Jerome Joseph Gentes is a professional and creative writer who lives in Berkeley, California. He works in all genres and was a 2012 Pushcart Prize nominee (Poetry). He taught at Niagara University and Medaille College and with Just Buffalo Literary Center/Writing with Light from 2007-2011. He is presenting at this year’s International Research Society for Children’s Literature Conference (The Netherlands), and has previously presented at the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture (Claremont Colleges), Colgate University, and San Francisco State. Developmental readings of his play Hold Your Piece took place in June 2013 with The Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, and in August 2012 at Buffalo United Artists (Buffalo, NY). He collaborated on the revue Show Me Yours with New Musical Theater of San Francisco and was part of Found Poetry Review’s 2013 Pulitzer Remix project for National Poetry Month.
VAH: Jerome, welcome to Three by Five. Congratulations on your 2012 Pushcart nomination. Let’s start with why writing?
JJG: I was born a liar. Just ask my mother. Born a make-believer, a let’s-pretend-er – let’s-play-er. I really have no choice in the matter of whether to write or not. None. Writing is genuinely more natural to me than breathing. I often have a hard time physically breathing. I never have a hard time writing. As for revising, that’s another story.
VAH: You’re not the first writer here to say that about revision! What was your first story about?
JJG: It was about being a bowl of spaghetti, some point-of-view exercise in Mrs. Sullivan’s fifth grade class at Forest Hill Elementary in San Jose, CA. I copped this cartoonish, Chef Boy-ar-dee accent for my narrator’s voice, and was self-conscious enough to know that a) I was “stealing” that from some Disney flick or such, that b) was going to get away with it, and that c) the sense of “rightness” I felt before, during, through, and after was important.
My next stories, in high school, were shameless imitations of schlocky pulp and bestselling authors like Irwin Shaw. But in sophomore year of college, a poem called “Marathon” and a story called “The Deadsea Café” reaffirmed everything I’d done so far and sealed my fate.
VAH: Do you have a favorite literary character?
JJG: Joan Caucus, from Doonesbury. Hands down. Would love to have dinner with her, though I tend to find comic strip meals a bit two-dimensional. First runner-up, Miss Elizabeth Bennett, from Pride and Prejudice. Second runner-up, Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces.
VAH: That’s quite a contrast. Fitting, I think for a poet playwright. If you were stranded on deserted island a la Tom Hanks in Castaway, what book or series of books would you want with you and why?
JJG: 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, because Garry Trudeau’s astonishing body of work is about being human and laughing at and about being human and the sound of my laughter on that deserted island would surely be a welcome change from the sound of the waves and the palm fronds rattling in the trade winds.
VAH: Dooesbury is the only comic I still consistency read in the funnies. What would you say was your biggest influence with your development as a writer?
JJG: While my mind went right to the personal, and the many, many extraordinary teachers and mentors I had over the years, looking at the question more closely, I’d have to say the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a script, of course, and one that’s executed rather strictly each time it’s performed. As a boy I therefore appreciated any and all variations from it—formal as well as incidental—that I detected from week to week, season to season as the liturgical calendar turned. I also learned to listen for the vocal shifts in tone and rhythm that signaled that a homily was wrapping up; I learned to appreciate the difference between celebrants who were oratorically gifted and those who were so deprived, and everything in between. As an older child, I got to be an altar boy, and play a specialized role in the performance and utterance of that script. As an adolescent, I then began to analyze and argue with both the script and its performance. And to resist it. As an adult, however, I’ve come around to appreciating its role in my development. J.D. McClatchy once said that poets who’d been raised Catholic might have a leg up on aspects of voice, tone and rhythm that are important for poetry and prosody. Which I also think are important for prose style.
VAH: That’s a complex and very different response than this question usually garners. If I’d known of that quote while at St. Mary’s for my MFA, I might have spent some time in the chapel listening.
More Jerome Joseph Gentes later in the month, on days that contain a three.