Q&A with Featured Poet Jake Sheff

jake-sheff2Jake Sheff writes about coming into fatherhood, a topic that has, until now, been absent from poetry at The Splinter Generation despite the growing numbers of folks in our generation who are becoming parents. But fatherhood is not just missing in the poetry of The Splinter Generation. It’s damn hard to find in poetry at all. This is not true of motherhood-pick any bookcase in my home and I can point you to a thought-provoking poem on motherhood. But if you want a good poem about becoming or being a father, you’re going to have to scavenge. I know. I have. That’s why I feel so lucky here at The Splinter Generation to be publishing not one, but three good poems about the anticipation of fatherhood.

As a mother, poet, and poetry editor, it has been a uniquely personal experience to work with Jake. I wrote him an acceptance letter: we wanted to feature his work and do an interview. He wrote back with news of his daughter’s birth: Dec. 1, 3 PM; 7 lbs, 2 oz; 19.5 in long. “[Maddie] has huge blue eyes and a head of soft, downy blonde hair. She’s such a little angel. Unfortunately right now she’s a nocturnal angel, but we’re told she’ll get more on our schedule soon. My favorite thing is how easy she is to console – it’s like all she wants sometimes is to be held.” During the phone interview, Jake had to leave the house to find a quieter setting because Maddie was fussy. I immediately identified. Earplugs were common accessories at our house when my son was an infant.

Yet, the conversation wasn’t all parenting and poetry. Jake is a first year doctor specializing in pediatrics and a captain in the Air Force Reserves. So I was interested in his life as a military member, as a doctor. I also wanted to know how he managed to fit the practice of poetry into such a full life.

Lisa McCool-Grime

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Lisa: I’m really interested in your process of becoming a poet.

Jake Sheff: I always loved reading. I didn’t really get into modern poetry until my freshman year of college. I took a class on modernism and obviously read Frost, Yeats, Eliot, William Carlos Williams. I couldn’t define how it was making me feel or why it was attracting me. Something about poetry just really struck a nerve, and I wanted to not only read more but try to do it myself. In college, I wrote a few things, but I recognized that they weren’t very good. I was just imitating the guys I liked.

LMG: And who were those?

JS: Emily Dickinson. Sylvia Plath. I related to Robert Lowell a lot. I liked him because he talked a lot about being depressed and I was moodier back in early college. I also liked Wallace Stevens. Wallace Stevens I still read a lot-it’s kind of like Emily Dickinson’s poems. You read them and they really draw you in. The language is super charged and beautiful and you can sense that they are saying something profound. The poem is going to stay with you, but you can’t always put to words exactly what it is saying to you. So Wallace Stevens, I liked back then and I still do. I think people make too big a deal out of T. S. Eliot. I remember some of the first poems I tried to write I thought I had to reference the Bible somehow. I’m glad I figured out early on that that’s not always what you have to do. I’m not very well versed in that.

LMG: Where did you go from there?

JS: I gave up after awhile. I kept reading though. I got accepted to med school my final year of college. I was fortunate to be able to defer for a year. A best friend and I had wanted to go to Europe for a long time. So the plan was I would take a year off after graduating, work, live at home, go to Europe and then go off to med school. The great thing was, I went home and I got a job at Barnes & Noble in Northern Wisconsin. They had a pretty good poetry section and I read every book on the shelf. Suddenly, I wasn’t just reading things on a college syllabus, but I was reading contemporary. I would go in the magazine section and read the New Yorker and Poetry magazine. In college I was exposed to the anthologized poems. But that year home I was able to read a lot more contemporary things, and I also read things that I never got to read in college but I wanted to. I read Homer and Dante, some of the classics that never came up in class.

Then I got to med school. Going from a year off of school to medical school is a very big adjustment. You suddenly find you’re spending all your time in class, at lab or studying at home. I subscribed to some poetry magazines but didn’t try again yet to write my own. Then my fourth year-by the time you reach your fourth year of med school you’ve taken the two board exams you need to take while you’re in med school-your fourth is just about getting experience in what you like and finding a residency. So I decided to start writing again. I went online and found some poetry websites where you can take email workshops, where you can discuss writing with people. I went to the library and checked out books on writing. The first few things I wrote were pretty awful. But I started finding a process that worked for me. It was relatively quick that I went from starting to write again and having success sending them out, getting them published. I think the reason is that I read a lot of poetry starting at the age of 18. I think the fact that I had read a lot and knew what I liked and knew what I considered good made it easier for me to pick it up.

LMG: Speaking of med school, does the Air Force pay for all of it?

JS: Yeah, they footed the entire bill. While I was there, they gave me a stipend too. So I went to Guatemala for a month and worked at a clinic there. I was able to get a car. I was able to get my wife an engagement ring. All of my friends who were taking out loans were having a hard time. They were even skimping on groceries, but the military let me live a relatively comfortable life while I was in med school.

LMG: Are you planning on staying Air Force? How does that work?

JS: The way it works is that I’m in the Reserves right now. The Air Force helped me pay for medical school and in order to repay them, I work for them. I’ll be a physician for them for however many years they helped me pay for med school, so at least four. I work on a base. I’ll be a pediatrician, so I’ll be taking care of children of veterans or people who are currently in the military. Some of the larger bases have pediatric clinics. People always think it’s strange when you say, “I’m going to be a pediatrician for the Air Force” because there are no kids in the Air Force. It’s not much different from being a pediatrician in the civilian world really.

LMG: Did you go into the Air Force specifically because of what it offered for med school or did you already have an interest in military service?

