An Interview with Jon Tribble

by Jessica Plante

JON TRIBBLE was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. His poems have appeared in the anthologies The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Surreal South, and Two Weeks, and in Crazyhorse, Poetry, Ploughshares, and Quarterly West. He teaches at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he is the managing editor of Crab Orchard Review and the series editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry published by SIU Press.

JESSICA PLANTE: As a teacher at SIUC, Managing Editor of Crab Orchard Review, and Series Editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, you obviously wear several hats. How do you keep it all in balance when there are so many demands on your time?

JON TRIBBLE: Since I’m answering your first question at 10:00 PM, I suppose that speaks for itself. For me, it has never been so much a balancing act as a life I’ve chosen. There are times of the year where the idea of finding the right kind of thought-space to write my own work in a way I would find satisfying and productive is entirely alien to me—yet I will often find generative lines and ideas I want to explore at precisely those times. Fortunately, I hold those lines and ideas in my mind for days, weeks, and even years until I can give them the time they need and allow me the challenging pleasure I want writing to be in my life. I don’t really have rituals and processes that I return to other than always reading what I am writing aloud to myself when I return to a poem or prose piece that I have set aside, whether the time that has passed is short or long.

JP: Since you mention reading aloud, I wonder if you memorize your own poems, or the poems of others? Is there one that comes to mind that has stuck with you through the years and continues to inform your writing? If so, why do you think it’s stayed with you?

JT: When I was much younger, I had a real gift for memorization—Bible verses, speeches from Shakespeare, poems, short essays and public speeches I had written, long sequences of numbers (I was a walking Rolodex and never forgot a phone number)—but around the time I was fourteen I began to experience rather severe obstructive sleep apnea which went undiagnosed for over a decade. The sleep researcher who did my initial sleep studies could not tell me how long exactly the chronic condition existed but thought it was likely I had gone years without experiencing any rest from sleep since I consistently stopped breathing the moment I experienced REM sleep and would shut down for up to two and a half minutes before I would wake gasping and then fall back into the same pattern over three hundred and fifty times a night.

There were several physical consequences of this condition, but one of the things I realized had happened to my memory was that it had become a much more difficult tool to control in several different ways, including memorization. I can still manage shorter poems that I reference when teaching, including some favorites by Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, and Philip Larkin, but even with those I prepare carefully because I don’t trust my memory like I did all those years ago when I took it for granted. This may explain why I am happiest when I am surrounded by hundreds of books of poetry (like I am in both my office and at home) where so many of the poems I love are at my fingertips.

As far as my own work is concerned, I think I would be terrified of reciting my poems now because I am certain I would lose my way in the thicket of words I did and did not use as I considered and reconsidered the choices I made or changed or failed to think of earlier.

JP: That is some story. It’s always fascinating to me though how different memory is from memorization. Memory is so fluid while memorization always strikes me as a test of the intellect. It’s sad that more primary and secondary education don’t require memorization as a way to learn.
On another note, would you tell me about a project, yours or another’s, that you are currently involved in working on that you are really excited about?

JT: There are three areas I could address—a Crab Orchard Review special issue publishing project which is in its fourth of five years, six Crab Orchard Series in Poetry collections in very different stages in the publishing process, and three different writing projects of my own.

JP: That’s quite a few projects! Would you tell me about the Crab Orchard Review special issue? What makes it special? How are you involved as an editor on the project? And, how long have you been working at the Review?

JT: I am one of the founding editors of Crab Orchard Review, along with our original editor-in-chief, Dr. Richard Peterson; our poetry editor and current editor-in-chief, Allison Joseph; and our prose editor, Carolyn Alessio. I am the managing editor and, besides Dr. Peterson’s retirement, our core editors have remained the same since we began work on the magazine in 1995 and published our first issue that year. We have always worked as a group on all editorial decisions regarding the work we publish and at least two editors have been a part of each of those decisions; either Allison, Carolyn, or I has seen every piece of work submitted to Crab Orchard Review before it has been rejected or has moved forward.

We publish two issues of Crab Orchard Review each year: the first is a general issue where we feature the winners and finalists in our annual literary prizes in poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction along with the winners of our COR Student Writing Awards in these same genres; our special issue each year is focused on some area of interest to us or a theme our editors wish to see contemporary writers explore in their works. Our special issues before this latest project have included: “Irish and Irish-American Writing,” “African, Afro-Caribbean, and African-American Writing,” “Asian and Asian-American Writing,” “Writing of and from the Americas,” “The World of Music, the Music of the World,” “The City: Past, Present, and Future,” “Stage and Screen: Writers on Entertainment,” “Taste the World: Writers on Food,” “Wander This World: Immigration, Migration, and Exile,” “Ten Years After: Documenting a Decade (1995 – 2005),” “Defining Family,” “Come Together: Occasions, Ceremonies, and Celebrations,” “The In-Between Age: Writers on Adolescence,” and “Color Wheel: Cultural Heritages in the 21st Century.”

