You turn me to rain with a sentence.
Black and secret centers have me falling,
confessing. I know nothing but the crusts of
the starvation we call living.
All day the earth broke open.
Under a furrowed brow of clouds,
Crows rose, smoke, and thin crocuses. — Justen Ahren
Justen Ahren is a person of many talents and aspirations. He’s a family man, owner of a landscaping company on Martha’s Vineyard, Poet Laureate of West Tisbury, and Director of the Noepe Center for Literary Arts. His works have appeared in Fulcrum, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, BorderSenses, Comstock Review, and been nominated for two Pushcarts, as well as in his own collection of poetry – A Strange Catechism.
I was first introduced to his poetry when I began to research writers’ residencies in the spring of this year. Beautiful, stirring, dramatic, sensitive – his work thoroughly impressed and moved me in a way I found surprising. It also struck a chord with similarities in my childhood, starting with the dedication page:
Somehow I trusted the knowledge that if he could share such raw emotions, so could I. And that is the beauty of being around other writers and communing with each other for a space of time devoted solely to the craft of creativity. It is the gift he keeps bestowing on writers of all genres, and the headline of the Noepe website: Time, Space, Create.
Because I wanted all of you to become familiar with his work and the opportunities at Noepe, I hoped he would have time for an interview, and he generously made it happen.
RJ: How old were you when you first started writing?
JA: I’ve been writing since I can remember. At first, I wrote songs, entire albums, and recorded them on a tape recorder. It was pure play and joy. It was my first experience of making things out of sound. It was a further investigation into how language, sound, equaled a thing, brought a thing to life. Here was a currency. Prior to this time, I was conscious of constructing an ongoing narrative in my head as a way of making sense of the life I was waking within. I was constantly writing and rewriting this ‘story’, manipulating it, turning it into some thing, making it dramatic, artful or beautiful, or otherwise, an artifact. I felt Life’s temporality, and even then, my own fragility.
RJ: What inspired you to write poetry as opposed to another form of creative writing?
JA: I came to poetry via music, lyrics really. Ultimately, I was drawn to a quiet, private utterance. I heard silences, deep chasms between words. Lyrics just didn’t go here. I am still very attuned to the music words make and how that music means. I also love puzzles, and solving them. I love turning things over. Poems are like puzzles—physical, visual, auditory puzzles—I can tinker with until they click shut and open for me at the same time.
RJ: How long does it take you to write a poem and turn it into the type of artistic expression that is both eloquent and emotionally striking?
JA: Years, sometimes. I have poems that still aren’t satisfying and I’ve been writing them for 15 years. Though I’m learning to let go. I’m learning that sometimes my experience of the moment that spawned a poem is itself limited, and impairs the resulting poem forever. Occasionally, I have the pleasure of writing a poem in one or two sittings. Those are gifts.
RJ: Do you ever worry about what other people think of your work?
JA: Yes, of course. The things we make come from us or through us. Rejection can feel personal. But when I’m making new work, I try not to let that concern censor what I write. I don’t think we can simultaneously express and be critical. I want my poems to be understood, to communicate. I have hopes for my poems like I have hopes for my children. But I can’t control people’s response. And I certainly can’t anticipate how people may feel about a poem that hasn’t seen the light of day. My worry is more ‘Have I made myself understood? Have I been true to the music and needs of the work? Have I fulfilled the imperative that first set me to work?
RJ: Tell me a little bit about your process. How does an idea work through you from the initial spur to the finished product?
JA: I wish I knew how my process works. It is still a mystery. Why does some thing, a moment, an idea, a line of music take hold of me to the point I’m willing to live with it, allow it into my life and have a relationship with it for a period of time? The mystery and the playfulness of ‘creating’ are so enjoyable, that I always want to be in that place. I remember how free and joyous I felt as a child, making for the sake of making. It was a pure expression of the moment. No permission was necessary. It is what I did. If it was raining, I’d write about the rain. I’d imitate songs I heard. It was all play and exploration. At some point it became serious. Taking writing too seriously is something I now fight against. And so, any time I can create, I want to reproduce that early experience of being creative—being at play. This is as close to feeling whole, a feeling of Oneness, as I can get.
RJ: Your works have appeared in Fulcrum, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, BorderSenses, Comstock Review, and been nominated for two Pushcarts, as well as being available through a published volume – A Strange Catechism – which deals with some emotionally raw subjects. When people express to you the effect your artistry has had in their lives, how does that make you feel?
