Marc Janssen founded the Salem Poetry Project to strengthen the local poetry scene through regular events ("Hey, it's Thursday, and there is poetry happening"). His writing process is anchored in a career in sales, and his poem Used Jacket, which is featured in the latest issue of Agave Magazine, comes from a time when even his strongest pitches and extraordinary talent weren't enough.
AGAVE: You've been writing poetry for most of your life. When and why did you start, and at what point did you begin to take your career as a poet seriously?
MARC JANSSEN: I have always enjoyed writing. I tend to be fairly introverted so for me, though at times imprecise, it is the best way to express myself. In high school and into college I wanted to be a novelist or a screenwriter. I wanted to write the next "Lord of the Rings"; I started a number of novels and completed a few short stories.
My first job out of school was to write ads for the world’s largest tool catalog. In that role of high pressure and short deadlines I found my writing cadence: short blasts of words. I can finish a poem, heck, I can even finish a long poem. The form seems to fit my temperament.
At that time, and probably still today, Ventura CA had a great poetry scene. I remember the first time I delivered a poem at an open mic it was in a little coffee shop in downtown. There was standing room only. The place was packed. They had a beautiful wooden lectern and a little speaker with a mic on the landing of this staircase in one corner. There were people sitting on stairs, inside on the windowsills, outside on the sidewalk, crowding a small balcony and around the door. There was a featured reader and fifteen or twenty people signed up to read at the open mic. I brought a poem about the Sacramento River and signed up after someone who wrote only “Tobias” on the sheet. When they called Tobias’s name he walked up to the lectern and delivered an f-word filled screed about the police. As he was building up to a crescendo he pulled out a revolver from his coat pocket and pointed it against his head shouting “Do you fucking cops want me to blow my fucking brains out! Do you want me to blow my fucking brains out!” Someone from the crowd yelled “Yes!” He yelled “Mother fuckers!” and slammed the gun onto the lectern and ended his poem. There was a big applause. Then they called me… I was hooked. I have been writing poetry ever since.
On your Facebook page you regularly detail your submissions, including your rejections. Why?
That Facebook page is funny; originally I had an idea of keeping a blog or other kind of work in progress place. About two weeks in I decided to change the focus. To be honest that page is more for me than anything else; I should probably spend more time on it.
There is an old sales strategy of knowing how many rejections you will get before you make a sale. For me it is how many “No’s” will I get before I get a “Yes.” Turning submitting poems into a game makes receiving all that well intentioned, yet still concrete, rejection a little easier. So I log all my submissions and rejections on that page. It acts differently than a spreadsheet as there are other things like music and books etc. that I put on there, and I can look back and see what I did when.
For me I can expect to receive 30 or 40 rejections before receiving one acceptance. I send out poems to publications one to three times a week. Part of that page is sending to that first 30 rejections. If I get an acceptance before I reach 30 then it is a party. 2015 was difficult because I had a poem accepted in January and it wasn’t until October that anything else was accepted, close to 60 rejections, then three poems accepted: one a month for the next three months. So you never know and the Facebook page helps to motivate me and keeps me submitting.
What is the 64 Syllable Project?
OK, so I kind of stole the idea for the 64 Syllable Project.
I knew an excellent poet from Oxnard CA named Michel Engelbert. Michel worked on a project he called “tens” where he wrote ten line poems of ten syllables each. I think he wrote a hundred of them.
I’m probably about 80% as good as Michel so I did eight syllables. Each poem is eight lines of eight syllables each totaling 64 syllables; I wrote them in series of eight. So when complete I will have 64 completed poems. My goal was to complete a project where I would have a 64ish-page manuscript.
I tend to write in forms, non-standard made-up forms. Mentally the constriction of the form makes the words just kind of flow into place. I did pretty much nothing but these 64 syllable poems for about four months and I am almost done. As expected, the last few are not being particularly easy.
What led you to write Used Jacket?
When the economy tanked I was working in marketing and sales. I was unemployed for about a year. The entire experience was horrible, isolating, guilt-filled, dehumanizing. It is real hard when you have a great track record of getting responses from advertising and all of the sudden there is no interest. I went for five months without even an interview, without even a call back. I beat the bushes pretty good but there was zero interest in my skills. Even though it felt like it, I was not the only one. In that time I’d occasionally bump into other people, good sales people--successful top earners, people I had worked with or knew socially, whose eyes had turned the color of frozen meat. No one was buying anything and sales people were dropping like flies. I wrote perhaps one poem in that 12-month period. After looking at all my options, I had to start all over again at the bottom of the ladder at the state. Once I was employed again I looked back at that experience and wrote a number of pieces dealing with those issues.
Also in the Pacific Northwest there is a growing homeless problem. I cannot ignore it. My time unemployed has helped me empathize with those who find themselves in similar economic situations. I was never in danger of becoming homeless, but one traffic accident or health issue in that time and I could have been. If I want to be honest, real honest, just about everyone I work with and know right now are in the same boat, one traffic accident or health issue away from devastating financial ruin.
When I was unemployed at Christmas I shopped at Goodwill; it has a unique smell. Even when in a new location it is hard to find a less attractive store. And still under that ugliness, I think lie good intentions.
You seem to be a prolific writer--how and when do you write? Is there a theme toward which you tend to gravitate?
Even though I am no longer a copywriter I still have that high volume mentality. At the tool catalog at one point when there were two writers, between us we wrote one thousand ads in six months. That comes out to about eight ads a day. Though I have not done that kind of work for more than fifteen years I have managed to maintain a part of that discipline.
The last few years I have worked in a job where I have a morning and afternoon break. So I write in the afternoon break: fifteen minutes a day five days a week. Usually when I sit down I am able to just go, most of it is not very good. I first draft by hand, then revise as I enter it into Word, then revise again when I take it to an open mic. For me how it reads in front of people is the test for if this is a poem that I want to continue to work on or not.
I don't necessarily have a standard theme, but I do often shift into a minor key.
For me I have to step back and realize when I am writing poetry and when I am just wallowing in bad feelings. I see some of it, for me, as laziness, it is just easier to go to the dark place. When I revise I tend to push those pieces into the junk pile unless something really interesting is happening.
Used Jacket is the second of Marc's poems to be published in Agave Magazine; Here on the Porch can be found in Volume 2, Issue 1.