Q1: When did you start writing and who influenced you the most?
Jess: I started seriously writing poetry in December 2021, but I have been a writer for a long time. I began my career as a journalist and photographer in the Marine Corps in 2002, and I’ve been a writer in some capacity ever since. My influences—and I hope they shine through in my poems from time to time—are a mix of classic adventure fiction authors like Melville, London and Kipling, and poets including the Roberts (Frost and Bly) and Dickinson. I also love the New England transcendentalists, Thoreau, Emerson and their ilk.
Q2: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Jess: I’m not sure I ever wanted to be a writer, specifically. I’ve always been a creative person, and that comes through in different ways. In my day job, I’m a graphic designer and video producer. I love photography, and yes, I love writing. I’ve always been in awe of and jealous of painters, and I feel like poetry is my way of painting with words.
There was a specific moment when I knew I needed to write poetry. Last winter, I was watching The Durrells in Corfu with my wife, and the mother recited Dowson’s poem, Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam. It blew me away. Shortly after that, I wrote my first poem which would become Tides (Prometheus Dreaming, May 2022). After that, I was hooked.
Q3: Who has helped you most with writing and career?
Jess: Well, my dad was a very creative person. He always encouraged my writing (and inspired much of it), and he passed down his wonderful/infuriating ADHD brain to me. As a journalist in the Marines, I was fortunate to have two mentors who truly cared about quality writing and my progress as a writer—Ethan Rocke and Scott Dunn. As a poet, I’ve found great help on Reddit’s subs r/OCpoetry and r/poetry_critics, and more recently, I’ve found a wonderful community on Twitter.
Q4: Where did you grow up and how did that influence you? Have any travels influenced your work?
Jess: I grew up in Pflugerville, Texas (for reference, this is where they filmed the TV show, Friday Night Lights). Shortly after High School, I joined the Marines and was stationed in San Diego, then I moved to Rhode Island, back to San Diego, then Massachusetts, then Tennessee, and now back in Massachusetts for good.
I think the way my place of origin influences my work is still unfolding. I grew up in a Southern, white, conservative, middle class family, and as I’ve been out in the world making my own experiences, I’ve been able to look at things I thought were gospel (pun intended) through a different lens. It’s apparent in some of my work. Empathy and open mindedness are ongoing endeavors that require deliberate practice.
Q5: What do you consider your most meaningful work creatively to you?
Jess: Without a doubt, it’s the current poetry collection I’m working on. It’s deeply personal, technically sound, and I’m incredibly proud of it. Earlier this year, I found my old creative writing journal from my early 20s, and it is just filled with shit (which I thought was quite good at the time). Now, at 39 (or 40, depending on when this is published), I’ve really found my voice. My writing has a clear purpose, and I’ve harvested more life experiences for inspiration.
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Jess: Nothing crazy—hanging out with my family. Watching TV, hiking, fishing. I work from home, and I usually like to get up before everyone else and go for a drive in the New England countryside with the windows down and music up.
Q7: What is a favorite line/stanza/lyric from your writing?
Jess: My first couplet from Tides will always be special to me. It’s the first piece of “real” poetry I wrote:
All bones and brains in battered boxes— my father’s ashes lost at sea. A more recent stanza I’m especially fond of is from my poem, Powder Point Bridge: We’re flowing back and back when she flashes teenage eyes from the side of her shades and I go all irresponsible; the kids, the house, the job all vanish for a breath.
Q8: What kind of music inspires you the most? What is a song or songs that always come back to you as an inspiration?
Jess: I’m not sure I find a ton of writing inspiration in music. When I’m out exploring/thinking/brainstorming, listen to a lot of dark classical, post rock and lo-fi hip hop. My ADHD makes it difficult for me to focus on tasks if I’ve got vocals pumping into my ears. When I don’t need to focus, I tend to gravitate toward artists with strong lyrics—the Decemberists are probably my favorite. Their singer, Colin Meloy is a fantastic writer, and I really respect the writing of Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie/The Postal Service). Right now, I’ve got Ethel Cain’s album Preacher’s Daughter on repeat.
Q9: Do you have any recent or upcoming books, events, other projects that you would like to promote?
Jess: Yes! My first chapbook, A Break in the Spine (Alien Buddha Press) will be available Oct. 26. If you read it, all your wildest dreams will come true.
Jess Levens lives with his wife, sons and dogs in Holliston, Massachusetts, where he draws inspiration from New England’s landscapes and history. His debut chapbook, A Break in the Spine, is available from Alien Buddha Press, and his poetry has been featured in Fevers of the Mind, The Dillydoun Review, Prometheus Dreaming and Roi Fainéant Press, among other literary journals. Jess is a Marine Corps veteran and Northeastern University alum.