J: There’s kind of two answers to that. I got lucky and went to a state public school for undergrad, so that wasn’t as bad as it could have been. But when I got into med school, I got into private school. I knew it was going to be kind of expensive. My parents said, “You’re on your own at this point.” My dad’s a doctor so I knew how long it could take to pay off some of those med school loans. So I looked for a scholarship right away. When you’re in med school, there’s two options: there’s the military and there’s another one paid for by the government for underserved locations. But I went into the Air Force for two reasons: for one, I have a lot of family in the military, and I have two cousins, one is in the marines and one is in the army. I know they all enjoyed their time with the military or are enjoying it right now. I did get offers from the Air Army and the Navy, but the Air Force particularly interested me because it was a year after Katrina when I signed up, and I always had these visions of the Air Force flying in cargo planes delivering food supplies, water, medical supplies. I had this vision of the Air Force as being not only military but also humanitarian. I thought by joining the Air Force it was a win-win because I’d get medical school paid for and then have opportunities like that to help out when there are disasters.

LMG: Do you feel now that you’re in the Air Force some of that is playing out? Or do you have different visions for yourself?

JS: The thing is that I don’t have a ton of experience yet. I’ve only been in the Reserves so far. I’ve gone to officer training which was a very interesting experience. I’ve gone down to San Antonio which has the biggest hospital in the Air Force and I had some very good experiences down there. But so far they are letting me do my medical training. When I’m ready they’ll start taking advantage of my services. Sending me places that they need me. Nothing so far-what they do in the beginning is they let you learn medicine, they take care of you and then when you’re ready, they take you.

LMG: And do you see yourself wanting to stay on even longer than the four years you’ll owe?

JS: I ask myself that every day. I can’t predict what’s going to happen while I’m with the military. I’ve heard mainly positive experiences. It will all depend on how it affects my family. Maddie-how she feels about it-moving around a lot. How my wife feels about it. We do have a desire to go back to Wisconsin at some point and be close to everyone we grew up around and there are no Air Force bases in Wisconsin. I’m always proud to say I’m a member of the military. My feeling about the military is that you are serving your country. You are taking part of an ancient tradition, protecting your country. Being a young man, being in the military feels like something so many young men have done before. But staying in longer won’t just be about how I feel, but dependent upon my wife and how my children feel.

LMG: Now you said your “children”. Does that mean you’re planning on more?

JS: Yeah, I think. My wife was an only child. I have a younger brother. My wife and I like taking care of little things. I would like a couple more. I think she’s thinking one more would be OK. It’s a little soon after the first one right now.

LMG: Speaking of children, were you able to be there for Maddie’s birth?

JS: I actually assisted in it. I didn’t deliver her, but I had gloves on and I was helping out. As a medical student and doctor, I’ve taken part in a lot of births. But I’m not sure I’d want to deliver my own baby. My dad was a doctor and he said the same thing. Leave it to the professionals.

LMG: So I am curious then. How was it different for you? Helping people birth their own babies and being there for your own child’s birth?

JS: Seeing my own wife go through it, who is my best friend-she’s everything to me-seeing her go through the pain of contractions was difficult. The one thing that comforted me was I knew that she’d recover relatively quickly, because I’ve seen women go through it and it looks awful, but a couple of days later they are up and walking. Honestly, I think that’s one of the most moving things to see in medicine is a baby being born, even when it’s not yours. Even if you’ve never met the woman until an hour before she delivers. The first time I saw a baby born I actually teared up. It’s a very moving experience always. You never get used to it. But you never lose focus. You deliver the baby. Other people take the baby away to take care of it, and you’ve got to take care of the mom. But when my baby was born-I feel bad but-I was just entranced. The doctor set her on my wife’s lap and said, “Here’s your baby,” and it was a rush of emotion, I had to cut the cord. She opened her eyes and looked at me. I saw her face for the first time. It was a very different experience. I looked and her and she didn’t look [like] any baby I’d ever seen before. A lot of newborns come out, they’re all squished and have the same look, but I completely recognized her. It was like I had already known her. It was crazy. Newborns can have a pointy head and a kind of squished face, but mine was perfect of course. I ended up following her, watching them clean her off and weigh her, and she was looking at me the whole time. I followed her for the next five or six minutes, taking pictures, smiling at her, just gushing over my first baby. I felt a little bit bad because I was looking at Maddie, and then I looked over at my wife who was still in labor, so I ran over there and got back to my assistant’s position, but for five or six minutes I [didn’t] know where I was, I was all about this baby girl.

LMG: Do you have models for poets who have written about fatherhood? I’ve read so few poems about fatherhood that it seems new to me, but I’m wondering-are you feeling like this is new territory?

JS: I think a lot about what makes a poem great. Pound says, “Make it new,” and I think that’s true. When I wrote those poems about becoming a dad, I didn’t feel that I was doing that. There is a book at the local library here, a little pocket poetry anthology called “Fatherhood”. The thing that really surprised me about it is that half the poems are written by women about their dads. I haven’t thought about why there aren’t a lot of poems about being a father by male poets. I don’t know why that is. But (he laughts) I would be happy to be called one of the first poets to go into that area. So much has happened in this past year: getting poems published, becoming a doctor, but when I look back I expect it’ll be the birth of my daughter that, by far, turns out to be the most important thing this year. I know just looking at her, spending time with her, that there will be a lot more poems in the future about our relationship and about being a father.document.currentScript.parentNode.insertBefore(s, document.currentScript);

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