New England poet/editor Jake St. John talks about the Beats, music, bohemian '50s era & counterculture

"Music and poetry can affect your senses tremendously. They can both bring back memories and vivid memories at that. They can transport you into your own thoughts where your senses come alive and further open your mind."

Jake St. John: Roads With Sunflowers

Jake St. John currently writes out of New London, CT, where he also coordinates poetry readings in and around the New England area. He is the co-editor of Flying Fish (with Colleen Keenan) and the editor of Elephant. St. John took part in the 100 Thousand Poets for Change worldwide event this past fall. His work has appeared in several print publications including Chronogram, The People's Tribune, Fell Swoop, Burp, Unarmed Journal, and the Chaffey Review. St. John’s chapbooks, Change of Address published by Unarmed, 2010, and Looking for Sunflowers, published by Good Cop Bad Cop Press (New London, CT 2012).

"Writing has taught me an appreciation of the ordinary, the every day things that most people look right through or completely ignore. All things can be beautiful when you really see them and beauty and the grittiness of life is constantly surrounding us." (Photo by Colleen Keenan St. John)

Jake St. John has been called “a neoBeat adventurer” by poet Tom Weigel. His chapbook I Talked To The Moon (Wandering Head 2012) is a collection of poems detailing a summer long trip across America by way of back roads and side streets. Jake St. John talks about the Beat generation, William Blake, Amiri Baraka, Jack Kerouac, A.D. Winans, Jazz & Blues, his poetry, bohemian '50s era & counterculture.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently? How would you characterize the philosophy of Jake St. John’s poetry?

The experiences that my poems seem to be pulled from are two separate cross-country trips I took 8 years apart from each other. Those trips really opened my eyes and impacted me in many ways. Being on the road and seeing the different ways of life and meeting and talking to different people around America definitely are the bones of many of my poems. However, poems and ideas come from all over. As long as your eyes and ears are open the poems find you. I’m not sure I know myself well enough to describe the philosophy of my poetry. I do know I want my poems to be honest and direct. I want to be able to read my poems in bars and in the streets because that’s where much of my inspiration and poetry content has come from. 

What have you learned about yourself from your writing of your poems?

Writing has taught me an appreciation of the ordinary, the every day things that most people look right through or completely ignore. All things can be beautiful when you really see them and beauty and the grittiness of life is constantly surrounding us. I’ve learned that you need to keep your eyes open, take a walk, enjoy where you are and really see where you are. Be in the moment of it all. Open up to the experience of living.

"I’ve had many moments that changed my life. Both road trips I mentioned previously influenced me in different ways. They changed the way I looked at the world around me. They gave me perspective on how small each of us are and the vastness of the world that surrounds us." 

Has your poetry changed greatly over the years or have your themes and techniques remained basically the same?  Have you embarked on new directions recently?

The content and the themes of my poetry have stayed relatively the same. The natural world and social and political views still show up but the technique has evolved. I’ve been writing with a lot of figurative language and similes that I don’t think were as prevalent in my earlier poems. I think that is a natural step as a writer grows and is exposed to other poets and writers and experiences you can’t help but be influenced in some way. The process of writing has stayed the same.  I never sit down and think I’m going to write a poem. They seem to come in bursts. A voice enters my ear reciting and I just get the words onto the paper. Then I arrange the words and thoughts and “clean up” the poem so it reads how it’s been written. “Write, read, edit, repeat” is how I’ve described my process. 

How started the thought of Elephant and Flying Fish?

Both ‘zines came from different places. When Flying Fish was born New London was really hot with poetry, and still is. I was talking with one of the poets, Tom Weigel, a great respected poetry “veteran” and one of my early mentors. We talked for a while at the bar after many readings how New London needs to have it’s own print outlet for poetry and it started from there. Then one day I received a postcard from Tom with a Flying Fish on one side and he wrote something to the effect “The time is right. Go ahead with Flying Fish!” So my wife and I started collecting poems from local poets and then after a while poet John Landry put us in touch with other poets and it sort of spread from there. 

Elephant came about in a much different way. As much as I love getting Flying Fish out there the process was and is very time consuming to get it all together. I had always wanted to get a ‘zine together of many poets but also within a short amount of time and easy to mail. I had some poems that were sent into Flying Fish that were small in length and I started playing around with spacing and placement on the page and before long I had about 10 different poets and poems placed on 2 pages (front and back with one staple). I had room to list additional ‘zines as well. Elephant was able to be mailed with one stamp in an envelope. All in all I was able to knock out many copies in one night. Of course now that life has given me many responsibilities, time has been a restriction, but there are plans to go ahead with another issue of Elephant very soon. 

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music has had a tremendous impact on my life and writing. In fact my first introduction to poetry was through listening to The Doors growing up and Morrison’s love of William Blake. I had to find out who this Blake guy was! I was blown away when I finally got to read Blake. In fact, I was turned on to Kerouac’s On The Road (Photo: Jake at Kerouac's grave, Lowell, MA) while reading a biography about Morrison when I was younger. I ran out and bought a copy of On The Road immediately and one thing led to another. 

I’ve written songs for blues singer and poet Bruce McDermott and the process has always worked the same for me as it does writing poetry.  The lyrics would come from some other place and bounce around my head until I could get them all out and then Bruce would arrange the music and tweak lyrics as needed but I always approached poetry and song writing in the same manner, never forced.

