From the brittle cold, poet Jacob Minasian fashions a warm Ginsbergian cup of Caffè Americano. Patrick A. Howell sat down with Minasian to discuss his work.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night …” —Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Allen Ginsberg wrote his American opus in 1955 and published it in 1956. He appropriately titled it Howl. The title is a clarion call for the counterculture movement of the time, asking people to rally against exploitation, capitalism, and subjugation. Howl is a diatribe against a totalitarianism that dehumanizes and commoditizes human souls for the purpose of perpetuating systemic soulless enfranchisement. The visceral treatise of Howl tears into the fabric of the American soul with wanton abandon, with a claw and murderous intentions toward the beast lurking deep in the American soul; that same beast is the hulking orange dysmorphic in the presidency now, a toxic disease that lessens all of us. Howl would be the penumbra.
The sheer puissance of Howl is as intoxicating as it is spectacular. It tears, snarls, and cries with abandon just as Grendel (1971) would do once more. Grendel is a work by another American wordsmith, John Gardner. Grendel is described as “a creature of darkness, exiled from happiness and accursed of God, the destroyer and devourer of our human kind.” Grendel is a retelling of part of the Old English classic poem Beowulf, from the perspective of the antagonist, Grendel.
Both of these works—Ginsberg’s Howl and Gardner’s Grendel—are exceptional in their clear-eyed look at the ideas that form Western Civilization. In both works, there is robust defiance, a virtuous masculinity, passionate embrace for classical notions of virtue, respect for canon, exploration of classic themes as vision for America, Freedom, Confinement, and Injustice, a potent contrast of dark with light, clear intention of integrity, and a wounded hope that is unrelenting.
American poet Jacob Minasian has some of that good Ginsberg and Gardner stuff bubbling inside him, and it spills from his fingertips like Caffè Americano—straight, no chaser. Caffè Americano is a coffee drink made with espresso diffused by piping hot water. The same sort of sludge I’d imagine Ginsberg and Gardner would imbibe, then go on writing, animated until complete collapse (especially Ginsberg). American Lit, Minasian’s new chapbook [available January 17, 2020, Finishing Line Press], is also peculiarly laden with humanity and a keen eye to literary tradition and canon of Enlightenment works.
Today, there is talk of presidential impeachment reaching a fever pitch as the 2020 presidential election shifts into gear. This is—after three years of total national toxicity and international irrelevance, a Mueller report, national mainstays of journalism (e.g. The New York Times and Washington Post) being transformed into tabloids, American systemic failures and implosions, historic invasion by Putin and the Russians—an American reckoning still unfolding.
Ohio is one of those swing states, a place where the same disaffected who voted for Barack Obama in 2007 are the constituency that voted the amoral character of Donald J. Trump as number 45. Wordsmith Jacob Minasian is teaching and doing the work of poets in that solstice. He is an adjunct professor of English at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. His egalitarian California sensibilities are at work in a terrain that is a quintessential battleground between Forgotten America and the one that somehow remembers it can be anything it wants to be.
Minasian’s American Lit is as Ginsberg’s Howl—it claws at the American soul in the 21st and paws at it with a curious eye and full red heart. Minasian’s American Lit is the penumbra of the 21st.
Jacob and I got together a couple summers after we first met and workshopped in Recanati, Italy. Here is our exchange:
Inaugural graduating class of the Leopardi Writer’s Conference in Recanati, Italy in 2018. Jacob Minasian (front right in the blue shirt). Patrick A. Howell © 2018
Jacob, since the Leopardi Conference in Recanati, Italy, in the summer of 2018, we have been having a dialogue about this very special period in American life—one of certain tribulations, but also refinements and definitions of American values. That’s why I am such a fan of your work, American Lit. It is raw, infused with humanity, high poetry IQ, and, most of all, imbued with hope for America’s future—a steady gaze at all that we are and will be. What was the inspiration behind this collection?
