Poets Online Talking About Coffee: TJ Jarrett

In “How to Speak to the Dead” you mention the current cycle of cicadas. These are not common in the UK, at all, and now I’m looking up pictures of their red eyes.

Oh, you’ve never been with cicadas? They’re around for about three weeks (either on the 7, 11 or 17 year depending) and are what one imagines when one thinks of plague. But they not menacing. They live, they fuck and they die. But for that moment, they also sing and the world hums and thrums with their song. Afterward, you sweep up their bodies in piles like leaves. I feel very sorry for those who have not experienced the world just being itself without taking you into account.

Like coffee beans swept up across the Bean Belt.

Well said. Spent coffee beans.

What do you miss most about coffee?

Coffee, much like smoking (and I love the two together), is a process. I love getting the beans and grinding them. I love putting them in the coffee maker and the smell of it across the house. The making of coffee has punctuated my life. A few weeks ago, my best friend and I went to Italy. She is allergic to coffee, but it’s so much a part of her morning experience that she made me coffee when we were on vacation. And I drank it, even when I know I shouldn’t. When I think of Italy, I’ll remember padding downstairs, getting a demitasse of Italian coffee and watching the sky in the Italian countryside.

When I think of college, I think of the long conversations in the Hoop (the Wellesley campus cafe). When I think of Denver, I think of the Muddy. When I think of Boston, I think of the Trident. When I think of Cambridge, I think of Algiers. When I think of my home coffee shop, I think of Fido in Nashville. You get the picture.

But I’ve never considered this before until I had to interrogate it—I think of coffee as something that is better shared. I don’t drink coffee alone. So, I guess I don’t really miss coffee that much, I just cut out my extracurricular coffee drinking. When it counts, I’ll take it. It’s just really infrequent these days.

You didn’t ask this, but what don’t I miss about coffee? Insomnia. Sleeping feels better than how coffee tastes.


How has writing punctuated your life?

I find writing to be more intrusive than coffee. I never really mean to start writing, but I get an idea and need to explore it on the page. It all starts so innocently. Then I’m not sleeping for three weeks at a time because I have characters to develop and poems to complete. Each poem is a relationship: there’s the first flush of interest and then the first argument. You settle in and start working out understandings of how you work and how the poem works– we are often striving toward cross purposes. And then there’s the final moments: the poem has become itself without you and wants to be out in the world.

The writing is disruptive. Every sentence leaves me changed even as I shape them. I think it’s supposed to be this way, where the literary striving dovetails with our intellectual and emotional growth. I’ve discovered that once a new project comes to me, I’m always pushing the limits of my craft. I don’t want to do the same thing twice and I never, ever want to make the same mistakes. I’ll make mistakes, but let them be new ones.

Writing is too much of my life to merely punctuate it. If writing were a friend of mine, it’s the friend who has a key to my house and is free to come over and see if I have ice cream in the freezer. (Then it eats the ice cream and leaves the carton on the counter. It’s not a good friend, just a beloved one.)

How’s the literary scene in Nashville?

Nashville is a special place that respects artistry in all shapes and forms. It’s an artist’s town. But if I had to choose the one defining characteristic of Nashville that keeps me here, I’d have to say that Nashville respects work. The ethos doesn’t really think much on promise, but the realization of promise. Some of my musician friends call it a 10-year town. We learn to play nice with one another. We collaborate, we work our craft, and we cheer the success of our compatriots. The literary scene is hard to separate from the music scene. My best lessons have been learned from my musician friends who know what it is to cross the country to read some work to five people in Fort Wayne Indiana.

But the writers of Nashville– we’ve all met. There’s Christina Stoddard (winner of the Brittingham Prize), Kendra DeColo (winner of the Saturnalia Prize) and Gary MacDowell (winner of the Orphic Prize)– we’ve actually all workshopped in one another’s kitchens. Beth Bachmann and Kate Daniels live less than a mile from me. Stephanie Pruitt (another amazing poet) hosts a reading series called Poems and Pancakes in her backyard. (Marilyn Nelson came last summer.) Chet Weise worked with Third Man Records to launch Third Man Books. This is a vibrant and growing community that makes me prouder every day. First, I left this town to find my people. Then I moved home to find that my people have been here all along.

Do you see many similarities between programming and poetry?

Two things have to occur to write software: You need to understand the requirements and you need to design a structure that is extensible (capable of being maintained and enhanced over time) and durable (something that will have a firm model that needn’t be refactored to accomodate future maintenance). There are existing algorithms for many things that we do and we follow design patterns that don’t just make sense to us at the time of design and code, but something that would make sense to any other developer. One never codes in a bubble.

Poems often require that kind of up-front design, although the content of that design is fluid. We have traditional forms (sonnets, villianelles, whathaveyou) and some forms we make up as we are writing the poems. Many poems I write are not sonnets per se but use many elements of the sonnet to function. Many of my longer poems leverage some of the characteristics of ballads. And often, without even thinking about it, I write syllabics. It feels right and then I start counting and realize it feels right because it’s symmetrical.

And to be honest, there are plenty of times I code to satisfy the functionality and THEN start working on form just as I do in poems. I don’t even think about the poetic line until I have a functional model of the sentences that I want there.

I think they come out of the same organizational part of my brain. Just different languages and purpose. The creative process is exactly the same.

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