Featured Poet: Jon Tribble

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If you’ve been in the poetry biz for very long, you’ve probably already heard of Jon Tribble.

Perhaps you got your hands on a copy of Crab Orchard Review (where he serves as Managing Editor), or stopped by their table at AWP—in which case you probably noticed right away that Jon and his wife, acclaimed poet Allison Joseph, are two of the friendliest writers/editors you’ll ever meet.

You might also be familiar with Jon for his work as series editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, where he’s helped launch and further so many careers that he could aptly be described as Poetry’s Father Abraham.

Today, though, I’m pleased to shine a spotlight, some fireworks, and the headlights of every car I could find, borrow, or steal on Jon’s poetry—because when one finds poetry this good, it deserves nothing less.

And… this is the point where I usually become tongue-tied, because if this were a classroom, I’d put one of his poems on the overhead and scribble all over it until it resembled a very complicated football play, just so I could illustrate his complex use of scansion, alliteration, caesura, energy resulting from elevated diction contrasted with stark imagery (or the other way around), etc. But this isn’t a classroom, and the best way to enjoy Jon’s poetry is for me to just shut up and let you read it.

Oh, and don’t forget to check out this interview, wherein Jon shares his thoughts on writing, editing, and dinosaurs.

Michael Meyerhofer: One thing that especially appeals to me about these poems is the way they invoke such vibrant lyricism in their description of working class jobs, of things that aren’t traditionally considered academic. I know you’ve obviously spent a great deal of time as an editor, but assuming these poems are somewhat autobiographical, did working these kind of jobs influence your writing—and if so, how?

Jon Tribble: I spent around two and a half years working in fast food as a cook and over seven years doing about every job you can do in movie theaters. I also worked as a dishwasher, maintenance worker, data processing clerk, and security guard. All of these jobs have influenced the writing I do because I have always written with my co-workers from these jobs in mind when I think of my ideal audience. I worked with a variety of people from all sorts of different backgrounds in the ten years I worked before graduate school and so many of my co-workers loved stories, whether the stories were spoken or written, and I try to keep that in mind when I write my own work.

MM: On a related note, how does being an editor influence your writing and/or your writing life?

JT: There is one main way editing influences my writing, and one main way editing influences my writing life. My writing is influenced by what my friend Lynda Hull told me when I was first invited to intern at Indiana Review. Lynda said, “Editing teaches you what you don’t need to write.” There are so many things you see over and over again as an editor, and what Lynda said to me has proven true so many times and I challenge myself to remember that when I strive to make my writing fresh and unique to my experiences and imagination.

Editing influences my writing life through the time and mental energy working closely with other people’s words demands of you. On the positive side, those same demands hopefully have encouraged me to ask more of my own writing in terms of its ambitions and challenges for me as a writer.

MM: Speaking from your own experience, do you feel that there are certain topics that lend themselves more easily to poetry? Are there any topics that you’re inclined to avoid, or conversely, any topics that you find yourself addressing more often?

JT: I am not a big fan of writing about being a writer and as an editor I read a lot of work on that topic so I don’t write about it myself very much. There probably aren’t any other topics I avoid in my own work.

MM: Can you describe the creative process behind one of these poems—say, how and when the idea came to you, how it started, and/or how you went about writing it, etc?

JT: Much of the writing I have been doing on fast food work, working conditions, and the products of the labor has begun with a single phrase, like “Famous Hot Gravy,” or image, like the imagined creature in “God of the Kitchen,” or a particular specific or general memory from the work itself, like the sensation of washing my hands in fairly hot grease in “Wings of Skin” or the activity we undertook cooking both “Livers and Gizzards.”

After I have that single thing in mind, I begin to play with the possibilities of the poem and that determines where I go next: Is it a narrative that demands some sense of scene, setting, and specific participants? Is it a dreamscape where anything is possible? Is the driving force a lyric exploration of a sense memory, a thing, or an activity? Each possibility leads me different places in where I go next with the poem.

“God of the Kitchen” was the strangest one of these in process because it came to me at a student reading where a dragon appeared in a story with a very realistic setting and that possibility made me think of how working as a fast food cook I often hit a wall where my imagination filled the gaps left between the push and pull of such repetitive and exhausting work. I have always loved that description of the bodies of the dead soldiers in William Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act 4, scene 1: “…when all those legs and / arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join / together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at / such a place;’…” This idea of a “reckoning” from both the chicken parts and the workers seemed right to me. And, of course, who better to enact such a sacrifice than a Aztec bird god? After that, the process was mainly trying different images and phrasings until the poem felt right to me.

MM: As someone who knows a lot about publication, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

JT: Reading is the best way for all writers to develop a knowledge of craft, an understanding of what is out there, and a real sense of what to aspire to create when you begin to raise the ambitions you have for your own work. Once you have begun to read closely, well, and widely, try your best to write what is truly unique to your experiences, your ideas and insights, your imagination. No one else sees or experiences the world quite like you if you can find those things in yourself.

MM: Any new projects in the works?

JT: I am also working on a series of poems that explores my work in movie theaters against the place film exists in my imagination and personal life.

MM: On a completely unrelated note, what’s your favorite dinosaur?

JT: My favorite dinosaur growing up was the Brachiosaurus, but I think it’s now the Archaeopteryx.

Photo By: Andy

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About Author

Michael Meyerhofer’s third book, Damnatio Memoriae, won the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. His previous books are Blue Collar Eulogies (Steel Toe Books) and Leaving Iowa (winner of the Liam Rector First Book Award). He has also won the James Wright Poetry Award, the Laureate Prize, the Annie Finch Prize for Poetry, the Marjorie J. Wilson Best Poem Contest, and five chapbook prizes. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Quick Fiction and other journals, and can be read online at his website.

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