“If I’m completely open and honest with myself, I know there is one thing I’d like to accomplish, and that’s learning to immerse myself and swim within life’s flow so naturally that I won’t even notice when I leave the stream and enter the ocean.” — John Clark Vincent 9/5/22
How did this interview come to be?
After I finished my interview with Linda Bybee Kapfer, she asked if she could interview me back. And I said… okay. As you will discover in the text below, Linda’s questions are succinct. My responses are not.
L: Since you have agreed to be interviewed, here is my first question. In your bio on this site, you skip over your college experiences. You were an education major. What made you choose that major, and what made you step away from that career path?
J: That’s a tough question to start with, but I’ll give it a shot and try to be as honest as I can. I kind of feel like this answer needs a little background to help it make sense. As I was finishing high school and beginning college, I gradually sank into a pretty devastating depression, which resulted in me dropping out of school, going home to isolate, and gradually just sort of starting over. Part of starting over was giving myself permission to just write poetry, drift with life, and not put any pressure on myself, because for me, pressure was really toxic. But eventually, I found myself believing that I needed to start thinking about beginning to live what most folks would call a normal adult life; meaning get a career type job and have a family and all that. Up to that point, I’d been reasonably content just hanging around campus. I didn’t like going to class — even that level of structure was hard for me — but I’d done a lot of independent study and my grades were actually pretty good. Anyway, my thing was just hanging around college people, soaking up the environment, daydreaming endlessly, and writing poetry. Bringing that part of my life to a close was kind of traumatizing. I was still a long ways from fully recovering from my depression. Even so, I convinced myself I needed to accept reality and demanded from myself the self-discipline to see it through. So step one was figuring out the job thing.
I was a creative writing major at that time, and as I said, all I really cared about was writing poetry and doing as little as possible. So I figured if I was going to find real career-type work that allowed me to have anything to do with poetry, teaching was my only choice. I didn’t have any counselors in the English department — I was one of the university’s first creative writing majors, and everything was pretty much in a discovery process — so I found a counselor in the College of Education and asked him if it would be possible to graduate as an education major with only one year (or maybe a year and a half) of college left. He was pessimistic about it, but he was profoundly creative with requirements and figured out how to make it happen. I rushed through all kinds of curriculum and instruction stuff, and then totally lucked out and got to student teach at one of only two high schools that had creative writing classes. I also lucked out and got to student teach with you and the two Sarahs. And because of you and them I was able to travel back and forth from Topeka. Student teaching was exceedingly stressful for me because I always have suffered from extreme stage fright, and even high school students were almost more than I could deal with, but I got through it. And then after I graduated, I got hired to teach junior high kids in a small town down in southeastern Kansas.
I discovered that I actually liked teaching. But the person I was married to at that time did not like me being a teacher and did not like living in a small town. So after a year of teaching, I gave it up and moved to Kansas City and got a job working as a writer for a corporation there. From that point forward, I just tried to bury myself in the world of evolving communication media (which I found kind of fascinating), keep working on becoming a normal person, and continue to try to recover from my depression.
L: I certainly relate to the teaching job in a small Kansas town. My first teaching job was in Sabetha, KS. It’s on Highway 75, six miles from the Nebraska border. Winter was brutal there, but the teaching staff was young, and since there was absolutely nothing to do in that little town, we all hung out together, drinking too much and smoking really bad K-pot. There were two liquor stores and 12 churches, no movie theater in a town of 3,400. I lasted 4 years then moved back to Lawrence and took a job at Eudora.
A strong memory I have of our senior year was hanging out at your place, listening to music, and you sharing your poetry with me. It was so beautiful, and I was deeply impressed with your gift. As I watched the Grammy’s last night I was reminded again how fluid the line between poetry and music is. So here is my question, what are your music tastes? Do you have a go-to genre when you are writing? Do you listen to music to inspire your writing or while you write? You asked me about my three favorite writers. If you made a 10-song playlist of songs that inspire you, that always give you comfort or good vibes, what would they be, and why those songs and artists?
J: Sabetha sounds similar to Sterling… where I grew up. We had eleven churches for 2,000 people, and no liquor stores. But you asked about my musical tastes, which I have to say are pretty eclectic… maybe because I’m such a moody person and I try to find music that matches my mood, but overall I definitely lean toward the sad and melancholy side of life. I like neo-classical type stuff that’s a little more spare and melancholy than the older classical work. I also like easy, cool, moody jazz, and a wide range of singer/songwriter stuff and ballads of all types. Ambient, techno, and trip hop are often just the thing. Sometimes I go on a heavy, grungy rock binge, or alternative rock. And, of course, classic rock and folk rock from the late sixties and early seventies have always been staples. Plus, there’s theatrical music from stage and film… I love soundtracks. So, yeah, I like lots of different types of music.
As far as a go-to genre when writing, it depends what I’m trying to write. Because I listen to music that matches the mood I’m trying to connect with, when I’m working on a writing project I basically create a soundtrack playlist, which is a technique a well-known screenwriting coach here in Portland suggests to her students, and which works really well for me. For example, when I was working on man love, I listened to a playlist that included music from the late 60s to the early 70s because nothing brought back the trauma of my early life better than that did. Late 50s to early 60s music was too romantic and hopeful… it takes me to a completely different place. And when I was writing The End Of Love, my playlist was called “melancholy neoclassical” and was built around an Olafur Arnalds / Alice Sara Ott collaboration called The Chopin Project. I found it painfully beautiful, which was a perfect match for the mood I was trying to create. That’s how I work music into my process.
