Hi all! I’m Justin, a second-year in the MFA Poetry program at Columbia College, where I also teach Writing & Rhetoric and am an editor for the Columbia Poetry Review. I live in Lincoln Square, where I also co-curate The Dollhouse Reading Series. I love adventure and I believe in magic.
Tell us a little bit about what you were doing before you came to columbia.
I was managing a dining hall. To be more specific, I worked 50 hours a week as the night manager for Akron University and surprisingly I loved my job. When I graduated from Ohio University, my advisor gave me two important pieces of advice. The first lesson was to take time off before going to grad school. The second piece of advice was to live like others won’t so that in a few years I could live like they try. What my advisor meant was to save my money, to think on life, and to make sure graduate school was the right choice for me. My whole life I had been a blue collar worker. When I turned 16 my father sold his motorcycle and bought a tractor. He gave me the tractor and said, “Go make a living.” From that point forward I’ve done it all. I’ve even worked in a 110 degree factory packing potato chips. However, my parents also taught me to follow my heart. So, after a year of managing, I made the choice to go back to school for my writing.
Why did you choose Columbia for your graduate study?
I choose Columbia because of David Trinidad’s Dear Prudence, which is to this day my all-time favorite collection of poems. For the longest time I wanted to be a fiction writer. I’ve always wanted to make change in this world, and often poetry was about making the world stay the same. Yet, David Trinidad’s Dear Prudence taught me about honesty and filtering that lens through something greater than yourself. It represented the potential I thought poetry had, but could never find.
And then of course there are the other amazing faculty members: Tony Trigilio, C.M Burroughs, Lisa Fishman, and Michael Robins. Over the last year, I have gained invaluable lessons and support from all of these great professors!
The more magical reason is the city of Chicago.
I grew up in a cul-de-sac surrounded by corn fields. I spent my days building sky scrapers from Legos. Where I come from, the big city is like a dream. One day I read Carl Sandburg’s Chicago in class. I was thirteen, and I ran home to tell my mother I was moving to Chicago to become a writer. I told her I would do anything it took, and I guess in the end I kept my word.
Tell us about a project you’re working on that you’re excited about.
I love the work I do and a part of that experience is getting a chance to collaborate with fellow artists. So, right now I’m working on a special collaboration that is sort of behind the scenes. It’s a project that incorporates a love story, magical surrealism, and fairytale-like aspects with poetry. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.
I also write these advertisement poems inspired by Oulipo. Oulipo, in the simplest sense, is writing poetry with constraints, such as appropriating advertisement language into 8 line poems. I write the poems only when riding the L train. It’s like the world’s greatest cure for writer’s block.
Now, I’m gearing up for my thesis year and I’ve begun working on poetry that incorporates my true passion—Buddhism. I studied and traveled all over China in 2012 and have an innate love for their culture. I’d like my thesis to be an homage to that journey.