MCWC board member Kate Erickson interviews Jasper Henderson, a scholarship recipient at the 2015 Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, with a little help from Sybil the cat
Jasper Henderson is a writer, teacher, and carpenter from Fort Bragg, California. He teaches poetry through California Poets in the Schools and can be found on Twitter and Instagram @jaspernighthawk, and his website. His cat is named Sybil, after the sibilant, favorite sound of cats across the galaxy.
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1. Tell us a little about yourself: where did you grow up; what schools did you attend? What was your major in college?
Being twenty-five I guess it’s about time to start my autobiography, not leaving out the important bits—the Great Depression, The War, declassified FBI files, bladder stones, etc. For starters, I record that I was born. And as I grew up, my home moved farther and farther north on the Mendocino Coast.
When finally I graduated from Fort Bragg High School, I fled east to Harvard College. It was about what you’d expect: lots of wood paneling, a generous scholarship, miserable winters, work-crazed classmates. I studied Russian and Russian literature. After three years and nine months, they kicked me out in a big, pompous ceremony.
2. How old were you when you discovered you liked to write?
I often hear of people born with a pen in their hand, copiously writing from a young age: in journals, in letters to friends, on fanfiction websites. That wasn’t me. Instead, starting about age five, I simply aspired to be such a productive person. I have from my childhood dozens of discarded diaries, unanswered letters from pen pals, and first chapters from novels about elves. Alas, each first blush of enthusiasm gave way to lethargy, sloth, entropy. Dreamy scheming never made me a writer.
The whole time I was putting off writing, though, I was doing something else that has turned out to be pretty useful. Every summer, my little brother and I would live three months at our dad’s house in Gualala. We’d spend hours every day wandering barefoot around the manzanita scrub, making up stories about intergalactic smugglers or liege lords or madcap inventors. We’d trade the storyline back and forth, butting in if we disagreed with a turn of events or a characterization. We’d play till we were sun-drunk and famished, then go inside to drink Squirt and watch anime.
Ever since those talking walks I’ve been able to drop swiftly into deep reveries about the flightiest of fancies. This secret architectural feature, the imaginative trapdoor or escape pod, is something I think every person should build into their mind palace. To sit at the DMV, everyone around you bored senseless, and be able to conjure a world of delight, strangeness and humor—this indeed is wealth. It’s also a worthwhile talent for the aspiring writer.
3. What genre does your writing fall into? What are your favorite things to write?
I write poems, short stories, am working on a novel, and also enjoy writing essays and criticism. I admire the specialists but don’t understand them.
I also teach poetry to schoolchildren through the California Poets in the Schools program.
4. This was your second time at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. How did this experience compare with the first?
The first time I attended the MCWC, I had just finished my junior year in high school. My girlfriend at the time had a whole notion worked up about how a creative writing class would strangle your voice and reanimate it as a drone to Queen Lit-Fic. I bought into her conspiracy theory, so I only submitted my weirdest poems to Albert Garcia’s workshop. My workshop-mates didn’t seem to know quite what to do with my teenage angst, my word fever, and obsessively naive sexuality. And what really was to be done? Perhaps the girl who took my virginity was right, and I did need to marinate in my weirdness a while longer. It was a great conference nonetheless, filled with dreams of a future in the Republic of Letters. Afterwards, though, I avoided creative writing classes almost the whole way through college, from some combination of rigid ideology (you’ll lose your voice!) and good old-fashioned self-doubt.
This year’s conference I came weighted with no such bugbears. What I found was a community of generous, serious writers trying to improve their craft and art in the company of their peers. Usually we’re all alone in our studies, or on stoops, or with headphones on at the coffee shop. That’s where the writing, at least my writing, happens. But it was an uncommon grace to spend time and conversation with others who are trying to practice this trying practice.
My workshop this time was focused on short fiction, and we had fifteen participants. Initially, I was disappointed at the number, jealous of the time I would have to share with everyone. As it turned out, however, every voice had something wise or smart to share, and each story rewarded our close attention. The sprinkles on the sundae were embodied by our workshop leader, Lisa Locascio, whose careful readings and generous praise set a high standard for discussion.
6. What is the most important thing you learned from this year’s conference? How will you apply that to your writing?
I came home buzzing with the joy of camaraderie, with real insights and a rejuvenated hope of one day soon being published. Best of all, I met people at the conference I hope to count as friends and allies in the years to come. Friends change your perspective, push your comfort, make you bigger, and give you strength. A writer certainly needs all of these in abundance.
7. Do you envision having a writing career? If so, what steps are you taking to pursue that goal?
I do hope to have a writing career, though I’m superstitious by nature and try to count chicks only, not eggs. For now I’m writing as much as I can and getting ready to apply again to MFA programs. This winter I am traveling in China and other comparatively cheap countries, hoping both to find my spirit animal and to finish a draft of my novel. During my trip I am continuing my widely acclaimed travelogue series, to which you can subscribe by following this link http://jaspernhenderson.com/travelogue-signup-form/.
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