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News & Features » January 2015 » J. Michael Lennon Interviews Jason Carney

J. Michael Lennon Interviews Jason Carney

To celebrate the release of Starve the Vulture — the latest release in Akashic’s Kaylie Jones Books imprint — J. Michael Lennon spoke with Jason Carney about his inspirations, writing a memoir, and the differences between poetry and prose:

jml_jasoncarneyJ. Michael Lennon: Why did you decide to write a memoir?

Jason Carney: I started writing this book in 2007, shortly after the car wreck that opens the story. My friends, poets Roger Bonair-Agard and Marty McConnell, opened their apartment to me that summer to get clean. I spent every day at the Spring Lounge writing (sober). From those thirty days of writing came the beginnings of the present thread of Starve the Vulture. When I say the beginnings, I mean that was some strung out gibberish. I put it away after the summer of 2007 and did not revisit the project until I went to school.

In 2010 I started at the Wilkes University MFA Program for Creative Writing—shortly after my friend Gabrielle Boulaine passed away. In fact, Laura Moran, a fellow alumnus of the program, first told me of the school at Gabrielle’s life celebration. The manuscript that became the book Starve the Vulture was my master’s project at Wilkes University. I feel this is part of the gift my friend Gabrielle gave me.

JML: What aspect of your work as a slam poet aided you in writing a memoir? For example, did the rhythms of poetry help you?

JC: In slam you have to be impactful. You have limited space to make emotional and logical appeals to move a crowd. You learn quickly to survive at that game for a sustained period of time—the poetry cannot waste words. Narratives are natural vehicles for poems in these types of venues. Notice I refer to slam as a venue, a specialized poetry reading, and not a type or genre of poetry.

JML: Was your poetic work in any way a drawback?

JC: My lack of training and discipline was a drawback. The prose required my attention because I had to learn the rules of engagement. Poetry allowed me to hide my lack of grammar skills, or the fluidity that comes from translating an oral sentence into a written sentence.

Poetry offers what prose does not: the crowd. My ability to go to a poetry reading and read a new poem often allowed me to use the crowd as a peer reviewer. Its response or lack of response could help me feel what lacked, what worked, or what did not work within a given piece. I also got a feel for the energy of the poem, which helped me to make final revisions. I lost this in the prose process.

JML: What was more difficult in writing this memoir? Remembering things you might like to forget, or finding the language to write about them?

JC: Finding the language was definitely harder, especially when writing about early stages of life and conversations and events of long ago. Dialogue that is accurate is often difficult. I feel that listening to the emotions of the memories is the best way to approach this aspect of writing in this genre. If the people we are writing about are very familiar to us, then their special annunciations and vocal qualities can help guide us to accurate conversations.

I also feel that, when writing past events, it often works best to do so in the present tense. In the chapter “Guns and Mail Slots” I am four, almost five, years old. This is a much more effective scene viewed from the perspective of my four-year-old self than it would be if it were the reflection of a forty-year-old man. This allows for a variety of emotions to be brought to life for the reader in more engaging ways. It gives space for the reader to bring out the emotional responses of the child within them, along with the adult that guards their inner child. This choice also seems more authentic to me.

JML: Do parts of your earlier life sometimes seem like a dream?

JC: Yes. A lot of memories are flashes of moments. Elusive. Hard to handle in my youth, these things became manageable but then faded with therapy and writing. Smells, tastes, and sensations could take me back to past events. Some good. I love the feeling of déjà vu. Sometimes the things I recalled were not pleasant experiences, and when I refused to listen to them or acknowledge them, they manifested themselves in unhealthy ways in my life. The chapter “Tremors” is an example of the way the past can seep its way into the conscious realm through muscle memories. These recollections are physical, sensory, visceral, and scary as hell.

As to the why—it is important to hold on to your memories, to excavate your insides in a focused, artistic endeavor. I look at my grandmother. Her situation is a testament to the power of our experience making us who we are in this world. Like her mother before her, she struggles with Alzheimer’s. She is losing her identity—the collective knowledge of her experiences. I believe her conscious mind loses these events, but her inner core, the muscle memory of the sub-conscious, still holds on to flashes. It is in these sparks that we can find a connection to her, a way to connect her consciousness to a sensory moment from her past. To bring her back to life again, if only for a short while.

JML: Patricia Hempel has defined memoir as “the intersection between narration and reflection, or storytelling and essay writing.” Starve the Vulture, to my mind, admirably balances these two demands. Were you aware of the need to balance them as you were writing, or did it just happen naturally?

JC: Thank you. I was not aware of her definition. I love storytelling, both written and oral. Our lives are narrative, strung-together moments that give us identity. So the narration is inherent to this form.

