EA: I will start with a pretty standard question: When did you start to write poetry, and who/what influenced you?
AJT: My mother wrote poems in her journals and she showed me a few when I was young. Then a poet came to my middle school, I think I was in the 6th grade, for a 2 week long poetry workshop during English class. She really encouraged me and that sort of affirmation was something I desperately needed at the time (probably still do to some extent). After that, I would use my poems as an excuse to get validation from my parents. I’d also use it as a way to communicate something I might’ve been too scared to say to them directly, like how much I hated my mom’s smoking. I guess I was doomed to being confessional since the beginning. I’ve had all the cliche influences you might expect: Silverstein and Cummings in middle school, Whitman and Shakespeare in high school, Bukowski in my early twenties. Then I grew up a bit and discovered poets like Sharon Olds and Adrienne Rich. I also love to dive into random pockets: Sufi poets like Kabir, some Polish poets, Southern poets when I’m missing my childhood. But these days I’m mostly just appreciating, and being influenced by, fellow writers in the East Bay like MK Chavez and Vernon Keeve III.
EA: Was there a point in your creative work when you can remember identifying with the label of “poet”? If so, what was going on for you and your work that made you step back and apply this label to yourself? Do you introduce yourself as a poet?
AJT: I have to admit that I’m embarrassed by the label, even though it is an appropriate label for me. I don’t write much fiction or non-fiction, unless we’re talking about my day job, and then it’s all fiction (a.k.a marketing). Anyway, I have this weird love/hate relationship with the label. I truly love poetry, but I think I’m more of a poetry nerd than a poet. I love geeking out to different forms and techniques. I love word play. I could talk about it all day long with anyone as equally interested. At the same time, I sort of assume most people aren’t (interested I mean). I never want to be the person that brings it up first for fear that I’m somehow obligating the other person to participate in something they find boring. It’s like when you want to share a favorite song or movie with a new friend or lover, but then they can’t be bothered to give it their full attention. That’s a certain kind of heartbreak that I can’t bear when it comes to poetry. It’s ok if people don’t like poetry, or if they just don’t like my poetry. It’s not ok to pretend though. Maybe that makes me a poetry snob more than a poetry nerd? I don’t know, but it’s how I feel.
EA: I am interested in the ways that people compartmentalize their lives: day job, artist, family role, neighbor, T Ball coach, etc. Sometimes different worlds do not connect, and sometimes they do. Does “poet” fit in with your life, as an overlapping identity? Is it compartmentalized? If I met you at a party and I asked you to tell me about yourself, what would you say?
AJT: It used to be very compartmentalized. I would never talk about my poetry with co-workers, and while my family knows I write, I don’t go out of my way to invite them to readings or cross-pollinate other social circles with my writing circles. I used to be very self-conscious about how silly it might sound. Or, I was scared of being judged for revealing dark thoughts or embarrassing TMI. I care a lot less these days. It’s an integral part of who I am and with increasing self-acceptance, I’ve become much more open about this part of my identity. Many of my co-workers know about it now and honestly their responses have always been complimentary. That said, I’m still not sure I want them reading my book. At readings I can choose what part of myself I reveal. I can call a last minute audible if I’m worried about how a piece might be received. But now putting words down on paper, committing to the physical object that exists outside of my control, it brings up a new round of self-consciousness. I’m trying to be ok with knowing once it’s out there, it’s really out there in the public sphere for anyone, including family and coworkers. Still, if you met me at a party, these days I would probably tell you about my wife and kids, my job, and if it seemed relevant to the conversation, I would gladly talk about poetry and the local lit scene.
EA: What was it like to be involved with the Oakland Beast Lit Crawl? Since you were there since its inception, can you give a brief back story on how it came to be and the vision, from your perspective? How has it changed?
AJT: Ooph. This is a hard question to answer. I have a lot of mixed feelings about the Beast. First and foremost, I love it and I love everyone that was ever involved or continues to be involved in bringing it to life every year. That said, I had to walk away from it two years ago for a variety of reasons. But I’m getting ahead of myself. You asked for an origin story, so here goes, a group of us were in a writing group called the 9st. One weekend we trekked down to Youssef Alaoui’s place in Morrow Bay for a short retreat. During a late night conversation, Paul Corman-Roberts raised the topic. I can remember the look on his face; he was having an epiphany. “The East Bay needs its own crawl!” he exclaimed. That sparked an exciting conversation. I suggested the name (my small contribution to the cause), and plans were made. The original team consisted of Paul, Youssef, Missy Church, and Patti Cronin. I was really just a hanger on at first. Youssef got a web presence started with a Tumblr account. Missy was interacting with curators. Patti managed finances (even though there were none in the beginning), and Paul was the general promoter/community organizer/jack of whatever trades were required. There was a lot of enthusiasm, but if I’m being honest, not a lot of follow through. Paul, being the shrewd culture builder he is, recognized that the team needed help if this thing was truly going to succeed. That’s when he enlisted Hollie Hardy’s help in rounding up venues. She was completely plugged into Uptown small businesses and had all the relationships we needed to secure free places to host readings. She also brought SB Stokes on board and he added his design talent to the original t-shirt, the crawl map, and later the website. Speaking of which, by that time, I had jumped in to help manage the website and get it updated with all the reading and venue information. It was a very motley crew, but we got the job done. The first crawl was a huge success beyond our expectations. And subsequent years grew upon that success. We held the April Fool’s Hat Party fundraiser which paid for printing costs, t-shirts, and allowed us to move the website off of Tumblr onto Weebly by Year 2. But even by our sophomore effort, I felt tension and friction. We were getting ourselves more organized, doing a better job promoting the event on social media and in the press, but we were also discovering that we didn’t all agree on what the Beast was or more importantly what it should become. I can still remember the many, many meetings we had debating our mission statement. It was exhausting. Of course, the act of creation is always intimate. You’re sharing an experience that binds you to the others involved irrevocably. It’s why marriage ties people together more than casual dating, and why children tie people together more than marriage. Putting on a festival like this is no different. But like family and marriage, these intimate partnerships come with problems, arguments, even beefs. There is unavoidable drama. Add to that the voluntary nature of the effort, that we all do this because we believe in giving back to the East Bay literary community, and you have a recipe for passionate conflict. I think it’s actually a good thing, this struggle. I think it pushes everyone involved to improve. But after four years, I needed a break. I wanted to focus on my own writing, my own little chapbook that I’d been kicking around for a while. I’m proud of the work we did, and I will always support The Beast. I might even return to the fold eventually, if they’d have me back. But for now, I’m happy just knowing I contributed in whatever small way to making it happen in the first place.
