An interview with Jay Nebel, author of Neighbors

"The act of writing poetry is a weird and beautiful process," states Jay Nebel, and his debut full-length poetry collection, Neighbors, proves this fact again and again. From one knockout to the next, Neighbors is a collection that defies conventions and changes the reader's understanding of what poetry can be, and where it can go. Nebel was kind enough to answer some questions about the book, and about his writing process, for Barn Owl Review.

Nebel's first book, Neighbors, won the Saturnalia Poetry Prize in 2014 selected by Gerald Stern. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Narrative, Ploughshares, and Tin House, and have been featured on Verse Daily. He is the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award. He lives in Portland Oregon with his wife and two children and drives a juice truck for a living.

Emile M. Cioran wrote: "Anyone can escape into sleep, we are all geniuses when we dream, the butcher's the poet's equal there." Do you ever feel like writing a book of poetry is akin to dreaming with your eyes open? Did you come across any personal realizations during the writing process of Neighbors?

I love that quote.  I also take issue with it a bit.  For me, the butcher is the poet’s equal out here.  What in the hell could be more poetic than watching someone cut up a giant slab of meat?  Blood and guts on your gloves and smock.  Waist deep in it.  Covered and messy in it.  That’s what art is about, right?  Your hands busy on a table of ribs and shoulders and thighs.  The act of writing poetry is a weird and beautiful process.  It’s a way of connecting to the world because you are trying to write about something: some experience, some feeling, some person, etc.  But it’s also a form of disconnection.  When I’m writing I can’t cook a hamburger for the kids or drive my work truck or take the trash out.  I’ve always been a daydreamer.  Sometimes it drives my wife crazy.  She says to me, “Where do you go?” I usually don’t have an answer.  I’m there and then I’m gone.  I think the one big realization I came to in writing Neighbors is that pride (when it comes to the creative process and poetry-any art really) is fleeting.  I’ve always found that when I write something that I’m proud of I think that the next poem is going to go off just as well.  It almost never works that way.  And maybe that’s why I continue to do it.  Because I never know when it’s going to work out and that unknown is thrilling. 

Something that struck us about Neighbors was the delightful onslaught of imagery in your poems. How do you gather this sort of material, and then harness it in poetry? In terms of process, do you start small and build poems up with additional imagery, or is it a method of culling and trimming down a substantial first draft?

First of all, thank you.  I consider that a great compliment!  I believe that everything is good material for poetry.  If it fits within the poem and there’s a reason for it then it has every right to be there.  It used to drive one of my poetry professors crazy when we used vague words like “it” in poems.  I guess I’m referring to the subjects or material here.  Sometimes I start poems by seeing things while working.  Other times I write about events I read about or books of photographs or experiences someone else had.  Why limit yourself?  Every poem is different.  I frequently overwrite and then trim poems way down.  I do it the other way too where I begin with a skeleton and then flesh it out.  Sometimes I come up with a first line and I carry that first line around for weeks at a time until I know what else I want to say. 

Our class is an MFA Craft & Theory of Poetry that is focused on first books. What advice do you have for aspiring first book authors? What did you learn from the process of publishing your first book?

I had a dream shortly after I started sending my manuscript out in 2010.  In the dream I was sitting with one of my best friends, a poet who had published his first book to wide acclaim.  I said to him in the dream, “I figure I’ll just send this thing out and someone will hopefully take it in the next six months or so.”  In the dream my friend just laughed.  In real life he’d never laugh at me saying something like that but the dream actually foretold my experience.  Neighbors was a semifinalist or a finalist in various contests 12 times.  Various forms of the book were also viewed by a number of different editors at various presses and each time it was rejected for different reasons.  It needs more of this or it needs less of that were common responses.  I spent a lot of money sending out to contests.  A lot of extra money I don’t really have.  But I sacrificed because I didn’t want to give up.  I was stupidly stubborn.  I think when it was finally picked by Gerald Stern for Saturnalia I’d sent it out to 25 or 30 contests that year.  You do the math.  That’s a shit ton of money and a shit ton of time.  My good friend, the poet Joseph Millar, told me to just keep writing poems and replacing the older poems I was less proud of with newer better ones.  And that’s what I did.  I just kept fucking with the thing until it got better.  I’ve heard people say that you shouldn’t take rejection personally.  That’s a complete crock of shit.  My advice?  Take that rejection so personally you go back into that book of poems you’re working on and make it better.  Make every poem so goddamn good no one can say no to you. 

As rust belt writers, we appreciate the importance of labor, so when we read in the bio that you are a juice truck driver, our group sent a collective fist bump your way. How does your work intersect with or influence your poetry? What advice do you have for those of us trying to balance work and writing?

My work is my biggest sense of pride.  It’s also my biggest frustration.  I’m proud that I published a book of poems and that I work outside of academia.  It’s also really goddamn hard to find the time.  I get up every day before 4am and I work outside regardless of what the weather is like: rain, sleet, snow, ice, heat, you name it.  Some weeks my back hurts or my shoulders hurt or my hands hurt or my knees hurt.  You get the point.  Then I come home and take care of two little kids with my wife.  The day I found out Saturnalia was going to publish my book I got a call from Gerald Stern.  We talked on the phone for a half hour or so and during that conversation he asked me how I find the time.  He asked how I stay connected.  I told him that I get together with Matthew and Carl and have breakfast sometimes on Sundays and that we talk about poems.  Or I get together with Elyse and we drink root beers and look at each other’s work.  And we do it because it’s fun.  We figure out a way.  If you really want to do something you’ll find a way to do it.  If I can do it you sure as hell can too.  I’d also add that I think we all get caught up in comparing ourselves to other writers or other people in general, especially in regard to success.  If you write a poem or a story or you take a photo or you pursue any sort of art in your own free time then you’re a success story because you’ve made time for something that you weren’t obligated to make time for. 

What’s on the horizon for you, as a writer? Are you working on a second book of poems? If so, does it include similar themes or styles from Neighbors, or is it radically different?

I’m currently taking a break from writing.  I’m just not forcing it right now honestly.  I went through a pretty major depression shortly after Neighbors came out.  I’ve heard this is common for people who publish a first book though few people seem to openly talk about it.  Let’s change that right here.  Depression is real and it sucks.  I do have some poems that could be the beginnings of a new book but I’m taking it slow in terms of thinking of them as anything more than just individual pieces.  The creative thing I’m most passionate about right now is photography.  Maybe I’ll try and publish a book of photographs.  Maybe my next book will be a combination of photos and poems.  All I know is that the process of putting together some sort of final work is going to be slower this time.  I’m in no rush.  

Interview with Jay Nebel conducted by the Fall 2015 NEOMFA Craft & Theory of Poetry: First Books class taught by Mary Biddinger: Juliana Amir, Nicholas Beck, Bronte Billings, Holly Brown, Jack Chastain, Dan Dorman, Kathleen Graca, Dustin Horner, Emily Levin, Rebecca Ligon, Karly Milvet, Melanie Murphy, Mary O'Connor, John Roth, Emily Troia, and Courtney Turner.

Read more about Jay Nebel at his website. Get your copy of Neighbors here.