On Writing, Teaching and Believing in Your Story: An Interview with Jeff Kass – Michigan Quarterly Review

On Writing, Teaching and Believing in Your Story: An Interview with Jeff Kass

MQR’s Online Series, “Celebrating Writers in Our Community,” is inspired by our upcoming special-themed issue, “Why We Write.” The series of interviews is a celebration of the diversity of Southeast Michigan writers, their talents, their motivations for writing, and their significance to our community. 

Jeff Kass teaches tenth-grade English and Creative Writing at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. He founded the Literary Arts Program at Ann Arbor’s Teen Center The Neutral Zone and directed it for twenty years. He is the author of Knuckleheads, the winner of Independent Publishers Gold Medal for Best Short Fiction Collection of 2011, the thriller Takedown, and the poetry collections My Beautiful Hooked-Nose Beauty Queen Strut Wave and Teacher/Pizza Guy, a 2020 Michigan Notable Book and a finalist for the Midwest Book Award. His debut young adult novel Center-Mid, centered around a high school field hockey team, is set for release in the fall of 2021. He lives in Ann Arbor with the writer Karen Smyte and their children Sam and Julius.

Lillian Pearce (LP): Do different motivations for writing encourage you to write in different genres? Does one provide a stronger outlet for you than another?

Jeff Kass (JK): I love writing fiction and poetry with equal amounts of passion, and, on occasion, I’ll dabble in writing essays. Generally, if I want to write about a true experience—something I’ve been part of or witnessed—I turn to poetry. Writing poems helps me both document and process the world around me. In fact, I write a lot of narrative poems that help me dig deeper into what I’ve been through, or even in real time, what I’m going through. I feel mystified quite often by my surroundings, and I work through my confusion by writing poems. I don’t really write poems with fictional foundations or conceits. Lots of writers do, and that’s great, but, for me, poetry is a way to search for truth by exploring lived experience.

Writing fiction is a way for me to search for truth by making stuff up. If I’m working on a story or a novel, I’m trying to process experiences in a more long-term way. I’ll need a while to sort through my confusion. Right now, for example, I’m working on a novel about a father and son navigating COVID-19 quarantine together. I could write a few poems about my own experiences in that regard, but by creating fictional characters, I can explore experiences not my own, expand the landscape of my archaeological excavations into a bunch of what-ifs. Writing a novel allows me to think about the issues I’m trying to understand for years as I wind through what I hope can become a unified narrative.

I think I get more jazzed up about writing fiction, my body feels the joy of it more, but writing poems also pushes me more insistently out of my comfort zone, pushes me to find new language, new ways of seeing things. Writing poems can feel painful, vulnerable, scary. I don’t feel pain when writing fiction, or fear. I just get in the flow and dance through a couple of hours, and it feels a lot more like joy.

Maybe I do need to feel more pain in fiction, do need to risk more. Now that I think about it, there are definitely places I’m afraid to go in fiction that I am more willing to tiptoe toward in poems. I should probably work on that.

The genres bleed into each other. As I said, I write a lot of narrative poems because I feel like I understand the arcs of stories. I also write prose that sometimes rhymes or goes off on lyric riffs. Editors and publishing houses might not always agree, but I consider that genre-blending a strength.

LP: How has your experience as a teacher affected your position as a writer? Where do you find intersections between your positions as a writer and professor?

JK: One thing I like to do when writing fiction is almost always make some kind of allusion to a Creative Writing teacher who’s a bit of a goofball. I’ll make fun of the teacher’s hair, or his clothing, or the silly things he says. That’s my way of making sure I ground myself as both a teacher and a writer, my way of saying to myself, don’t take yourself too seriously. That’s a good foundational philosophy for me. As a teacher, I never want to be that person who thinks he knows everything. Especially as a writing teacher, my role is to help students find their voices, not to teach them how to write in the same way I do. I believe there are principles of strong writing, of course – painting vivid pictures with words, searching for fresh language and insights, for example – but I always want to be open to a student who finds a different path toward developing their voice than the one I’m laying out for them. As a writer, too, I don’t want to close myself off by believing I’ve already uncovered some magic formula to success. What worked for me as a writer a year ago may not be what drives me now or what will drive me a year from now. I love when Stanley Kunitz says in his poem “The Layers” that he’s not done with his changes. I like to believe I live that idea in both teaching and writing; I can always evolve, always make changes, always grow.

Teaching and writing bleed into each other in practical ways as well. For one, I do a lot of writing during class at the same time my students are writing. Or sometimes, in English 10, when they’re taking a quiz or test. Over the years, I’ve trained what’s left of my brain to be quite efficient in that regard. I used to believe I needed 3-4 hours stretches of time to do my best writing. I don’t believe that anymore. I can’t. I never have stretches of time like that. So now, I can pretty quickly switch my brain from teaching to writing mode and bang out some good stuff in 15-20 minutes stretches. A lot of that is editing, but I come up with fresh stuff too. One trick I use, especially in fiction, is to stop a writing session halfway through a sentence, or at least at a point where I have a very good idea about where I’m going next. That way, when I pick up again, whether it’s an hour later or a few days, I don’t return staring at a blank page and no direction to take it in.

