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  • Writer's pictureGale Farnsworth

Interview with Poet and Author Jonathan Wells


I’m here with Jonathan Wells who has published three collections of poetry: Train Dance, The Man With Many Pens, Debris and most recently, a memoir The Skinny.


FARNSWORTH

What was the first book that inspired you to write?


WELLS

Well, I guess, the first book that inspired me to write was more an auditory experience, Dylan Thomas poems. My mother played the poems on an eight track or a cassette, I don’t remember what it was, and she did this on and off for years as she drove us around the New York suburbs in her car. They looped through my brain and then I bought the book and read the poems. I became obsessed with poems, obsessed with the voice, the cadence and the accent, and the craft and tried to imitate it, which was not a good idea. That was the first book of poems that really affected me, and a little bit later reading Prufrock by Eliot. And I realized that I had a knack for what this difficult language said and I don’t know where it came from, maybe my time with Dylan Thomas or maybe it wasn’t. Prufrock was the first poem on the page and it really grabbed me and simultaneously I remember reading Joyce Carol Oats stories and they really angered me, I saw them as a converse to the poems that I had been so affected by and I haven’t read a Joyce Carol Oats since. Nothing against her, I’m sure it was my adolescent brain that cooked it wrong. As far as a first book of prose, there isn’t one that jumps out at me until much later when I read Portrait of An Artist by Joyce, and Becket, and I read all of Proust at eighteen and that made a tremendous impression on me. Those books really made deep impressions on me.


FARNSWORTH

So, you’ve published three collections of poetry, how do feel your poetry has informed your prose?


WELLS

Well, it has a lot. I don’t know about other people’s books of poems but mine runs about 5000 words. And I slaved over those words, the words I wanted. My memoir is 80,000 words so in other words more than 5 times than my collections of poetry combined. The memoir took a long time to write and it wasn’t the language per se, it was figuring out the voice and the continuity, and all of that. But the poetry informed the prose of the memoir because it forced me to choose my words, not as carefully, that wouldn’t be possible, but almost as carefully as I try to do for my poems. I would say along the lines of Flaubert’s “le mot juste”, the right word. More a poet’s writer striving than a prose writer’s one.


FARNSWORTH

Why did you choose this particular time in your life to write the memoir?


WELLS

I started writing it in 2013, right after I finished my second book of poems. It really exhausted me and I struggled with it for so long with such intensity that I just felt I wanted to write something fun. And I thought I know, I’ll write the history of my weight. That would be a gas, so of course I started to write it, and wrote it again and the idea was that it would be kind of a joke because my weight had always been for my friends, my wife, my family it had always been so humorous, comical. I knew there was a more serious component, perspective on it, but that wasn’t what I thought about when I got involved initially. I gave it to a friend to read after I’d written four or five drafts and he said, its kind of funny and kind of preposterous, but worst of all we have no idea of how you felt. So you better figure that out or it’s worthless. So I realized I couldn’t do that on my own and had to find an editor to work with. She read the book and found a hundred places where I had to go deeper into it, and that transformed the process of writing the book itself.


FARNSWORTH

What are you working on at the moment? Prose or poetry, or are you alternating between them?


WELLS

Well, I always work on poems, even when I was writing the memoir and the novel you know of. And during the pandemic I finished the novel and it was bought by Z Books, who published The Skinny. During the pandemic I wrote mostly poems in a haphazard and lackadaisical way, I didn’t feel any compulsion in writing them. A month or so ago I realized I wanted another really big project and so I’m trying to figure out what that is now. It’s prose, probably fiction, I’ve had many ideas and am testing them out and seeing which one feels the best to me. I don’t know the answer to that, but I like the idea of writing a prequel to the novel. But there are a lot of questions about that, I mean, not just grounding what happened subsequently in the novel, but creating a self contained work that has its own inquiries and compelling voices and action that have to be different. I don’t want it to be explanatory. I want it to fit with the novel, but in a very particular way. I’m trying to figure out if I’m capable of doing that. I have some ideas and some characters that aren’t in the novel but are family antecedents, parents and grandparents and what those actions are. That’s what I’m playing around with.


FARNSWORTH

One last question. How do you feel about chocolate milkshakes now?


WELLS

I just don’t think I could really keep it down.


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