As far as reflection, this is a slippery slope. I can write about my needs, desires, fears, hoped outcomes of any situation in my past; I can easily write my inner workings. Yet I do not know what others are taking out of these passing moments. What are their fears, desires, needs, wants? What are they taking from each moment? I cannot answer this.

Take the opening of the book—Fingernails and I are both in the same moment. As we both stare at the same car wreck, we are taking in different information, looking at different aspects of the event. We arrived at this moment for different reasons. Since I can only write my reasons, I think memoir at best is only a warped reflection of events.

JML: If there was a posse of angels helping you out of your sordid ways, your great-grandparents were its leaders. What were their gifts to you?

JC: You nailed it on the head. When I pray, they are the angels that G-d sends to answer those prayers. Their gifts to me are endless. I could fill this page spouting about the grandeur of my great-grandparents’ gifts. But those words would be hollow and fruitless.

Yet I will prosper and truly receive their blessings if their holiness is kept faithfully in my heart. I truly believe this to be the way of things. Humility comes when you can recognize the sacred and keep it as such. The writer, musician, sculptor, painter, dancer—artists make their living detailing the signs of their lives or the lives of their characters, which is often the sign of the author’s life fictionalized. However, not all these are for the artist’s palette; some are for their soul. So in Starve the Vulture, I gave you some of these, but not all.

JML: Did you ever find out what happened to the young man you held in your arms after the auto accident that opens the story? Do you still think of him?

JC: No, I did not. I was so out of my mind. I spent that night trying to find out who he was and where they had taken him, but anyone I spoke with either blew me off or did not know. It really did shake me up.

I thought about him a lot when I first got clean. However, when I started to write this book and did some research on some of the people from my past I found that a couple had died from drunk driving accidents that hit really close to home. One of them was a father of three kids. His loss is really close to home.

JML: Tossing racism and homophobia overboard is a heavy lift. What forces, events, and/or people were most responsible for you doing it?

JC: Poetry and poetry readings became my therapy. People like Jason Edwards and Thom Kirk, Michael Loris, Gno, Emotion Brown, Bryonn Bain, Kevin Coval, Roger Bonair-Agard, Daled Jefferies, Tara Hardy, Daphne Gottlieb, Patricia Smith, and Danny Solis were and are very influential in my life. I have been fortunate to engage in relationships that often challenge the way I was raised. These interactions help me to push the boundaries of self-definition and societal understandings.

JML: How have your ideas about language changed as a result of writing this book?

JC: My ideas have expanded. I see the importance of discipline and craft. In prose you cannot hide your deficiencies. What I mean by this is that poetry allowed me to hide my lack of understanding, or discipline—using only lower case words, no punctuation, sentences strung together by sound and not by function within poems, which contained no structure. I am falling in love with sentences. Short, impactful sentences. Also, I am discovering how fragments can be used in those spaces. I never thought of style or syntax, just content, just what it sounded like and not what it looked like on a page.

JML: Someone said that “experiences aren’t given to us to be got over, otherwise they wouldn’t be experiences.” Would you say you have gotten over your experiences as a drug addict, etc., or will they always be with you in some fashion?

JC: Everywhere you go there you are. I think Dr. Seuss wrote that statement, I learned it at an AA meeting. This statement rings true. I cannot hide from myself. In any situation, all my fears, strengths, convictions, desires, needs, hopes, dreams, weaknesses, and limitations are present and in full effect. Where I am on the inside influences how I translate the experiences happening outside of myself. Experience is what we learn from our internal conflicts in the midst of external happenings.

JML: Have you read Baudelaire’s Intimate Journals yet? What did you think?

JC: You kidding? I am still trying to get through Moby-Dick. Melville is brutal and beautiful.

JML: Who are your three favorite writers?

JC: Octavio Paz, Junot Diaz, and Patricia Smith are the three writers that come to mind first. I am leaving out Whitman, Hughes, Strand, Bonair-Agard, Jeffery McDaniel, Patrick Rosal, Kevin Coval, Daphne Gottlieb, and Tara Hardy.

JML: Do you have any idea what your next book will be?

JC: I have fifteen ideas. The next project will be prose. I am tired of writing about my life, so the next book will be fiction about someone else. Maybe a circus troupe of meth addicts.


JASON CARNEY, a poet, writer, and educator from Dallas, is a four-time National Poetry Slam finalist and was honored as a Legend of the Slam in 2007. He appeared on three seasons of the HBO television series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. Carney has performed and lectured at many colleges and universities as well as high schools and juvenile detention centers from California to Maine. Starve the Vulture is his memoir.

J. MICHAEL LENNON teaches in the Wilkes University MFA Program. His 2013 biography, Norman Mailer: A Double Life (Simon & Schuster), was selected as an “Editors’ Choice” by the New York Times. His edition of Mailer’s selected letters was published in December 2014 (Random House). He is currently at work on a new biography.

Posted: Jan 7, 2015

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