Riding That Train: Justin Jannise’s How to Be Better by Being Worse

From its very title—How to Be Better by Being Worse—Justin Jannise’s debut poetry collection mimics the self-help book. Many such books promise to take readers on journeys: from heartbreak to love, from insecurity to confidence, from disease to health, from poverty to wealth. But this book takes the reader on a ride that is at times whimsical, thought-provoking, and surprisingly vulnerable. 

Jannise grew up in rural southeast Texas and, as a first-generation college student, attended Yale University. After a stint working as a freelance pop culture writer in New York City, he went on to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Now pursuing his Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston, Justin has served as Editor-in-Chief of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts from 2018 to 2020. His poetry has won many awards and has appeared in both Best New Poets and Best of the Net. How to Be Better by Being Worse was selected by Richard Blanco as winner of the 2019 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize.

The collection’s first poem, “What I’m Into,” is audaciously witty and its ride is all about thrills. Its AABB rhyme scheme lures the reader on with its exhaustive list of the types of men the speaker is attracted to: “DILFS. Doctors. Dimples.” The sounds delight with rhymes like “brains” and “trains” and off-rhymes like “York” and “shirt,” “Lowell” and “charcoal,” and “capitalist” and “racist.” This poem’s confession performs all the way through to the last line, when the speaker’s final admission invites in with a wink and a nod.

In the title poem, “How to Be Better by Being Worse,” the spondee “Ban soap,” followed by a trochee, “Banish suds,” initiates a series of instructions that might make the reader laugh or gasp, affronted. “Not me,” we may think when the speaker instructs, “Slip in / as many chicken-shit deeds as any Deadbeat Dad.” But the sounds are so playful we might find ourselves beguiled before we recognize ourselves in the poem’s instructions. “Get off the pleasant train to nowhere,” the speaker/conductor directs in the penultimate stanza before the unsettling, “Get back on with your most / regrettable self,” ending with a promise that speaks to what most people desire and fear.

In the serial poem “Three Self-Portraits,” Jannise examines love and loss, topics that are central to the human condition. These poems invite the reader into the speaker’s experiences of love, anger, and heartbreak as he addresses an ex. But the poet doesn’t abandon wit, even here: “You shook / your ass / and said it was / ours. Now it’s dust.” The speaker’s sharpness belies a very intimate and soul-wrenching confession. This heartbreak is realized in the third poem, “A Bitter Pill to Swallow,” when Jannise establishes his first figure, “like the chief security officer in a room full of screens monitoring my past and future.” The speaker presents a montage of this relationship, some recollections sweet, some bitter. In the fifth stanza, he demands of the former lover, “Let there be closure on the subject / of closure. That it is false, like a golden calf.”  The simile that follows, “That it is wrong, like a hand brought / hard against a face” is itself a blow that knocks the reader out of the voyeuristic delight of the poem’s imagery and sound play with the suggestion that the pain of loss cannot end. Unlike the self-help books that line the shelves of bookstores, this poem bites. Its anger paves the way for heartbreaking final confession that invites the reader to empathize with the speaker’s obsession.

In the poem “Leather Jacket,” the speaker likewise confesses. He confides as if sitting on a coffee shop patio, huddled during one of Houston’s rare winter snaps, performing his outrageous confession about the coat he wears. He relates a conversation he has with his parents. The speaker introduces his mother, “Heavy is her word for expensive / and she seems proud and comforted / that I walk around feeling warm and important,” revealing the mother as someone who sees the coat as a status symbol. The father is also concisely painted for the reader as someone who labors, “every winter of his life / has worked outside in a Carhartt knockoff,” someone who thinks expensive things, “folly.” The nested anecdote the speaker tells his parents about the jacket with its final oratorical aside reminds the reader that though storytelling may be a performance, the speaker has something very real to say about class. It’s a punch of a last line in an engaging, witty narrative.

Jannise’s poems traverse a thrilling landscape that is at times funny, at times shocking, and at times heartrending. The collection delivers surprise after surprise with eye-opening mastery of voice, wit, and language. Unlike self-help books, How to Be Better by Being Worse offers dilemmas with no easy answers, no clear destinations, but get on board. It is a ride worth taking.