“In Pittsburgh we have a very strong sense of no bullshit”: Lori Jakiela
Lori Jakiela is a captivating and spirited author based in Pittsburgh. Born in Trafford, Jakiela moved to New York City at age 30 to become a flight attendant. That experience plays a major role in her fiercely funny memoir Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette, 2006) and her most recent collection of poems, Spot the Terrorist! (WordTech Communications, 2012). She currently teaches at Chatham University and the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, where she founded the Written/Spoken reading series. Her next memoir The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious will be released in the spring of 2013.
In this interview, Jakiela discusses Pittsburgh’s literary community, her writing process, the “particular kind of truth” in memoir, and why her working-class background is important for her career.
You started your writing career as a journalist in college in Erie. How did you come to focus on poetry and creative non-fiction?
It was a round-about circle for me. I was completely dysfunctional in math and science, but writing was good for me and I decided that journalism was a practical career. I’ve always been interested in interviewing people and hearing their stories. I was working for the Erie Daily Times until I was hired to do public relations at Penn State, Behrend. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was serendipitous because I met some faculty there. One in particular, Diana Hume George, said “You like to write? You should go get a graduate degree in poetry.” At the time I didn’t even know they had those.
So I applied to the University of Pittsburgh and they paid for my graduate degree in poetry, which was the greatest gift because I come from a working-class background and poetry didn’t seem that practical. Then, as most people do when they finish graduate school, I had my post-graduate crisis. I became a flight attendant for a while. But when I was flying I wasn’t writing a lot of poems; I was taking notes about people and things that happened. The lines of my poems started to get cumbersome and I couldn’t make them behave. After I started reading memoirs I thought, “Oh, okay, maybe something’s happening to me where I’m going back to prose.” It was a circle where I realized that there is this hybrid thing between journalism and poetry, which is what I think a memoir is. But it wasn’t a choice. It was just me bumbling around in the dark, which I do a lot.
You have also worked as a waitress, your mother was a nurse, and your father was a steel-worker. How has this working-class environment influenced you?
If you’re born into the working class, you have the work ethic. I always feel like I have to work really hard to prove myself. As a teacher, I try to publish a lot. I don’t ever want to come into a classroom and tell my students to do something I can’t do myself. They say those who can’t do, teach, but I have to be the person who can do and teach at the same time. I always make sure that I’m not stagnant. My husband’s like that too. If we’re not writing we feel like we’re losers. There’s no such thing as writer’s block in our house. It’s not an option. It doesn’t exist. It’s simply that you’re too lazy to sit down and write. Writing is work. You show up and you sit at your desk until you do something. It may not be your best work but it’s going to be something. It’s not like the muse comes down from the heavens. It’s work. It’s like putting the hot dog in the bun. You put the words on the page. It’s your job.
In Miss New York Has Everything, you say you hope the book has grace “in spite of” yourself. What do you mean by that? Is there something about your writing that inhibits grace?
I think of grace as trying to behave as well as possible under circumstances that might lead you to do otherwise. As a writer I try to find humor in things that aren’t necessarily funny. I try to not, as my mother would have said, have massive pity parties for myself on the page. But my Pittsburgh roots make a traditional, gentler sense of grace difficult. In Pittsburgh we have a very strong sense of “no bullshit.” I prefer to be clear and direct but sometimes that’s risky because, artistically, it can seem a little rough around the edges.
You have said that you hope to write for a broad audience. Do you think performance poetry can broaden the audience for poetry? Is performance poetry more accessible than written poetry?
Yes. Printed-word poetry has become a province almost exclusively of the academy. That’s not where poetry belongs. Poetry belongs to the people as a spoken form. It belongs out in the world.
When I was in New York I used to go to the Nuyorican Café, which had an open mic kind of atmosphere. Right after I moved there I was going into the Nuyorican, and I saw a rat the size of a cat. I was terrified. I thought, “Where am I? What did I do to my life? Why did I come here?” Then this little old man stood up and said this poem that I’ve never forgotten: “A woman came up to me on the street and asked me for a quarter, weeping. I gave it to her. She went away, weeping.” That poem moved me more than a lot of poems that I’ve seen recently in journals. I think something needs to be done to help poetry get out there more.
What saddens me about a lot of contemporary poetry is that it doesn’t make me feel anything. Poetry’s not about showing everyone how smart you are all the time. If I go to a poetry reading I want to have an almost religious experience, and I get so sad if I don’t get it. Poets need to give people a human connection. That got lost somewhere, but I think performance is one of the ways it’s being brought back.
In an interview you mentioned that you constantly compile both research and free-write lists. Then you seek out connections between the information you have. Talk about this process. What sort of conclusions does it lead to?
That process is as close as I get to fun while writing. I approach a memoir by imagining a gigantic bag. I throw everything I’m thinking about a certain subject into this bag, then shake it up and pretend that I’m dumping its items all over the floor. Then I start to sort like things together. I say, “Here’s a poodle, here’s a pineapple, here’s a pencil. What do these have in common?”
Or if I have a story I’ve been thinking about for years and I don’t understand why, I try to figure that out in the process. It’s a puzzle to understand something more about my life or the world. I also do a lot of quirky, pop culture research. I find out about things that are happening in the world around a time when something is happening to me, and I try to take something from pop culture and make it mean something more. I try to find connections between things that seem to have no connection.
In Miss New York Has Everything, you say “Seeing things is not a particularly good trait for a memoirist to have.” What do you mean by that?
