing” my past in lyric form. But, as you point out, it was much simpler than that. It was about trauma, both individual and collective. What I want to say, the advice I would give here about writing trauma, is maybe not something I always follow, but it is certainly something I strive for. I think it’s important for us to push against two impulses: one, to relive the trauma in some masochistic or voyeuristic way; two, to homilize the trauma to the “all things happen for a reason” point of dishonesty. Instead, I think it’s better to pluck out the particulars, as much as you can remember, and let the scene and/or the action take the lead over whatever “lesson” we are trying to communicate. Also, be gut-wrenchingly honest, or what is the point? I think of student papers where maybe they spend pages talking about a really screwed up relationship with a parent or an abusive love, then the last paragraph is, “But I am happy that happened, or I wouldn’t be who I am today. I don’t even think about it anymore.” Um, Sure, Jan.

To that final point of, to paraphrase, moving from “Dear Diary” to something more universal, or at least welcoming to readers – read, read, read. What you are talking about is something that we learn by watching (reading) others do it well. How can I read Audre Lorde or John Keats and feel like I have anything in common with them? But I do. Why? Because I may have never felt romantic love for a woman, but I have felt love… and longing, and all of that. I think when you read widely, your writing starts to feel more like you are in conversation rather than screaming from a soapbox. You’re not under the impression you’re the only one who ever said this or felt this, but your story adds to what has come before. So, yeah, there’s my traditionalist leanings showing!

DL: Kissing the Wound is described as containing “poems and fragments”. I would describe some of these fragments as prose pieces, even as essays. How do poems and nonfiction overlap in terms of their autobiographical qualities? Are there other ways the two forms connect in your mind? Are there challenges to interweaving different genres into one cohesive book?

JI: I love that more and more writers are crossing genre lines or hobbling together so-called “new” genres. Not to get too pedantic, but I think we generationally tend to congratulate ourselves for innovation that has always been there. Take this delineation between poem and play and essay and recipe and whatever else. Alexander Pope, Christine de Pizan, Borges, Eliot, tons of folks were crossing those genre lines decades, centuries before us. But, we forget, and it is always nice when some memory of “permission” stirs in us: Can I do this? Why the hell not?

That preamble is my way of saying, “I know what I am about to say has probably been said before.” Years ago, I had started jotting down “fragments” I thought might be part of something bigger. A book? A memoir? Poems? Maybe. For the most part, I was a little desperate not to lose these moments or images that would pop into my mind. I’ve seen a lot of friends and family die now, and it pains me to see them try to recall something. You see it in their face, in that disappointment: they can’t, it’s gone forever. As writers, we have this unique gift to preserve a little time. That’s how the fragments started.

Because they are more like prose, these pieces definitely lean more into the “lesson” aspect, or homily. Unlike poems, I feel like prose needs to land somewhere for a reader (a poem can just leave you hanging – many times, that’s the point). Donald Murray said that all writing was autobiographical, and I tend to agree. Walt Disney chose Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as his first feature based almost exclusively on the fact that he remembered reading the story to his daughters. Charlie Brown is basically Charles Schulz. If we accept that whatever we write is going to tell our story, I think it gives us permission to tell bigger stories, stories with more characters, stories where we don’t have to be at the center of the action.

The first prose piece in the book, “How Long Was I Gone,” helped to pull the whole collection together. The night I wrote the first draft, I sent it to my friend Allyson (who wrote my spectacular forward). I was over the moon because all of a sudden I had this idea of how to tie everything I had been working on together. My first book was published in 2015, so it had been years since I had even thought about pulling together another collection. However, just like with that first book, I think when you know you’ve landed on something you have to follow your gut. That’s tricky, because there are many, many writers who will tell you, “My gut tells me every day I should be jotting out a whole collection.” I mean, if that works for you, awesome. Darren Demaree, Nicole Tallman, and Jenn Givhan are my friends who do this—and they just pump out gem after gem. For us mere mortals, it takes a little more time. I think you have to trust your writing to lead you… and you can’t do that if you’re trying to keep up with others. I am a lot happier being able to be truly happy for my friends getting published all over, getting all of the awards – rather than grousing about things being unfair, or “they’re just so much more talented” or “so much more connected” etc. Who cares? Do you. You’ll be okay.

Oh, the interweaving of the prose and poems. One, I saw someone on Twitter griping (shocker, I know) about “people who divide their poetry collections into individual sections”; it’s such a specific and therefore hilarious thing to be miffed about. I have done it with both of my collections, and I am doing it with my third collection. I don’t have any plans to stop. It helps to have those guideposts. It gives you more freedom so your collection can be about one overarching idea but also several smaller ones. Not that a collection has to be about anything, but I tend to like collections that are about something. I feel like the hodgepodge approach is an odd one. If I wanted a grab bag of subject matter, I can just read a poetry journal or magazine. Anyway, the prose pieces in Kissing the Wound started working as these kinds of guideposts, too. I could group them with poems that would, hopefully, emphasize or challenge the point or lesson of the prose piece. I liked that idea of having my cake and eating it too – here’s a lesson, but do I actually buy it? Should you? I had a lot of fun pulling it together, moving things around. I was lucky to have a patient and enthusiastic publisher. And good friends to read over drafts! So important!

DL: I’d like to go back to the idea of the word “fragment” as you use it alongside “poem”. Can you talk about what a poem is or does, for you, in its perfect form? Is it supposed to center on a single moment, an image, an emotion? All of the above or something else?

