Interview with Faculty Jay Ponteri about Someone Told Me
October 20, 2021
Interview with Jay Ponteri
by Justin Duyao
Smack in the middle of Portland’s heat wave, last summer, I came across Wedlocked: A Memoir (Hawthorne Books, 2013), while thumbing through my department’s private library at PNCA. Elated at seeing Jay’s name on the cover, I dove head first into the first page, on which praise for Wedlocked stomps forth in droves. Critics call it “daring,” “brave,” “raw,” “undaunting,” (Jenny Boully), “beautiful, sticky, bloody, sweaty, feverish” (Matthew Dickman). So of course, I had to read it. Lucky for me, the 115+ degree heat all but guaranteed I’d have the time to; but before I could get past the first page, Jay found me and asked to make a few notes in the book.
To do so, he took the book and left the room, pink pen in hand.
In retrospect, I understand his impulse toward privacy. Wedlocked is the most poignantly honest, poetically self-scrutinizing book I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down. And for a long time after finishing it, those same words of praise echoed in my head: daring, important, complicated, beautiful.
In anticipation of his latest publication, Someone Told Me (Widow + Orphan House, 2021)—officially available to the public on October 12, 2021—Jay and I took to a Google Doc, from different locations but at the same time, to talk about his writing process. After typing questions for him, I sat and watched his blinking red cursor jump back and forth, from paragraph to paragraph, as he wrote and rewrote the answers you’ll find below. Always as rigorous as he is generous. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.
Justin Duyao: I’ve watched you hesitate to talk about this book—to publicize it, to schedule readings, even to market this interview. You’ve written difficult books before, of course. Wedlocked being one of them. But you’ve also said you were proud of this book. I’m wondering if you can tell me more about that dynamic? Maybe even speak to what makes this one uniquely hard to talk about?
Jay Ponteri: I was proud of Wedlocked, and am still proud of it, because I had made, to the best of my ability, a revelatory literary work. I’d taken it as far as I could. I felt proud that I had made a book I couldn’t find elsewhere and that the book experimented with language, form, and genre. The book’s content disappointed many people with whom I was close (still am), family and friends, so it gave me a unique opportunity to show up to their disappointment, to receive it with humility, to feel it with them, and to hold myself accountable for that. Those were not easy relational experiences, but they were meaningful, and I’ve grown from them.
What surprised me was the harsh and mean-spirited feedback and criticism from strangers, either in formal and informal reviews or direct feedback at readings, at school, etc. That book described closely my interiority amid a period of resistance to my young marriage and monogamy (and heteronormativity). The intensity of this interior writing positioned readers to grapple with their own feelings (or denial of those feelings) about marriage, monogamy, etc. Some readers were ready to do that, wanted to do that, while others weren’t and perhaps felt upset to be placed in that uncomfortable position. I certainly don’t foster any illusions that I was (am) making work for a large audience, but more than one stranger told me that after reading my book, they felt like they had to “shower off,” that the writing made them feel “dirty”; another man told me, in a hallway outside a classroom, he and his wife, together I guess, felt like “slapping me in the face.” Many online comments recommended my former wife leave me immediately and that I seek therapy (my response being, of course I’m already in therapy!). One local writer characterized my marriage as “shitty” and claimed I didn’t know what sacrifice was. I would never characterize my marriage, which is now in the past, as “shitty.” The administrators at the school for which I worked at the time—Marylhurst University—showed a vaguely communicated (read: radio silence) hesitance to acknowledge the book even existed, let alone help to promote our English department offerings through the book, till it was awarded the Oregon Book Award a year later. Add to this, creative nonfiction writers tend to get criticized for doing exactly what we do—working in autobiography. We are labeled as “selfish” and “navel-gazers” (I see my students having internalized this before they have even written page one), against which I push back with vigor. Some years back, I published an essay in Oregon Humanities about this, reclaiming the phrase “navel-gazing.”
Even though Someone Told Me is totally different, describing not instances of resistance but ones of connectivity and love, I feel the residue from my first experience. I don’t want anybody to think I’m against criticism. I invite this. But it’s the harsh, mean speech that has made me feel hesitant to publish or talk about what I publish. And, honestly, to equivocate with myself, these kinds of interactions are one part among many of being an artist. We take risks in what we make and then witness how the work impacts the larger conversation of which we want to be a part, so there’s this other voice within me saying, Get over yourself, Jay. Actually, I always feel hesitant to talk about what I make. I love improvised conversations between writers/artists, which we do at PNCA’s LRCW residencies, but don’t enjoy conventional interviews with this hierarchy of question-asker and answerer, often because this tone of certainty/determinacy slips into the speech. Somebody said—I can’t recall who—that when it comes to talking about the work, the author’s the last person to whom you should talk. And, to punctuate all of this, I’d rather be reading the writing of others than thinking about my own writing or writing myself. Brandon Shimoda and I talk about this during residencies, that we are first and foremost readers who write, as opposed to writers who read.
JD: I love what you wrote at the close of your essay, “In Defense of Navel Gazing,” that “The self is what we all have in common. To reach the self one must leap into the divine, which is to say, one must simultaneously be in touch with oneself and with the mysterious other,” such that “to contemplate the self is also to contemplate others.” You frame your interiority—your exhaustive self exploration—there, as rigorously meditative and really quite brave.
My sense is that most of your critics, Marylhurst among them, misunderstood the work you set out to do in Wedlocked. You called it revelatory, experimental, uniquely literary, while most of them saw it as one step too far into the self—a place they likely weren’t ready to go.