LP: In his 1947 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell breaks down his motivations for writing into four distinct categories: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. How would you define your motivations for writing? 

JK: I suspect there are truths in all these categories, and I’ve felt all of them at one point or another, especially the last two in regard to poetry. However, there’s also one missing—doing it for the gosh-dang joy of it. I think that’s the one that motivates me most. Nobody would question that a musician might just play for the pure joy of making music, that a painter might just paint because it’s fun, yet writing is often seen as more painstaking, as more a plunging of needles into our brains and fingers. Maybe that’s because we all got assigned so many analytical essays in high school and college, but, to be honest, I write a lot just to feel what it’s like to be immersed in a flow, to be frolicking in my imagination, and having a good old time. I used to get that feeling of flow from playing sports, but writing became the only way to achieve that feeling when I wrecked my knee in college. Dancing too, I guess, but I don’t—especially during the pandemic—get the chance to throw down too often at parties these days. And, yeah, well, there’s still the knee issue.

But when I’m writing, I feel the way I used to feel when I was playing center field, zoning in on the pitcher’s release, watching the batter’s swing with every bit of concentration I could muster to try and track the spin of a ball headed in my direction. I have a poem about that—“Becoming an Outfielder”—about the responsibility one feels when chasing down a fly ball, about how that’s one of the few times in life when the fate of everything is in your own hands. You’ll catch the ball and end the threat, or you won’t. That’s a scary prospect, but also an exciting one. Writing feels that way to me, too, especially when I’m in the zone—the prospects are scary, but also exciting, and, also, in no one’s hands but mine.

That’s ego, I guess, but think about how many moments we have no control over—the moments of this virus and how they’ll play out, for example. Writing is the joy of discovery, but also the joy of creation, the joy of making, as the poet Aracelis Girmay says, a poem that makes me want to push back from the table and say, Damn.”

LP: MQR’s special-theme issue “Why We Write” seeks to illuminate perspectives and examine the motivations of writers, specifically how they are influenced by social and political conditions and social justice. How do these concepts influence you?

JK: As a cis-gendered, middle-class white male, one of the things I’m thinking about in my new novel is how a character who’s somewhat an alter-ego of myself—think something like Junot Diaz’s Yunior, except not quite as much shared DNA—can talk about the experiences of now: the pandemic; the #MeToo movement; Black Lives Matter and police brutality; immigration; for God’s sake, Trump, without coming off like a total asshole. There’s a long tradition in literary fiction of ignoring such a conundrum—especially for white men—of leaving digging into political elements of a story to other writers. Then we can claim our work is art for art’s sake, the purest kind of literature, uncluttered by diatribe and didacticism. I’m sure, in fact, that if my new novel gets published, one of the criticisms will be that it strays from that tradition. To be honest, I’m not interested in upholding it, which is not to say there aren’t giants in the canon (Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, and from a more contemporary realm, John Irving) who are white and male and don’t fail to tread in political depths. I suppose I would want to be like them to whatever degree my meager talents allow.

The challenge is to write characters complex enough they can’t be typecast, yet they feel real. So, in a scene I’m writing at this very moment, my middle-aged white male narrator brings his son to a Black Lives Matter rally in Minneapolis. Interesting place to put him, but what should I do with him in the midst of it? If he’s purely on the side of righteousness, he’s boring and not worth exploring. So if a band of Proud Boys shows up near him and starts chanting, All lives matter! All lives matter!—what should he do? I don’t have to write a scene like this. The novel is about how a father and son learn to understand each other, a tale fit for any era, really. But our times are fraught. What kind of gutless writer am I if I don’t create moments that test my protagonist’s moral fiber in ways that matter right now?

What I’m trying to say is, I was working on writing a YA novel about a high school field hockey team, a worthy project in terms of intersectionality because I want to write epic, heroic stories about female athletes (think Arike Ogunbowale knocking down game-winning jumpers for Notre Dame), but this new story called to me because of the pandemic, because of the one-step-forward-two-steps-back way we’re living during this pandemic. The murder of George Floyd is a big part of this moment. If I ignore it, why am I even writing about the current world? I don’t know what’s going to happen in this scene with the Proud Boys. I’ll find out more tomorrow morning when I work on it, but, for now, I can avoid being disgusted with myself by knowing I’m going to at least dive in and see where the story goes.

Of course, in Teacher/Pizza Guy, the whole project digs into ideas surrounding class and economic inequality. The book is full of pain, but I didn’t want the whole thing to be a complaint about the problems of capitalism. I tried to shine a light on what a life affected by those issues looks like, but I also just wanted the tales of the experience to be interesting, to be entertaining, to make a reader laugh as much as get angry. My mom doesn’t like this book. It hurts her too much to think of her son out delivering pizzas in the middle of the night while his children are sleeping. I also have trouble reading these poems in public because they basically constitute a confession that I’ve failed at life and need to take a third job just to support my family. But I read them in public because I’m not the only teacher who has to hustle like this, and our culture needs to know what that looks and feels like, even if it humiliates me to shine the spotlight on myself.

