An Interview with Justin Jannise: On How to Be Better by Being Worse

Justin Jannise’s first book of poetry, How to Be Better by Being Worse, was selected by Richard Blanco as winner of the 2019 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. While reading it, I was delighted by the way the poems braved emotional, intellectual, and social dilemmas with deftness, wit, and vulnerability. I had questions for Justin about his process, and after I wrote a review of his book, he very kindly agreed to speak with me. I’ve taken writing workshops with Justin, and the interview, though guided by questions, felt very much like a conversation between friends. He was thinking through his answers and his sardonic humor often shined through. We started by discussing the self-help book as genre, progressing to contemplations of identity, intent, audience, humor, and community.

Rebecca Danelly Oxley: How many self-help books have you read in preparing your manuscript for this book? Did you read any at all? If you did, which stood out and why? 

Justin Jannise: I did not read any. I don’t want to be dismissive of self-help books, but maybe it’s okay to be. They’re such a commercial success. When you walk into a CVS or an airport, they’re all that’s available, which leads me to believe there’s a huge market, a huge racket for that type of thing. I’m aware of their titles and a lot of the ideas. I’ve been in conversations with people who’ve read them and claim they’ve figured it out, discovered “it.” Again, not to be dismissive, I believe in self-help as an idea. I believe in poetry as something like self-help in that we turn to it in times of crisis or trauma. In difficult times, poetry can help you. 

I just read an e-newsletter in which the poet Kaveh Akbar said, “Poetry literally saved my life,” and I believed him. However, I don’t know that I would say poetry has saved my life. Luckily for me, my life has not often been in grave danger, or at least not the kind of danger where poetry could help much. But I do believe poetry can save people. It has definitely made my life. Poetry and life are left foot, right foot, they’re part and parcel of the same thing. 

There is one self-help book I have read: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, the quintessential commercially successful “self-help” book. I wanted to read it because I had just finished reading Helter Skelter, the account of the Manson murders, and I learned from that book that Charles Manson, who spent a lot of time in jail before starting his cult, religiously read and re-read two books: The Bible and How to Win Friends and Influence People. I had to see what it was all about. I found it interesting that Dale Carnegie’s principles, his moral purpose and rhetoric, could inspire as much evil and harm as they have led to professional success. So, you read these things and think, “I could look at the world this way and it would get me somewhere.” 

I’m aware I’m getting back to that vortex, the question of “Is there a better or worse way to live?” People may be saying your way is “worse,” but it may actually be a better way for you and others. Poetry has been, I think, a better guide for me. 

Oxley: Were you thinking about the book and the Manson connection when you were writing the poem “How to Be Better by being Worse,” or was it in the back of your mind somewhere? 

Jannise: I think it was somewhere in the alphabet soup of my mind. I am most drawn to a kind of poem that wants to help me help myself, and that’s also what a self-help book does. Another way of putting it is that the forms of instruction—the ways we talk about how to live—are interesting and meaningful to me almost to the point that that I’m obsessed with them. It’s a kind of magic that can be used for good or evil purposes. But also, I think that this pliability of form reveals how much content matters. For better or for worse, so much of the discussion around contemporary poetry, in workshops and academic circles, sticks safely to style, form, and the techniques of writing while eschewing its content. That has always seemed backwards to me.

Oxley: What kind of intent did you find writing these poems? What was your approach? 

Jannise: I’ll just say one thing about intent, and honestly, I’m totally ripping off my friend and poet, D.A. Powell, who asks, “Why is intention any more or less important than discovery?” Or, how about a poet as worldly and politically-minded as Carolyn Forché? I heard her say something very similar, which surprised and delighted me. She is known for writing about atrocities and global tragedies, and her writing could be seen as sort of didactic, or issuing some sort of message, but that’s more an impression some might get from association. When you actually read her work, it’s not like that at all, because what she believes in is discovery—finding something out through craft, meditation, and exploration. As for my intentions, I start with an idea of where it’s going or what it might say but never does. If the poem did play out according to my expectations, or if it could, it would not be as interesting to me. Furthermore, I think the whole enterprise of writing would be less interesting to me if all it amounted to was finding the proper way to say what I already believed.

Oxley: I think you’ve accomplished something amazing by writing poems that speak to any reader. I found myself often feeling very connected to the speakers in these poems, like in “Three Self-Portraits,” and I was impressed by the way wit, love of language, and exploration played off vulnerability. How did you consider your audience while putting this together, if at all?  

