INTERVIEW

Interview

This interview was the result of several conversations with the poet at the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008. The interviewer is Jill Lane.

Interviewer: Tell me a little about your family.
Jon Veinberg: I come from a family of scientists. My father was an anatomy teacher. He was well read and spoke five languages. There were a lot of doctors in my dad’s family, and he too, earned a medical degree. He came to America in 1930 under a Rockefeller scholarship. Then he went back to Estonia. From this experience, he felt America was the most opportune place to go for Estonians caught under the Russian regime. My mother was pursuing being a doctor. During that time, Estonia was an egalitarian country. Women held a lot of occupation weight. She was his student. My dad died over there in 1946. After fleeing Estonia and giving birth to me, my mother wanted to catch the first boat out. We missed the first boat, but it blew up after it hit a land mine. We missed the second boat because my sister broke her arm; it went to Paraguay. We caught the third boat and by happenstance or luck it was going to America. When we arrived at Ellis Island, my mother didn’t speak any English.


Interviewer: Did your family encourage you to write?
Jon Veinberg: No.


Interviewer: So how did you become a poet?
Jon Veinberg: By accident. In 1972, I had a free semester, so I took 2 classes. One class was a genetics class, and the other was a poetry class taught by Phil Levine. I didn’t know who he was or that it was a writing class. It was much harder than genetics.  I have known Phil ever since, but I don’t know the genetics teacher. During Levine’s class, it was the first time anyone said, “You have imagination” in a positive way. Usually that was something I got in trouble for. I met Gary Soto in that class, and we became friends. In that same class was Ernesto Trejo, Sandra Hoben and Suzanne Lummis.


Interviewer: Did you have mentors?
Jon Veinberg: Yes, Philip Levine and to a lesser extent Peter Everwine. I still consider them mentors. I work the mentoring device as a conduit to inspiration.  Although not a mentor, I also admired teacher Diane Wakoski.


Interviewer: Tell me about the development of your poet’s voice.
Jon Veinberg: Philip Levine said “Why write about yourself when you can write about something interesting,” so many of my poems are reflected in someone else’s voice. For instance in “Motel Drive” the “I” is just a character.


Interviewer: During Philip Levine’s class you became friends with Gary Soto.  He has written poems for you such as “Summer Marriage for Jon Veinberg”. Were any of your poems inspired by your friendship?
Jon Veinberg: No, not directly. There are, however, snaps of images running through some of my poems only he would recognize.


Interviewer: In an interview with El Andar magazine, Gary Soto mentions a project you and he discussed to make a super-eight movie about the rock group “The Ministers of Love”. What became of that project?
Jon Veinberg: Nothing. We did, however, make a movie called “Hunger.” It is now in the Bancroft Library at Yale University in their Chronicles of Valley Writers.  I was in it, lead actor, cameraman and co-writer. It was a blast!


Interviewer: Tell me about putting together Piecework with Ernesto Trejo.
Jon Veinberg: It came about in my backyard. We had the whole concept down. We wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before. We followed the same premise as Down at the Santa Fe Depot with just a new generation of Fresno poets.


Interviewer: What do you think is the single most important element of a good poem?
Jon Veinberg: Imagination – someone says it in a different way – that’s as good as it gets.


Interviewer: In a recent interview, Gary Soto called you a “first rate poet who can’t shake the Fresno dust out of [his] writing.” What is the influence of the Fresno landscape on your poetry?
Jon Veinberg: Levine never got the grit of Detroit out of his system, and Robert Frost never wrote about Frisco because he never got apple orchards out of his poetic pocket. I can’t let loose of Fresno imagery easily. It is almost as if that’s my culture.


Interviewer:  There is a sense of loss in many of your poems such as the loss of your father in “The Anatomy Lesson.”In the poem, you ask him “What’s it like to be dead?” Explain the presence of your father in your work.
Jon Veinberg: His presence is in most of my work because I never knew him. There is a constant search for who your father was. I have the same bones – that’s the hook. Also, I don’t have real issues with him, so I can make him anything, make him more heroic.
After we left Estonia, we had no guidance. We were wondering “where is there a place to go?” In “The Lighthouse,” my sister and I are rowing guided by the light. That light is the spirit of the dead – my dead father leading us. It was his wish that we come to America.


Interviewer: In “The Jogger,” you end the poem with the line “that I still believe in miracles?” Do you still believe in miracles?
Jon Veinberg: Absolutely, that’s never changed. Poetry is a miracle; it is the thing that saves us spiritually.

 


2008 All Rights Reserved Jon Veinberg