Barn Owl Review Contributor Interview: Jeff Newberry
by Sara Tracey

Welcome to Barn Owl Review's first contributor interview! Jeff Newberry, who has two poems in BOR 1, has a few things to say about writing, reading, and the life of a poet.

First, the basics. When did you start writing and why?

I began writing stories at a young age—ten or eleven, if I remember correctly. One summer, a hurricane hit my home town (Port St. Joe, Florida), and we lost power for about two weeks. My mother, father, brother and I subsisted on canned water and Red Cross sandwiches. While my father and mother listened to the radio for any news, I began writing a story in a red composition book. It was silly, a story about a boy and a sea captain who go on a cruise around the Florida Keys, cut through the Panama Canal, and wind up somewhere in Alaska. My mother liked it, however, and showed it to the local high school’s honors English teacher. She liked it, too. Later, when I took her class as a sophomore in high school, she let me write short stories in lieu of essay assignments.

I didn’t write poetry seriously until graduate school. I was an English major throughout my undergraduate career, a rather directionless student with the vague idea of being a novelist. I’d taken a poetry workshop or two as an undergrad, but most of what I wrote was proto-Beatnik nonsense, stuff inspired by my (mis)reading of Howl and Kerouac.

My first semester as a graduate student, I began reading lots of contemporary poetry, thanks to a workshop I was in that term. The first poet that really stuck with me then was Philip Levine. I liked some poetry—scattered anthology pieces by Eliot, Yeats, and Stevens—but Levine was the first living poet that I admired. It sounds silly now, but as I read his lyrical narratives of doomed, angry young men, trapped in nowhere jobs, I thought, “This is poetry? You can write about things like this?” From there, I began to write my own poetry.

Where do you find inspiration? What themes or images keep popping up in your work?

I find inspiration in many places: the sound of a car, the way the sky seems a strange color of blue on certain mornings. I’ve drawn also lots of inspiration from my faith. As a professing Christian, I realize the dangers of proselytizing in my work: I try my hardest never to provide answers when I write about my faith. Answers are easy; questions are hard. Questions are urgent. Questions inspire me.

I find a lot of inspiration in music, too. I listen widely. I love jazz--Miles Davis and Bill Evans (particularly Scott Lafaro’s bass playing on Sunday at the Village Vanguard); Blues players like Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Keb’ Mo’, scads of others; rock groups as diverse Nirvana and Wilco; soul singers like Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway; country artists like Allison Kraus and Johnny Cash; even hip-hop artists like MF DOOM, Paul Barman, and Ugly Duckling.

As far as themes are concerned, I think I write about the same things again and again: the past, fathers and sons, dead-end jobs in dead-end towns, the impossibility of knowing, the paradoxes of faith. In an odd way, I think that all of these things are somehow interrelated, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly how.

What are you reading?

Right now, I’m rereading Al Maginnes’s Film History, a fine book of poems. I love how Maginnes’s poetry straddles the line between lyric and narrative, the way his words dwell in the shadows of the stories he tells. I’ve also been reading Jake Adam York’s new book, A Murmuration of Starlings. Jake’s one of my favorite poets writing today. He does this whole “documentary lyric” thing that I find really cool. My major professor at the University of Georgia is Ed Pavlic, and I’ve been reading his new book, Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway. It’s a fine book, too, an extended mediation on music, love, and life. That sounds abstract, but I think it’s true.

Who are your biggest influences (literary, mentors, other)?

I think I’m influenced in a wide variety of ways by a wide variety of things. I mentioned Scott Lafaro earlier; his bass playing is a major influence on my sense of rhythm. Buddy Guy’s guitar playing influences my work, too: he works often in these florid clusters of sound, something I’ve tried to mimic in writing.

Poetically, the poets I turn to time and again are Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot, Yusef Komunyakaa, and a few others. A poet whose work is very different from mine but still inspires me is Theodore Enslin. I love the way Enslin composes with words.

However, I gain as much inspiration from prose writers, too: Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, Larry Brown, Harry Crews, Judson Mitcham, Annie Dillard, a few others.

You have a chapbook forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Would you tell us a bit about the series and working with the press?