Jannise: I’m very pleased that they speak to you, but how do you—how does anyone—know that they would speak to other people? The book’s dedication is “for family.” Originally, I had written “my family,” meaning immediate family and close relatives, who are wonderful and mean everything to me. But I took out “my” and left it as just “family” because that word also has particular resonance in the queer community. I have no objection to people who do not identify as queer or who do not consider themselves as part of the big queer family reading the book and taking some enjoyment from it. I want everyone to buy it. I’m not going to pretend that’s not a thing, but I’m sure that there are some people who’ll pick it up, unaware of what kind of book it is, and encounter queer experiences in the book and, as they often do, may be frustrated or annoyed or disappointed by that. So, what I mean when I say it’s for family, I mean it’s for the queer family most of all. It would hurt me a lot more to find out that it did not resonate or did not appeal to members of the queer community. 

Oxley: I find it difficult to write poems that intentionally make people laugh. I suspect it’s ten times as hard to make the reader laugh and make them think and feel as you did in this book. It’s a mighty accomplishment. How did you write or revise in order to balance those elements? 

Jannise: In my poems, I aspire to a good sense of proportion. I wouldn’t consider it a poem of mine if it were just an exercise in being witty. Some of my favorite poets are moving and funny at the same time. I don’t think there are any who are only funny, but there are plenty who are never funny. I take pleasure in both types—the surprisingly serious and the always serious. We have tragedies because they provide catharsis and make us look at ourselves in ways that no other thing can. Meanwhile, the best comedy can really cut, can’t it? Humor may also make digestible, or least approachable, subject matter that is too hard to swallow without the sugar coating. A lot of good can come from that. 

I’m of the generation that watched a ton of “Will and Grace,” which, aside from being brilliantly written and acted, was also technically innovative. A lot can be said of that show, some of it not so flattering, since it was a product of its time. Anyway, much of “Will and Grace” is rooted in an older slapstick style of performance. There are gags, and a lot of physical comedy. It’s abundantly goofy, almost like “The Three Stooges.” As a result, when the show would pull the rug out from under my feet and get very real, it would just crush me. It wasn’t just that I was surprised; the vast contrast between slapstick humor and serious emotion seemed to mirror something in the actual world. 

The image that I find most appropriate is an image that appears in the title of “Poem with Trapdoor”: it’s not the one you intentionally use to disappear, it’s the trap door that you inadvertently fall through. The structure of that “fall” through the comedic trapdoor is one that I often use in my poems that start out trivial, funny, or witty. You’re standing, you think you know where you are, and now you are falling. There’s both an aesthetic and psychological structure to that. There have been times when what I thought was fun or funny turned serious quickly, and there was nothing I could do to change that. 

Oxley: The first poem, “What I’m Into,” reads like a very frank and witty entry in a dating app. I got to the last line, “Anyone reading this who thinks there’s a chance,” and thought, “Oh! I remember feeling that way.” When you were writing these poems, how did you think about balancing the rather sardonic wit and vulnerability of them?

Jannise: Poetry can be a safe place for me to express a kind of vulnerability that is not legible or expressible anywhere else. If in real life you say, “I’ll take anyone who’ll have me,” you give the whole game away. To say so in a dating app is a totally different statement—one that I almost certainly do not mean. Somewhere in this imaginary realm just making the poetic effort of saying what I’m into leads me into an exploration of the types—“dilfs,” “doctors,” and so on—but that’s not the full story. If it’s not the full story, then it’s not what’s true, and if it’s not what’s true, then it’s not a poem. 

And you know, I’ve been misunderstood. One workshop comment from eight or so years ago that stuck with me concerned a poem like “What I’m Into” or “Poem with Trapdoor.” A reader said he felt tricked. For him, it was as if I had planned it all, had known all along where the poem was going and had laid out this trail of breadcrumbs to lure him with a joke, so things could turn serious. But that’s not what I meant to do at all. I think it’s not such a good plan to make because plenty of people who see something witty or a joke—or let’s just say, something feminine and flirty—are turned off. That would not be the breadcrumb I would necessarily choose if that were my goal. I think every interpretation is a kind of story, and for a reader to tell that story about the poem assumes that I’m in complete control of everything I say and do. Of course, I am somewhat in control, and I do want people to like me. I want the poem to mean something, but I don’t want anyone to feel cheated or tricked. Anyway, it usually feels important to hear honest critique that makes me think about what I do. But then I hear my other self say, “Isn’t this a poem for family? And is this reader’s harsh response indicative of the poem’s flaws or failure, or of something larger that’s out of my control? How much of that is something I can legitimately concern myself with?” Some people read poems a certain way because their world—the half of the globe they live in and never leave—tells them that feminine behavior is cunning, wily, or tricky and must be imbued with these intentions any time they are made to feel uncomfortable or surprised. 

Oxley: How do you identify, and how important is that to you in relation to this book? 

Jannise: I think queer is probably best because it has more wind behind it in terms of inclusivity and fluidity. I do drag, although I’m not sure that’s the right word. As far as gender identity goes, it’s not something I can put a period on. For me, it’s always been more of a question mark, and I love that. I don’t want to say anything that would be hurtful to anyone whose experience is different, but that’s how it has been for me.