Vlad Interviews: Russell Jaffe

Vlad Savich: I know Jaffa. The southern and oldest part of Tel Aviv. I lived there. Tell us a little about yourself. Where do you come from, where are you going?

Russell Jaffe: I have never been to Israel. I am, if you define it as a heritage or ethnic thing, Jewish. I am NOT religious at all. I personally do not affiliate with any religion. I’m not saying they’re bad, they’re just not for me, etc. I am from the suburbs of Chicago, Deerfield, IL. I have become a lot more interested in my hometown since I’ve become an adult. It was apparently called the Little Rock of the North. They voted down progressive plans to integrate in the early 1960s. The park I grew up next to and played in was supposed to be housing for black families from Chicago who would move to the town in an effort to diversify commercial businesses and meet racial quotas for the town with the idea that the community would become integrated and black-owned businesses would sprout up right alongside white ones. An idea of an integrated town of neighbors who embraced each other as Deerfield locals. But it was narrowly voted down.

So I ended up growing up in what I would call a part of the white supremacist dream: an almost all-white town, even though it has large Jewish populations; a town of suburban homogeneity, one whose standard local businesses closed over time to create a lacking sense of local identity. A town anchored in the history of white flight. Growing up, I was closed off and simply thought there simply weren’t many minorities in my town, and that was just how it was.

Where I am going? I don’t know. Now and then I fantasize about moving to Vegas or LA, either as an edutainer (which is what I am now) helming educational content for the internet/YouTube channels or opening a radical school in a dead mall. I think our family’s ultimate destiny lies in the American desert. Not yet, though. Now we live in Oak Park, right on the Chicago boarder.

VS: “I personally do not affiliate with any religion”

“Religion is the opium of the people” is one of the most frequently paraphrased statements of German philosopher and economist Karl Marx. Are you agree with him ?

RJ: Yes I do, and I think it appeals to a very tough battle within people: what we DO actually do and what we are CAPABLE of doing, or how we use our knowledge and understanding to improve that which we know we can for the benefit of one another and ourselves, who are a part of a shared humanity. If people need religion to be good or have values or a moral compass, cool, that’s great. But too often I see it representing a latent urge within us to form teams, draw sides and boundaries, and attack and degrade others.

VS: I am writing a play about a madhouse. Do you think our world looks like a madhouse?

RJ: Yeah it does. One of the best and worst things about people is that we’re sense-makers. It’s both really cool and tragically perilous. We discover and learn so much about our world and ourselves, but we apply meaning to things that really have no meaning. When you break it down, life is a condition. It is a condition we are granted with that we protect. That’s it. Everything else is our sense-making application. So yeah, sounds like a madhouse to me. I’d love to check out your play.

VS: What is the reason for you to make poetry?

RJ: I do it because I have to. At this point, I do it because it feels good on my soul. Not just producing, but sharing. I just like to focus on work, produce it, and share it.

I would like to bump LIT ALOUD here. This is my current passion project. LOVE doing this. Gives me a shit ton of joy.

VS: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” but what about you? Do you have literary authority? Who are your favorite poets?

RJ: I have absolutely no literary authority, because literature is the opposite of authority. It is a journey that invites. It invites interpretation and ownership through the imagination.

I don’t have any favorite poets anymore. I simply have favorites at various times. I’m a huge fan of the work of Crispin Glover, Jim Woodring, Laurie Anderson and oceans of public domain poetry at this moment!

VS: If you had the opportunity to learn anything in half an hour, what would you like to learn?

RJ: Let me say in case anyone reads this, because I love talking about this stuff, that everyone learns in different ages and stages. So half an hour of learning something could be a lot. It could be a conceptual lesson or some kind of practical skill.

For myself, in this imaginary world of the 30 minute learning thought experiment, I’d like a professional chef to appear and show me gourmet, easy to prepare meals that would knock my socks off using my own oven and utensils. We’ll cook together so I can replicate it myself.

VS: Have you ever had a dream which you will remember for the rest of your life?

RJ: Yeah a lot of them! I have a journal of dreams that made me wake up laughing.
If I have a dream that features Mario from the Nintendo franchise, it means something very big is going to happen. It’s always some kind of sign of major prophecy…

VS: A Russian friend asked me a question. What is the point of an empty lawn? Why waste energy for it if you can plant vegetables instead of a lawn, especially in America, where it is warm almost everywhere. I couldn’t answer him. Because I don’t know the answer. Maybe you could answer?

RJ: Yes, I can. Historically, America has been a show-off nation. Utilitarianism takes a major backseat to displays of social norms, which themselves become competitive. Our government, religion, and national spirit are capitalism. So a lawn really isn’t about the earth, plants, etc at all. It’s about a demonstration. It’s about a display of something. It’s about competitive standards of beauty, in this case material property. It’s about land and ownership. It’s about amount and ownership. It’s so ingrained into our culture that we have long lost track of the roots. I can hardly think of anyone who grows fruits or vegetables on their property. The lawn is about the commodity of property itself. Happy 4th!