JI: I did an interview a couple of weeks ago, and I thought of an answer to this question after I said whatever I said during that interview. So, thank you for this chance to redeem myself! For me, poems are questions at their heart. They can sometimes sound like statements, proclamations, edicts, arguments, solutions, and all of that. But not so far behind even the most self-assured poem is a do you think? And I don’t think there is any other genre that has that consistency (except maybe American musical theater). The gift of a poem, then, is that it comes alongside you when “shit doesn’t make sense,” and it says, “Yeah, why is that?” Not, “so let me tell you why that is.”

Prose pieces allow ideas to breathe. That is important. But poems, for me, are in a bit more of a hurry. Prose are the divorced couple in front of the lawyers or the marriage counselor. Poems are the fights before bed, the one liners to poison the kids against the other spouse, the angry sex. You can probably guess which I like reading more. But I make a point to read both and read lots of everything. I think it would be foolish to think prose take longer to write than poems. That was not the case in Kissing the Wound – generally speaking, the poems almost all took longer than the prose pieces. And, because I set up the prose to be fragments – meaning I didn’t have to flesh out each scene, just layered them on top of one another – they were even easier to pull together. Truth be told, we always have a little more fun doing the thing we don’t always do. It was really fun, even freeing to play between genres.

DL:  I often ask writers about the process of submitting their manuscripts for publication. Can you describe the time between writing and publishing these stories? How did you connect with Moon Tide Press?

JI: It took me years to write the manuscript, a solid eight years of plugging away. It’s not because I am meticulous or anything like that. It’s because I work full time as a professor, like most other artists I know. I like to think if I were given some sort of writing fellowship, I’d just crank out book after book, year after year. But that’s not true. I’d probably do what I did with my dissertation and with this book – let it simmer for years, then bang it out when I finally get tired of simmering.

I gave myself $300 to send out manuscripts to contests or editors. That’s honestly not a lot when you consider most contests are $25 or more to enter. There are also editors who will take manuscripts via email, so that costs you nothing (no printing, no postage). Moon Tide Press had been on my radar because it’s pretty big in Southern California, where I grew up. You have Red Hen Press, Write Bloody Publishing, and Moon Tide Press – those were the places I was a fan of in grad school, and the places where I had met or seen most of the writers they published. Eric Morago picked up the press years ago. I didn’t know that—but I had read his first collection a while back, and I watched him do some of his slam stuff. I was a big fan (Eric’s easy on the eyes, he has lots of fans).

Anyway, I wrote to my friend who published my first book, Sarah Thursday with Sadie Girl Press. She’d semi-retired at the time, but she was enthusiastic about me getting another book out. I think that’s important. You need to have a group of folks doing this writing thing who you can turn to who will give you honest feedback. This isn’t your mom saying she likes the pretty things you write (though that is nice if you can get it). It’s the friends who will tell you this is what you were meant to do, and they aren’t bullshitting you. They have no reason to. She told me about Moon Tide being open to unsolicited submissions. That’s worth knowing about. A lot of places, especially big publishers, are not going to look at your work unless they have sought you out (this is rare). It’s often in contests where “unknowns” get picked up by the big presses. That’s good, but the odds are generally stacked against you. Especially if you didn’t go to a specific MFA program, didn’t publish in the big magazines, haven’t gone to AWP.

That’s all to say, yeah, I got a lot of rejections. But not as many as I feared. And, as luck would have it, I got an offer for a chapbook the same week Eric accepted my full manuscript. I felt terrible about having to turn down the chapbook, but the publishers were so excited, and that I learned you shouldn’t feel bad if you have to say no to a publisher. They probably have dozens of folks waiting in the wings and, if they are decent folks, they are gonna cheer for you – after all, they just chose you. It should make sense to them.

My friend R. Flowers Rivera came to do a reading at my alma mater, and when I came up to talk with her afterward, she said, “So, when am I going to see a book from you?” This was maybe 2012, and I told her I had submitted to contests for years, but nothing ever came of it. She said, “If the contests don’t pick you, pick yourself. Send out your manuscript.” It took about a year and some kismet with a friend from high school, Sarah, but I got my first book published a few years later. The point is that if you feel like your work needs to be out in the world, you will find a way. It might take some hustle. It might take years. It sounds cliché, but you just have to keep at it. Also, honestly, and you probably know this well, just be incredibly humble when dealing with publishers. They are almost always doing it as a passion project, and they are almost always getting paid far less than they are worth. Being patient and humble goes a long way.

DL:  Are there any upcoming opportunities for readers to hear you read from Kissing the Wound either via Zoom or in person?

JI: I will be on #SundaySweetChats with Charles K. Carter on Sunday, May 28th on YouTube. I’ll be the featured reader at The Ugly Mug in Orange, California, on Wednesday, May 31st. And I will be on a future episode of Be Well: A Reading Series hosted by Nicole Tallman. I’d love to see folks in California, and I highly recommend folks check out Charlie and Nicole’s shows. Both have several videos already up.

Huge thanks to J.D. Isip for speaking to me about his new book. Don’t forget to order Kissing the Wound now. Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll share the advice J.D. shared with me about writing about the places we come from, as well as a writing exercise from J.D. based on one of his poems. Make sure you never miss a post by subscribing.

2 thoughts on “Conversation with J.D. Isip

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s