EA: You have a new book of poetry coming out soon from Naked Bulb Press, based in the bay area. What can you share about the book and the process leading up to this point?
AJT: The book is called Strangeland, and was originally supposed to be a chapbook about my father’s death. I created the manuscript with a lot of editorial help from Paul and then started to shop it around. I’ve never been good about submitting my work, so this was a bizarre and uncomfortable experience. I got a handful of nice rejections. Around the same time, Missy was deciding she wanted to expand her literary community efforts beyond the open mic reading she’s regularly held in her backyard for seven years now. After experiencing the thrill of having her own book, Church, published by Paper Press, she wanted to help give that same experience to other writers. She wanted to start her own press. She knew I was trying to get my chapbook published, so she asked if her new press could be the publisher. To say I was humbled by her request is an understatement. At the same time, it immediately felt right. I had participated in the Naked Bulb open mic since its inception. Much of the work in my chapbook started from a first rough draft reading on her backyard stage. And Missy was a close friend that would treat my work with care and attention. There was just one problem. She wasn’t interested in publishing a small chapbook. She wanted more. She wanted a full collection. I had no idea where to start so I literally sent her everything I’d ever written. She combed through it all. I can’t begin to imagine the amount of time and effort it took, but she read through everything and made an initial cut. Then she sorted that into four distinct thematic groups. That’s not something I could’ve done, but she did an amazing job. At that point, we reviewed the collection together and put them into a reading order. That’s when it struck me that each thematic section could be tied loosely to seasons. After that, everything started to fall into place. I really enjoyed the process of choosing the right fonts and the right page size. I wanted a book that felt substantial yet very reader friendly. The first proof was disappointing. I didn’t want it to feel cheap or flimsy. I wanted the font to be a decent size but I also wanted specific poems to fit on a single page. So we went back to the drawing board. We added even more poems. It got tricky in a few places. We called on Youssef for his publishing knowledge and assistance. My brother, Brian Thomas, contributed artwork for each season, and Rhea Adri created an awesome cover. We had to play around with margins and line spacing, but we made it work. I’ve learned (and relearned) a whole lot in the process, stuff I haven’t thought about since high school when I was an editor for our yearbook. It’s all been very rewarding.
EA: How would you characterize your poetry style, what words would you use? What might a reader expect?
AJT: I hope it’s not appropriative to suggest verklempt. Growing up, I had a hard time expressing my emotions. Poetry was my catharsis. If I feel like crying or laughing when I read a poem in front of an audience, that’s how I know I’ve written the right words. I’ve been told that my poetry is honest, which I find the highest compliment. It’s what I really strive for. It’s also confessional, but hopefully not with any of the negative connotations that description sometimes comes with. My style is fairly straight forward and narrative. I’m telling stories, about my life, in a way that I hope touches the audience/reader because it’s simultaneously unique and universal. The reader should expect to feel slightly voyeuristic, and hopefully slightly less alone if they identify with the feelings being expressed.
EA: Some poets describe a difference in the way they feel about their work, their creative “paths”, their communities, their sense of identity as an artist, etc. when that book is done, out, real and tangible. How did it feel to have a finished manuscript, and how does it feel to know that people out there will read it? Does it feel vulnerable? Does it feel like a milestone?
AJT: It certainly feels like a milestone. This has been on my bucket list since I was that middle schooler seeking parental approval. I didn’t expect to feel this excited and elated and terrified. It feels like Christmas Eve, Friday night football, and a first date, all rolled into one ball of conflicting nervous emotion. And yeah, it definitely feels vulnerable, but that makes me believe I’m on the right track. Poetry has always been about vulnerability for me. I want to show people the full range of my thoughts and emotions. I don’t want to hold anything back because that’s dishonest. You can’t write well about a part of your life when you’re in the thick of it. You’ve gotta get past the event and gain some distance before you can view it honestly, and what you genuinely brought to the situation, all the good and the bad and the big grey in between. I’m not trying to be anyone else or tap into any existence beyond my own. I know writers that are capable of doing that and doing it well, but I’ve never managed to do it. This book is a summary of my life (so far). It’s emotionally honest and, I hope, very relatable. I can’t wait for folks to read it.
Purchase “Strangeland” here.