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TJ Jarrett


TJ Jarrett
We Are Soldiers in the Army of the Lord

The old gods are falling. So are we all.
Citizen, they will not tell you that falling
can be forward motion, or that freedom is less
being broken than will to rise. Go, my dark sweet girl.
Praise our fresh dead. Raise them up—
Call each by rightful name.
Citizen. Citizen.
Have they called you animal, Citizen?
You are bone and spirit too.
Rise, girl, for we are soldiers.
This earth is littered with our fallen.
Weep not. The ground shifts
with the ghosts of the fallen. Rise.

Theodore Bilbo & I Consider the End of Days

The world we knew has fallen,
its head lolling like the dying
sunflowers of the field—

it retires after its long day &
leaves Teddy & me alone
& drunk on the veranda.

We’ll drink all night,
& no one will care
where we have gone.

Under the stars & fireflies
we’ll twine our limbs
until all their light blurs into

one great weight upon us
& we'll finally untwine from
this patch of earth. He'll be

just drunk enough to apologize,
say: There was the war.
Remember? We lost
& I’ll say:

There was war, & a war, then
another & another
& the wind will pool
in the swelling distance between us

& he’ll grope for a word
suspended in the dark. Abandon.
I’ll say. I abandoned you.

It could neither go on nor last.
We’ll embrace—my arms around 
his back and I’ll feel something

like his heart knocking
against my opened hand &
I can’t say that I won't love him

then as now, nor that I haven’t 
loved him like I love myself.
I couldn’t stay, Teddy, I’ll say.

I had to live
& he’ll watch the hills
& the cotton will pace the distance &
he’ll take in the still air &

he won't look me in the eye after that.
We will grieve. Our grief will blot
the light left in the surrounding night &

the wisteria blooms will roll like
the many eyes of our dead.
We will grieve. We will be done with it.

At the Repast
When we gathered at the house, while the men all looked at their shoes and the women whispered, baby, baby, baby, she sat down with a fist full of paper napkins and folded them into birds. When she filled her hands, she crossed the room to the hearth and threw a bird into the flames, then another, then another until she had destroyed all she created.  Years later when I asked her what she meant, she couldn’t remember. The worst has already happened to us, she said. What good is metaphor now?
                        -from Zion

TJ Jarrett is a writer and software developer in Nashville, Tennessee. Her recent work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry, African American Review, Boston Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Callaloo, DIAGRAM, Third Coast, VQR, West Branch and others.

She has earned scholarships from Colrain Manuscript Conference and Vermont Studio Center; fellowships from Sewanee Writer’s Conference 2014 and the Summer Literary Seminars 2012 and 2014; winner of VQR’s Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry 2014a runner up for the 2012 Marsh Hawk Poetry Prize and 2012 New Issues Poetry Prize; and her collection The Moon Looks Down and Laughs was selected as a finalist for the 2010 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry.

Her debut collection Ain’t No Grave  (finalist for the 2013 Balcones Prize)  was published with New Issues Press  (2013). 

Her second collection Zion  (winner of the Crab Orchard Open Competition 2013)  was published by Southern Illinois University Press in the fall of 2014.


A Review of TJ Jarrett's Zion by Maria Browning, first published at Nashville Scene

In a recent interview at The Atlantic, Nashville poet TJ Jarrett had some fascinating things to say about the parallels between her writing and her work as a software designer. But perhaps her most interesting comments came in response to a question about the spirituality in her poems. "I believe in redemption," she said. "I believe some poems are really prayer." Those beliefs are clearly evident in Jarrett's remarkable second collection, Zion. These poems are shaped by a passionate desire to summon mercy and forgiveness in the face of terrible wrong, and they celebrate, without a trace of sentimentality, the sustaining power of love.

