John Murillo describes Jeanann Verlee as “the real deal,” and accurately so. Her poetry is raw, evocative, unrelenting, and her performances are incredible. On that note, mark your calendars people – cancel your meetings, call off your dinners – this summer, “the real deal” is coming to Hunter. On July 19th at Karen’s Country Kitchen, Verlee will be hosting a workshop (5:30PM-6:30PM), followed by a performance and open mic (starting at 7PM); the very first event in the Poetry at 1600 Feet series.
I started writing poems as a little girl. I committed to the genre in high school creative writing classes and by college was submitting to journals, gained a few early publication credits, and started focusing more on the study. Around that same time, I was invited to participate in the then-budding game of poetry slam, but I rejected the idea of competing with my art. It was fully a decade before I even attended a poetry slam to watch—only after I moved to New York City. Eventually, I started reading in open mics and, even later, under the persistent encouragement of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, I signed up for my first slam. After that, I spent many years competing in slams throughout NYC and nationally. It is a fun game and I gained a lot from my participation. The game kept me writing, challenged my perspective, encouraged me to take risks, and helped hone my performance skills. For me (as one who does not perform improvisationally—a skill I hugely admire), the writing of the poem comes first. I focus there long before I start the work of practicing performance. In my purview, “spoken word” encompasses a huge history rooted in aboriginal storytelling. From the griots of West Africa to Native American orators and beyond, the history of spoken word is immense and includes myriad genres. For me, for now, I write poems and sometimes perform them live. And I’m immeasurably lucky to be able to do so.
Do you have a favorite poem? What about a favorite song?
Favorite poem…yikes. Narrowing to a single poem seems impossible—there are so many! Let me offer a sampling (tomorrow may look different): “Shooter” by Jan Beatty, “Brown Boy Dichotomy” by Ian Khadan, “Gravity” by Angel Nafis, “Flowers for Etheridge” by John Murillo, “Camouflage” by Shira Erlichman, “Black Girl Interrupt-ed (a remix)” by Lynne Procope, and “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. (This is a squirrely mix of new and established writers, friends and unknowns, print and audio poems—but my love for each is honest.)
Favorite song is somehow much easier: “When I Was a Fool” by Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde’s “Group Therapy” album.
Ever since I started working toward a career in law enforcement I was afraid that I was giving up my creative side, but talking to artists like you has made me realize that you can always do what you love. How did you find the balance between pursuing your passions and doing what you have to in order to get by?
I grew up in a working class family. At times we were markedly poor, other times—we ‘got by.’ Never stable, though. Money, bills, debt, thrift, reuse, do-it-yourself, hand-me-downs—these have been part of my daily language my entire life. Financial worry has so informed my existence that it is part of my psyche, and as such, it is very very difficult for me to imagine (much less engage in) life without steady, full-time employment. I have a palpable fear of joblessness, of finding myself unable to pay rent or sustain groceries. I am continually rattled by looming debt, which I periodically manage to pay down only to invariably end up accruing more due to one crisis or another. All that is to say…I never thought I’d be able to BE a writer until after retirement.
I simply accepted that regular employment would prevent the pursuit of writing. So when—at 35—after years of engaging in writing communities throughout NYC in my spare time, I submitted to a book publication contest, and won (!?). I was gobsmacked. It blew every image I had of myself and how my years would be realized. I, too, believed my creative side would be merely “hobby” until retirement—or a miracle. But I was wrong. I realize now that all these years of journaling and working and study and reading and engaging IS “being a writer.” I know scarcely any writers (outside of trust-funded folks) who are not paying bills through other means. From baristas to book store clerks to teachers to IT administrators to car mechanics to bartenders…we work (sometimes unfulfilling) jobs to pay bills, and we squeeze every last drop of living out of our off hours to make art. I can’t say I found the balance, but that the balance found me.
Do you have any advice for young poets?
Read. Read more. Write. Take risks. Be willing to make mistakes. Revise. Hone. Work.
I know that you’re both writer and editor; do you have anything to say to other writers from an editor’s point of view?
Befriend punctuation. Befriend grammar. Learn their proper function so that when you break the rules, you are doing so intentionally. Editors can tell the difference. So can readers. When you bend the rules by choice, you appear much fancier. In fact, it is discovering such choices in other people’s work that can actually make me squeal, or dance, or yelp, “Yes!” But only when I recognize that the writer knows exactly what they are doing.
Can you recommend a few literary magazines?
Devil’s Lake, Gulf Coast, The Offing, Paper Darts, Adroit, PANK, Sugar House Review, BOAAT, Rattle, Winter Tangerine Review, Union Station Magazine, Muzzle Magazine, The Collagist, Birdfeast, Nailed Magazine, Thrush Poetry Journal, Vinyl Poetry…so many more.
(And yes, I’ve worked on two of these journals—transparency of bias!)
What sparked your love of polka dots?
Ha. I guess…I’m not entirely certain. I’ve always been drawn to weird, to an aesthetic of magical whimsy—particularly with regard to decoration and fashion. Over the years, I’ve paired incongruent patterns for a sense of intentional oddity (daisy print top with stars & stripes shorts, plaids alongside polka dots, combat boots with thrift store evening gowns). I also keep bizarre pieces of art in my home. I used to have a quiet adoration for “rockabilly” though never really committed fully to the style myself. (I still can’t help but coo over the glam of a pin up girl in polka dots.) This may be where I first fell for them. They’re playful, coy, even silly. They celebrate something I can’t quite articulate—a patterned chaos, perhaps. As someone who lives with bipolar, one whose life experience and poetic body details myriad darknesses and griefs, I have long found solace and celebration in being eclectic and whimsical in fashion—in whatever ways I can afford. Trust I would dress and decorate much more “weird” if finances weren’t part of the equation.
Jeanann Verlee is one of three featured poets in the Poetry at 1600 Feet series. Reserve a spot in her workshop and stick around for her performance on July 19th! Call us or email email@example.com for more info. CMF Ticket line: 518-263-2063 (photo credits: Jonathan Saunders, Alana Melanson)