Jubi Arriola-Headley Wants Poets To Conjure Up What Doesn’t Exist

10 questions about writing with author and Catapult instructor Jubi Arriola-Headley

Jubi Arriola-Headley

In our series “Can Writing Be Taught?”, we partner with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. This month, we’re featuring Jubi Arriola-Headley a Blacqueer poet, author of original kink (Sibling Rivalry Press), and winner of the 2021 Housatonic Book Award. Check out the 6-week generative workshop that Arriola-Headley is teaching that focuses on poetic forms and creative collaboration. We talked to him about taking up space, the criminality of encouraging writers to stop writing, and the best snacks for poets. 


What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?

Once, in one of my early workshop experiences, a fellow poet – let’s call them Poet A – snapped at me for interrupting them, even though I was certain that what I was saying was affirming and in praise of their work. (I know, I know, I hear myself – it works out in the end, I promise.) I was quite hurt by the level of vitriol I perceived that poet as aiming my way, and during a break I sought out another workshop participant – let’s call them Poet B – to ascertain whether I was, in fact, the asshole I felt I’d been made out to be. “Sometimes,” Poet B said, taking a drag off their cigarette, “you have to be aware of how much space you take up.” I was, I’m embarrassed to say, stunned to hear this. I’m the fat black queer kid – don’t I deserve all the space? In that workshop – I had not noticed this until my conversation with Poet B – I was the only cisgender male, and was, sadly, perhaps (probably) toxically, performing as such. I’ve never entered a workshop space the same way again, and I believe that’s been to my own and my fellow workshop participants’ and students’ benefit. 

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?

I feel blessed in that any challenging workshop experiences I can remember having had have largely been moments of growth for me. This tiny little thing sticks with me, though: once in a workshop a poet read a poem which included the line “sharp as rock” and the workshop leader said “but rocks aren’t sharp.” What? It taught me something about perspective for one (where is this world where obsidian or flint doesn’t exist?) but also – even if there were no sharp rocks in this world, we’re poets – can’t we imagine or conjure up what doesn’t exist? I sure hope so.

The poet Willie Perdomo told me once in a workshop “write the hard poem.” And I take that shit as gospel.

What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?

The poet Willie Perdomo told me once in a workshop “write the hard poem.” And I take that shit as gospel. Whether you read it as angry or heartbreaking or gutting or funny or silly, every poem I write is high-stakes, at least in my own mind.

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

I believe that everyone has one or more stories in them that deserves documenting/writing down. I also believe that sometimes that “novel” is a memoir. Or an essay. Or a film, or a song, or a canvas, or a poetry collection. Or a single poem. Beyond this – there’s thousands of miles of white space between having a story that’ deserves a novel/canvas/poem and having the will or desire or drive to create that novel/canvas/poem.  

Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?

This question only makes sense to me in the context of capitalism. It’s the “circumstances” for me. If a person loves to write, if the process of writing brings them joy or enlightenment or any little sense of value in their life, why would they ever stop? Why would anyone ever encourage them to? It feels like the question presumes that the student has a set of expectations about what tangibles their writing will afford them – awards? recognition? financial compensation? – and that I, if I’m encouraging them to stop, have made some judgment about what I believe their chances of achieving those tangibles are. Encouraging someone under any circumstances to not write, when they want to – that feels borderline criminal to me. It feels like a silencing. 

What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?

Praise. Periodt. 

Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?

I can’t imagine considering publication before I write, or while I’m writing.

For me, thoughts of publication come after the writing. Once I have a poem or manuscript that I perceive as approaching some sense of completeness, or at least finality, then is the time I think about publication. I can’t imagine considering publication before I write, or while I’m writing. How do I think about where something will be published or read, or by whom, without it affecting what I write? I want to be unencumbered by anyone else’s expectations when I write and if I’m thinking about publication as I write that feels difficult, if not impossible. 

In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?

  • Kill your darlings: First off, the language sucks. (I’d rather not kill, thank you very much.) Also – I often find a use for the “darlings” I end up excising from my poems. Maybe we could change the language to “recycle your darlings?” Or “save your darlings for another day?”
  • Show don’t tell: Show AND tell, I say. 
  • Write what you know: There’s this lovely film from 2018, José, about a young queer Guatemalan man who tries escape his culture and circumstances to find what we like to think of as true love. The film was directed and co-written by Li Cheng, a man who was born in China and moved to the United States as an adult. I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Li Cheng at a showing of the film in Fort Lauderdale in 2019. Li Cheng lived for a year in Guatemala and conducted interviews with, by his count, some 300-plus young men he met through his Grindr profile (in which he offered to buy coffee for anyone who would sit down with him for an interview about their queer Guatemalan lives) before he ever put pen to paper to write the screenplay. Be like Li Cheng.  
  • Character is plot: Yes and also no and also do you. (I feel like I need to add a fifth maxim: Rules were made to be broken.)

What’s the best hobby for writers?

Whatever takes us out of the literal process of writing. It’ll end up feeding our writing, anyhow, but we writers ought all to every so often engage in some pastime that looks not at all like a series of letters or words or lines or paragraphs on a page. In this moment I’m partial to gardening, like, say, a Ross Gay or an Aimee Nezhukumatathil – but that might be because I’m partial to those poets, as poets and as humans. Or because my mother somehow has somehow made bountiful offerings of cucumbers and tomatoes and green peppers and greens (is Swiss Chard not a wonderful thing?) to dozens of her neighbors, all summer, every year, for as many years as I can remember, out of maybe a fifteen-foot-square plot of dirt in her back yard. And her produce always tastes better than anything I’ve ever purchased in a supermarket. Or a farmers’ market. And don’t get me started on her profusion of sunflowers and Black Eyed Susans. I stay surprised that folks don’t pick them at will. (I’m playing. No one who knows my mama would mess with her like that.)

What’s the best workshop snack?

I was reading Abeer Hoque’s response to this question from last January and she mentioned that she sometimes brings samosas and empanadas to workshop and no workshop I lead going forward will ever be the same. Also now I know what I’m having for lunch.

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