An interview with Jason Mashak

Prague resident (and Black Heart contributor!) Jason Mashak is an author whose work has recently been published jointly by two Austin-based houses, Haggard & Halloo and effing press. His first book of poetry, Salty as a Lip, is available for purchase online at the H&H website, which publishes poetry on a daily basis. We recently had an opportunity to probe Mashak’s mind on the subjects of writing, publishing and the expat experience. Here’s what the writer, who “welcomes energy exchange via Facebook,” had to say for himself.

Black Heart: As your biography notes, you’re currently a resident of Prague, Czech Republic, but you grew up in Michigan and spent a lot of time out in Oregon. How did you come to be affiliated with Haggard & Halloo and effing press here in Austin, and what has been your experience with them as publishers?
Jason Mashak: I met Travis Catsull of Haggard & Halloo in 2005, at Charles Potts’ Walla Walla Poetry Party in southeast Washington. I’ve communicated mostly with Haggard & Halloo, not so much with effing press. Since Salty as a Lip is my first book, I don’t have anything else to compare it to, but I liked Travis from the time we met. He exuded integrity, and that sort of thing is rare enough to stand out, to make you want to collaborate with somehow.

Jason Mashak (photo via Facebook photo album, snapped by Brian Messman)

BH: What’s the literary life like in Prague?
JM: It’s an inspiring scene, lots of stuff happening constantly, but like anywhere else a person can get so caught up in supporting various events that he/she has no time to create. I was a lot more active in the Portland (Oregon) scene in the years before I moved to Prague. Since coming here I’ve focused more on pulling poetry out of normal life, which means reluctantly declining endless invitations to events that, yes, I might like to attend, but must first ask myself “At what cost to time with my family, or to my own time to create?”

It’s a healthy scene, though. I recently had poems published in a fat 20-year anthology of post-Velvet Revolution English writing in Prague, The Return of Kral Majales, the title of which is a playful reminder of Allen Ginsberg’s Prague visit in the ‘60s. Journals and publishers come and go, of course, but in terms of English, the ones that seem to be thriving now include GRASP and Twisted Spoon Press. Unfortunately, I can’t read Czech, because there’s a much larger Czech literary community that I can only keep tabs on via what gets translated for the English pages of the Czech Literature Portal.

BH: How’s life, in general, as an expat? Do you have Czech citizenship, or any plans to return to the U.S.?
JM: As an expat, one either constantly laughs at cultural differences or goes insane from them—or both. As my daughter was born in Prague (with dual U.S. and Slovak citizenship), my Czech ID says “temporary unlimited” status, which is a typically oxymoronic indicator of the absurdist elements Kafka revealed about this place a century ago. I’ve no plans to live in the U.S. again, as the freedom and opportunities of “the American Dream” have been amply outsourced. Plus, if our ancestors left their native lands for better chances elsewhere, why shouldn’t we do the same? I live a pretty simple life here, in a small village outside the city, where we can see stars at night and we keep a small zoo for our daughter—with guaranteed health insurance and 5 weeks of annual paid vacation.

BH: Do you consider yourself a poet specifically, or a writer generally? This may just be semantics, but I’m always curious to know how people classify themselves.
Labels are typically a problem, as there’s stigma attached. For example, name a famous American writer or poet who wasn’t self-destructive beyond belief, and thus in some ways known for it. I try to think of myself first as “Daddy” and let everything else fall into place around that. In Portland, over a span of about 3 years, I heard people refer to me as a political poet, an anti-war poet, a beat poet, an academic poet, and a language poet—all of which tend to contradict each other, and all at a time when I still thought of myself as a musician. Maybe “wordsmith” is the best term, or “communicator,” as they’re less limiting and don’t carry any destructive connotations.

BH: Do you have a day job? If so, what do you do?
JM: Now I’m a copywriter at an internet security software firm, but for 2 years I was editing IT market research reports written by non-native English speakers and doing freelance editing of CVs/resumes, technical documents, and other strange projects translated from Czech or Slovak. Before that, I taught English. I didn’t go to university until age 28, when I went to get my teaching credentials. Prior to that, I was in sales and marketing—the only thing one can do to make a decent income with only high school. During that time, I was typically editing or writing things for people on the side, in addition to various types of handyman work. Eventually, I’d like to get back into a classroom, either high school or university, as that’s the environment that feels most natural for me.

BH: What drives you to write?
JM: Curiosity, fascination, epiphanies, and generosity. It’s a way for me to share what I’ve learned or give back to those who’ve shown so much to me. It’s cliché, but there’s really an element that it comes from somewhere in the cosmos, that artists are only a conduit, or as Ezra Pound put it, “the antennae of the race.” Reading, music, visual arts, conversations, experiences… it all sparks something on a subconscious level that later generates a poem, story, or song—a message. Also, it’s great therapy and/or sublimation for erotic impulse… which may stem from endless curiosity.

BH: Your bio mentioned you’ve played in a few bands. What musical instrument(s) do you play?
JM: Guitar is my primary instrument, a bit of voice, and I’ve dabbled with harmonica, bass, and I’m a helluva drummer on a steering wheel or kitchen table. My rhythm playing is sloppy-arsed Keith Richardsesque raunch and my lead sounds like a drunk Neil Young doing one-fingered B.B. King riffs (with a broken finger). It all gets worse from there, I’m afraid, but at least I have excellent tone.

I’ve had some tremendous experiences with great players over the years: Russell Cook of the Little Country Giants; Jim Maddox, a very much in-demand drummer/songwriter I played with in Georgia and Oregon; Dax Rossetti, a multi-instrumentalist U.K.-based wizard; or Brad Huff, an American blues/folk genius who has a studio here in Prague and gigs 5 nights a week. My daughter teaches me a lot about music now, especially dissonance.