JA: If something I write affects another, well, I’m speechless. I think this touches an unquenchable longing: to communicate. It is the fulfillment of the energy of a creation, the reciprocity of a gift. It is the completion of the creative circle. We give and receive and then must give again in order to keep the energy moving. It is an exchange of energy. This is what gives any work life. If this exchange doesn’t take place, for example, as with the hundreds of poems I have in my drawers, there can be no life. So, it is both humbling and gratifying to hear that something, some words I wrote were felt by another. It is frightening, but I feel blessed that I’ve made some thing felt. I don’t know how much control or credit I can take for this. We seem to encounter what we are seeking. I’m simply trying to interpret my experience, if others ‘get it’ and it resonates, amen.
RJ: What you are currently working on?
JA: Exile in its many forms; poetry as a machine for remembering, unearthing friends, lovers, the creek behind my house; violence, both intimate and public; and the music of long lines, short lines and couplets.
RJ: Where and when did the idea to start a writer’s residency sprout?
JA: Around 2006. I had just finished an MFA at Emerson College and a month-long residency in Costa Rica. Both experiences were rich. I was part of a writing community. Back home on Martha’s Vineyard, I no longer had this community. It was a selfish desire to start a residency. I wanted to be around writers, talk about writing, share ideas, share food, and drink wine. That was the totality of the idea at first.
RJ: What are your hopes and dreams for the future of the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s Residency and is it becoming enmeshed within Noepe Literary Arts Center?
JA: Noepe is the new umbrella organization. I had an opportunity to take over the space where the residency is held—a ten room, old whaling captains house on Main Street in Edgartown. In order to make it financially viable, the idea had to expand. The resulting non-profit offers workshops, readings and talks, in addition to 2-6 week residencies. My hope is that Noepe, and the residency, will continue to grow as a community where writers come for support, to work on their craft, and for the time and space they need to create.
RJ: Martha’s Vineyard is a lively and bustling island with history, art, music, organic farming, fishing, water sports, beaches, and fantastic dining opportunities. Do you plan on developing a path at the Noepe Center that pairs available writers with these niches?
JA: A beach volleyball league for writers? The Novelists vs. the Memoirists. No, not in the plans. But we are actively building partnerships with other island non-profits, The Farm Institute, for example. Next year we plan to offer a residency to one writer interested in writing about local food production, sustainability and community supported agriculture. We also are exploring partnering with a Choreographers residency. The residency and workshops always build in free time for participants to be able to explore what Martha’s Vineyard has to offer.
RJ: Who is your favorite poet – living or deceased – and why?
JA: I don’t have a favorite poet. I return to many, and keep discovering others. I want to feel the human in poems. When I feel the heart beating, when the struggle to say is palpable, I’m there. Recently, Joseph Stroud, David Baker, Eugenio Montale, Jane Kenyon (again and again), Mary Ruefle, Hayden Carruth.
RJ: If you could spend an hour with anyone, from anywhere – also currently living or deceased – who would it be and why?
JA: Cleopatra. Is it necessary to explain? And Sappho. I’d love to know what is outside the extraordinary fragments we have of her work.
RJ: What do you read when you are not focusing on your own projects?
JA: Novels, newspapers, lists of ingredients. I leave books all over the house so I can read when I am in that room. Right now I’m reading about the Civil War, a psychology book on Spirituality, an anthology of European poetry, a memoir about an Arab-American growing up in Texas, and a collection of short stories.
RJ: What is the best advice you’ve been given as a writer and what would you like to pass along to the readers?
JA: Years ago a friend told me, ‘a writer writes. If you want to be a writer, don’t talk about it, write.’ I used to think I could only write when inspired. But I’ve come to realize that the act, the process of writing leads to discovery. When we are writing we are demonstrating our preparedness to receive. The act opens us to receive more. To the contrary, not writing has a very strong inertia. It is hard to get going once you’re stopped.
RJ: Thank you, Justen, so very much. It has been a great pleasure to get to know a little more about you and your work and now my readers can share a bit of what I was so fortunate to receive over my time at Noepe on Martha’s Vineyard.
From the poem:
A Strange Catechism
in the book by the same title:
I feel inside a strange catechism
has begun, learning down the sound
of my love for God
into the dark of my body.
–Justen Ahren, A Strange Catechism
Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray. She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food. She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.