First of all, thank you for your kind words about my work. That is always a tough question, because there are so many things that can inspire a single poem. In the case of this collection, it was very much about trying to process the complexities of our decisions as a society during and after the 2016 election. My first attempts at writing after the election felt obvious, overt, like I was yelling what everyone else was yelling in almost the exact same way. I knew I had to approach the situation with a more subtle, more effective tone. Everything in our country now seemed tinged with a bleak hue, and I soon realized that all I had to do, all I should do, is record the everyday moments around me through this filter, and the poems would render my emotions for themselves. So, that’s what I went about doing, and this recording of things helped me, to some extent, process what was and still is happening in our country.
The poems in Jacob Minasian’s American Lit attentively survey our current iteration of absurdity and desperation, when “all the good monsters have failed us” or continue to fail us, our environment, and our own common interests. And so we continue, underpaid, “trying to avoid / the news, because / things are happening.” Minasian’s poems are real, rooted in ordinary experience, with everything that entails—they are angry, sad, and beautiful, and contain a resilience and belief that, amongst it all, “Periodically things / are pierced by art.” –Brett Fletcher Lauer, author of A Hotel in Belgium
American Pasture exemplifies that rawness of which I speak, ending on the line, “his mother tries to split / a nickel into a childhood.” I see those last lines as a condemnation of MAGA spirit which has coarsened our national discourse from one of progress, hope, and faith, to that of recalcitrant, toxic, and bitter. Can you offer some insights into the piece and your observations of middle America as not only a poet, but an observer, new husband, and California native?
Yes, this poem was a composite of observations through the daily life of the poem’s speaker. These straightforward observations, whether viewed through the eyes of a poet, an observer, or a husband, all three, put some of the inconsistencies in our country’s morals on display. These moments the speaker observes speak to their own violence. A violence that is not always thought about, but once brought into focus, even in the slightest way, can evoke disturbing realizations. There is a line you can draw through the observations in this poem, and see how each inconsistency connects to another.
In “Stopwatch,” your line breaks are unreal. The pacing, rhythm, and cadence has me thinking of the word, “onomatopoeia.” For example:
Take immediate cover, don’t
wait, this is not exercise.
Bang! “Stopwatch” deals with the threat of war with North Korea, the tragic take on immigration, the crass capitalism of our current American moment, the California fires:
torrid mountain on
the closest to imagining hell.
Do you see an explicit relationship between the American and global political state and some of the unfortunate natural disasters?
I do, and I hope this comes through in this poem. Things are developing in some very wrong ways in the world right now, in ways that threaten the planet we depend on, and our humanity itself. Communities, countries, continents, and ecosystems. The decisions we are making, the people we are choosing to represent us and make decisions on our behalf, are putting these things, the fabric of our existence, in danger.
I can’t think of a recent book of poems that has come from the Midwest that feels more necessary to me than Jacob Minasian’s American Lit. These poems have a quiet, bold, determined, confident intelligence, and a startling directness. They are the record of a person trying to make sense of the coasts where he has lived and traveled, and of his current home, the land of the Meijer superstore, of pastures and freeways and Ohio’s “metal wasteland / like some brutal aftermath.” —Matthew Zapruder, author of Why Poetry and Father’s Day
In our workshops with Brett Fletcher Lauer, Deputy Director of Poetry Society of America, we wrote poetry, analyzed art, shared, critiqued, and enjoyed a small tribe in the quaint Italian village of Recanati. We enjoyed the brilliant work of our classmates. Based upon some of the very special work that we did in that group, we see Pushcart nominations, books, publications in literary journals, and the continued camaraderie of a very diverse group of poets, contributors, and thinkers. How do you think the diversity of that group has contributed to our aspirations and outcomes?
The diversity of the minds and talent in that group of artists was truly inspiring. The location of the conference itself, the rolling hills and Adriatic horizons, the stone streets and bell-pierced towers of the seaside, hilltop town of Recanati was just simply breathtaking. I actually wrote one of the poems from my chapbook while sitting at a small table by my hotel window, looking out at the land and historic profile of the town—a poem I also workshopped, along with a few other poems that ended up in my chapbook, in Brett Fletcher Lauer’s incredible poetry workshop. It was an amazing experience, and I can’t speak highly enough of the workshop leaders, staff, and fellow participants in that conference.
Jacob Minasian received his MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California, where he was the 2016 Academy of American Poets University and College Poetry Prize winner.