VS: USA is the leader in the number of serial killers. What is the reason for this phenomenon? Maybe American literature and Hollywood cinematography is to blame?

RJ: Here’s the thing: we have to look at what qualifies as being a serial killer. Other countries might have them, but they might have different governmental or police authority, or they may have state controlled media that doesn’t report it. I don’t think it’s a too much a TV thing. I think it’s that we are crushed and overwhelmed with ideas but have increasingly fewer ways of dealing with those ideas and anti-civilization thoughts. So whereas someone with dangerous mental illness or homicidal tendencies might find support in community and in services and outreach, they might not have it here. I’m not excusing serial killers. I’m saying we are overwhelmed in America and we don’t have many ways to cope with that. And for dangerous people, that can manifest in dangerous actions or behaviors. But for all I know, Somalia is full of serial killers and we’ll never know. Sweden might be full of serial killers. The USA is famous for demystifying rhetoric through art and culture, but also being buried under rhetoric in toxic ways simultaneously. So one byproduct of that has been fetishizing serial killers and true crime.

Plenty of regular people do this. Writers and poets do this right in our “community.”

VS: Today [was] July 4th. What does this date mean for you: as a poet and an American citizen?

RJ: I love this question, but it saddens me.

It is so hard to deeply love America right now! God damn it! You can see it in my answers. It’s just hard to love America. I love what America has given me, which is everything I am. It’s made me, shaped me. It’s given me the freedom to learn, grow, fuck up, rebuild, pursue talents and gifts. But it’s also been run through badly by the internet, and crushed under the weight of complex human ideas, dealing with them with outdated, painful systems.
I read a shit ton of classic books. I just finished The Jungle. It was ok. I finished Grapes of Wrath, too. Loved that one. These books contain pearls of wisdom about exploitation; about how our animal fear, as humans, keeps us robbed by pirates who are the rich. They have now figured out how to dismantle the news itself. To make feelings into what guides peoples’ decision making. It will and is imperiling is.

Just tonight I got into a Twitter fight about an unspeakable image. It was that photo of a man and his child dead in the Rio Grande. Impossible to unsee. A woman at a trump rally carried a sign that said CAUTION and had a drawing of that image. She laughed gleefully holding it. She was celebrating the image.

Someone on twitter told me the liberal media was behind it. I can just feel America being De Toqueville’s great experiment rotting in the Petri dish. But learn from us. If the rest of the world doesn’t figure out how to handle the flow of fake news and exploration, we are doomed as a species. I see this all as an American today, inside, avoiding fireworks.

Going to a parade with my kid was really fun. She had a good time scooting on her scooter picking up candy.

And as a poet, there just is no language. What I make and create is essentially beyond language now, gibberish. Or lizard brain sound words. I have two manuscripts of this. Or I inhabit the ruins of public domain poetry. I feel like poetry has been a barometer for the cultural climate. Since all our language and intimate communication is so demystifying now, poetry is like ruins.

VS: What is the role of a writer in the life of an ordinary person? Or is there meaning in writing?

RJ: There are two answers here. The first is the tip of the iceberg, the second is the majority underwater.

First, the writer provides contexts. People are awesome. Amazing, beautiful. But we aren’t that unique, and we certainly aren’t individuals. We are sponges for context and surroundings. Writers help establish norms and help us understand how critical, essential, and normal our strange, anticivilization, painful, elating, deeply intimate thoughts are. Writers help us understand that we aren’t alone, and that our shared human experience is tender and very painful, and that we can experience those feelings in our own, quiet, introspective ways.

But the role for the writers for the REGULAR PERSON–and I could rant about this forever as a former English teacher–is that writing is essential because people need writing to process reality. When we write, we create an assembly line of meaning for thoughts and experiences. Everyone should write because it helps bring reality from a fog into a focus.

VS: And the final question. Does the writer Russell Jaffe have a dream?

RJ: YES! I would like to reframe and recast the entire education system. More about nuance, practical skill, and shorter classes with student buy-in based around specialization areas. No more “English class, math class, science class, etc.” School will be Parthenon style in a deadmall interspersed with student-run businesses. Student sign up for electives sequences like “Moby Dick” or “history of Twitter” or “the United States judiciary” or “practical math” or “how to change a muffler.” Classes could last a semester, could last a day or two. And no grades. This is my vision.

Russell Jaffe is the author of poetry collections This Super Doom I Aver (Poets Democracy, '13), INTROVERT // EXTROVERT (Punk Hostage, '14), Civil Coping Mechanisms (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 17) and chapbook LA CROIX WATER, published by Damask Press. Here is a link to purchase LA CROIX WATER (and 100% of the proceeds from the sale go to the ACLU.)
Vlad* Savich was born in the USSR, where he was educated, married and fathered his daughter. As soon as the chance appeared to leave, he did. At present he lives in Montreal, where he writes, directs for the theatre and breathes the air of freedom. He can be found online at savich.lit.com.ua.
*He prefers not to be called Vladimir, so as not to be associated with the disreputable activity of a certain barnardine Russian leader.

Image: Edwards Scissorhands, 20th Century Fox, 1990

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