Jerome, you talked about your first story earlier and a poem and story “sealing your fate” in college. Would you expand a bit on when you knew you were a writer and how you came to that understanding?
JJG: The year of the spaghetti story, my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, also encouraged me to write my earliest poems. In fourth grade I’d done some imitations of Frost, in a unit on poetry that I remember mostly for my first encounter with Poe’s “Eldorado” and Frost’s “Stopping by Woods On a Snowy Evening.” But Mrs. Sullivan went out of her way to get me to write more, to write longer, and write….oh, I guess I would say bigger. To write more honestly. The scale of what I wrote in response to her encouragements and her attentions evolved, and I’d like to think it deepened. I remember writing my first love poem, a generic one, to no one in particular, and yet somehow actually meaning everything I put down on the paper. Mrs. Sullivan was married to an English professor at San Jose State, and showed him my poems, and got some actual feedback for me. I don’t remember any of it, and sadly, no longer have access to that juvenilia, except in memory. That year I also wrote more plays—playlets, really, not full-length pieces—than in any other year I can remember.
VAH: Your experience echoes my own – including long ago first feedback. So many times I’ve wished I still had access to those early pages and the feedback.
What would be your best advice for emerging writers?
JJG: Don’t do The Artist’s Way. Forge your own! And keep your juvenilia! Seriously, if you’re truly sincere about writing, you have to see and hear. Do and be and play. And read. Read, read, read. Keep reading. Then, only then, in whatever time is left when you’re not doing all of those things, should you start to create and make. If you’ve done those other things before you start to create and make, what you create and make may actually be worth keeping, and tending to, and perhaps by then it will be more than mere juvenilia. I’m of the ilk that believes that not everyone who wants to be a writer can be. I also don’t think that you’re a writer just because you say you are, or that because you write, you’re a writer. That may sound harsh, but it’s because I’ve seen so many would-be writers or writers who wanted to be worthy of the identity or the calling abandon their desire to write or had that desire abandon them. I’ve known good, even great and published writers, who’ve had this happen.
VAH: Writing is more than the muse…
Jerome – The MFA? You have one, has that helped your career development or progress and do you recommend the MFA as worthwhile?
JJG: I have an MFA in writing from Columbia, which I’m frankly still paying for, in actual as well as figurative ways. The experience I gained while I was there, the personal and professional connections forged, however, while costly in terms of dollars and time, have been invaluable in terms of life and living. I continue to benefit from my connection to my mentors and peers from Dodge Hall. I feel lucky that I got my MFA when it was a relatively uncommon thing to do. For anyone considering an MFA now, however, I recommend careful, extensive consideration. There are so many more MFA programs now that I often equate it to a culinary degree: anyone can get a culinary degree, but not everyone who can or does will use it, and not everyone needs one in order to cook. They just need to cook. And eat. And so on.
VAH: I might be borrowing that comparison next time I’m asked about the MFA!
Do you have a favorite conference or writing retreat/seminar and what made it worthwhile for?
JJG: Vermont Studio Center in Johnson was a synergetic experience for me, largely because there were visual artists as well as writers of all genres there. I’d never been so close to the making of visual art before, and it energized me more than I can say. Not to mention that I was there in August, which, in contrast to the heat and humidity of New York City, was the perfect month to be there.
VAH: If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
JJG: I’d probably be a photographer. Or a visual artist.
VAH: Makes me wonder what a hybrid visual/poetic Gentes piece would look like.
Return for more in August with poet, playwright and perhaps photographer Jerome Joseph Gentes on days with a three in the date.