Jack Varnell Interviewed by Annie Perconti
I am not a hero, possess no fortune, haven’t changed the course of mankind in any way. I am unaware of any whose life has been permanently altered by knowing me, and for the most part I know nothing about their lives today. On the other hand, I am no serial killer, thief, dictator, malingerer, or miscreant. I am not in jail or institution. Some were sure I would be. I am not dead. Bets were surely placed on how long I’d last. Mine is a story the world could probably do without, but for me, it is one that must be told.
– Jack Varnell
If you have your finger to the pulse of the on-line poetry scene you may already be familiar with poet Jack Varnell. It is also possible you are familiar with the works of The Emotional Orphan. What you might not know is that Jack Varnell is The Emotional Orphan. I recently spent some quality time talking with Jack about being an ‘emotional orphan’, the origin of broadside poetry, and the release of his chapbook The Lexicon of the Orphanage.
Annie Perconti: Welcome to The River Jack. First things first. I just have to know the story behind your moniker “The Emotional Orphan”?
Jack Varnell: During a rough time in my life which included addiction, nefarious behavior and a general reckless period in my life, a wise person explained I was an “emotional orphan”. To me, it was a saving grace. The answer to why I continually placed myself in positions and circumstances which had no real chance at success. They created unhappiness rather than offering the remedy to it I sought. This person explained that my upbringing and the lessons I learned along the way did not really equip me to emotionally handle life as it was handed to me. It wasn’t my fault, my parents’, or anyone else’s, it just was.That helped to set me on a course of decision and action designed to fill the voids with substance and the growth necessary to be better equipped. Life and the world wasn’t going to change. I had to do that. So it is in that voice, (sometimes from the voice of the orphan, and sometimes through the voice of the growth, and sometimes the voice of the lessons learned) that I write. It is almost without fail from the actual experience. I’m not really an observe nature and write a haiku kind of writer, I don’t do fiction, because life has enough drama of its own. I will say that the psychological – sociological and systemic nature of people is critical, and human nature starting with my own is the most intriguing thing in the world to me. It is the impetus – my muse.
AP: The idea of “the orphan” extends into your recent book of poetry. Before we dig a bit deeper into the actual chapbook I would like to hear about broadside poetry. Your entire chapbook is made up of broadside poetry. What exactly is a “broadside”?
Jack Varnell: Loosely defined as single sheets of paper printed on one side, broadsides were the most diverse form of brief, single-occasion publishing before the Civil War. Although broadsides were first introduced in England, they became a prime means of communication in the United States. Announcements, advertisements, song lyrics, commentaries, cartoons, and poems were printed and posted in towns across the nation. Later, Harlem Renaissance, Concrete, and Beat writers claimed the broadside as a below-the-radar way to get their words out onto the streets.
For me it started as a way to promote my writing. I sold art for my Artist friend Joey McCain and in attending shows and exhibits, I usually carried postcard sized -sometimes smaller or larger pieces of art with poetry snippets, and artwork of my own to drive traffic to sites where I had work, video, or poetry. I simply enjoyed the marriage of art and words so much I did more and more. I have been sneaking them in local free papers, mags on racks or books in stores as well for a number of years.
Music City USA, Jack Varnell
AP: When deciding to finally publish your own chapbook what was the inspiration behind the choice to create the chapbook out of broadside poetry?
Jack Varnell: To be honest, there is no deep secret reason or methodology to that choice. I simply had a pretty substantial number of them available, and the novelty of doing such a thing seemed like an attractive and unique idea. So often poetry, and writing in general, unless in some large mainstream system like the bigger publishing, tends to be marketed to, and sold only to a like community of writers and poets. I hope that adding the photographic element offers some ability to venture out of that semi-closed market, and has some appeal for those outside of it. I like the idea of the imagery drawing someone towards poetry who may not have been exposed to it, or those only exposed in some rigid traditional academic arena, flavored by the professor of the class.
AP: Very interested in the inspiration behind the title of your chapbook. Also, how did you go about choosing pieces for the lexicon?
Jack Varnell: Again, all the pieces in The Lexicon of the Orphanage are, essentially, confessional or memoir in nature, and are drawn from personal experience. Lexicon represents the vocabulary of a particular language, field, social class, person, etc. so the idea is that it is in the language of the orphan at the “Orphanage”. Each piece is a (sometimes well veiled, other times not) actual story from some period in my life and the reaction to it, or the lessons learned from it. I think there is a pattern to most of my writing that seems like a rambling, followed by a lightbulb, or Aha moment. At least I hope there is some shock to, or emotional connection with, the reader that invites further introspection on their part, but I prefer being a messenger, and not a teacher. I’m not necessarily out to change lives, nor does my ego allow for the idea I have that sort of power, but I sort of like the idea of it encouraging the reader to do their own investigation because of my experience as presented in the writing. I will be the first to admit I am not a well-balanced individual, and I certainly do not handle life as it comes a lot of the time. My acceptance level to the stimulus is pretty low most days. However, whether the readers’ reaction is one of relating to my experience, or one that says, “my God that guy is so fucked up”, is of no consequence to me. I’m just being true to myself and my muse. My writing is a gift. When I let it go it is a gift shared, and what you do with it is none of my business whatsoever. Ultimately it is a selfish endeavor. It springs from the “emotional orphan”. All my life I just wanted to be heard. I feel this is the best chance of that happening…nothing else worked and in most cases those things were detrimental to my physical, mental or emotional health.
AP: Here is one of my favorite pieces from The Lexicon of the Orphanage:
AP: The “Lexicon” was self-published. How did you come to the decision of self-publication and what tips can you offer others?
Jack Varnell: I didn’t have a publisher, and didn’t want to jump through the hoops. In today’s small press, so often the promotion and sales are left to the author anyway, so I figured why not keep all the control and all five dollars I will make from the ten copies I sell?
I think there are pros and cons to self vs traditional or small print publishing. I can’t speak authoritatively on either, except based on my research. There are too many factors, and it really depends on the poet’s motivations. For another project I may go another route. The best I can offer is that while we all love the smell of books, and no one believes hard copies will go away, it may not be up to us. Those answers will be decided by the markets, and by the publishers. The only real thing I can say I learned for sure is that if you close your mind to technology or anything else, you may not end up where you want. Six or seven years ago, people thought poetry may not make it online at all either. Now look at it.
AP: What resources are out there for individuals inspired to create their own broadside poetry?
Jack Varnell: There are several resources out there. Check out The Guerilla Poetics Project . The GPP was a guerilla marketing strategy that existed to bring the poetry of the underground and small press poets of the world to the mainstream. Visit the site and read the manifesto!
Broadsided is also a great spot to start. Think of it as web-enhanced grassroots guerilla art. The hope is that you’ll be inspired to print it and post it in your local haunts—coffee shops, libraries, office doors, telephone poles, etc. The website says it best, “Our goal is to create something both gorgeous and cheap. We want to put literature and art on the streets.”
The Poetry Foundation a decent sized collection of contemporary broadsides from poets of all eras. Finally, check out more broadside poetry at City Lights Books and Counterbalance Arts. It is also interesting to note some of the more current projects that embody the Guerilla Spirit of the broadside: Guerilla Pamphlets and take-it-to-the-street-poetry.
AP: Thank you for such an open, authentic, and informative interview, Jack. That leaves me with just one more request…links to your work!
AP: It has been a pleasure Jack. FYI: The Lexicon of The Orphanage is available now (and on sale!) Also, I want to mention Jack’s involvement with The Good Men Project . Check out Facing Mecca ~ a poem about race and seeing gray instead of black and white. Read and comment at will!