There are multiple delicate narrative threads running through Zion involving the death of Jarrett's grandmother and events in Meridian, Miss., which was a notable battleground in the struggle for civil rights. Theodore Bilbo (1877-1947), a Mississippi politician who was famous in his day for a particularly flamboyant brand of white-supremacist demagoguery, appears in a series of poems as a sort of embodied spirit of American racism. He engages in an oblique dialogue with a nameless "I" who, we are led to infer, is black and female.

It would be a disservice to Zion to say that race is one of its chief concerns, if saying so gives the impression that this collection aspires to be social commentary, or that it is primarily focused on the personal wounds that racism inflicts. Jarrett's poems are doing a different, deeper sort of work. They do engage personal suffering, and many of them are about race — unquestionably and overtly so — but they are also about everything that transcends our individual lives, our easy categories and reflexive responses. They present a spiritual or existential inquiry into the primal challenges to our humanity.

This inquiry is especially acute and daring in the Bilbo poems, which depict a relationship between victimizer and victimized that is freighted not only with history but also with what can only be called love. There's a kind of moral passion at work between the two protagonists; the desire to be forgiven is met with an equally powerful, though conflicted, desire to forgive. In "Theodore Bilbo and I Begin Our Crossing," the initial journey toward reconciliation is indistinguishable from exile:

      We rowed farther and farther out
      Onto that river when a great fog
      Descended upon us so that we could see
      Neither the shore we left nor the shore ahead

The absolution that ultimately occurs in "Theodore Bilbo and I at Last Turn Face to Face" is a revelation to the giver, as well as to the recipient:

      But there is this:
      once there was me and there was you
      and from my mouth like a shock of doves
      comes forgiveness. Believe me,
      I am as surprised as anyone.

The Meridian poems meditate more explicitly on the injuries of the past, and they contain an element of personal nostalgia, but like the Bilbo poems, they approach memory obliquely, and often, through metaphor. In "Meridian, Last Night," memory is a "house still standing and in ruin. / As it always was. As always." The resolution found in the Bilbo poems, however, is more elusive here:

        The past is both retribution and reward
      Now that it has been endured.
      And it is right that we stand in its ruin,
      Among all this longing and decay.

Seeming to stand apart from the Bilbo and Meridian poems, and yet delivered in the same uncompromising voice, are deeply personal poems about love. Jarrett conveys the ferocious bond between mother and daughter in "1973: My Mother Cleaves Herself in Two": "She will split / herself in two, shear the thorax, cast off the shell of herself / and consume what-she-was as afterbirth so that she may live." The bittersweet aftermath of romantic love gets wry treatment in "Everything Men Know About Women":

        My mouth
      grows heavy with all the things left unsaid
      between friends, so I say: I am very happy
      to fill the silence.

Jarrett has a deft but forceful style that combines with potent subject matter to create poems of great intensity. She makes masterful and subtle use of imagery, but the power of these poems lies more in her gift for conveying directly some of the most elusive truths of the human heart. Many of these poems are like flashes of lightning, offering sudden, violent illumination of the kind of dangerous feelings that often go unexpressed and unacknowledged. The collection as a whole captures something essential about the human ability to seek love in defiance of hate and grievous injury. Jarrett's vision for our redemption is as fierce and hard-edged as our history is brutal, and it is a stunning thing to encounter.

 Click here to read a review of Zion and Ain't No Grave at The Rumpus


  Click here to read a review of Zion at Boston Review


An Interview with TJ Jarrett by Win Bassett, first published at The Atlantic

Win Bassett: You were born in Nashville, did some “wandering,” and came back. Tell me about your wanderings.

TJ Jarrett: I went to school in Boston and then worked for Greenpeace in Nashville for a summer and then in Boulder, Colorado. Then, I moved to Denver for a while and did a lot of odd jobs. I came back to Nashville after being busted broke and worked at Vanderbilt’s orthopedic department filling out purchase orders. Then, I moved back to Boston. I worked in logistics and operations for a medical transportation company for four years and then worked in IT in earnest ever since. It’s secure, and it keeps my mind occupied. I describe it as solving puzzles every day.