Our current special issue we are seeking submissions for is titled “The West Coast and Beyond” and we are asking for work focusing on the states on the Pacific Coast of the United States of America—California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawai’i—and any of the U.S. commonwealths or territories. This issue is the fourth of what I have come to think of as our “American Retrospective.” In 2010, we completed our fifteenth year of publishing Crab Orchard Review with a special issue titled “Land of Lincoln: Writing about and from Illinois.” As we were working on that issue, Allison Joseph, our editor-in-chief, suggested that our next special issue move us out of the center of the country after spending so much time in Illinois and go south, and this idea became “Old and New: Re-Visions of the American South.” When we began to get work for that issue I thought, “Why not cross America with special issues until we reach our twentieth anniversary?” and that’s just what we have done and are doing. Last year we published “Due North”; we followed that up with our recently published “Prairies, Plains, Mountains, Deserts” (which I like to think of as “The Big Middle”); and “The West Coast and Beyond” will complete our project. I am very curious to see if by the end of these four issues whether or not we will have either included a piece of writing about every state or a writer with ties to every state (or, perhaps, both). I won’t be entirely conscious of that until we are done and it won’t influence the work we accept, but it is interesting to consider.

JP: I’ve always been interested in whether geography affects how we write—thinking New York School, or Black Mountain, etc. Working on The Greensboro Review, the submissions we got from the west coast always seemed tonally different to me. Since you’ve been an editor for quite some time now, do you think geography influences poetic styles at all anymore in our increasingly connected world?

JT: Our recent geographically-themed American issues have shown us in both good and not-so-good ways that place is a touchstone for writers across this country and that clichés associated with places and their people that rise out of “true” but ultimately unrevealing familiar notions can become a too-comfortable way to explore only the surface of the complex places where we live. You see this all the time in film–the South is full of sweaty brows inside and out (even though air conditioners do exist), New England is populated by people fishing the Grand Banks or living in old decaying houses (though every New England city has new economy entrepreneurs and houses built since the 1800s), the Great Plains are lonely and empty (though cities like Wichita and Omaha and Denver do keep growing and growing)—and we’ll see how these clichés might play out about the West Coast in our current round of submissions. The best filmmakers and the best writers see the possibility for the new in these old ideas and they find a way for us to experience this with them.

There is also very good work that comes out of the metropolitan areas on the coasts—particularly New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—that at any given time can seem to follow a “fashion” of sorts that may come from writers reading a group of both their friends and other writers they read and hear give readings within a fairly close and relatively small community of writers compared to the tens of thousands writing across the country. Also, the larger MFA programs go through years when a very talented group of aesthetically like-minded writers have come together for a time in the same place and clearly do benefit from the writing community that they have become a part of for a while and this shows most often in the ambition of the work an editor might see and how these writers seem to be pushing one another.

JP: Are there ways in which being an editor affects either what you write, or how you write? Do you find inspiration in your editorial work directly, or indirectly, or do you compartmentalize?

JT: The poet Lynda Hull gave me some great advice when I first was invited to be a reader at Indiana Review. She told me it was a good opportunity because, she said, “Editing teaches you what you don’t need to write.” And over the last twenty-five years, I have realized that the similarity in subject, style, characters, and overall approach that so much of the poetry, fiction, and nonfiction prose that passes before my eyes can be limited or trapped by without the writer realizing that so many readers have seen this before is a gift of recognition that editing can bring. The inspiration this brings to me might be better thought of as a challenge: I need the writing I do to find a way to go beyond that or why am I doing it? I may fail to realize the ambition of facing this challenge, but editing has taught me that goal should in its own way always be there.

JP: Also, one more question. Is there a project you are working on now that we can look forward to finding online, or on book shelves? What is the inspiration behind the project?

JT: I worked for over seven years in movie theaters as an usher, projectionist, data processing clerk, assistant manager, and manager, and my wife (and the editor I work for and with on Crab Orchard Review), Allison Joseph, has complained to me that I never wrote about those experiences though I have told her stories for years. During last Spring, I was teaching a graduate poetry class focusing on the book-length project where we read 32 collections of poetry by writers ranging from Kim Addonizio to A.R. Ammons to Rita Dove to Galway Kinnell to Rick Noguchi to Eleanor Wilner to Jake Adam York. About halfway through the class, I gave my students the chance to look at six different ideas I had over the years for book-length projects of my own and then had them vote on a project to assign to me. Well, they chose the idea connected to my years of movie theater work and I have been writing those poems ever since. As a poetry series editor who well knows the limits most books accept to enter contests or seek a publisher, I don’t know what I’ll do with the collection when it is done since it already looks like it will be difficult to keep it under 120 pages, but I’m not worrying about that right now. Writing the poems is exhilarating and challenging and I plan to enjoy that part of the experience as long as it lasts.

JESSICA PLANTE is former Poetry Editor at The Greensboro Review and a graduate of the UNC-Greensboro MFA Program and the MA program at University of North Texas. Her book reviews and poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in the American Poetry Journal, Birdfeast, The Collagist, storySouth, Tirage Monthly, The North Texas Review, and Writer’s Bloc. She lives and writes in Tallahassee, Florida.