In conversation with Jon Veinberg


Regarding Fresno poet Jon Veinberg’s latest collection, Angels at Bus Stops, fellow poet Christopher Buckley says, “his cast of characters populate the poor side of town and he is their voice, their witness—a larger conscience for us all.”

A two-time recipient of NEA grants in poetry, Veinberg’s work has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares, Poetry, The Antioch Review, The Missouri Review, and many more. His work has been included in multiple anthologies including Highway 99: a Literary Journey through California’s Great Central Valley, How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets, and others. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Fresno State and an MFA from UC Irvine. He lives in semi-retirement in Fresno.

As part of the Spring 2015 Reading Series, presented by the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing and the Fresno Poets’ Association, Veinberg will read Friday, Feb. 13 at Fresno State. The free event will be in the Alice Peters Auditorium, inside the University Business Center, at 7 p.m.

In an interview, MFA poetry student J.J. Hernandez spoke with Veinberg about exploring the intersection of art and poetry, taking on other voices when writing a poem, and seeing the pomegranate as a gateway to the spiritual.

Question: I know you have lived and written in Fresno for many years. What has that been like? Or, maybe more specifically, how has the central San Joaquin Valley shaped and influenced your writing?

Answer: In an amazing way. I don’t know how much of my work you have read, but the poems are all sort of landscape oriented. I go from what the landscape tells me, and I always find something that is integral to myself or someone else. I don’t really write about myself, and if I do it is usually figuratively, like I am taking on the voice of another person or animal, like a bird. When Peter Everwine read the book, he called me a ventriloquist, which to me is one of the best things I have ever heard anyone say about my poetry. It’s a compliment, as I can actually be believable and not stereotypical.

From Ocean's Bridge.
From Ocean’s Bridge.
Q: Taking on another voice is probably one of my greatest difficulties as a poet. In your latest collection, Angels at Bus Stops, I notice how effortlessly you do it in your ekphrastic poem, “Woman at a Red Table.” In the poem, you seem to take on the woman’s voice, which interested me.

A: That’s interesting. That was an interesting poem for me. Léon de Smet was a great Belgian impressionist painter, and when I saw that painting, I thought, this woman has a voice. I don’t know if it’s correct, or what, but he’s dead, he can’t fault me.

Q: I felt you really captured her voice, as I looked up the painting myself and saw her in the poem.

A: Wonderful. I’m really glad you got that out of the poem. My first teacher Philip Levine told me . . . well, let me start here. You see, when I went into poetry, at the very beginning, I had already finished the requirements for my psychology degree. I had a semester to waste. So I took a beginning poetry class with Levine [not really knowing who he was]. I remember having the wrong impression of poetry at first. I thought it was self-inflated, and I don’t really like to talk about myself, and definitely not write about myself. But Levine says to me, “You’ve got the right idea. Why write about yourself, when you can write about something interesting.” And so I just began writing about others. I remember getting compliments doing just that, yet they didn’t know they were complimenting me. I had a poem called “Stretch Mark Cafe” and people said things like, “God, I didn’t know Jon was like that,” which to me was a compliment, because it was not me in the poem.

Q: In what I’ve read, T.S. Eliot hardly ever spoke on himself either. I’m drawing on that similarity, as much of your work takes on those other voices. I really like that about your craft, yet I love how straightforward your poetry is, while Eliot bridges the obscure.

A: You’re right. Eliot was a genius, but he was also one of the most confusing poets I have ever read. I always say, I still can’t understand some of my favorite poets. You know, I envy the hell out of you students. In my whole career as a student, I was only able to take one other English class, and in that class I convinced my teacher to let me write fiction instead of all of the essays. I never really cared for essays until I began writing essays for poetry.

Q: That brings up another question I’d like to ask. I notice the inclusion of prose poems in your new book. How do you define the line between writing genres?

A: There are a lot of lines I draw on. One major one is rhythm. If I cannot exact the image and it becomes more narrative than exacting the image, then I make a prose poem out of it. I’ve written a lot of prose poems lately. The French poet Paul Valéry – though I don’t like much of his work [Veinberg says Valery was a much better prose writer than a poet] – once said: “Prose is walking, poetry is dancing.” And with these prose poems, I feel like I am walking. Maybe I’m walking fast, but I don’t have the same drive I do, as when I write in verse. I don’t have the energy, but I have a story to get out.

From Malmroos Art Shop.
From Malmroos Art Shop.
Q: Also in your latest book, I liked your poem “When Salvador Dali Camped on My Roof.” Do you choose the paintings you write about, or do they sort of choose you?

A: I didn’t choose any of the paintings for that piece. You know what I chose was the character of Salvador Dali. I just pictured a painter that would paint like Salvador Dali and wrote it. He was such an interesting character. He was all over the place and so full of himself. I really like how “beyond this planet” and surreal his imagination. And by no means do I consider myself surreal, yet I see a lot of surrealism in this world around us day by day, and I just wanted to place him in a poem doing something weird like camping on my roof.

Q: So, how did the Léon de Smet painting find its way into your poetry? I looked up the painting and I was drawn to it as well.

A: Léon de Smet was a wonderful painter. This came about like all poems. I start with an image, de Smet’s painting, and I let the image drive me. And it usually does. It’s not hard for me to start a poem it’s hard for me to finish a poem. That painting also has an underground history to it. The war that my family went through [as they fled Soviet-occupied Estonia to Germany in the early 1950s], and the loss of family is similar to how “the woman” is just at this table, basically meditating on what it was like before things fell apart, before her husband was taken away, before she lost her children. Yet she still dresses up and looks good, but something is still lacking, which, to me, is the life she could have lead. More impressively though, she is still driven to remain beautiful, which is what I was trying to portray in the poem.

Q: Another poem in the collection I thought really deserves some attention is “Stealing Pomegranates.” Could you give some insight into the poem?

A: The pomegranate is so visually beautiful to me. It’s like an oyster that is filled with pearls. You know how oysters are kind of crusty, but then you break them open and find the pearl. Well there are hundreds of pearls in this pomegranate, and to top it off they taste good too, which is why I was driven to steal these wonderful fruits. Also, towards the end of the poem I try to make Biblical sense of that sin of stealing, and how it is related to the first sin of Eve eating the fruit.

Q: Could it also be related to an “Original Sin” or a sexual awakening?

A: I’m so glad you were able to see that. I was hoping the poem would be something more than just a poem about stealing. To me the pomegranate is a sexual fruit, and I was hoping the reader could draw on this.

From University of Washington Press.
From University of Washington Press.
Q: I do finally want to come to this last idea, which is religion, or God. You seem to come to this in the book, and I was wondering what your thoughts on the subject were.

A: I do seem to use it. Particularly for this book, but I hope I use it in more of a spiritual sense. I tried to include much of the mystical language. I wanted to delve into the mysteries of the soul, yet we don’t really know what happens. But I don’t really think it is a religious piece.

Q: Yes, a more spiritual sense to the work, rather than a religious one. Yet I do see this God, or omnipresent being, in the work. Is that the case?

A: You’re right. Yet, it is more transcendent. I wanted it to go beyond. For instance, the title Angels at Bus Stops, I see angels who are supposed to be transporting the dead to another world, yet they are here at bus stops accompanying people throughout Fresno. I think it’s a metaphor. Who knows? Let someone else decide if it’s a good one or a bad one.

J.J. Hernandez studies poetry in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State.

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