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Portraits of Poets

An Interview with Justin Jamail [by Aspen Matis]

Poet and attorney Justin Jamail is the author of Exchangeable Bonds, published by Hanging Loose Press in 2018. His poems and commentary have appeared in many journals and online publications, and he is the General Counsel of The New York Botanical Garden. Raised in Houston, Texas, he now lives in Montclair, New Jersey.

I corresponded with Mr. Jamail via email about the radical nature of uncommon wit, the arena of poetry criticism as a realm “where people who have a desperation to say something when there is nothing to be said seem to have that defect most exposed,” and the pleasure of rereading great works many times over. We also discussed the intimate relationship between clarity and metaphor thought Mr. Jamail’s original definition of “exchangeable bonds” in the context of a poem: “Any mechanism that turns one thing into something apparently unrelated to the first thing. Like a chrysalis that turns a caterpillar into a pocket knife.”

Justin JamailWhat is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems?

I write poems for fun, as an intellectual challenge or game, and because I think poems can be beautiful. Also to impress my wife and other friends.

What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society?

Very generally speaking, it seems to me that art is necessary for the good life. I just mean that as an empirical observation — I don’t have any explanation for why it is necessary or what it “does,” and I am not interested in those questions at all. That man does not live on bread alone can also be taken as an empirical observation rather than as a moral or theological principle. That is what I mean here. Poetry is a kind of art, so it fills that role in “our present society” as it has in every other society. Its comparative advantage, I guess, is that it fits in the pocket or average memory and, among literary arts, seems to me to place the least burden on the audience. Its apparent necessity notwithstanding, our present society rather overvalues art and poetry than undervalues it — or so it seems to me.

In your view, in what way does our present society overvalue art and poetry? I imagine that’s an uncommon perspective, among poets.

Oh, I mainly mean expressions that seem to reveal an expectation that promises more from art than it can give. Expectations that poetry will make the audience better, wiser, or more successful people or citizens, for example. Or, as a very different example, any expectation that any aesthetic experience can approach the value placed on oil paintings. It’s modern cant (there’s an 18th century influence!). I would gladly have all awareness of the existence of Picasso erased from my mind in exchange for the current market value of one of his paintings. Probably.

What is the most radical thing a poet can do in his or her work?

Demonstrate uncommon skill and wit without the appearance of effort or diligence or pride.

Your book of poems, Exchangeable Bonds, was published by Hanging Loose Press in 2018. Poet and editor David Lehman praised the collection as a “book worthy of its legacy,” in which one “can sense the benign influence of such major New York School figures as Kenneth Koch and Paul Violi.” What would you like to share about the origins, creation process, and ambitions of this debut collection? Is there a particular inquiry or exploration that unifies the book? And what do you hope readers will be left with, after the final page?

These were what seemed to be most of the best poems I had written over a pretty long period. Tony Towle, one of my favorite poets, was nice enough to give me advice on the ordering in addition to some splendid editorial comments. I hope the audience likes the poems. For someone as authoritative as David to have sensed the influence of poets as great as Koch and Violi is pretty humbling. There is no doubt that those poets exert a huge influence on my sense of what makes a poem successful.

What do you do (beyond listening) when “The room pulls away” and you are standing, as in your fine poem Early April Subway?

Write poetry! — or anyway a line or two.

What are exchangeable bonds, metaphorically speaking?

Any mechanism that turns one thing into something apparently unrelated to the first thing. Like a chrysalis that turns a caterpillar into a pocket knife.

You dedicated your book to “My fathers” — who are these men? 

Jeffrey Jamail and David Lifson

You are an accomplished attorney, currently the General Counsel of The New York Botanical Garden; is there a place in your creative practice where your legal and poetic fascinations unify? Or are these lines of work necessarily distinct — two independent threads of your life’s tapestry? 

I don’t see much connection. The scenes and clichés of office work life enter poems fairly often, I notice. Hmmm… I may write a Georgics of the office…

What 17th and 18th century poets do you read? And what has their work awakened in you?

Robert Herrick. Andrew Marvell. Shakespeare of course if we are talking early 17th century (is he part of the “long 16th”? Probably.). I read a lot of 17th and 18th century sermons; I think it is a neglected area of excellent English literature. If I had the time for an academical career I would concentrate on this. I read some poems by Sarah Egerton and Anne Finch last year and liked them quite a bit. I like Oliver Goldsmith’s writing. It’s hard to be inspired by 18th century poetry because there is a lot of “inside baseball” — references to each other and contemporary events and so forth. But I admire it a great deal. Those poets were masters of skills I don’t seem to have developed to any meaningful degree.

Are there any reliable critics? If so, who, and why is his or her perspective useful? If no, why not? What happens when poetry is critiqued? What is gained? What is lost in translation?

Poetry criticism is an area where people who have a desperation to say something when there is nothing to be said seem to have that defect most exposed. I have been told that one should not argue about taste, but that is not a reason for extending one’s exposure to bad taste. When poetry is critiqued well, what happens is that a critic has told convincingly in what way a poem or poet is successful or unsuccessful. This is valuable because it can form what is really only an impression of taste (or something) into clear ideas. Sometimes criticism can be the occasion for general remarks on mankind, of course. Such writing is often also a pleasurable or beautiful thing in its own right.

Do the best books win the poetry prizes? Why do great works so often fall through the cracks of our literary foundation, into obscurity?

I haven’t noticed much correlation, but I don’t read enough to take an intelligent view. The results of the system seem consistent with the construction of the system?  

The reason great works become obscure is that there are too many great works to read conveniently and there is also (as Johnson noted) a social pressure that many seem to feel to keep up with whatever is current, so good things get neglected. I mean, I am 41 years old, have enjoyed English literature for decades, and am only now reading Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy with attention. Yet there are serious people who consider it the most admirable work in the language! For every such book that I have neglected, there must be dozens of less famous works. Also, I think I could defend an observation that there has been a steady increase in the quantity of literature of all kinds and all qualities. What keeps me, in particular, among those responsible for great works falling into obscurity is that I reread favorite works many times over. I guess I have a terrible memory for literature!

Do you have any wisdom or guidance you’d like to share with young poets? 

Read more.

What are you working on now? What creative pursuits most excite you?

A Georgics of the office and more short lyric poems that I hope my wife will like.


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