My 20s were a little crazy (like everyone’s), and I dated a guy who said that I should probably work with data because I’m good at it, and because the way we deal with data moves a little slower than more operational programming languages like C or Java. He was right about that and wrong for me. Everything happens for a reason.

WB: What does a “Senior Integration Engineer” do?

TJB: I move data from one place to another. The specific toolset involves doing ETL (extract, transform, and load) for data in source systems to various data warehouses. The point is to move data in such a way that end users can discover correlations between systems. For example, let’s say that you sell widgets. You have an ordering system and a delivery system, but they’re not housed in the same application. Maybe you want to see how soon you ship an item after you book a PO (purchase order), or how your inventory supply and demand affect how people purchase items or which items they purchase. I specifically work on a pharmaceutical and a medical/surgical equipment decision system that analyzes how facilities purchase these items to determine how they can best save money.

WB: Which came first: poems or software code?

TJB: Poems. I wrote them almost every day when I was 12 until my early 20s. My mom worked at Hampton University with Paula Rankin, who was an awesome poet. After seeing me writing every day after school, she asked to look at it. She read a few, declared them awful, and gave me a reading list and some assignments. If she had to read them, she said, they should at least be good. I was young enough to not know how good she was or how generous she was. When I was 16, she talked my mother into letting me attend her seminar. She really nurtured and loved me into being a poet.

She did all of this even though I told her that I was going to be a lawyer. She shook her head and told me, “No, that’s not going to happen at all.” I ran off to college in a fit of rebellion and then realized that I couldn’t be a lawyer if I tried. It’s not in my nature.

WB: What is your nature, and how does it correspond to that of a developer and poet?

TJB: In regards to being a lawyer, I’m not terribly combative. Or to be clearer, I don’t have the patience to argue. I don’t know how people live like that. I know that it would exhaust me. I am forever questioning, and I do more than enough arguing with myself. And I have an artist’s temperament: I’m so sensitive sometimes that I astonish myself.

I call it a crisis of empathy. All poems have an element of rhetoric, but I find it best to approach this humbly so that your reader doesn’t feel bludgeoned. I’m always putting myself in someone else’s shoes and trying to see the world as they see it. I see the world as a system, many parts coming together to make the whole work. To troubleshoot code or to ask the question of “how did we live under Jim Crow?” means that you have to watch the parts coming together like gears and ask good questions. How did it come to be like this? How can we make this better without dismantling the whole? If we are going to replace it all, how does this one part function within the whole? What were our fundamental requirements?

WB: How does writing lines of computer code relate to your writing lines of verse?

TJB: I tend to break things up into functions. If I were building a cash register, I’d build the “add” and “subtract” and “running total” functions. If I were building a book about lynching, I build “how the crowd gathers” function; “how fear works” function; the “grieving” function; the “questioning if this is the best way” function. If a poem is a tiny machine, then a volume of poetry is a car or a plane—a bunch of parts that come together to perform a larger action.

WB: Have you held any other jobs while writing poems?

TJB: I stopped writing poems from about 20 until 33, but I would always tell a friend of mine that my dream would be to go to Columbia’s MFA program. Finally, my friend got tired of my saying this and said that I could write anywhere and asked what was stopping me. This is a long way of saying that I’ve only written poems “professionally” while working in IT.

WB: Does this mean you have a trove of poems prior to your life in IT?

TJB: I wish it did. I lost most of them (my mother claims to have some), and I burned some of them. I don’t have much early work. Sometimes I run across attempts to write before this time period, and I cringe. I think I was very clever but not very wise. The sound is there, and some stylistic tics remain, but the clarity of thought and the sincere reaching to a reader are absent. I think being unconcerned about your reader is selfish.

WB: How do you they think these earlier poems differ from the poems of your life in IT now?

TJB: When I was younger, I wanted to hear myself speak for my own sake. I’m not sure if it’s because working in IT is a team sport, but I am always worried about the reader and how they will interpret what I’m saying. Right now, I think I’m one of two Americans on my work team, and it greatly colors how I say things, not just in tone but culturally. I’m more concise. I’m more measured. I go for meaning more than rhetorical flourish.