Memoirs have various levels of truth. There’s factual truth, emotional truth, and experiential truth. How you experience something and the way someone else experiences the same thing can be completely different. My husband is my primary reader but the way he remembers things and the way I remember things are slightly different. He doesn’t try to correct my memory, but sometimes he’ll say, “Well this is how this happened.” And I’ll say, “Well how do you know that your version is better than my version? Do you have a tape recorder in your belly button?”
Your memoir features a lot of details about your family and friends. For example, you talk about your father’s cruel nicknames for family members, and your aunt’s drug addiction. How did they react to those details?
As I was writing the book I hadn’t really thought about what it was that I was doing. I just wrote what I thought was true and interesting. I made choices: If I’m going to take something from someone’s life, I better need it for the narrative. But it didn’t occur to me that people were going to see those details until the book was coming out. Then I went into the fetal position and worried quite a bit about what was going to happen.
Barring one relative, people were wonderful about it. It was very strange, though, because when I wrote the book I didn’t expect to be living in the house I grew up in. I changed the names in the book, but people still showed up at our door with a highlighted copy of the book and said, “You can change all the names you want. We know who all these people are.” People in Trafford are not known for their subtlety. If I got something wrong, they’d be very angry with me. It’s scary to write non-fiction because you have to be careful with people, but at the same time you have to tell the truth that you think that the reader needs.
Do you consider yourself a Pittsburgh writer?
Without a doubt. I moved to New York to get out of Pittsburgh and I spent almost seven years there. As a flight attendant I traveled out of the country as much as possible. Still, anytime there was a Pittsburgh trip or layover, I wanted to come home. When I lived in New York the super in my building used to call me Pittsburgh. He’d say, “Hey Pittsburgh, we don’t do that here. Stop it Pittsburgh.”
I’m from here. My blood is here. My dad was a steel-worker, my mom was a nurse. My whole sensibility comes from my working-class roots. I’m not sure they’re unique to Pittsburgh, but these values are a part of everything that I do. The city is beautiful and it’s home. New York completely changed my perspective on how much I loved the place I was from. How sad it is that you have to go away to learn that.
How does the Pittsburgh you grew up in differ from the Pittsburgh you live in now?
In the early 70s the mills were still going. We used to have a bus that would take us into the city and we’d go in and come home with grime on our skin. If you blew your nose, the tissue would be black. That’s how dirty the air was. I grew up in the suburbs, where the books that we have still cause our neighbors a great deal of grief. They’re very suspicious of the things that are in our house.
One of my neighbors came over one time and said “Do you collect books?” I said “No.” And he said “But you have a collection.” They’re not like magnets!
Pittsburgh’s literary scene also was not like what it is now. As a writing community and a place to be a writer there’s no better in the world than Pittsburgh. My friend Chuck Kinder calls Pittsburgh the Paris of Appalachia. I’ve had friends come in from New York and say that this is the better literary scene. We have all of these writers from here and this amazing literary scene in a city that, before, I only knew as a place of physical labor, where books and writing were seen as suspicious activities.
Your grandparents immigrated to the United States from Poland. How do you think life for immigrants in Pittsburgh has changed between when your grandparents came and now?
It has changed for the better and for worse. My grandparents came with the American dream and they worked hard. They were steelworkers. They built a life. They were able to do that because there were jobs and money. Now we are in a country where there are no jobs and there are few opportunities.
However, when my grandparents came there was so much discrimination. My father never taught me to speak Polish, although he was fluent. And when he died, he died speaking Polish. My uncle was in the room with him and could understand everything he said, but he would not translate for me.
There was so much shame to being an immigrant. For my father’s generation a lot of their shame was internalized. They wanted to assimilate. They wanted their children to assimilate. But it was a very deep contradiction because we still had to have the foods and the traditions. All those things are very much ingrained. But it’s a complicated world now. Our country scares me. It’s an election year, so you hear all of this anti-immigration discussion. I hope it’s all bluster and nothing else. Pittsburgh is still a very proudly immigrant city. People are proud of their culture now. Maybe that’s improved since my grandfather’s generation, when people kept it in the house.
Do American writers have a duty to help other writers who have limited freedom of speech?
Absolutely. Pittsburgh is a literary center. Can you believe what happens in City of Asylum? It’s a wonderful thing. And it is an obligation. I feel terrible sometimes because as an American writer I have the freedom to say so many things. Sometimes I feel like I should say something about x or y, but I don’t, because it’s my privilege to say “No, I’m going to go write about this other thing that I’m interested in.” But writers in other countries feel this sense of urgency because if they write something, their lives could be endangered. It should be a huge goal for all of us to help them. I’m not sure how much individual writers can do, but it’s a step when individual writers get behind an organization like City of Asylum and say it’s a wonderful thing. I’m so proud of Pittsburgh that we have that here.
Your next book is coming out in the spring. Could you talk a little bit about that?
The title is The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious, which is a reference to the Westinghouse Bridge. My parents always referred to it like that because that’s the bridge people jump off of if they’re serious about killing themselves. Funny. But the book’s not about that. It’s about coming back home to be a caregiver to my mom. She was very ill, but as a former nurse she wasn’t the kind of person who liked to have someone take care of her. It becomes a sandwich generation kind of memoir, when people who are in their mid 30s to mid 40s have to take care of their parents while trying to build a family themselves. When I came home to take care of my mom I met my husband and I had a son. It’s about the mother-daughter drama that happens when those things collide.