I submitted to Finishing Line’s Open Chapbook contest this past year. I’d been submitting my chapbook, A Visible Sign, to various publishers and contest for about two years.

The publisher has been wonderful. Leah and Kevin Maines keep me very informed about the book. They answer email (sometimes immediately). As the book has not been published just yet, I can’t say too much about the press. I can say that my friend John Guzlowski published his chapbook with Finishing Line and speaks very highly of the press. Finishing Line designs a beautiful book and maintains an online bookstore. Those are two of the main reasons I submitted to the press.

What’s your submission strategy?

I like to send to places that publish work I like: Copper Nickel, The Eleventh Muse, The Cortland Review, lots of others. If I like the work that the journal publishes, then I’ll usually submit, if I think what I have will fit with the journal’s aesthetic.

My main strategy? Read. Read. Read. And then, just to be certain, read a bit more. Know thy market, poet.

Which literary journals (besides Barn Owl Review, of course) do you enjoy most?

I love The Cortland Review. Their audio features draw me every time. I also really enjoy Copper Nickel. I read Image on a regular basis. I also like a newer journal called Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression. The Pebble Lake Review never disappoints. I also really like DIAGRAM, storySouth, and The Hobble Creek Review.

What advice would you give to writers who are just starting to send out their work?

Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read.

And then read more.

Seriously, read literary journals. Since so many are available online these days, writers don’t have any excuse not to read contemporary work (indeed, why wouldn’t you want to read?). Submit to journals that print poets you like. Submit to journals that print poems you like. I’d stay away from blindly submitting. When I first started writing seriously, about 8 or 10 years ago now, I used to submit blindly. I’d read the classifieds in Poets & Writers and carpet bomb ten or fifteen journals with packets of five poems, all simultaneous subs.

However, I got my first real hit in storySouth, a journal I submitted to because I loved. I’d been in a couple of smaller journals before storySouth. But after that, I started reading the contributor’s notes of writers whose work I enjoyed in the journals I read. Then, I began reading those journals, voraciously.

How do you support your poetry habit?

I am working on my doctorate at the University of Georgia. I’m in the Creative Writing Program, so my dissertation will be a full-length collection of poetry along with a long apologia on craft. I finished my coursework in Spring 2007, so now, ostensibly, I’m studying for comprehensive examinations. Like all doctoral students at UGA, I’m studying three major areas: Creative Writing (Poetry and Craft), American Modernism, and 20th Century British Literature. However, I am also a full-time Assistant Professor of English, so my time is very hard to manage. Couple these things with taking care of a ten-month old, and I’m sure you can understand how busy I am.

I teach at a small college in south Georgia, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC), and I applied for academic leave in order to do my coursework. The administration assented, and I applied for an FDIG (Faculty Development in Georgia) Grant, which I received. That money helped pay for my coursework. I’m very grateful to teach in the University System of Georgia. Additionally, I’m very happy to be at ABAC. My colleagues are very supportive of my writing. They usually go out of their way to come to any readings I’m giving.

So you’re a new dad. Has being a parent changed your writing?

Having Benjamin has been (warning, cliché coming) life-changing. Looking at him, I can’t even express how I feel to myself, much less in poetry. If having Ben has changed my writing, I’ve not noticed those changes yet. I suspect that the changes are small: tiny shifts in perception and values. I’ve not written much about him, yet. I write so much about my own father that I’m not even sure how to address my son in a poem: in much of the poetry I have written, I am the son.

I noticed sound (music, voice, rhythm, etc.) plays a large part of both “Transposition” and “Fishing the Bridge.” How does your work as a poet interact with your interest in music?

I’ve played guitar for as long as I can remember. I don’t remember not playing. Over the past few years, I’ve taught myself bass and mandolin. Music is very much a part of who I am. If I’m not thinking about a poem, I’m generally thinking about a piece of music.

My mentor at UGA, Ed Pavlic, urged me to push the music in my lines. He taught me about rhythm; he taught me how to compose with my words. I think of the rhythm of a poem the same way I think about the rhythm of a piece of music: it has to feel right. The words and the rhythm have to form an organic whole. One has to blend into the other like a vocal harmony.