WB: A pastor and a professor raised you. Tell me about your upbringing and how it affects your writing.

TJB: Oh, there were no words left un-interrogated in that house. My mom filled the house with books, and where she left off, my dad continued. Funny fact—my dad still memorizes every sermon each week. He writes it out on Thursday and Friday night and practices on Saturday. I can’t believe he still does it that way. Mom let me read anything. There was no such thing as verboten books. There were times where she wondered if something were too mature for me, but I absorbed only what I could understand.

WB: Have your father’s sermons’ pastoral, religious, or spiritual themes ever found their way into your poetry?

TJB: Absolutely. I believe in redemption. I believe some poems are really prayer. I believe one is called to write poems because God knows it’s not for money. I believe the words move you and not the other way around. I believe that one should submit humbly to hearing what the soul has to say. I’m not terribly religious, but I know some poems come, and I just stand by and attend their journey into the world.

There are poems I’ve written that feel like I had very little to do with getting them on the page. I start writing and get my ego out of the way. I don’t know if that’s spiritual, but Dad and I have often talked about doing the reading and preparing only to have magic happen when we’re sitting down to write about it. I realized only after the fact that all the Bible reading I did as a child (if you don’t want to be in church, no one ever raises an eyebrow if you’re recreationally reading a Bible) comes through all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll hear a Bible verse attributed and hit my head and realize that I quoted it almost verbatim in a poem.

WB: When do you do most of your writing?

TJB: After work. Late and in bars. Specifically at the Red Door Saloon. I don’t know why that bar, but it’s my place, and it gets really loud. I know I should leave around the time that Ronnie or Danny gets on shift at 8 or 8:30 p.m. If I stay longer, I’m really only watching baseball or basketball. And drinking.

WB: How does your current work schedule affect your writing schedule?

TJB: Christ. I don’t sleep. And I can really only write in bars. I need the ambient noise. I tried cafes, but I can’t drink coffee after 3 p.m. I’d never sleep at all if I wrote there. This year, I plan to write a little slower because I have tasked myself to re-certify on the BI (Microsoft’s Business Intelligence) stack. It’s something that I’ve needed to do, but was too busy writing to get it accomplished. I’m striving for balance.

WB: What do your co-workers think about your writing?

TJB: Some people know that I write, and others don’t. Because I’m the only American developer on my team, I can’t be a “grammar Nazi” when I speak only one language fluently. I’m more impressed with them and the myriad ways that English is spoken between them. It’s like being in a linguistic mixing bowl. Sometimes (and I’ve never told them this), I sit back in meetings and listen to the musicality of them talking back and forth about an issue. Then, I snap out of it and realize that there’s work to be done.

WB: Have you ever written while on the job?

TJB: Not at my current job. Sometimes, I’ll get an idea and write it down to work on later. Frankly, I’m much too busy to even start a poem at work. This, I’m sure, will make my boss very happy, but it’s the honest answer. I have done some writing during lunch at other jobs or while running a batch load that I had to watch too closely to actually start real work but not so closely that I can’t tool around with a poem. The same thing might happen during long software installations. For the most part, writing and working don’t mix. Most writing happens after work and before sleep. I get a lot less sleep than I should.

WB: What would be your ideal job be?

TJB: I have moments when I realize that I’m working at my dream job. I never have enough time to enjoy both as thoroughly as I’d like, but I really like my job. I love writing, but there’s so much ebb and flow with it. I need things that are more stable, and I don’t have the patience to teach on a regular basis.


 Click here to read an interview with TJ Jarrett at First Book Interviews



 Click here to read an interview with TJ Jarrett at Writer House


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

  Click here to view a reading by TJ Jarrett at Devil's Kitchen Literary Festival

Click here to buy Jarrett's books

TJ Jarrett

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