LP: In reference to the act of writing or the writing life, how do you think about community? Does the idea of community have geographical connotations for you, or is it connected to your experience working with young people? 

JK: For me, the writing community has always meant young people. What I mean is that working with young people keeps me on my toes. I must keep evolving as a thinker and writer just so I can keep up with my students, and the truth is I will ultimately fail anyway. Dozens of my students have surpassed me both in talent and output, have produced stellar publications, and that is my best compliment as a teacher. When they become better writers than I am, I have done my job.

I do feel connected to the Michigan writing community and that of the broader Midwest because our stories are so often ignored by publishers in New York. I don’t know that there are uniquely Michigan stories or uniquely Midwestern ones, or if there are, if I have the ability to tap into them, but I do know I am influenced by the writers around me. Part of the drive to write overtly political work is that my students want to write and read overtly political work. They are my toughest audience because so many of them are reluctant readers. I feel like if they are engaged in a story or a poem I’ve written, then I must be doing something right. My short story collection Knuckleheads was specifically written with my male teenage students who say they don’t like to read in mind. Not the best way to sell books, I know, but I wanted to try and reach them somehow.

I constantly tell young people to believe in the worth of their own stories, to write about what’s happening in their worlds in the present moment. Only they can truly document what the experience for teenagers during a pandemic is like. If they don’t tell their own stories, someone else will try and fill that vacuum and tell their stories for them, and they probably won’t be as truthful. Writing is always essential, and what I’ve seen over the almost three decades I’ve been teaching young people is that the ones who truly try and develop their voices, who dig and dig and explore and push themselves—well, they might not become professional writers (some do), but they will become leaders. They will become thinkers and communicators of influence and consequence. There is never a better time to write than the time one is living in. No era is easy. Writing is not easy either, but it brings growth, and it can bring joy too.

LP: How have your motivations for writing evolved during the pandemic?

JK: Well, like I said, this new novel called out to me. I’ve been writing like crazy, an hour or two each morning before school and whenever else I can find free time. But that’s only been since November. For the first eight months of the pandemic, I was thinking a lot, editing other projects, writing a poem here and there, chipping away at the YA field hockey story. Then in mid-November, I just kicked into a groove, and I’ve been jamming ever since, 300 pages in four months. I don’t know why it happened that way. Like everyone else, I guess the pandemic initially knocked me sideways, left me unmoored. It took me a while to find my footing, but that struggle to find footing is probably what led to my eruption of productivity since November. That struggle, ultimately, is at the core of the new book. That struggle is what I’m writing to understand.

Becoming an Outfielder
felt like a demotion, I had always played
first base, anchored the diamond, the steady
throat swallowing all flavor of dart lacing across dirt,
the vertex of every angled out. But our coach grew
tired of Franklin Jackson roaring anthems over
the addled heads of our spinning leftfield carousel
and, truthfully, so did I. the switch seemed to pay
the first inning of that first game when Franklin
smacked his usual bomb of rising banana-split
erupting cream and I read its arc and shape-
shifted my body to panther-slide and cheetah-leap
and with a dashing backhand snatch tamed Franklin’s
venom – just another dart that died in my merciless mitt.
But Franklin too had a body, and a back-up generator
pulsing at the grinding core of his hips and from two
hundred-plus of the longest Rec League feet away,
I could almost see the chugging factory rebuild itself
stronger, cull more spark and grease from its fiery
vault, and when he swung his next time up, my lungs
blew themselves into a sailing kite and clung to the wake
of his tallest tale’s tailing flight but despite my lunge
and dive I could not divine a line to intersect his monstrous
drive and I watched it roll down the stone-gate stairs
and through the parking lot I used to traverse every summer
from third grade through eighth when baseball camp lunch
found me walking to the deli for a buttered kaiser roll
and a strawberry-red soda known as a Tahitian Treat,
and sometimes my mother would sport me a couple
extra dollars and I’d ride my bike in the flaccid afternoon
to the PX Theater and see a G-rated movie, something
like Herbie. I have always found the outfield to be
something like that, like walking into a dark theater
when you’re young and small and alone and you’ve
got so many choices about where to locate your body
and your hands and your feet. Don’t we live for challenges
like this – for the chance to stand ready on this sometimes fertile mud,
to hear a cataclysmic crack and know the doom is entrusted to our own
tending, to know it’s up to us to read the wind, to rhyme
the spin, to run, to leap, to dive, to snatch, to hold?
This poem first appeared in the collection My Beautiful Hook-Nosed Beauty Queen Strutwave, Dzanc Books, 2014.

lsa logoum logoU-M Privacy StatementAccessibility at U-M