TJ Jarrett | Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.

The Next Big Thing Interview Series

Southern Festival of Books 2012

Southern Festival of Books 2012

Mary Biddinger, author of Prairie Fever, St. Monica, and O Holy Insurgency, has started a self-interview series called The Next Big Thing. I’ve been tagged by Gary MacDowell (a splendid poet) to participate. Here’s my response based on my first collection of poems, Ain’t No Grave which will be published by New Issues Press in fall 2013.

What is the working title of the book?

Ain’t No Grave

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I have a habit of reading old newspapers and ran across this lede back in 2005 or 2006: “Negroes Lie on Top of Weakening Levee and Save Day near Greenville, Miss.” from the New York Times April 11, 1912. It took me almost two or three years later to write something that approximates the humbling shock I felt reading it the first time.  Once I got that poem framed, I read further and wrote another and another. I would say that I didn’t wake up and decide to write a book on lynching and the nadir of race relations in the early 20th century, but I’m finding that I don’t consciously drive my process. In fact, I tend to do my best work when I let my obsessions drive me.

What genre does your book fall under?


What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

The work is filled with characters both historical and familial. I suppose if I were to pick someone to play the part of my brother I’d pick Chiwetel Ejiofor (He’s just happy to hear that I didn’t choose Don Cheadle.) Or the She of the creation series could be Thandie Newton . I’ve always thought my cousins Willie Mae and Tiajuana reminded me of Alfre Woodard and Cicely Tyson.  And the more I see of her, Viola Davis reminds me of my mother when she was young—something about her ferocity and grace, I suppose.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Ain’t No Grave explores race relations in America of the early 20th century from within that moment as well as the broad sweep of that history and its aftereffects.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The first draft became a ‘draft’ all in a month long rush in the fall of 2009.  I wrote a poem and then another one and another one while I was supposed to be doing a lot of other things. Like non-fiction work, and coding work.  And relationship work.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve not written enough books to work out the question of why this book as much as why any book. My mother’s officemate was Paula Rankin who found me writing poems at age 12 .  She flipped through them and said: No, no… this will not do. Every week or so, she’d read them and slowly teach me items of craft. Sometimes she’d give me an assignment of dealing with line or the order of narrative and sometimes she’d just tell me to write as many as I could by the next week. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I returned to poems and then all these historical things fell out of my head.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

From a technical standpoint, part of my obsession with these poems is their movement within time and perspective. I liked moving between the eyes of one character to another and running into the limitations of viewpoint, and the opening and closing of the aperture of each frame of reference.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Ain’t No Grave will be published with New Issues Press associated with Western Michigan University in the fall of 2013.


My tagged writers for next Wednesday are:

Curiously, I met all three of these women at Breadloaf.

Katie Peterson – (

Amanda Autcher – ( )

Maria Nazos – (



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