BH: When can we expect another literary masterpiece from you?
JM: I’ve got 2 more manuscripts humbly stumbling into being, but I’m more focused on Daddyhood at the moment, so they’ll probably emerge sometime after civilization’s long-sought apocalypse target of 2012. In some ways, the USSR was right about having a 5-year plan; it allows flexibility and gives you time to invent great excuses.

BH: Who are some of the writers you admire?
JM: I’ll stick to the living: Jack Gilbert, who could have cashed in on quick fame but chose relative obscurity far from the hullabaloo; Bill Knott, shunned by the Literati for not playing their games; Doug Marx, whose only book was nominated for an Oregon Book Award and now he’s a ragtime musician; Dan Raphael, probably the greatest American surrealist poet since Charles Henri Ford; Bill Shively, a jazz poet/singer, teacher, and wine connoisseur; New England poet-professors Jennifer Michael Hecht and Stephan Delbos, the latter who’s also in Prague; and a Canadian anthropologist named Jeramy Dodds, now living in Iceland. They and many others inspire me.

BH: Do you have any special writing routines, rituals or superstitions? If so, what are they?
JM: Sleep deprivation. I’m most often inspired to write when I don’t have time to write, so images and sounds pour out in a rush when I’m barely awake, holding my head above the pillow to put down a few more lines before I’m gone. The pillows are always stained with ink. I’ve no superstitions, per se, but I’m horrified by the idea of not having a pen and notebook within reach at every moment. As to rituals, during the editing phases I try to remove all the ephemeral pop-cultural references, to make something that will stand up as a conversation with readers of any time and place—without needing footnotes.

BH: What are your vices, if any?
JM: Well, the blood on my dad’s side is all Slavic, so I’m genetically predisposed to being what Americans term a “functioning alcoholic” (though I would say Slavs are highly functioning). We tend to think first of chemical substances as vices, but I would say the most destructive for me have been the victim mentality and negativity typically accompany a Christian, working-class upbringing. I’m more of an Epicurean Stoic now, which means tolerate what I have to and enjoy what I can (to the max).

BH: What do you look for in a really great piece of writing?
JM: In prose, poetic sensibility—such as that of Miller, Hesse, or Hrabal—combined with language efficiency and having something profound to share. With poetry or prose, writers from other countries typically appeal to me more than American writers, who can excel at innovation, craft, storytelling, etc., but then often overshadow their skills by whining about their luxurious existence. They’re swimming on the surface; there’s nothing universal about that. Ultimately, I can neither relate to aristocratic characters on one hand or mere mental masturbation of experimental/avant-garde nonsense on the other. So I guess I look for a deeper sense of universals, the recognizably shared human experience: excitement, desire, uneasiness. I also love haiku or koans because they kick you in the head. I don’t want to be kicked in the gut, life has enough of that—I want it in the head. And I like that kick to come with a bit of humor, or at least some great sense of irony. I want stimulation. Shit, I just described my secret formula to writing poems.

BH: Have you ever had any writing mentors, and if so, who were they and how did they help you improve?
JM: My grandma, my mom, my high school English teacher, a couple of great university professors, the aforementioned gurus Jim Maddox and Doug Marx, and a cornucopia of writers I met in the Oregon Territory, such as Sage Cohen, Christopher Luna, Chris Cottrell, Amy Temple Harper, and Sean Patrick Hill. My best mentors for overall communication have been communications counselor Alex Merrin and visual artist and live-sound engineer Dale Ogletree, a guy who took me under his wing when the corporate cubicle was strangling me. Lately, I think the biggest factor in my language awareness has been living in a foreign country and the daily discussions about translation and inadvertent loss or gain in meaning.

BH: Where do you hope to be in the next few years? What do you want to accomplish, literarily, before you die?
JM: We’ll stay in Prague a few more years, but we hope to eventually move to a small town in France or Greece or somewhere closer to the sea. Literarily, I simply hope to leave some sort of legacy, a way for my great-great-grandkids to know who/what/where they came from. I’ve an old, beat-up violin that belonged to a great-great uncle, and I know nothing else about him. It would’ve been great if he’d had the ability to leave a few mp3s of himself jamming with friends. I’ve no ambition for prizes or awards, but rather to get continually better and keep making a book now and then.

BH: If you weren’t a writer, what would you do or be?
JM: I love painting walls and pruning trees, so probably some type of handyman. Or a German-car mechanic. Or a German shepherd. My grandpa on my mom’s side is a retired, third-generation Danish wood-craftsman. These jobs are all pretty much the same process as writing or painting or doing photography, but are in many ways more practical. I probably enjoy teaching more than anything else.

BH: What kind of music or bands do you listen to when you need to be inspired? When you’re curled up in the fetal position?
JM: Several poets who will, for whatever reason, always be known primarily as songwriters speak to me in a profound way: Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and relative-newcomer Jeff Tweedy. Otherwise, I listen to a lot of jazz. Oddly enough, American country music up until around the mid-1980s is inspirational for its innovative wordplay. “If lovin’ you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right” or “If I said you have a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?”—these are golden lines.

BH: Anything I’ve missed that you’d like to add?
JM: Yes, just a bit of trivia on the Czech (Bohemian & Moravian) connection to Texas… the main immigrant line runs from Praha, Texas, to New Prague, Minnesota, with towns called Prague also in both Oklahoma and Nebraska. A lot of folks whose ancestors left Europe during the Austria-Hungary Empire, who think they’re Austrian or Hungarian, are actually Czech or Slovak, as Czechoslovakia didn’t become an independent nation until 1918, about a decade after a big wave of Slavic immigrants had passed.

For more of Jason Mashak’s work, pick up a copy of his book, Salty as a Lip, from Haggard & Halloo.