Two different bios to choose from — one, of the more traditional “academic” variety, and the other, less back-of-the-book-y and more interested in how I try explain to people what brought me to my current line of research into avant-garde poetry and poetics a few years back.
standard academic bio:
Tom Jesse is a doctoral candidate in American Literature at Texas Christian University specializing in avant-garde poetics and rhetorical approaches to literature. His work focuses on the evolution of the American avant-garde throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, paying close attention to how writers as diverse in their subjects and styles as Russell Atkins, Lyn Hejinian, Jackson Mac Low, John Ashbery, and Erica Hunt have sought to establish new perceptions of reality by engaging in experimental, innovative, and conceptual uses of language. This interest opens his work to influences from literary and rhetorical theory — especially from the “New Rhetoric” movement and rhetorical theorists Kenneth Burke and Chaim Perelman. By studying avant-garde poetry as a rhetorical performance aimed at changing the way individuals speak and think about the world, his research demonstrates how poems that are often ignored in the mainstream poetry community work to establish (and expand) the very conditions that make concepts like “society” and “poetry” possible in the first place.
Degree Track: American Literature (20th/21st Century)
Exam Area #1: “Avant-garde and Experimental Practices in Twentieth-Century American Poetry”
Exam Area #2: “Kenneth Burke, Language, and the New Rhetoric”
*For further info, please see my full CV on the Professional Portfolio page.
now, for a more personal take:
As a young scholar in a field like “avant-garde poetics,” I’m often met with quizzical looks and glazed-over eyes when I attempt to explain to people what it is that I spend my time working on. Some people point out (almost always politely, I might add) that “no one really cares about that stuff,” while others try to humor me by rattling off a list of mainstream poets whose work they enjoy. Neither response suggests an awareness of or interest in the work that I do, and, in the context of general social chit-chat, I know that’s beside the point. But every time I walk away from another “Isn’t Billy Collins just so great?” confab, my resolve to develop a PERFECT explanation of what I do for a living grows even deeper.
(Just to be clear, I totally get it: Pound, Zukofsky, Ashbery, and Goldsmith aren’t for everyone, and I think it’s good for the poetry community at large that lots of people read Collins, Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, and the like. And, to be even clearer, I don’t think this is a matter of literary vs. commercial merit, or a thinly-veiled attempt to encourage a more “proper” tendency toward difficult or obscure poetry in the people I meet. I think it’s simply a matter of individual tastes, and the fact that mine differ from yours means only that we won’t be likely to reach for the same volume of poems at our neighborhood bookstore. It’s good that we like what we like and aren’t ashamed to share our preferences with others.)
So, without further ado, here’s my latest attempt to explain “Who I Am & What I Do” to anyone unlucky enough to ask about my work in the near future:
I study the kind of really bizarre, really odd poetry that makes people want to tear their hair out and curse their high school English teachers. I study the kind of poetry that only gets printed by small presses and rarely sells more than 500 copies. I study the kind of poetry that you can’t really “read” but you can very much experience — you know, like modern art and primary colors. I study this kind of poetry because I think it tells us a lot about how words come together to make ideas, and how these ideas can be radically altered if we choose to radically alter how we put words together. I study this kind of poetry because it makes me think, and then makes me think some more, and then makes me think even more, until I’ve thought so hard for so long that I forget what I started thinking about and have to try find my way back to wherever it was that I started. And though it may not seem like fun to most people, it’s the tracing and re-tracing of my own thought’s footsteps that helps shed light on the power that language has to change the way we live — to get us thinking about our thinking in ways that might ultimately convince us to think and act in different ways. In sum, I study the kind of really bizarre, really odd poetry that helps people see the world in a new light, and I hope that my research and teaching enables people to better understand how and why these poems do whatever it is that they’re trying to do.
I don’t expect anyone to be won over by my new appraoch to explaining what-exactly-it-is-that-I-do, but I do hope that it opens a dialogue capable of moving past the superficial “weirdness” of the avant-garde and into the realm that really matters to those of us in the humanities, be they digital or otherwise: namely, the way the world works. If you and I can talk about that, then yeah, we’ll get along just fine.