Arts & Culture News

Man of the Hour: Poet Jesse Manley Published, Revives Hope in Disconsolate MFAers

We don't like to be gushing ass-kissers, but Jesse Manley's the real deal. His poems get us tingly and anxious and thinking about our exes which means that his writing hits us in weird, deeply-repressed emotional soft spots. He's a writer who understands economy, and his succinct - seemingly harmless - little lines brim with everything that is necessary and nothing that is not. You can check him and almost 200 other cutting-edge short-form poets out in Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Very Short Poems, available through Accents Publishing.

Manley grew up in Ft. Worth and studied writing at Baylor before pursuing his MFA at the University of New Orleans. Katrina hit during his first week at UNO and sent him back to Texas for a semester in the English department at SMU. We hear they tried to keep him, but Manley's all Bourbon and crawfish on the inside, and he couldn't wait to get back. We caught up with the gumbo-eater to congratulate him on the publication and to learn more about about this home-grown poetry hero. Check out a sample of his work and our interview after the jump.

The following poem appeared in Words and Images, 2009. We think it's pretty representative of Manley's bad ass style.

The Elements of Solid Relationships

Denise was carbon: brittle, bonded with anything, I felt dirty after touching her.

Veronica was lithium: reactive, mostly unstable, just looking for a reason to explode.

Sarah was zinc: useful, unremarkable, too stable to be interesting.

Betsy was gold: I could hammer her into a sheet so thin, her atoms lined up one by one.

Me, I'm uranium: toxic, radioactive, but slightly magnetic.

How are things in NOLA? [Katrina hit] my first week as a grad student. I went to two classes and one welcome party before evacuating. I moved back in December of 2005, and it was still quite post-apocalyptic. You couldn't really get food after noon because everything closed early, and the lines were hours long. There were no street signs or traffic signals, so you had to have a GPS to navigate and hope that no one was going to T-bone you as you proceeded through the intersection. National Guardsmen with automatic weapons were a common sighting.

The city today is thriving, however. I think a good barometer is the number or restaurants we have in the city. We have around 200 more restaurants open today than we did pre-Katrina. I think New Orleans is a current mix of things that are better than ever and things that will never recover with little neutral ground between the two.

What are the best parts about living there as a writer? The city has a romantic, gritty vibe that seems appropriate for a poet. I am hard-pressed to think of a better setting for a writer. It is quite literally a parade of humanity. One of my favorite spots in the city is a dive bar next door to a used bookstore that was formerly William Faulkner's apartment where he wrote A Soldier's Pay and Mosquitoes. On the other side of that same building, there's a third-story apartment where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire. It's equal parts inspiring and humbling, but you definitely feed on that energy. As for the city being romantic, I suppose it's a matter of perspective. It's most definitely sexy, but I'm not sure I'd call it romantic. Vulgar, maybe. It's dirty, lecherous, dangerous, and exciting. New Orleans slips out of bed in the middle of the night and doesn't call you back.

Does Texas ever show up in your work? I have no idea how to answer this. I hadn't put any thought into it before, and I had to go back through my work looking for references to "place." Oddly enough, there really aren't any, but that's a completely subconscious thing. I can see how my experiences in different settings influence particular poems, but it never comes out textually. I have no idea why this is so, but it's something I definitely want to explore in future writing.

I would like to tangentially note that this is why I love the relationship between the artist and the critic. I can't find attribution for the quote, but someone once told me, "A writer knows his own work like a pig knows bacon," and it's never felt more true than right now. I was completely oblivious to the fact that I was ignoring setting in my writing, and now it's all I can think about. It feels like when you start thinking about your tongue, and how it's always just there in your mouth and you normally don't notice it, but then when you start thinking about it, you're keenly aware of it and it's all you can think about and you don't know what you're supposed to do with it now that you're thinking about it. Kind of like that.

Feel any pressure to live up to your surname as a writer? How often do you get desirable/undesirable Hemingway references? It's funny you should mention that, because one of the things that I write about frequently is an internal struggle with misogyny and natural gravitation towards a Hemingway mystique, but knowing that it's completely unhealthy for myself and those around me. It's probably the most consistent theme in my writing, and I would love to say that it's not highly-autobiographical, but it sadly is. I had a pretty horrid upbringing, so it's a fight between being a product of my environment and knowing that I'm better than that. In literary theory you have six basic narrative conflicts, but the only one I ever seem to get around to tackling is "Man vs. Himself." I don't think it's an understatement to say that I've historically been my own worst enemy.

Getting published is a major accomplishment, and we're excited to hear you're in Bigger Than They Appear. Do you do a lot of "very short" poetry? I'm still in a period where most of the things I write end up being short. It wasn't by design, and it happened more during the editing phase than the composition phase. I would just keep trimming away fat until just a small piece of the larger poem remained. It's like starting with orange juice and ending up with concentrate. It was really inspired by two pieces of writing. The first was Ezra Pound's poem "In a Station of the Metro," and I remember being mesmerized by how much he could accomplish with the use of a colon. The second was Hemingway's six-word story (For sale: baby shoes, never worn). I think that the appeal of short poetry is similar to that of flash fiction. It's a challenge to see how much you can do with how little. Like with Hemingway's story, I often attempt to juxtapose the form with the content, taking something very heavy and serious and presenting it in as little time as possible, so the final product is a swift "jab" of emotion or drama delivered to the reader, which I hope makes it stand out more. I have, alas, been significantly less successful at this than Hemingway.

How many revisions does a typical poem go through? Your assumption is that it ever stops going through revisions. It's definitely too many to count. Every time I pick up a poem, I start tinkering with it. I have forced an arbitrary limit on myself that once a poem gets published, I have to stop editing it, but even that is difficult.

Seems like girls come up a lot; are you an epic lover or a lyrical lover (a la Milan Kundera's character, Tomas, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being)? If we were to compare my love-life to a literary reference, I'd say I'm more Greek tragedy than anything. No one is ending up happy and most likely there's at least one dead body. They say "write what you know," and I know relationship issues. References provided upon request.

Words of inspiration for would-be poets with a stack of rejection letters? If you're going to be a writer, you have to make yourself into an engine that is fueled by rejection. It's the only way you'll survive the experience. Some of my colleagues and I actually have pools to see who can come up with the most rejection letters in a set period of time.

It didn't fully "click" for me until I found myself on the other side of the editor's desk. It really elucidated that a rejection letter isn't a personal condemnation. There is such a huge volume of outstanding material submitted to even small journals and so little space in which to publish, the decisions are gut-wrenching and often lead to full-blown arguments amongst the editorial staff about which completely awesome story or poem to reject and which one to accept. Not only am I better able to handle the rejection, but I am so much more appreciative of the acceptances I get because I know the number of worthy poems that didn't make it into that particular publication.

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Brentney Hamilton