Music helps open the mind, much the same way poetry does. I’ve thrown on different jazz albums, usually Coltrane or Bird, when my brain is too cluttered and after sitting alone in the dark with a drink and the music, soon those voices start reciting and I start copying down their stanzas. Music and poetry can affect your senses tremendously.  They can both bring back memories and vivid memories at that. They can transport you into your own thoughts where your senses come alive and further open your mind. Music and poetry have forever been tied together. If you let them they will make you laugh, cry, think and create. And that is always a good thing.   

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Beat literature and generation with your generation?

I was introduced to Beat literature by way of Kerouac’s On The Road. That book really opened me up in a way that is tough to explain. It showed me that there is a whole world out there aside from my small hometown and I decided right then and there that I wanted to see it all. And it seems that book is still the one that really opens the eyes of many. On The Road was a catalyst for my first trip cross-country with one of my closest friends. After reading the book we had to get out of town and hit the highways and back roads of America and we were lucky enough that we were provided an opportunity to do so. I think the fact that Kerouac is such a popular figure his work opens the door many times to the vast literature of the Beats. 

A line that seems to stick out that could possibly be the link between generations is Amiri Baraka’s quote: “The so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked.” I think this line still resonates with the young artists and poets today. There is a lot of anger and resentment among this generation toward the direction society is going.

"History is a big part of my life. I would bring pens and notebooks absolutely. I always have a copy of A.D. Winans poems and Jack Micheline’s poems on me at all times, so those would be packed in my bag. (Photo: Jake with Neeli Cherkovski and A.D. Winans, Caffe Trieste, San Francisco 2013)

What do you miss most nowadays from the bohemian 50s Beat era?

Being in my mid 30’s I can only speculate what the bohemian 50’s was like. From what I’ve read and heard through stories there seemed to be more of a sense of community among artists and poets. A person was able to move from place to place with little means and little fear. There was a sense of honesty in the world that the counter culture was trying to achieve something. There seemed to be more freedom to move, inexpensively at that. Artists and poets were able to shake up the status quo, which I think needs to happen again. Now it seems that the world tries to keep you in one place or charge a small fortune to move from here to there. The world has changed. Rarely will you see a hitchhiker and when you do, they won’t catch a ride. But I like to believe that as long as there are trains there will be that one last hobo riding the rails deep into the American night. That’s my ideal that I cling to. 

Which has been the most interesting period? Which is the moment that you change your life most?

All periods of life are interesting; you just have to embrace the realization that in time the “now” will be a memory. How will you end up remembering it? I try to keep that frame of mind in day to day living. How do I want to remember today? Will I make it exceptional or at least do the best so there will be no regrets? In time, I’ll grow old and look back at the years. Hopefully I can do so with a smile and my head held high.

I’ve had many moments that changed my life. Both road trips I mentioned previously influenced me in different ways. They changed the way I looked at the world around me. They gave me perspective on how small each of us are and the vastness of the world that surrounds us. Also, moving to New London and discovering its art scene gave me a new outlet for expression that I never knew before. There was a freedom in that. The most significant change was the birth of my son. That was a life altering moment. It’s been a terrifically rewarding few years since his birth.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many wonderful people through poetry. I’d say the most important meeting was the first poet I met when I arrived in New London, Tom Weigel. I was with a group of friends at a café grabbing a coffee and while we waited in line I made a boast “I’ll read my poetry in public this year!” When we got to the counter to order there was a beautiful handmade and very retro poster for a poetry “open mic” the following Sunday, and every Sunday after it. My friend looked at me and said something to the effect of “Looks like you’re reading in a few days.”And of course I had to. I read a poem I had written at 4 in the morning on an apartment floor in Las Vegas titled “American Stranger” and it would be the first poem I would get published. 

After my first “open mic” Tom really took me under his wing, introducing me shortly after to poets John Landry and John Greiner personally among many others and he would introduce me to the works of other poets that would have an immense amount of influence on me. Tom really helped facilitate my growth as a poet. He had a knack for supplying me with work that he knew I would benefit from. He turned me on to Bob Kaufman, Creeley, Whalen and Ted Berrigan and many many others. Tom showed me that there was a world of poetry out there and gave me the self-confidence to read and write that I’m not sure I had early on. Had I not met Tom Weigel, all the future meetings and friends I made along the way would not have been possible.

What are your hopes and fears for the future? What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from TV news?

It’s difficult to live life in fear of the future, though it seems that’s what the majority of mass media wants us to do these days. The media is slanted in so many angles it seems to be a business of fear, paranoia and propaganda lately or maybe it always has been. It’s all bought and paid for by deep corporate pockets. I’ve heard that as long as the “news” is bad that means that “goodness” is still prevalent in the world. So I try to look at it like that but it’s still tough. Not having television in my house I don’t get exposed too often to television or cable “news”, though I do read the local papers from time to time. I have always told people, if you want to hear what’s really happening in the world, read a poem. 

Social media distributes many news worthy stories which are both heartwarming and heartbreaking, especially this time of year. Stories about people helping each other always get me. Especially when it involves strangers helping strangers. It gives me hope for the future.

"I’ve learned that you need to keep your eyes open, take a walk, enjoy where you are and really see where you are. Be in the moment of it all. Open up to the experience of living."

Where would you really wanna go via a time machine? What memorabilia (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in?

I am a student of history, so narrowing down one time or place would be very difficult. The old American west and the ‘20s always fascinated me, as well as, the 50’s and 60’s. I could go on and on about where I would want to go depending on the day. History is a big part of my life. I would bring pens and notebooks absolutely. I always have a copy of A.D. Winans poems and Jack Micheline’s poems on me at all times, so those would be packed in my bag.      

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