A winner of the River Styx International Poetry Contest, runner-up for the Iowa Review Fiction Prize and Finalist in The Starcherone Prize, the DIAGRAM Innovative Fiction Prize, and the Paul Bowles Fiction Award, Jesse Waters is a recipient of a NC Artist’s Grant to attend the Vermont Studio Center and is currently Director of the Bowers Writers House at Elizabethtown College. Jesse’s fiction, poetry, and non-fiction work has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes and has appeared nationally and internationally in such journals as The Adirondack Review, Coal Hill Review, The Cortland Review, Cimarron Review, Iowa Review, River Styx, Slide, Story Quarterly, Southeast Review, Sycamore Review, and others. His first collection of poems, HUMAN RESOURCES, was published by Inkbrush Press in 2011; his first collection of short fiction SO LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT will be released by Paycock Press in February 2018.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the collection. I find first story collections often have an interesting history. Can you tell us about So Let Me Get This Straight and how you ended up with Paycock?
Jesse Waters: It’s actually a pretty crazy story… This book has moved around between three or four different presses. The book has been under contract twice – I stepped away from one contract because of disagreements with the senior editor, and the second contract was struck null and void after the director of the Press died, and the press filed for Chapter 11. I finally decided upon Paycock because of Richard Peabody‘s reputation, and the overall present meant of the press. They put out beautiful books, they support their authors… What more could you ask for?
CS: Let’s start with tone and mood. There’s a lot of humor here—sometimes uncomfortable humor with undercurrents of absurdity and surrealism. Can you tell us about your influences, the artists of all kinds who’ve shaped your aesthetic? And can you discuss humor? I admire humorous stories—but I think many writers struggle to get them right.
JW: There have been a lot of artists who have influenced me in all sorts of different media, from Ionesco and Beckett to Barthelme to Chef Wylie Dufresne to John Cage to Paul and Jane Bowles… The artists Lucio Pozzi, and Marina Abramovic, Paganini – it’s a pretty crazy and varied list. I tend to admire artists that are fairly radical, and push the boundaries of the media they work in. As for humor, well… Who doesn’t like to laugh, or see things in a humorous light? In terms of creating humor, I try to follow the advice of Peter Mehlman, coexecutive producer for “Seinfeld”: Go with what you think is funny, and have faith. I think making people laugh may be one of the most difficult – but rewarding – emotions to provoke. When you make someone laugh, there’s almost an inherent trust/bond that is formed. And humor tends to lower people’s defenses… and that’s when you can bring in emotions such as shock, tantalization, amazement, and caution.
CS: The opening story, “A Man Who Identifies a Body,” first appeared in The Iowa Review. The following stories all have titles that are variants of the first—they kind of grow on each other as the book progresses (“The Man Who Identifies Two Bodies,” “The Man Who Identifies His Own Body” . . .). When these other stories were first published they had different titles—which leads me to ask when did this structure for the whole book to revolve around this concept come to you? Did you have to rearrange any of the material to fit this new conceit? In the end, how do you think it adds to the experience of viewing the book as a whole?
JW: I’ve played around with all sorts of different ways of constructing this book… After I read Michael Martone’s MICHAEL MARTONE BY MICHAEL MARTONE and saw his homogenous table of contents, I started to wonder if I could create a similar schematic. I didn’t have to do much rearranging, I think the titles function both as individual doors to the stories as well as a kind of spine for the book. If nothing else, I’m hoping that when a reader opens the book and turns to the table of contents, and sees all those titles, they say to themselves, “This should be a fun ride.“ I do believe that in all of the stories there’s a sense of someone, something, anything, trying to get something straight, figure something out. Hence, the title for the book.
CS: A number of the pieces have a kind of meta, autobiographical bent where you insert yourself (or your fictional self) into the narrative. I enjoyed that angle—and I’m always interested in how something like that came about—was it there from the inception of the piece? Or did you write it in a more traditional way and realize later how everything would fit together? What do you think this kind of structure/stance adds?
JW: Like many of the entities and structures in the stories, I, too, am trying to figure something out or get something straight. I think that’s what all artists in some way are doing: trying to make sense of their intrinsic and extrinsic experiences in the world. That sort of facet has been present in a lot of my work, and was everpresent in these stories… but when I started putting the stories together I recognized that there seem to be a kind of personal glue holding the book together. As for what kind of structure or stance this might add to the experience, I’m not sure. I would imagine some readers might enjoy those sort of interjections, some might find it annoying. Another similar feature which is also in the book is the appearance of certain entities and items in one story showing up in another. That’s just me having fun.
CS: You teach writing and run the Writers House at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, PA. Take a moment to plug away.
JW: … And plug I will! The Bowers Writers House at Elizabethtown College is an interdisciplinary venue for presentation, performance, expression, and study. I designed this writers house, and I am very proud of the fact that in the almost 8 years we’ve been in existence, we have brought over 250 scholars to the Elizabethtown College campus for over 300 events. We bring in all sorts of folks, actors, directors, genetic scientist, computer engineers, sociologists, historians… It’s a fun place, all of our events are free… and at our evening readings/presentations, we always have either a free book raffle or a chocolate fondue reception, and sometimes both. So come on out!
JW: It most definitely has an impact, an almost entirely positive one. As I tell my students, “I’m just another person at the table.” I learn so much from what I see my students doing, sometimes their “moves” are so fresh and original, spontaneous and improvised, that it’s a complete and totally energizing experience. And like any good artist, I steal from my students all the time. And I hope they steal from me… we should all be stealing from one another in the way that artists create something authentic and original from what they observe and experience.
CS: What’s next?
JW: Well, I’m putting together a second collection of poems titled DON’T MAKE ME COME UP THERE, a collection of poems in which the heart is telling to head to get out of the way. I think some of the poems there are pretty good. I’m also working on a novel, and have been working on a memoir for quite some time… I was the only Jewish kid at an all male Southern Baptist military school. That’s been a difficult book to write. My father, with whom I had a volatile relationship, comes in and out of that book and I’m trying to carefully control the way I present him. It’s not easy. Additionally, I have taken on the role of director of the West Chester University poetry center in addition to my duties here at Elizabethtown College, and that’s a very exciting new venture. So I’ve certainly got plenty to do.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chapbooks, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing published Kurt Vonnegut: Bookmarked, a collection of his essays about Slaughterhouse Five.