Coming up with a 10-song playlist that inspires me is quite a challenge. I’ve tried to put lists like this together in the past and usually gave up on it. But I guess this time I’m going to go for iconic songs (iconic for me), in no particular order. But each one will be a song I love, or one that creates or supports a super specific emotional state of mind.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right by Peter, Paul and Mary. This was one of my early songs for emotional immersion.
The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel. This could have been Bookends, or Dangling Conversation or a dozen others.
Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen. Also, The Stranger Song, Chelsea Hotel, Suzanne, Everybody Knows, etc.
Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. Because it’s sorrowful perfection.
Reminiscence by Olafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott. Because it’s a perfect expression of longing.
She Used To Be Mine by Sara Bareilles. Because it captures the kind of broken heart that life often provides.
All Along The Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix. Because it instantly takes me back to my generation’s attempt to make the world better.
Blue (Album and song) by Joni Mitchell. Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Neil Young are included in this pick. 🙂
I Put A Spell On You by Nina Simone. Because it’s Nina Simone.
Invitation to the Blues by Tom Waits. Tom Waits is like the Willy Vlautin of singers… he celebrates life’s fringe dwellers.
Okay… that’s ten. That was hard, and I’ve got a list of another 20 songs sitting here feeling left out. 🙂
L: Ten songs is hard, ten movies or books as well. The song list always reminds me of a song I might have forgotten, but really loved, like The Sound of Silence and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right from your list.
It’s taken a bit for me to think of the next question I want to ask you. So, you have always struck me as someone who has a clear vision of who you are and what you believe to be true, and you early on learned to use your beliefs as your moral and life compass. I remember coming home from student teaching one day, and you talked about how you and your future wife were talking about getting married in the Church or not, and you were pretty adamant about not wanting to get married in a Catholic church or commit to raising your kids in the Catholic faith because you did not believe in their dogma (and dogma was the word you used, I clearly remember, because I was impressed with the vocab, LOL) and you didn’t want to pretend to believe in any of it to get married. NPR used to run a series called “This I Believe” that was a 15 minute-ish audio essay written by a wide variety of artists, celebrities, and ordinary people where they shared a Truth that they believed guided their life or steered their course. One example I remember was by Muhammad Ali where he talked about his belief in himself, and his potential to be “The Greatest” even after being stricken with Parkinson’s. So here is your next question: What do you believe?
J: I’ve spent the majority of my life asking myself this very question. Both as a young boy and an old man, I’ve spent an enormous amount of my life’s energy just sitting and observing everything around me. Looking for the connections of things… from watching raindrops dance through a cottonwood’s leaves to witnessing the endless roll of the ocean’s waves. I’ve wondered about so many things. Observed, experimented, analyzed… and, for me, it gradually became clear that the most honest answers came from how life felt. What felt good, or bad. What felt right, or wrong. What caused me to repeat successes, or never seem to learn from some types of failures. What does success and failure actually mean? Why am I here? Why are any of us here? What makes me feel so strongly about this thing called life? What have all my feelings actually brought me to believe is true?
Well, what I believe, what I feel to be true, is that all of life, every bit of it, is alive and connected. I believe life continually flows. It flows in us, and through us, and with us, as we, ourselves, flow, because we are life itself. I believe everything is one thing, and one thing is everything. I believe life, as a whole, is always in balance, which does not mean each instance of life is in balance, but rather that each instance of life is, knowingly or unknowingly, on its way to balance, in that it’s an aspect of life as a whole. I believe the flow of life is the physical expression of the breath of life… the energy of being alive. The energy of being. To be is to flow. Flow is eternal.
I believe life is self aware, and that each instance of life is both aware of itself and capable of being immersed in the combined awareness of the whole of life. I believe the limited awareness of the individual comes and goes, but the unlimited awareness of life as a whole continually flows. I believe life, as an individual, is both a temporary expression and an observation of that flow. I also believe that, as an individual, I am capable of influencing my moment of self-awareness. So, finally… what do I believe in a practical sense? I believe in what I perceive as the strength and the beauty and the endlessly fulfilling qualities of peace and love. I believe all expressions of life are valid, but the expressions I am meant to support… the path I am meant to travel… is the path of peace and love.
I don’t know if that’s the kind of answer you were looking for, but that’s kind of how my mind works when I’m asked questions like, what do you believe? 🙂
L: Okay. Last question. What’s on your upside-down bucket list – what have you already accomplished that you’re proud of? And what remains on your bucket list?
J: I’ve never been a bucket-list type person. And to be honest, in terms of an “upside-down” bucket list that I’m proud of, I’m not particularly proud of anything I’ve ever done. I’ve pretty much spent my life just getting this far in one piece. So I guess there’s that, but that feat doesn’t seem like something to be proud of so much as relieved by. And looking forward, there’s nothing I really want to do other than live the life I’m currently living and sharing with my wife, Lisa, and my small circle of family and friends. Of course, I do look forward to things… like my morning coffee; and the time I spend writing poems; and chatting with my neighbors across the garden fence on sunny days; and sharing observations or thoughts or daydreams with people who are special to me; and watching my garden breathe in each new season and working with it to help it express itself as beautifully as possible. I actually love this life I’m living, as much as I’ve ever loved anything. Although, I must say, if I’m completely open and honest with myself, I know there is one thing I’d like to accomplish, and that’s learning to immerse myself and swim within life’s flow so naturally that I won’t even notice when I leave the stream and enter the ocean.