In your essay, you said "By retreating inside himself, the artist reaches far outside himself” (emphases mine). How did you discover this? What is it that fascinates you about this kind of writing? Or better—why is it that you happen to write?
JP: Someone Told Me might be me walking like five steps too far into the self, or at least that’s how I began the book, with the intention of taking self-portraiture far. And eventually, after many years (nine years if you count the final edits) of making and remaking this book, by going very deep into my experiences, by discovering the many selves within me—silly self, shaming self, loving self, spiritual self, caring self, nervous self, self-reflexive self, self-conscious self, self-loathing self, self-loving self, I could go on—the writing has found a way to turn back out towards the readers, at least I hope that’s the case, and if not, taking the risk, risking an art failure, is worth it to me. The poet William Butler Yeats refers to this as “mirror turned lamp.” No matter what, if the writing reveals the particulars of contradictory ways of being, that admixture of feelings and conditions that cannot be parsed, then it turns outwards, whether I am writing about Anne Frank’s or Robert Walser’s experiences or whether I’m writing about my experiences as a father, which happens a lot in my new book.
To answer your question more directly, I discovered the deep interior by reading other writers and loving so much to feel the textures of their thinking on the page, loving the perforated edges of dream, thought, inquiry, and memory. Reading/viewing art allows us the experience of seeing into the consciousnesses of others, an experience we don’t otherwise have as we walk about our days, which can give way to feelings of loneliness and isolation. And of all the art-making materials, I believe language to be the most direct material, in terms of swiftly delivering to readers these instances of consciousness and the feelings attending them. My interest in the deep interior is linked to my particular ways of being in the world, shaped by spending two months in an incubator before I felt my mother’s touch, shaped by being the youngest of three boys who spent lots of time witnessing his olders brothers play around him, shaped by constructions of gender, race, economic class, heteronormativity, all of it. In a sense, I’m trying to use writing to pop myself out into the world. This is one way to look at my new book.
JD: That’s fascinating, the idea of your writing allowing you to exteriorize the parts of yourself—your many selves—you uncover at the same time that you excavate them.
That reminds me of a passage from Wedlocked, where you said “Even though I write a combination of memoir and essay, the truth is I fabricate brief instances, exaggerate dramatic encounters, and amplify (thus distort) discussions with my various selves, digging for what I do not know.” It’s exciting to see you on the other side of that digging, though I doubt that means you’re done with it.
You mentioned Someone Told Me took nine years to make (and remake). I’m curious if your writing this book took longer than other works of yours, essay or memoir. Of course, every work needs re-working, at some point. But what was it about this particular book that demanded you spend so much time with it?
JP: I have no idea. The book is a self-portrait that is also very diaristic, and it kept changing over time, like I wanted to catch myself up to the page, like I was letting go of old parts of myself, letting them live as ghosts. Transitoriness. Also, the book itself, its form and structure, which I might define as vertically, spirally associative, encouraged me to increase my presence of being within each word, phrase, clause, and sentence. I aimed to not just receive whatever language happened to be transmitting me in any given moment of composition, but to nest inside of the language, feel it out, feel through it. I also ended up writing longer pieces about masculinity, white-ness/gentrification, and the male gaze. It took me a long time to think through these ideas. I’m not trained as a literary critic, so my reachings around these topics were motored more by dreamy observation/reflection than by any kind of rigorous research. I don’t think those particular sections offer any groundbreaking thinking; they show me thinking through them, with them, with others.
Once we got to 2018, pre-pandemic still, I began to revel in the slowness of the process, how revising this book, making additions and subtractions based on whom I was at any given moment, might drop me into deep mystery about myself and about the world. The unknowing of writing, of making art. I hunger for that unknowing. The book has two endings, one is an 80-plus page sentence that I wrote over the course of a six-hour writing session. Inspired by the Flaming Lips 24-hour recording, I’d attempted to write for 24 straight hours and ended up lasting six. This long sentence showed me to a more spiritual corridor, and then working and re-working that sentence, walking and re-walking through that spiritual hallway, feeling all of its openings and seams, suddenly threw open the door to the book’s second ending, a coda, a letter to my son, Oscar, now at the brink of adulthood, a young man, an amazing young person. I didn’t write this letter till last year during the pandemic, when I began to feel anticipatory grief for his eventual leave-taking from his mom’s house/my apartment, the year after next. Sometimes the ending takes some time to reveal itself, I guess. And sometimes the ending is announcing the next beginning.
— Jay Ponteri directed the creative writing program at Marylhurst University from 2008-2018 and is now the program head of PNCA’s Low-Residency Creative Writing program. His book of creative nonfiction Someone Told Me is being published by Widow+Orphan House, Fall 2021. He’s also the author of Darkmouth Inside Me (Future Tense Books, 2014) and Wedlocked (Hawthorne Books, 2013), which received an Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Two of Ponteri’s essays, “Listen to this” and “On Navel Gazing” have earned “Notable Mentions” in Best American Essay Anthologies. His work has also appeared in many literary journals: Gaze, Ghost Proposal, Eye-Rhyme, Seattle Review, Forklift, Ohio, Knee-Jerk, Cimarron Review, Tin House, and Clackamas Literary Review. While teaching at Marylhurst, Ponteri was twice awarded the Excellence in Teaching & Service Award. In 2007, Ponteri founded Show:Tell, The Workshop for Teen Artist and Writers, now part of summer programming at Portland's Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC.org) on whose Resource Council he serves. He teaches memoir classes at Literary Arts and lives with his son, Oscar, and Oscar's pug, MO.
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